|About this Recording
8.120775 - KAYE, Danny: Danny Kaye! (1941-1952)
Original 1941-52 Recordings
The recordings on this CD begin in the early 1940s when Danny Kaye was still refining his act and making his debut on Broadway. By the time the last tracks were recorded in 1952, Kaye had become an internationally famous movie star, performed before presidents and royalty, and was one of the world’s best-loved showmen. His phenomenal rise to the pinnacle of his profession was hardly an overnight success. Kaye spent years transforming himself from that of a Borscht Belt “tummler” (one who keeps audiences enter-tained in between acts) to that of one of the most versatile entertainers in show business.
Born David Daniel Kaminski in Brooklyn, NY, on 18 January 1913, Kaye began his career in 1929 as part of a duo with a friend named Lou Eisen. The two sixteen-year-olds were employed at the White Roe Hotel, a popular Jewish summer resort located in the Catskill Mountains in mid-state New York. It was at this time that David decided to use “Danny” (his middle name) for his stage name. He also shortened his surname to Kamin, but after a brother came home from the army and changed his name to Kaye, Danny did likewise.
The following summer, Kaye was upgraded to the role of stooge and began developing his own zany brand of humour. Having grown up listen-ing to Yiddish songs, Kaye became fascinated with the vocal style of cantors, who would often improvise during synagogue services. His use of double-talk and gibberish was partially derived from Yiddish songs such as “Rumania, Rumania,” as performed by Aaron Lebedoff. Kaye’s mentor at White Roe, Nat Lichtman, taught him how to use his body, his face, and his hands to augment his comedic delivery, even teaching Kaye to comically “conduct” classical music, a talent that he would use often in later years.
Kaye struggled through the early 1930s, appearing in vaudeville shows and eventually winding up on tour in Asia. Unable to speak the languages, Kaye communicated by using mime and facial expressions. He also developed a talent for dialects and improvising gibberish during his songs, which were funny in any language. The first phrase he learned was git-gat-giddle with a geet-ga-zay, which he then would embellish, incorporating it into one of the first songs he used in his act, Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher. Kaye worked it into his Saturday night repertoire, cajoling his audience into repeating every line he sang. The payoff would be when he would deliver an extra-long string of nonsense syllables that would prove impossible to copy.
During this early period, Kaye also added the jazz standard Dinah to his repertoire, beginning the song with a spoken introduction in Russian dialect. Kaye would pronounce the title “Dee-nah,” which in effect changed every other rhyming word in the song (China became “chee-nah;” Carolina became “Caro-lee-na,” etc). Toward the end he launched into a high-speed chorus of git-gat-giddle gibberish. The song became popular in his American stage shows but audiences in Asia initially did not understand Kaye’s irreverence. Danny recorded Dinah, mispronunciations and all, at his first recording session for Columbia in May 1941 (he would later name his daughter Dena after the song).
Eventually, Kaye became so proficient at high speed double-talking, that it threatened to type-cast him. Almost in self-defence, he strengthened the other parts of his style. He became an excellent singer and actor and also proved to be an elegant and graceful dancer as well.
By 1937 Kaye was appearing in two-reelers and was courting a childhood friend named Sylvia Fine. Sylvia was a budding songwriter who aspired to compose musical comedies. Her speciality was writing sharp, smart, and witty lyrics, with a penchant for political satire. When she fell in love with Danny Kaye, she found in him the ideal vehicle for her songs. Kaye had all the tools she needed: the facial expressions, the gestures, and the accents. In time, Sylvia would become Danny’s Svengali, and virtually created his on-stage persona. A small-time director named Max Liebman, who would go on to create Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar, also supplied material for Kaye.
