Thursday, March 28, 2013

Rudie the Day


1948: Kay Thompson, the soignée singing sensation of café society, has created a character to amuse her friends and colleagues. "I am Eloise," Kay announces in piercing, screechy tones, "and I am six."

By 1954, people were insisting that she turn her Eloise characterizations and anecdotes to book form; and so, with the immeasurable help of a young artist named Hilary Knight, Kay Thompson's Eloise, with drawings by Hilary Knight, (note the billing: important, important, important) was published by Simon and Schuster in the winter of 1955.

Happier times: Hilary Knight and Kay Thompson at The Plaza, 1955
Eloise was a pot-bellied hellion who lived at The Plaza with her pug dog Weenie, pet turtle Skipperdee, and her English Nanny; a rawther naughty little girl prone to such observations as "An egg cup makes a very good hat," and "Sometimes I go into the Men's Room which is very good for playing Railroad Station or something like that." She was also an instantaneous success, resulting in enormous press coverage (including a spread in Life); a boon in popularity for Kay, who would soon land a plum co-starring role in Funny Face (1957) with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn; and a surge in business for The Plaza -- which Kay cannily parlayed into a free, permanent suite. "Eloise" even made it onto the hit parade, courtesy of the voice stylings of Ms. Thompson (portraying both Eloise and Nanny) and her ragtag chorus of crooner (and Thompson paramour) Andy Williams, songwriter Ralph Blane, and Simon and Schuster publicist Larry Vinick.


Kay's flights of fancy, and the brilliant way Hilary Knight captured them in ink, naturally lent themselves to the idea of Eloise on the screen; from her unique appearance to her outrageous pranks, Eloise was a thoroughly visual creature, almost leaping lifelike from the pages of her book. And Kay had the ideal child in mind to bring her creation to living, breathing fruition: Portland Mason, daughter of the debonair and distinguished actor James Mason.

Happier times: James Mason and daughter Portland, early 1950's
Portland Mason had just celebrated her seventh birthday when Kay Thompson's Eloise was published, and already was notorious in the gossip columns. A brawl had broken out at her christening when a photographer pushed his way to the front of the church and began taking flash pictures, enraging her father. When she was three, James decided that the sensible way to ensure that his daughter would never touch cigarettes would be to let her smoke one, recoil in a coughing fit, and swear them off forever. The result of this reverse psychology? "She's up to two packs a day," he lamented. Portland Mason had her own mink coat, the papers tattled, and tagged along to adult nightspots like Ciro's and the Mocambo (where she reportedly jumped onstage and did an impromptu bump-and-grind routine). When daddy made 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) at Disney, his contract included "The Portland Clause," requiring that the studio supply, free of charge, any film his daughter requested to be screened privately in their Hollywood mansion. And in 1956, Portland made her screen debut for 20th Century Fox with no less a leading man than Gregory Peck, in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

Portland Mason and Gregory Peck on the set of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (20th Century Fox, 1956)
There were setbacks, however. The concept of a big screen Eloise was rejected by Fox, to whom James Mason, with Kay's urging and approval, had first pitched the idea. Every other major studio in town also passed, the consensus being that live action "kiddie films" didn't bring in profits. There was also the general feeling that the Eloise book simply didn't have a plot -- rawther, it was a string of loosely-connected, very funny anecdotes and epigrams. Not the stuff movies are made of, but perhaps...television?


Never one to sell her talents or her merchandise cheap, Kay was able to pitch Eloise to CBS's new, ninety minute anthology series, Playhouse 90, for a cool $15,000 -- for a single live broadcast! Originally set to air in January 1957, the broadcast was pushed to November 22, Thanksgiving night, 1956, in order to scoop ABC's December airing of a live adaptation of Madeline -- Eloise's French counterpart, written by Ludwig Bemelman. To up the ante, Eloise would include five musical numbers written by Kay herself, and boasted a huge, stellar cast that included matinee idol Louis Jourdan and American stage royalty Ethel Barrymore, as well as Mildred Natwick, personally selected by Kay as the ideal Nanny, and everyone from Monty Woolley to Conrad Hilton. But missing from the final cast line up was Portland Mason.

