|About this Recording
8.120718 - ASTAIRE, Fred: Top Hat, White Tie and Tails (1933-1936)
FRED ASTAIRE Top Hat, White Tie & Tails
Complete Recordings Vol.3: 1933-1936
With this third volume of Naxos’ Complete Fred Astaire series, the Hollywood years begin. Not only would this period mark Astaire’s ascendancy into worldwide stardom, but it would take his recording career to new commercial and artistic heights, too.
The move from Broadway to Hollywood would be a watershed in Astaire’s career. Teamed with his sister, Adele, he had been one of the most potent forces in musical comedy in the late 1920s and early ’30s. But the dawn of talking pictures, the effects of the Depression on the Broadway box office and his sister’s retirement from the stage for married life all conspired to set a new career direction for Fred. And not a minute too soon. The Band Wagon, his last show with Adele, had been a tremendous hit on Broadway. His first solo vehicle, The Gay Divorce, had equalled it. But he was bored and looking for a change. In an interview with Lucius Beebe, of The New York Herald-Tribune, he said, “The stage is beginning to worry me a bit. Just why I can’t say, only perhaps it’s getting on my nerves. I don’t know what I’m going to do about it either.”
Producer David O. Selznick, production chief at RKO-Radio Pictures, gave him the answer. Following a screen test, Selznick penned one of his legendary memos, commenting, “I am still a little uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even in this wretched test.”
Newly married and armed with an RKO contract, the Astaires flew to Hollywood, where RKO was still trying to get a vehicle pulled together for their new star. Selznick had bolted the studio to work for his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, and, since RKO wasn’t ready to launch Astaire’s film career, MGM did. On loan-out, Selznick cast him as himself in the Clark Gable–
Joan Crawford film, Dancing Lady. Astaire performed only two numbers, but he provided the only excitement in the dreary film, causing movie audiences that had grown weary of the deluge of early musicals to sit up and take notice. When he was finally put into RKO’s Flying Down to Rio, alongside former Warner Bros. musical comedy second-stringer Ginger Rogers, the Astaire film career finally ignited.
Although Astaire and Rogers were subordinate to Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond in both the script and the billing of Flying Down to Rio, that’s not the way it seemed to the movie-going public. The new duo easily stole the show. What followed was, of course, one of the most successful strings of musicals in the history of the film industry, quite literally saving RKO at a time when many other film studios were plunging into receiver-ship. The Astaire–Rogers cycle at RKO would last for nine films in all, not ending until 1939.
At the same time that Astaire was deftly moving from stage to film star, his recording career took an upswing. As the two previous volumes of this set will have illustrated, his recording career was erratic. He had recorded many of the songs from his stage shows in New York and London for both Columbia and Victor. But he was hardly considered a recording star; rather a Broadway musical comedy star who occasionally recorded. Interesting as all his recordings were, there was no consistency of style from session to session. And some of the orchestrations were down-right rickey-ticky, hardly befitting as polished and sophisticated a performer as Astaire.
That pattern seemed destined to continue in the aftermath of Flying Down to Rio, when he recorded the title song and Music Makes Me for Columbia in late 1933. In fairness to the label, the record industry was still deep in the doldrums of the Depression at the time and sales were flat. But so was the Astaire recording session, with uninspired orchestrations and musical direction. Both the U.S. and English release versions of these sides are included here. They were all recorded in London, where Astaire appeared in a short run of his previous Broadway hit, The Gay Divorce, before RKO began production on the film version of the show. The film title, incidentally, acquired an extra “e” because the film censors didn’t want any suggestion that divorce was acceptable. Obviously, a divorce couldn’t be gay, but a divorcee could.
As the box office power of Astaire grew, the recording industry at first did nothing. It is unfortunate today that none of the major labels saw fit to have him record the songs from the next two Astaire–Rogers hits, The Gay Divorcee and Roberta. But finally Brunswick took the plunge in 1935 and stumbled on to the perfect presentation of the Astaire voice and personality. In recording the Irving Berlin songs from Top Hat, he was paired with the label’s two most popular society orchestras. The three sides with Leo Reisman – with whom he had recorded on Victor – were good, but not dazzling. It was the session with multi-talented conductor/composer/pianist Johnny Green that would change Astaire’s recording career forever, particularly their collaboration on Top Hat, White Tie and Tails. Green’s sophisticated orchestrations and his nimble piano style were the perfect complements to Astaire’s light voice and superb diction. There is a bounce and polish to the Green recordings that makes the Reisman sides seem flat by comparison.
It was the perfect meeting of two talents and two personalities, similar to what would occur in the 1950s when Capitol paired Frank Sinatra with conductor Nelson Riddle. The right combination at the right time creating a sound that would personify an era. Both in manner and performance, Green was the piano-playing, baton-wielding equivalent of Astaire. He was elegant, graceful and witty, a man who never looked more comfortable than when he was dressed in white tie and tails, sitting at the piano performing in a sprightly, well-rehearsed style that matched Astaire’s ability to do the hard things and make them seem effortless. Not to be discounted in this mix was Green’s own admiration and affection for Astaire. He had been a fan since the age of eleven, when he saw him on stage in Apple Blossoms. Their mutual friendships with the Gershwins, Cole Porter and other top composers and performers created another bond and, one suspects, a level of comfort with each other.
This Naxos collection demonstrates the growth of Astaire from an artist who also recorded to a true recording artist, particularly thanks to the Green sides. It contains the justly famous and familiar Brunswick sides from the scores of Top Hat, Follow the Fleet and Swing Time, plus the alternate takes of the two songs from Flying Down to Rio. This collection also contains a true rarity. In recording the superb Jerome Kern–Dorothy Fields score for Swing Time, two versions of the Waltz in Swing Time were made. The released take featured Green’s orchestra and piano only. But an earlier version included Astaire’s tapping. That rejected test pressing is heard here for the first time.
Greg Gormick, July 2003
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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