The next selections are feature vocals that are almost too sentimental, but the singers are all top-notch, and with performances this magnificent it’s easy to forgive a little maudlin.
“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” (Victor 25044, 1935)
This is another striking example of Waller’s talents, this time showing him interpreting someone else’s material (music by Fred E. Ahlert, lyrics by Joe Young). The lyrics are pure gold, written from the point of view of someone who tries to cheer himself up by writing a letter and willing himself to believe that his love has written it. Although the record’s sound is generally upbeat, it is filled with a dramatic poignancy by the knowledge that his love couldn’t or wouldn’t write to him herself: “Gonna smile and say, ‘I hope you’re feeling better’ / And close ‘with love’ the way you do / I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter / And make believe it came from you.”
The instrumentation is all understated, placing Waller’s honeyed vocals squarely at the center of the listener’s attention. Waller’s voice is much less animated than in most of his recordings, as he prefers to let the simple, sweet melody and lyrics speak for themselves. In addition to Waller’s effortless piano, Rudy Powell’s clarinet wistfully responds to each line as it is sung, and Herman Autry has a subdued trumpet solo during the break.
~ You may also like one of Waller’s more over-the-top records: Fats Waller and His Rhythm, “Hold Tight (Want Some Sea Food Mama)” (Bluebird B-10116, 1939)
“Cheek To Cheek” (Brunswick 7486, 1935)
Fred Astaire was not the strongest singer of his day, but he used what he had marvelously. “Cheek to Cheek” is a great example: the fragile delicateness of Astaire’s voice in the higher notes actually adds to the tenderness of his delivery and strengthens the sentiment. This is a lovely song, well arranged and beautifully performed. Just listen to the subtle but exciting way the violins answer Astaire as he sings, “Heaven, I’m in heaven.” Heavenly!
~ You may also like: Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” (Decca 809, 1936)
1936 Headlines … Great Depression continues … Edward VIII becomes King of the U.K., then abdicates and is succeeded by George VI … American Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at Olympics in Berlin
“The Way You Look Tonight” (Brunswick 7717, 1936)
This is probably the most beautiful record Astaire ever made. As in “Cheek to Cheek,” the frailty of Astaire’s voice is its strength, its thinness providing transparency into his soul. The orchestra makes its presence known more forcefully in this outing and becomes the perfect dance partner to Astaire’s sentimental vocals. Those vocals are made powerful by wonderful lyrics that masterfully pull at the heartstrings: “Someday , when I’m awfully low / When the world is cold / I will feel a glow just thinking of you / And the way you look tonight.”
~ You may also like: Ray Noble and His Orchestra featuring Al Bowlly, “The Very Thought of You” (Victor 24657, 1934)
“Pennies From Heaven” (Decca 947, 1936)
“Pennies from Heaven” shows why Crosby was the top crooner of his generation. His full, baritone voice is in top form as he slowly unfolds the sentiment in every word, stretching each note to its dramatic limit. The highlight of the record may be the introduction. It has a looser, more playful feel and Crosby magnificently fills the space with a reassuring warmth, setting the stage for the more familiar refrain that dominates the rest of the song.
~ You may also like: Bing Crosby, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (Brunswick 6414, 1932)
Milestone Recordings in American Music
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