Another one for the kids: Louis Jourdan and Judy Garland sing a medley of children's songs,
The Judy Garland Show (Episode 19, originally aired February 2, 1964)

Along the way, it had been decided that Portland wasn't physically similar enough to Hilary Knight's depiction of Eloise. Besides the contrast between Eloise's blonde, straggly hair and Portland's sleek brunette bob, the biggest problem was that, although described as having a pot belly, Eloise was essentially gangly, all arms and legs, while Portland had grown frankly plump. Briefly considered as a replacement was Patty McCormack, then the hottest child property in town after her chilling portrayal of the evil Rhoda in The Bad Seed (1956). But McCormack was eleven, and deemed too mature to play a precocious six year old. Enter Evelyn Rudie.

Happier times: Kay Thompson and Evelyn Rudie in rehearsal for Playhouse 90 production of Eloise (1956)
Like Portland Mason, seven year old Evelyn was already a Hollywood veteran with several credits to her name (but no scandalous column items), including playing the daughters of Yul Brynner in The King and I (1956) and John Wayne in The Wings of Eagles (1957). Moreover, she looked almost exactly like Eloise, as described by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight. "I knew it the first time I saw her picture," Kay enthused when the casting was announced, although her enthusiasm would eventually wane and then descend into outright hostility.

Kay Thompson in rehearsal for nightclub act at Ciro's, November 1947
Kay Thompson was many things: prodigiously talented, fiercely intelligent, brilliantly witty, scathingly funny, wildly imaginative. She has also been described by those who knew and worked with her as uncompromisingly megalomaniacal, unyieldingly stubborn, maddeningly mercurial, and bewilderingly self-destructive. Not unlike Diana Vreeland, the extravagantly eccentric fashion editor she satirized in Funny Face, Kay's idiosyncrasies infuriated her enemies as much as they charmed her admirers. One of our favorite Thompson tales: seething at the dowdy Edith Head wardrobe she had to wear in Funny Face (while Audrey Hepburn swanned about in Givenchy couture), Thompson took revenge by wearing her own Balenciaga hats and Capezio shoes throughout the film, effectively drawing more attention to her accessories than the drab gray suits Head had designed for her. And when rain threatened the Paris location shooting of the big "Bonjour, Paris!" production number, Kay bravely suggested that they carry on in spite of the weather, but, oh dear, shouldn't she have some sort of rain coat? Yes, director Stanley Donen agreed, but how could Edith Head, all the way over in Hollywood, possibly come up with something on such short notice? No problem, Kay must have called over her shoulder, as she dashed to Givenchy's salon, picked out an elegant raincoat from the designer's collection, and filmed "Bonjour, Paris!" with barely a trace of her hated Head duds peeking out from underneath. (Read our take on Edith Head here.)

Kay Thompson in Funny Face (Paramount, 1957)

It was this steely determination of Kay's to control all aspects of her image which led to the biggest turmoil on the Eloise set -- an environment which was already chaotic, thanks to the shortened preparation time due to the earlier-than-anticipated air date; a script that everyone agreed was problematic; budget restrictions; and that ridiculously large, unwieldily cast. As one would suspect by the official, proprietary title of her book (Kay Thompson's Eloise, if you please, please, please, and Lord help the booksellers who didn't promote it as such), as far as she was concerned, Kay was Eloise, and vice versa. When it suddenly dawned on her that this little Rudie sprite was actually going to be giving form and life to Eloise, and likely be looked upon as Eloise, Kay didn't like it one bit. What began as a warm relationship turned downright arctic once Kay -- who held creative control over the entire project -- made her decree: she, and she alone, was Eloise, and it would be she, Kay Thompson, providing the voice of Eloise. 

Frankenstein's monster?

The idea was sheer madness, patently absurd, especially for a live broadcast: Kay would be required to hide behind furniture and crouch in corners, speaking Eloise's lines in the direction of the microphone, while Evelyn held a book over her mouth, or turned away from the camera. Kay's folly was indulged through the arduous rehearsal period, but naturally, it simply didn't work; and Evelyn had to scramble to make sure she had all of Eloise's lines down pat, as it was decided at the eleventh hour that Kay would not be voicing Eloise, after all. She did not cede graciously, however; once it became clear that Evelyn would have to play and speak the part of Eloise, Kay had her lawyers draw up new contracts for CBS, forcing them to surrender all future rights to the Eloise franchise. Evelyn's handlers were presented with similar terms: she could never claim to be Eloise, only that she had played her. "Make sure," Kay ominously warned the director, the esteemed John Frankenheimer, "when this is over, that you never have anything to do with [Rudie] again."
She did work in this town again: Evelyn Rudie with Lauren Bacall and Robert Stack in The Gift of Love (Fox, 1958)

