Milestone Recordings in American Music

6/12/11

Vocals in the Spotlight (1939)

The following tracks all share one thing in common: exceptional vocal performances that transcended the expectations of their time. Whether adding vocals to a beloved instrumental, forging a new vocal group style, crafting a timeless classic or breaking the mold for singing cowboys, these recordings are all worth repeated listens.

Larry Clinton and His Orchestra featuring Bea Wain
Deep Purple (Victor 26141, 1939)

Larry Clinton was the first to record the standard “Deep Purple” with lyrics, and the result was one of the loveliest pop singles of the big band era. Much of the credit is due to singer Bea Wain in what may be the most expressive performance of her career. Her voice is simply amazing here, wrapping itself around the lyrics like deep purple silk – soft, billowing and fluid. In the end, neither the music nor the lyrics make a lasting impression: all you remember is that luxurious voice.

~ You may also like: Bea Wain, “Kiss the Boys Goodbye” (Victor 27445, 1941)

The Ink Spots
If I Didn’t Care(Decca 2286, 1939)

The Ink Spots
My Prayer(Decca 2790, 1939)

The Ink Spots were the first of what would become a tradition of African American vocal groups that would set the stage for doo-wop in the 1950s and soul in the 1960s. Building on earlier vocal traditions, including the novelty “jive” that had become popular among small, jazz-oriented groups, the Ink Spots developed their own style of romantic, expressive ballads. These two records from early in their career are great examples of their style.

“If I Didn’t Care” was the group’s first big hit. The wonderful vocals alone would most likely have cemented this in musical history: over light, jazzy accompaniment, tenor Bill Kenny sings in a subtly quivering falsetto over top-notch harmony humming from the others. But the additional touches make this song even more remarkable. The first is a persuasive spoken interlude by bass Orville “Hoppy” Jones, something that would become a trademark for the group and served to “break down the wall” between band and listener, making the song that much more intimate. The second added touch is the remarkably harmonious group scat singing at the very end, which mellows a convention of jazz into something new, accessible and exciting.

~ You may also like: The Ink Spots, “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)” (Decca 3379, 1940)

“My Prayer” is even lovelier than its predecessor, an unabashedly sentimental record that takes full advantage of the group’s dreamy harmonies. Once again, Hoppy Jones gives a spoken interlude, but instead of introducing something new, he merely repeats the lyrics from the first verse, underlining their importance: “My prayer is to linger with you / At the end of each day in a dream that’s divine / My prayer is a rapture in blue / With the world far away and your lips close to mine.”

~ You may also like: The Ink Spots, “Java Jive” (Decca 3432, 1940)

Judy Garland
Over the Rainbow(Decca 2672, 1939)

There was a distinctiveness to the way that Judy Garland annunciated sounds, as if the song within was bursting through and it was all her mouth could do to sculpt it into words as it passed by. Her big, bright voice on “Over the Rainbow” is even more remarkable when you consider that she was only sixteen when she recorded it. Taken from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, both song and film have endured as timeless classics. Garland would star in several more hit Hollywood musicals, but she would never top the inspirational performance she gives on this record.

~ You may also like: Walter Huston, “September Song” (Brunswick 8272, 1938)

Gene Autry
Back in the Saddle Again(Vocalion 05080, 1939)

Gene Autry began his career as a straightforward country singer, but he would soon become Hollywood’s number-one singing cowboy. “Back in the Saddle Again” is his signature song and a great example of why he made such a believable cowboy. His voice is strong and pleasant, but never flashy, and his inviting southern plains accent and everyman delivery are instantly ingratiating. The bouncing, western swing-inspired music gives the record a certain rough-around-the-edges polish, and the lyrics are the kind of fun, lighthearted cowboy material that audiences ate up: “I’m back in the saddle again / Out where a friend is a friend / Where the longhorn cattle feed on the lowly gypsum weed / Back in the saddle again.”

~ You may also like: Gene Autry, “The Last Round-up” (Banner 32886, 1933)

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