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Top Hat, White Tie and Tails: Complete Recordings Vol 3

Twenty-one original mono recordings 1933-1936
Transfers and Production by David Lennick.
Noise reduction by Andrew Lang for K&A
NAXOS NOSTALGIA 8.120718 [60.21]

Crotchet Budget price

1) Flying Down to Rio (UK issue)
2) Flying Down To Rio (US issue)
3) Music Makes Me (UK issue)
4) Music makes Me (US issue)
5) Cheek to Cheek
6) No Strings
7) Isnít It a Lovely Day?
8) Top Hat
9) The Piccolino
10) Let Yourself Go
11) Letís Face The Music and Dance
12) We Saw The Sea
13) Iím Putting All My Eggs In One Basket
14) Iíd Rather Lead a Band
15) Iím Building Up To An Awful Let-Down
16) Pick Yourself Up
17) The Way You Look Tonight
18) Never Goanna Dance
19) Bojangles of Harlem
20) A Fine Romance
21) The Waltz in Swing Time

Listening to these recordings I remembered when I first saw Fred Astaire in one of the films featured here. I had no idea then that, despite his obvious talent, his name would become one to be remembered as it has been. His films are still being repeated on TV and his songs often heard on the radio and yet it might never have happened. At the start of his career Fred was teamed with his sister Adele and he became a potent force in musical comedy in the late twenties and thirties. But it was talking pictures and the depression, together with his sisterís retirement, that conspired to set a new career direction for Fred. He was reported to have said he was bored and looking for a change as the stage was beginning to worry him. Following a screen test the producer David O. Selznick at RKO wrote a memo saying that although he was uncertain about Fred he felt that in spite of his enormous ears and his chin line his charm was tremendous. Newly married and armed with an RKO contract the Astaires flew to Hollywood where RKO was trying to get a film put together for him. But by then Selznick had gone to work for Louis B. Mayer and since RKO wasnít ready to launch Astaireís film career MGM did it. Selznick cast him in ĎDancing Ladyí where he performed two numbers but these made the audiences sit up and take notice. He was then cast in "Flying Down To Rio" alongside second-stringer Ginger Rogers and the Astaire career ignited. What followed was, of course, perhaps the most successful string of musicals in the history of movies. It was the sessions with Johnny Green - conductor, composer and pianist - that changed Astaireís recording career, particularly their collaboration on "Top Hat, White tie and Tails". Green was elegant, graceful and witty, a man who looked more comfortable when he was dressed in white tie and tails sitting at the piano performing in a sprightly, well-rehearsed style that matched Astaireís ability to do the hard things and make them look effortless. What you will hear om this CD is Fred Astaireís ascendancy into world-wide stardom.

His first two recordings from "Flying Down to Rio" were recorded in London in December 1933 but the later American versions of these same songs are included too. In both versions of the title song you hear Astaire singing it rather tentatively. If I had to choose I think the British version is better but there really is little to choose from between either. Fred is not at his best in the other song, "Music Makes Me", either. Obviously Astaire "completists" will be glad to have both. Each time any monotony is broken by Fred performing a few dancing steps for the microphone. Although easy to listen to you soon realise that there was something lacking in Astaireís voice early on.

Back in New York in 1935 he recorded "Cheek To Cheek" by Irving Berlin. A familiar song, of course, but the difference in Fredís singing now is amazing, and you realise that Brunswick, who recorded him at that time, managed to find the perfect presentation of the Astaire voice and personality. Fred sings as we are accustomed to hear him when he is dancing in a film. His voice now is confident, happy and light-hearted. My own feelings were that although this is one of the numbers he is known for when dancing in a film it made no difference to my enjoyment in just hearing him on record. Not so familiar is "No Strings" recorded at the same time. Leo Reisman leads in with a long introduction with perfect timing for Astaire to follow with this lively, jolly number in which you hear Fred again performing a tap dance. I loved this recording, and guessed Fred could now sing any type of song.

Still in 1935 Astaire recorded Berlinís "Isnít This A Lovely Day" with Johnny Green. Again the Orchestra plays a long introduction before Fred enters and once again he sings with confidence making you really believe it is that lovely day. You hear Johnny Green on the piano playing in perfect harmony with him too. I canít praise this number enough, itís a perfect Gem. The superb arrangement of "Top Hat" was made in 1935 with Fred really showing what a brilliant performer he was. Johnny Green and the orchestra play a long introduction with many variations before Fred starts to sing and when he does itís with complete abandon. As he sings you hear the sound of him tap dancing again and his voice appears to be at one with his tapping feet. The great Irving Berlin was responsible for writing many of these songs for Astaireís films and the next one, "The Piccolino" from "Top Hat" is an example of the great composer he was. After the introduction Fred breaks in with a song that has almost a surplus of melody changes but Fred happily loses himself in them as he takes us with him in this catchy number.

The following four recordings are from "Follow The Fleet". "Let Yourself Go" was made in Los Angeles in January 1936. Fred performs a few tap dance steps before the orchestra takes over for a time and taps away in the background in perfect time until the music slows down and Astaire starts to sing. Following this is "Letís Face The Music and Dance" where Johnnie Green excels at the piano. It would be difficult not to view Fred as a sailor as he sings "We Saw The Sea", jauntily telling us why he joined the navy. Johnnie Green accompanies him in the same jaunty manner as Fred sings this delightful number. The next recording finds Fred singing as brilliantly as ever but more seriously as he tells us "Iím Putting All My Eggs In One Basket". Next not as familiar a number but Astaire and Green together ensure you will enjoy "Iíd Rather Lead a Band" with Fred tapping away as he sings making this another good performance from him and his few remarks at the end completes it. Another less familiar number is "Iím Building Up To An Awful Let Down" which Fred recorded in 1936. You do wonder when Astaire is going to sing, but he does though not until towards the end. Nevertheless this is a simple, easy song to listen to.

The next six recordings are all songs by Jerome Kern from that spectacular film "Swing Time" . Johnny Green and his orchestra and piano accompany on every one, of course. Starting with "Pick Yourself Up" you can hear Fred singing as he dances between steps. Itís wonderful how he judges the right moment to do this. Next comes a great classic. How often I have heard and seen Fred sing the smooth and languorous number, "The Way You Look Tonight". A truly lovely recording this from Astaire with Johnny Green accompanying. Next is "Never Gonna Dance", and Astaire tells you the reason in the song. A straight song with no musical variations, and after hearing Astaire tap dancing in most of his songs you realise what a difference it makes when he doesnít. But in spite of that itís pleasant with the Orchestra playing smoothly and in no way drowning him out. Great too is the next recording, "Bojangles Of Harlem". First you hear Johnny Green brilliantly playing the piano as usual, and with the Orchestra playing many variations you hear Astaire join in and sing this great number while the sound of him dancing on what I can only describe as either a platform, or could even be without the steel taps on his shoes. As to is the next recording "A Fine Romance" Astaire sings of it being a romance with no kisses, although he doesnít sound particularly bothered about it. It is a great number, of course, from a film full of them and I loved the piano playing of Johnny Green yet again. The orchestra brings a really melodious assortment of sounds. What better way to end than "Waltz In Spring Time" ? Although you donít hear Astaire sing, you hear in the background him tap dancing very quietly in time with the music. A melodic way to end this excellent selection of songs from "Swing Time" .

Those collecting this Astaire series will need no prompting to buy it. For the rest there are some great songs here. The transfers are all up to Naxos Nostalgiaís usual high standard.

Joan Duggan



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