Against all odds, Eloise made her debut on Playhouse 90 as scheduled, on Thanksgiving night, 1956. The comparisons to turkey were painfully obvious, as critics ripped apart everything about the plodding, clumsily-presented show, even Kay's musical numbers -- everything, that is, except for the unanimously-praised performance of Evelyn Rudie, who in short order, was nominated for an Emmy (the youngest performer so honored) and presented with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 


The opening of Eloise: Kay Thompson performing "3 A.M. in the Persian Room"

"Not to be discussed," Diana Vreeland told her associates tersely after watching Kay Thompson's fire breathing caricature unreel before her eyes. After the resounding failure of Eloise, television star, Kay felt the same way: "Let's forget it," she firmly told an inquisitive reporter a year later. "I'm trying to." Luckily, the public's affection for the Plaza's resident pot belly as a literary heroine had not waned, and three further collaborations with Hilary Knight followed: Eloise in Paris (1957), Eloise at Christmastime (1958), and Eloise in Moscow (1959). But with each book, tensions between Kay and Hilary Knight grew -- she increasingly jealous over the praise and attention paid to his drawings, he indignant at being left out of a fair share of the credit, and profits. As Kay grew more and more erratic, relations between the two eventually broke down beyond repair. A completed fifth installment, Eloise Takes a Bawth, was ready to go to print in 1964, when Kay abruptly pulled the plug -- and withdrew the other three Eloise sequels from circulation, to boot. Eloise Takes a Bawth was finally published, with the approval of Kay Thompson's estate, in 2002.

Always an angle: Eloise in Moscow inspired the LP Kay Thompson Party: Let's Talk About Russia (Signature, 1959)
Kay's fabulous, frenzied, frantic 88 years ended on July 2, 1998. (A life detailed in Sam Irvin's fabulous biography, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, and an invaluable source of information for our little blog entry.) In recent years, Kay has once again been in the spotlight, thanks to Irvin's biography and a show mounted by her goddaughter, Liza Minnelli, which featured a tribute to Kay and her musical arrangements as its centerpiece. (Read our review here.)

With a long career encompassing over 50 books, magazine illustrations, album covers and Broadway posters, Hilary Knight still lives in New York, and continues to waive the banner for Eloise. Whatever their differences in life might have been, upon the publication of the long-thought-lost Eloise Takes a Bawth, Hilary remarked, "Kay and I were like parents to Eloise... [and] I guess my job now is to continue what Kay might have thought she was doing when she pulled the books in the first place -- to protect Eloise." 

Portland Mason abandoned acting for writing in 1968, and spent much of her adult life trying to live down the spoiled-little-rich-girl reputation which preceded her. When James Mason died in 1984, his second wife, Clarissa Kaye, inherited his entire $15 million estate, with the understanding that it would pass to Portland and her brother upon Kaye's passing. Instead, the monies wound up in a trust with unnamed beneficiaries, and a bitter legal battle ensued; Portland couldn't even locate her father's ashes until 2000. She died at age 55 in 2004.

Evelyn Rudie made her last, unbilled film appearance in Bye, Bye Birdie (1963). Since then, she's turned to the theater and playwriting. She has appeared at various Eloise events and given interviews about her experiences; and today, we are happy, happy, happy to celebrate her birthday, as well, well, well!


EVELYN RUDIE
March 28, 1949 


Visit the official Eloise site here.

Visit Sam Irvin's Kay Thompson site here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pop! It's Diana-mite


Who is Diana Ross?

After 50 years in the spotlight, we should be able to neatly summarize who she is, and where she fits into the pantheon of divas. And yet, her mystique and persona are so hard to pin down; she can't be easily categorized. Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul; Donna Summer was the Queen of Disco; Dinah Washington was the Queen of the Blues; Tammy Wynette was the Queen of Country. But what is Diana Ross, who, arguably, became a greater superstar than any of these queenly ladies? Queen of Motown? Certainly, but that seems even more limiting than the single-minded monikers bestowed upon the other crowned heads of music royalty. "Queen of Pop," at first, sounds too generic (and, besides, Madonna fans would be up in arms); and, yet, it ultimately seems to fit: because Diana Ross has been criticized and lauded as being the epitome of pop. She was "too pop" for "real" soul music, critics charged; "too pop" to authentically portray Billie Holiday. A seemingly synthetic, sequined creation, all lashes, fingernails, hair and ambition; and yet, she embodied "a soft, silky pop queen...her notes slim and elegant...a perfect summa-cum-laude Supreme,"as journalist Richard Goldstein breathlessly reported in 1967.

