Tag Archives: Nelson Riddle

My Funny Valentine – Johnny Mathis

Mathis’s reading of My Funny Valentine is a troubling record.

My Funny Valentine (like The Lady is a Tramp and You Took Advantage of Me) comes from a Rogers & Hart show called Babes in Arms. The song is sung by Billie to her lover Valentine (Val), who is all the things she says he is: funny, dopey, but sweet. She sees him as he is, loves him anyway, and tells him so, dismissing any fears he may have about their relationship or his need to change.

The long, pseudo-medieval first verse is omitted in many recordings. The classic Sinatra take left it out. Chet Baker left it out. Ella Fitzgerald, in her 1956 reading, included it, yet the tempo she took it at suggests a desire to be rid of it as quickly as possible, so she could get to the good stuff, the real meat of the song.

It’s clear why Sinatra and Baker would drop it – any male performer taking the song on would have to reckon with the gender ambiguity that resulted from a lyric written to be sung by a female character:

Behold the way our fine feathered friend,
His virtue doth parade
Thou knowest not, my dim-witted friend,
The picture thou hast made.
Thy vacant brow, and thy tousled hair
Conceal thy good intent,
Thou noble, upright, truthful, sincere,
And slightly dopey gent

But Mathis wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He includes the long introduction and lingers over it, glorying in the parodic courtliness of Lorenz Hart’s lyric, while the two guitarists play interweaving lines like the left and right hands of a harpsichord player, throwing in every counterpoint idea they can think of.

But sensitive as he is to sound, he seems insensible to meaning. Mathis, in his anxiety to avoid any gender confusion that might come from a man singing a woman’s song, changes the word ‘Thou’ which begins the penultimate line to ‘I’m your’ and spoils the joke; a second ago he had a dim-witted friend. Now he’s the dimwit.

It’s an awful moment. A clanger.

What’s going on here? Could any singer be that deaf to the implications of a pronoun change in a song that is specifically a woman’s song? Surely he would recognise that he had two good options available (drop the verse, or sing it as written and trust the audience would understand that Mathis was only reciting the original text), and that changing the lyric was the worst option possible?

Perhaps. Or maybe something else is going on here. Vocal androgyny was Mathis’s whole shtick as a young singer. His supple, opera-trained voice, with its bell-like purity, high tessitura and heavy vibrato, sounded feminine. It was capable of performing whatever whims he fancied, as the mood took: great leaps landing each time in the middle of the note, or sweeping legato slides up or down the octave.

He revelled in these qualities; his early vocal performances speak of a singer near-drunk on the possibilities of his instrument. Every phrase of Mathis’s take on My Funny Valentine displays his self-confidence. Indeed, the setting of the whole album (Open Fire, Two Guitars – it’s an apt title since double bass apart, all that is present in the arrangements are two jazz guitars and Mathis’s vocal) speaks to his, or producer Mitch Miller’s, absolute faith in his tone and technique, stripping his accompaniment back to the barest bones, letting the spotlight fall solely on that voice.

Still just 23 when he recorded Valentine in 1959 and (as he would remain until 1982) a closeted homosexual, Mathis may not have known precisely whereof he sang at this point in his life. Perhaps he did, but was hypersensitive to charges of effeminacy and so changed the lyrics so he wouldn’t be singing a ‘girl’s song’.

Whatever the reason, Mathis’s version, as beautiful as it is, achieves its beauty by misreading the lyric, tonally as well as texturally. He flattens the song out by approaching the music from one emotional angle only. What makes My Funny Valentine a classic, most particularly in its Sinatra/Riddle incarnation, is the way that singer and arranger acknowledge and mirror each other’s shifts in tone, from playful teasing to romantic devotion and back again. This is why Sinatra’s reading remains definitive, lack of intro verse notwithstanding.

Mathis’s reading remains an enigma. He picks endlessly surprising routes through the text in the company of his two guitarists, with note and phrasing choices that are inspired and frequently thrilling. So while his reading of the song ultimately comes over as gauche (whatever the reason), Mathis’s remains one of the very finest, and most predictive*, versions of one of the greatest songs in the canon.

johnny mathis

*With the clean electric guitars, the androgynous falsetto, the voice of almost limitless potential held back only by its limited emotional palette, Open Fire, Two Guitars reminds me almost constantly of Jeff Buckley. It’s often uncanny.

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Love’s Enough – David Ackles

“I won’t get maudlin,” Ackles promises midway into the second side, locking himself in the barn as the dappled stallion gallops to join his brothers and sisters on the open range with his mane flying free in the breeze.

Robert Christgau, review of David Ackles’ American Gothic

From the facetious tone of his review, I guess the Dean found Ackles to be mendacious and phoney rather than incompetent. Quite why Christgau thought himself qualified to judge musicians’ motivations without knowing them personally, I’ve never been able to determine. While, like Christgau, I find American Gothic an unsatisfying record by a songwriter of lesser artistic value than most of his peers (both the more commercially successful ones and the unsung heroes; Judee Sill came out in 1971, Heart Food in 1973), his review seems gratuitously mean now, with Ackles long dead from cancer, and with far greater and more mendacious threats to popular music living, breathing and walking amongst us.