Danny and Sylvia married in 1940, after Kaye had signed to appear on Broadway in Lady in the Dark, starring Gertrude Lawrence, with songs written by Moss Hart, Kurt Weill, and Ira Gershwin. Recognizing Kaye’s talent and his fast tongue, Gershwin wrote what would become Kaye’s breakthrough number and his only song in the show. Tschaikovsky (And Other Russians) consisted simply of Kaye rattling off the names of 49 Russian composers in 38 seconds. Gershwin took the names from the back covers of piano music in his brother’s collection. He included two ringers: Russian-born songwriter Vernon Duke, whose real name was Vladimir Dukelsky, and Joseph Rumshinsky, a writer in the Yiddish Theatre. Kaye’s performance of Tschaikovsky became a showstopper. He was so sensational that Gertrude Lawrence, a notoriously competitive performer, would try to upstage Danny at every performance. The two engaged in an ongoing battle to outdo the other, which enabled Danny to further develop his talent for hilarious stage business and gestures.
Abandoning her ambitions to become a star on her own, Sylvia Fine devoted all of her energies to her husband. She became his coach, publicity agent, manager, and even surrogate spokesperson when Danny didn’t feel like answering inane questions from interviewers. One of the early numbers that she wrote for him was Anatole of Paris, in which Kaye sang in the voice of a fey designer of women’s hats. He added the song to his nightclub act and eventually, Sylvia worked it into the score to his 1947 motion picture hit, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Kaye’s second Broadway show was Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It! in which he played a larger role. Porter’s witty and elegant lyrics for songs such as Let’s Not Talk About Love were perfect for Kaye, and in 1944 Samuel Goldwyn hired him to star in his first motion picture, Up in Arms. The highlight of the film was Kaye’s bravura performance of Lobby Number, a Sylvia Fine parody of a typical Hollywood western.
During the next decade, Kaye starred in a series of films capitalizing on his extraordinary likeability, including The Court Jester, The Inspector General, and White Christmas. Many of these movies showcased his versatility by having him play dual roles or split personalities; usually an austere macho hero vs. a cowardly twit. In addition, his knack for connecting with children was best displayed in the 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen, which featured a splendid Frank Loesser score (Inchworm and the King’s New Clothes are included herein).
Despite his success in film, Kaye still preferred performing live, due to his innate ability to create a rapport with his audiences. During one of his shows, he was apt at any moment to break into a conga and shimmy through the aisles, or just sit at the edge of the stage and reminisce about his career.
In 1954 he became the spokesperson to raise money for UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. After a run as host of his own television variety show on CBS ended in 1967, Kaye devoted the remaining years of his life to efforts benefiting UNICEF and other charitable endeavours. His acting was severely curtailed, although he starred in an unsuccessful Broadway musical Two by Two, written by Richard Rodgers. His final role was in Skokie, a well-received television movie concerning conflict between holocaust survivors and members of the American Nazi party. Danny Kaye died of hepatitis related maladies on 18March 1987 at the age of 74.
The songs on this CD emphasize the variety and versatility of Danny Kaye as a recording artist. For every nutty song like The Fairy Pipers or Triplets, there was a tender ballad, such as The Moon is Your Pillow or the lovely Irish-sounding Eileen. Kaye even does a couple of turns in a quartet featuring two other scene-stealers (Jimmy Durante and Groucho Marx) and actress Jane Wyman (Black Strap Molasses and How D’Ye Do and Shake Hands).
George and Ira Gershwin’s The Babbitt and the Bromide was written for their 1927 production of Funny Face, starring Fred and Adele Astaire. The Astaires played two bourgeois “substantial men” (“Mr. Smythe and Mr. Jones”) who greet each other with a barrage of clichéd pleasantries that never change over the years (except to get faster), even when both are in Heaven. Danny Kaye’s manic 1942 recording reduced the dialogue to a crazed lesson in schizophrenia, with the final chorus in Heaven speeded up for comic effect.
Although biographies have depicted him as being distant, aloof, and sometimes mean to his co-workers, Danny Kaye remains one of show business’ best loved personalities. His ability to effortlessly switch from broad slapstick to an elegant dance number, from romantic lead to clown, or from a dashing hero to a double-talking fool made him one of the most versatile entertainers of his time.
– Cary Ginell (folklorist, radio broadcaster, and award-winning author of four books on American music. He lives in Thousand Oaks, California)
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