"Fred and Ginger Medley" from The Hollywood Palace with Sammy Davis Jr. (originally aired October 18, 1969)

"Leading Lady Medley" from G.I.T. On Broadway (originally aired November 12, 1969)

"Corner of the Sky" from Pippin; World tour, 1973-74

From the very beginning, Diana Ross was a glamorous outsider. ("I didn't know what to do with a wig when I first put it on," Martha Reeves would later wryly recall. "Diana Ross, she knew right away.") Diana radiated the geisha girl allure of "a sultry glamour queen," proclaimed Ebony; a very different kind of appeal from that of her contemporaries, who were either sweet or funky or earthy or downright raunchy.

Ronnie Bennett and the Ronettes extended their eyeliner, ratted their beehives, hiked up their skirts, and seemed to let every man in the first three rows know that the party could be continued backstage, in the back seat, in the back alley. The Bluebelles looked like demure, shy schoolgirls, in their Peter Pan collars and sailor suits; then Patti LaBelle would let out a wail like a bat out of hell, and every wig would fly into the balcony of The Apollo. The Ikettes dripped bacon grease and hot wax all over the stage as they shook, strutted and shimmied, while Tina growled and sneered and jerked off the microphone stand. Dionne coolly stared into nothingness, over your eyes and head, as porcelain and pristine and aloof as the Bacharach-David mini-masterpieces she was spinning into the ether; Gladys, despite her remarkable voice, seemed the warm, comforting den mother, someone who would invite you in for Sunday supper with the folks; and Aretha was the testifying church mistress, demanding, and getting, R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

And Diana? Diana seemed to come from another planet. Early in their careers, she and the Supremes were often compared, not to the women mentioned above, but to the Andrews Sisters or the McGuire Sisters: wholesomely glamorous, safe, as appealing to the white suburbanites tuning in to The Ed Sullivan Show or The Hollywood Palace as they were to the kids plunking down a dollar for the "Love is Like an Itching in My Heart" 45.

In her earliest televised performances as a Supreme, Diana demands your attention, in contrast to Dionne's icy detachment, but with an ultra-coquettish femininity that would be unthinkable for Aretha, Gladys or Patti, and a flutteringly seductive quality completely foreign to the baser instincts of Ronnie and Tina. Instead, Diana pops her eyes like Lena Horne in her 1940's MGM movies, and mews and purrs like Eartha Kitt, and her lineage to the glamour of old Hollywood, to the polite elegance of swanky nightclubs, rather than the grimy record racket or the sweaty Chitlin Circuit, suddenly becomes crystal clear.

"Mother Dear" from The Dean Martin Show (taped August 1965, originally aired March 24, 1966)

"C'est Si Bon" by Eartha Kitt, European TV, circa 1969/70

"Reflections" and "The Lady is a Tramp" from The Hollywood Palace (originally aired September 26, 1967)

"The Lady is a Tramp" by Lena Horne, from Words and Music (1948, MGM)

The question, posed as early as 1966, steadily became, "But is it soul?" Diana Ross probably never had time to worry with semantics, and, besides, she likely had absolutely no intention of "keeping it real," because the fantasy world of beautiful gowns, bright lights and the adoration of a huge audience -- the pop audience -- was undoubtedly much more appealing. "All I ever wanted," she insisted, without an apparent trace of ingenuousness, "was to sing and wear pretty clothes." And if no one could quite agree what she was singing, that didn't seem to matter much, either. "There is truly no popular singer in America who can touch her stylistic range," declared critic and historian Robert Palmer in 1977, "or her ability to put across a song's emotional charge without wallowing in melancholy or bombast."