Plenty of other people have loved his work. Elton John’s a professed fan. Bernie Taupin, too – so much so that he produced American Gothic. Phil Collins picked Down River while on Desert Island Discs. Elvis Costello mentioned him on stage while being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ackles mostly went unnoticed in his career. Christgau’s one of the few to have noticed and dismissed him.

Ackles was nothing more than a likeable and humble guy with a bent towards musical theatre, Weill and Copland, a rather corny sensibility not entirely unlike Neil Diamond (whom in the latter’s more restrained moments Ackles rather resembles vocally). How much you like Ackles may well depend on your tolerance for sprechgesang and being told rather than shown how characters think and feel (the biggest problem with the title track, although it does end with the killer line ‘They suffer least that suffer what they choose’), but he’s unlikely to enrage you; the enthusiasm of his bigger fans is likewise perplexing.

Other than the delivery and the pedestrian nature of the lyrics (would that Ackles had possessed a flair for comedy and a taste for the macabre or grotesque like Brecht, Walker, Waits or Newman – the album title might have been a better fit for the music therein), the biggest problem with the record is the fussy arrangements, conducted by a soul sympathetic to them – Robert Kirby, known for his work with Nick Drake, and whose work has always been a bit twee, a bit callow.

Love’s Enough is sparer, could have been cut by any artist in any era with only minimal changes to the arrangement and production to make it suitable for its time. In the eighties, its almost inaudible brushed drums would have been replaced with enormo-super-mega-giant-bashing-away-in-a-cave drums. In the fifties it might have had the benefit of Gordon Jenkins’ or Nelson Riddle’s attentions. But the song would have been affecting either way.

Tonally and lyrically, Love’s Enough doesn’t fit on its parent album – it’s a very hard gear change after the opening title track – but without it the album would sink under the weight its ambitions. A moment of quiet reflection, in an intimate register, on a recognisable situation, Love’s Enough is a classic of sorts. I can’t recommend American Gothic to all but the very curious*, but its finest ballad deserves the audience that Elton, Bernie, Elvis and Phil have tried to win for their hero.

 

*Oh all right then, I do like Oh, California. I’m not made of stone.

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Rear cover of American Gothic (after Grant Wood)

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It’s a Lonesome Old Town – Frank Sinatra

When Frank Sinatra signed to Capitol Records in 1953, he launched an artistic hot streak to which the only serious comparison in popular music since has been the Beatles’ career between 1963 and their dissolution in 1970. For the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s, Sinatra alternately released collections of uptempo swing numbers and increasingly punishing albums of ballads, never mixing the two on the same LP. In so doing Sinatra, along with his producer Voyle Gilmore, arguably invented the concept album.

Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely may be the pick of these records, but it is also the bleakest. Sinatra had gone through a divorce from Ava Gardner, and arranger Nelson Riddle (a late substitute for the singer’s preferred choice of Gordon Jenkins) had just lost his mother and his daughter. The album Sinatra and Riddle made together in these unhappy times goes far beyond melancholy, achieving instead an eerie, exhilarating desolation.

The album was, as was Capitol custom at the time, recorded using two separate set-ups running simultaneously: eight orchestra mics for the mono recording and a three-mic ‘Decca Tree’ configuration for the stereo. There are audiophiles who claim the mono sounds better. To my ears, the stereo mix is musically superior because the lack of competition for aural real estate in the centre of the stereo picture gives Sinatra and his voice a bigger area to wander around disconsolately in, so to speak. As gorgeous as the orchestration is, nothing pulls you away from Sinatra’s performances. And what magnificent performances they are. Sinatra inhabits every line of the song, he explores every nuance of the lyrics, pulling the beat this way and that as he goes.

Riddle’s arrangements, meanwhile, with the dimensionality and wider soundstage afforded by stereo, range from enveloping warmth to disconcerting coldness (witness the uneasy-sounding ‘suicide’ strings that open the track, and their insinuating, spiralling recurrence at 2.08: they could have come straight from a Scott Walker record, or from a horror-movie score).

Sinatra’s phrasing was always at its most inimitable and deeply felt on ballads, particularly in the fifties, and he’s at the very top of his game on It’s a Lonesome Old Town. Notice how frequently he’s slightly in front of the beat, as if these painful admissions are coming out in little spurts he can’t quite control. This is not the ‘Fly me to… the moon’ Sinatra of a thousand tin-eared parodies. This is an artist of supreme technical facility letting go of all his little tricks and just singing the songs as he feels them.

Too unrelentingly dark to win the mass acceptance afforded to his swing albums, these records remain comparatively under-appreciated. Cuts such It’s a Lonesome Old Town are seldom played on the radio and often go unrepresented on compilations and retrospectives; the comparatively cutesy One for My Baby (cutesy being of course a relative term in this context) is the only song from Only the Lonely I’ve ever heard on daytime radio. But perhaps this is appropriate – no other records are as suited to late-night solo listening as Sinatra’s ballads albums. Small doses, though. They’re strong stuff

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He’s Frank Sinatra and you’re not.