Less is more: Aretha, Dionne and Patti tackle the Diana Ross songbook

Of course, Diana Ross has been perplexing her critics from the very beginning. She has been hailed for "her mastery of [the] quasi-operatic approach" to ballad singing; praised for her "near-weightless delicacy and tenderness"; and railed against for her "plastic simulations."She confounded the 1960's black stereotype of beauty by embracing her rail-thin physique at a time when the opposite was the norm, seeming to hold the bony British model Twiggy in esteem as her role model, rather than the curvaceous African American ideal. She confounded the stereotype of what a black singer was "supposed" to sound like, eschewing melismata and gospel-style runs for a more subtle, simple approach. She confounded sentimental fans by leaving -- seemingly dry-eyed and determined -- the group which had turned her into a household name. And she confounded her mentor, Berry Gordy, Jr., of Motown Records, by leaving the independent company she had called home for twenty years, for a $20 million offer (then the largest contract ever awarded to a recording artist) to jump ship, join a larger label, and call all the shots herself.


One rock critic dubbed Diana Ross "the Queen of Plastic Pop," and undoubtedly meant it as a derogatory title; but we think she should reclaim it, refashion it, as "the Queen of Elastic Pop," because no one has so effortlessly changed personas from song to song, with such flexibility and apparent ease, while still remaining "Diana Ross." The girl who sang "Baby Love" is different from the girl who sang "Love Child"; the woman who sang "Touch Me in the Morning" is different from the woman who sang "I'm Coming Out." The connective tissue is, of course, Diana Ross herself, and that indescribable, indefinable something that she brings to her songs. Like Madonna, she is an icon with more than one iconic pose; the wide-eyed, slightly naive skinny Supreme in the middle is as much "classic Diana" as is the broadly smiling, sequined mannequin surrounded by 70's Vegas tinsel, or the glittering, diamond-hard 80's power goddess staring down the elements in Central Park.

Ross by Warhol, 1982
So, really, who is Diana Ross? She's been a part of our collective consciousness, the pop culture landscape, the jukebox of our memories for so long. She is dramatic, theatrical, but not a tragedienne like Piaf; nor nearly as emotionally naked as Garland or Minnelli. She can be imperious and imperial, yet not as dangerous as Bassey, or distant as Streisand. She cannot truly be hailed as part of the soul sorority that embraces Aretha and Etta. She is not a singer/songwriter, per se (although, she has written a few of her album cuts); unlike Carole King or Joni Mitchell, she must fashion herself to her songs, not the other way around. What she is, perhaps, is a ballad singer in the oldest and strictest sense of the term -- a musical storyteller, putting poetry to rhythm. Her supple, slippery voice is the ideal instrument to convey multiple tales of love, loss, longing, lust. It is the perfectly flexible -- elastic -- vehicle for a songwriter and producer to channel whatever stories he or she wishes to tell, and Diana Ross will tell it well. Her countless hit records are memorable because of that voice, even if it can't be defined, described or duplicated.


DIANA ROSS
March 26, 1944


Monday, March 25, 2013

The Queen Ascends

"She doesn't knock at the door -- she breaks it down!" Aretha Franklin's debut Columbia album, 1961
If you asked most people what their favorite Aretha Franklin song was, you'd very likely hear a fairly predictable list of the usual suspects: "Respect," of course. "A Natural Woman." "Chain of Fools." "Think." "Rock Steady," maybe. "I Never Loved a Man," perhaps, and someone might even throw in a curveball like "Dr. Feelgood" or "Call Me." All classics, certainly. And all from the golden age of Aretha at Atlantic, the heyday of which -- 1967 through 1971 -- found her arguably the most famous female singer on the planet.

Aretha arrives: June 22, 1968 cover of Time magazine
Sam Cooke
But, as some know, the story does not begin with Aretha's arrival at Atlantic in '66; her recording career dates back to 1956, when the Baptist minister's daughter recorded a gospel album entitled Songs of Faith. Following the lead of her childhood idol and family friend, Sam Cooke, Aretha risked the disapproval of the gospel community by opting to revert to secular music. Her background was steeped in the church, and it would never leave her; but her musical hunger expanded to the blues, jazz, and what was only beginning to be known as "soul music." Recognizing his daughter's extraordinary talents, the formidable (and feared) Reverend Clarence Franklin encouraged Aretha's ambitions; although he turned down an offer from Motown Records, based in the Franklins' hometown of Detroit, deeming the fledgling label too localized to launch Aretha to true stardom. (Another Detroiter with a firm-minded parent was also denied the chance to launch their career at Hitsville: Freda Payne.) Cooke offered to get Aretha a deal at RCA, for whom he was having such crossover hits as the #1 pop smash, "You Send Me" (1957), but ultimately, a two song demo landed on the desk of Columbia Records' Artists and Repertoire executive, John Hammond, who knew a good thing when he heard it.

Billie Holiday
Aretha was excitedly hailed by Hammond as the greatest singer he had heard since Billie Holiday. As one who had been instrumental in ushering Holiday from the bandstand into the recording studio in the 1930's, and who had guided Lady Day through some of her most revered recordings for Columbia, this was no short praise. And although Aretha's run at Columbia proved, in hindsight, to be somewhat unsatisfactory, this is largely because we can only view it through the glittering prism of her later, all-encompassing success at Atlantic. She recorded enough material for 10 albums at Columbia (two of which were issued only after she had already left the label, with the others recycled and reissued constantly to cash in on her later success), and if none of them scaled the heights of, say, Lady Soul (1968), they cannot be completely disregarded, either.

Aretha in the Columbia Records studios, early 1960's
Revisionists tend to paint Aretha's Columbia years in broad strokes, leading the uninitiated to believe that she recorded nothing but dross, uncomfortably shoehorned into being a black Doris Day, or, worse, a female Robert Goulet (both of whom were her label mates). The truth, of course, is more nuanced than that. Witness the opening track of Aretha's debut Columbia disc, recorded with the Ray Bryant Combo (studio version followed by a live performance):

 



Dinah Washington
We propose that this tight little slice of proto-funk -- which, incidentally, is what we would name as our favorite Aretha tune -- is as good, as soulful, as anything that Aretha ever cut at Muscle Shoals. Another criticism leveled at Aretha's Columbia years is that her repertoire was too heavily based on show tunes and standards. In fact, nearly all of Aretha's albums contained a mix of that type of material as well as rhythm and blues/pop originals;  and this format was most likely no accident. When Aretha came to Columbia in 1960, her closest role model and contemporary, respectively, were Dinah Washington and Etta James. Both were blues-and-gospel-steeped vocalists, proudly and defiantly African-American; if Dinah and Etta liked fancy dresses and blonde wigs, that was one thing, but they certainly didn't fit the sleek, soignée mold of another emerging talent, Nancy Wilson, who was being groomed for supper club stardom over at the glossiest of all labels, Capitol. But, crucially, Dinah Washington and Etta James had both just exploded over the pop barrier with pretty, string-drenched renditions of older pop standards: Dinah's "What a Difference a Day Makes" (1959) and Etta's "At Last" (1960). It's not a stretch to imagine that the powers-that-be at Columbia saw Aretha's similarities to Washington and James, and mapped her career accordingly. For contrast here are those two classics by Washington and James, along with Aretha's version of "Unforgettable" (1964), recorded as a tribute to Washington, who died in 1963. String-laden standards they may be; soul-less, they are not.







It's undeniably true that Columbia really didn't know what to do with Aretha in the long run; their one major black star, Johnny Mathis, could hardly be held up as an example for Aretha, and the business model they had followed from Washington and James ended abruptly with the former's early death and the latter's sharp left turn from pop standards to gutbucket rhythm and blues. Of course, that's exactly what Aretha would end up doing to perfection in a few years, but Columbia was ill-equipped to deliver or even understand that kind of material, their biggest-selling stars being Mathis, Doris Day, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, and The Ray Conniff Singers.

It's not that the times were necessarily stacked against her; within just a few years of Aretha's arrival, young, black, female vocalists like Mary Wells and Dionne Warwick were emerging as consistent pop hit makers -- a concept unthinkable in the 1950's; even Washington, James and other trailblazers like LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown were seen as strictly rhythm and blues performers who sometimes got lucky with a pop hit. But what these newly-minted, 1960's-model divas had that Aretha lacked was a partnership with a songwriter and producer in complete sympathy with her needs and qualities. Wells and Warwick both had their mentors, and to underscore the importance of these men to their enormous success, consider that, unlike Aretha, they were doing it on independent labels, rather than a mighty industry giant like Columbia. We mean no disrespect to the individual talents of Wells and Warwick when we say, with absolute certitude, that neither of them would have scaled the same heights without Smokey Robinson and Burt Bacharach, respectively, providing them with the best possible vehicles for those talents.

There was no Smokey or Burt at Columbia for Aretha, and it shows in the sometimes haphazard way in which she was recorded. But it does a disservice to Columbia (especially John Hammond, who truly did champion the budding genius he saw and heard in young Aretha) and, most especially, to Aretha herself, to completely negate those early years of trial and error and experimentation. On paper, Aretha Franklin singing "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody" sounds horrendous, and surely, there were countless better choices to be had: but just listen to how she manages to inject her own personality, her own soul into such a banal piece of material:

 


However, there were no big crossover successes for Aretha, perhaps because, as noted before, there was scant in-house songwriting to accommodate her unique talents; instead, she had to rely on Artists and Repertoire men like Hammond to bring her potential pop hits. It was here that Columbia was the most short-sighted; in her six years with the label, two dozen singles were released, only one ("Rock-a-Bye") making the Top 40, and most not even inching into the Top 75. And there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to them (unlike the albums, which were largely well-thought out); a good, original tune like "Runnin' Out of Fools" (1964), which fared much better than many of Aretha's singles, wasn't supported by a quality follow-up, but, rather, an album titled after the single, containing mainly cover versions of other popular hits of the day. The eventual choice for the next single? "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)."


Without any real connections with the rhythm and blues market, Columbia let potential hits like "No, No, I'm Losing You" (1965) and "Until You Were Gone" (1966) languish on the vine. Had there been a little more attention paid to getting a real hit out of Aretha Franklin at Columbia, who knows what might have been? She could certainly take even bubblegum girl group pop and make it sound dynamite, as evidenced by her fabulous cover of Betty Everett's "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)," which she recorded for the Runnin' Out of Fools album, and performed on Shindig! Look for Darlene Love and the Blossoms giving 'Re a "Go on with your bad self, girl!" moment starting at the 1:40 mark:


She had been praised by the critics, seen her albums sell moderately well, and had received a not-inconsiderable amount of television coverage, given her status as a black, female singer without a major hit to her name. But someone like Aretha Franklin knew that her calling was greater, and she was frustrated by her relative lack of success at Columbia. "They know," she said in 1964, "and they know I know, that they haven't given me the same 'big build-up' that they've given...Barbra Streisand." And, unlike Streisand, who had an iron-clad clause in her contract which allowed her complete creative control over her own career, Aretha was relatively powerless. When her contract came up for renewal in 1966, she knew it was time for a change. And that's when Atlantic came calling.

Take that, Barbra: "People" from Soft and Beautiful (1969), eventually released after Aretha's departure from Columbia

So, what to make of Aretha's stay at Columbia? To our ears, there are many riches to be found. What marks it as ultimately less satisfying for many people is the fact that, unlike her subsequent work, Aretha had relatively little control or input as to what she was recording. There was less consistency, to be sure, in the quality of material -- or, more to the point, less suitability and consideration of what Aretha herself would have chosen to sing, given the chance. Her rendition of "You Made Me Love You," for instance, is almost certainly a less personal interpretation than "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." But the fact that Aretha Franklin could still imbue material which she may have felt less than a great affinity for with the same intensity and passion as anything else she recorded speaks to her professionalism and her genius. And her best work for Columbia stands with her best from Atlantic, albeit facing opposite directions. The world was a different place in 1967 than it was in 1960, and Aretha changed with it -- and made a few changes to it, along the way. To judge what she did prior by the same criteria misses the point, as well as the pleasure of hearing a young talent taking flight, and slowly making her way toward the throne.


ARETHA FRANKLIN

March 25, 1942

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Divine Comedy


"All my life, I've wanted to look like Elizabeth Taylor. Now Elizabeth Taylor looks like me." -- Divine


Bangers and Mash


"Jayne Mansfield is too fat. We prefer our Diana Dors, who is svelte." -- British press report, 1958


Food For Thought


"Sophia Loren reveals the reason she's still a beauty is because she eats pasta everyday. Well, so does Shelley Winters!" -- actress Amanda Donahue

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Do Fries Come With That?


"Elizabeth Taylor is so fat, she puts mayonnaise on aspirin!" -- Joan Rivers


Parlor Conversation


"She'll never see seventy again... Last week, she spent two hours at the beauty salon. And that was just for an estimate." -- Joan Rivers on Joan Collins


Pieces of Work


"Jane Fonda had the best body in the whole world -- and her husband left her, anyway. Thank you, God!" -- Joan Rivers

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hal-lelujah


Barney Miller (1975-82) was one of our father's favorite shows, and even at a very young age, we recognized something solid and comforting about Hal Linden's steady, even presence. But in spite of these early memories, perhaps because he does almost everything well, and makes it all look so effortless, the multi-talented Hal Linden sometimes flies under our collective radar. He's a damned good actor, a fine light comedian, and we happen to adore his singing. (He's also got those salt-and-pepper looks and sonorous voice which drive us nuts -- just for the record.)

Handsome early publicity photo, c. 1960
Before earning his seven Emmy nominations for Barney Miller, the former Hal Lipshitz paid his dues by performing as a clarinetist and singer for various big bands, then getting his big break by replacing Sydney Chaplin in the original Broadway run of Bells Are Ringing in 1958. Linden also understudied in the legendary, if ill-fated, Lucille Ball musical, Wildcat (1960-61) and the similarly troubled-yet-fabled On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965-66); but his most visible and acclaimed role came as the male lead in the off-Broadway revival of Cole Porter's Anything Goes (1962), which was greeted warmly by critics, and provided Linden the first opportunity to lay down vocals for an original cast album.


There was one more major triumph on the stage (a Best Actor in a Musical Tony Award for The Rothschilds in 1971) before Barney Miller turned Hal Linden into a TV superstar. However, it was eminently clear to viewers tuning in to the variety shows and specials which still were a staple of network programming, that Linden, fantastic as he was as the rumpled, beleaguered, yet dignified Captain Miller, seemed to be happiest when given the chance to put on a tux and be a song and dance man.

Dorothy Loudon, Hal Linden and Barbara Eden in The Best Of Everything variety special (aired  September 18, 1983)
Cathryn Damon, Hal Linden, Linda Lavin and Bonnie Franklin in The Hal Linden Special (aired April 11, 1979)
The Borden Twins, c. 1976
Because we do admire the man and his underrated talent so, we feel a mild pang of guilt for the first variety show clip we've chosen to celebrate Mr. Linden's 82nd year -- from a 1976 episode of The Donny and Marie Show where Paul Lynde and Karen Valentine debase themselves in wigs cast-off by The Borden Twins; The Welcome Back, Kotter boys bump booties; poor Little Jimmy Osmond is forced into mild drag and dances with what appears to be a strange mating of the dancing Old Gold cigarette box and a blow-up doll; and Hal sings a disco-fied version of "I Could Have Danced All Night." But it's all so wonderfully, jaw-droppingly entertaining, we simply had to share it with you -- and, at the very least, Hal walks away with most of his dignity intact...in spite of the bedazzled mock turtleneck they made him endure.


Just to even things out a bit, here, in infinitely less sparkly surroundings, is a rather lovely rendition of The Carpenters' "I Won't Last a Day Without You" from an episode of The Carol Burnett Show.


After Miller ended its seven year run, Linden continued to be visible in television movies, specials, and guest appearances; he also attempted three more starring vehicles, but neither Blacke's Magic (1986), Jack's Place (1992-93) nor The Boys Are Back (1994) managed to capture the public's imagination. Linden was as nimble an actor as ever, and if anything, seemed to be growing handsomer; but like other beloved icons of 1970's television -- Mary Tyler Moore, anyone? -- he was forever cast in stone as his most famous creation, and audiences seemingly couldn't accept him as any other character on a weekly basis. Acceptance as a guest star, however, or as his charming self, was another story: Linden took home two Daytime Emmy Awards for his work as host of the children's program, FYI, in 1984 and 1985; and won a third Daytime Emmy for his guest role on CBS Schoolbreak Special in 1994.

Suave as ever in Blacke's Magic (1986)
Most recently, Linden has been touring with his cabaret act, which he has performed off-and-on since the early 1980's. He also released his long-overdue solo album debut, It's Never Too Late (2011) -- which had also been in the recording process, off-and-on, since the early 1980's, but the initial tracks were shelved when record companies of the time couldn't see any investment value in Barney Miller singing pop and jazz standards. Happily, it's time finally came, and we certainly find Hal Linden richly deserving of all appreciation his talent receives -- and wish him much, much more.


HAL LINDEN
March 20, 1931

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