|About this Recording
ETHEL MERMAN: It's De-Lovely
Everybody has a favourite Ethel Merman story and here's mine.
It was the opening night of Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway and those concerned had a lot at stake. Merman hadn't had a classy hit in years; Irving Berlin's last few musicals had been lacklustre; director Joshua Logan was trying to re-establish himself after his service in World War II.
The tension level was high. Waiting in the wings was a terrified young chorus girl, trying to stop her knees from shaking. Suddenly, she looked up and saw the show's leading lady, Ethel Merman, standing as calm and solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. There was only one thing moving: Merman's jaws, as she chomped on a giant wad of gum. But her face betrayed no emotion.
The near-hysterical chorine finally found the courage to address the Broadway legend.
'Aren't you nervous, Miss Merman?' she asked.
Merm looked at the girl as if she had just landed from Mars.
'Nervous?' bellowed the star. 'Why the hell should I be nervous? I know my f—king lines.'
With that, she spat her gum into a waiting bucket, strode onto the stage and walked into Broadway history.
That anecdote sums up a few of the many features that made Ethel Merman just who she was: practical, profane and consummately professional.
For forty years, she was one of the goddesses of American Musical Theatre. She wasn't particularly subtle, or unusually versatile, but she did one thing extraordinarily well.
Ethel could belt.
Back in those pre-microphone days, composers and lyricists got down on their knees at night and thanked God for someone like Merman who could make each note ring to the rafters while still making sure that every lyric landed in the back row of the balcony.
Gershwin, Berlin, Herman, Styne, Arlen – they all sang her praises. Most of the time, they even wrote their shows with her in mind. Cole Porter made sure that the money notes of his songs coincided with those that Merman sang best.
No single collection could cover all of Merman's extensive career, but this one gives us a pretty good idea of what she sounded like during the years 1932–1954, when she was arguably at her vocal peak.
She was born Ethel Agnes Zimmerman on 16 January 1908 in the working-class neighbourhood of Astoria, Queens, just across the East River from Manhattan. Her powerhouse voice made its presence known at an early age when she sang in the choir at Holy Redeemer Episcopal Church and it was just a matter of time before she started being hired to perform at local events.
Merman had bigger dreams, but her practical parents wanted her to have something more reliable than show business to fall back on, so they made her attend secretarial school, where she became unusually good at shorthand.
(She'd later boast it came in handy when she was on the road with troubled musicals as she could help keep track of all the numerous rewrites!)
By 1930, Merman was spending equal time as a singer and a stenographer. It was while performing between screenings at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre that producer Vincent Freedley caught her act.
He was about to produce a new musical called Girl Crazy by the Gershwin Brothers, George and Ira. There was a featured part called Kate Fothergill that they needed to fill. She didn't have to act much, just show up to raise the roof with two showstoppers: "I Got Rhythm" and "Sam and Delilah."
Freedley knew Merman was what he needed and he brought her to meet George Gershwin, who loved her voice. When she heard the songs she got to sing, she blurted out in one of her few displays of good behaviour: 'Those will do very nicely, Mr. Gershwin.'
On opening night, 14 October 1930, Merman stopped the show cold with her rendition of I Got Rhythm, especially when she held one note for sixteen mind-blowing bars. (The recording we have here is from 1947, but the effect is still the same.)
The Merman legend was born.
Unfortunately, America was in the depths of the Great Depression and there weren't a lot of solid opportunities for a rising musical theatre star. She landed briefly in George White's Scandals of 1931 and then found herself in a troubled musical called Take a Chance.
The show never amounted to much, but it did give Merman (and us) one of the classic 'blowsy lady' anthems. Listen to her sing the sardonic Eadie Was A Lady and you'll hear the origins of later similar numbers like Weill's "The Saga of Jenny" and Sondheim's "The Story of Lucy and Jessie".
A couple of disappointing Hollywood films followed and Merman needed a Broadway hit. So did Vincent Freedley, who was nearly broke after a series of flops.
He came up with an idea he thought was surefire: a musical built around a group of zanies who get involved with a shipwreck. He hired Merman to play singing evangelist Reno Sweeney as well as William Gaxton and Victor Moore (the Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick of their day) to play a pair of con-men and then set to work.
Tragically, shortly before the start of rehearsals, the pleasure ship S.S. Morro Castle sank off the coast of New Jersey with the loss of 125 lives and everyone quickly set about rewriting the show to eliminate any mention of disaster. (This is where Merman's stenographic skills really came in handy.)
In the end, it was Cole Porter's score that carried everyone to victory when it opened on 21 November 1934 and you can hear Merman in a recording made two weeks after the première, bringing her unique style to You're the Top and I Get A Kick Out Of You.
Another Porter hit followed ( Red, Hot and Blue ) and it gave Merman one of her greatest songs, Down In The Depths (On The 90th Floor). Listen to this recording made one week after the 1936 opening and discover the way she conveys class, sass and heartbreak – all in three minutes.
Stars In Your Eyes was a troubled 1939 show that united Merman with Jimmy Durante and gave her two 'sadder but wiser' songs she sells to great effect: A Lady Needs A Change and I'll Pay the Check.
She next paired up Bert Lahr for Du Barry Was a Lady, and although their personal relationship was chilly ('She never looks at you on stage', complained Lahr), they made things work during the show, as this 1940 recording of Friendship demonstrates.
The 1940s brought Merman some predictable vehicles ( Panama Hattie, Something For the Boys ) as well as a truly unhappy show she quit during rehearsals ( Sadie Thompson ).
No wonder she was ready for Annie Get Your Gun and its triumphant anthem There's No Business Like Show Business (heard here in a 1954 recording from the Irving Berlin cinema songfest of the same name).
Merman continued performing on Broadway through 1970, when she took over the lead in Hello, Dolly! Along the way, she had some awesome hits ( Gypsy ) and some disappointing flops ( Happy Hunting ). But through it all, she remained the one and only Ethel Merman. She died in 1984.
No one ever sang quite like her before; no one has ever sung quite like her since.
Hearing Merman in her prime on this recording, it's possible to understand how George Gershwin felt when he ran backstage to her dressing room during the intermission of Girl Crazy 's opening night after she had slayed the audience with "I Got Rhythm".
'Ethel,' he asked breathlessly, 'do you know what you're doing out there?'
She blushed and admitted that she really didn't understand what made her sing the way she did.
'That's okay,' said Gershwin. 'Just don't change a thing. And never, never go near a singing teacher.'
I Got Rhythm f rom Girl Crazy (George & Ira Gershwin)
Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries f rom George White's Scandals (Lew Brown–Ray Henderson)
How Deep Is The Ocean (Irving Berlin)
I'll Follow You (Roy Turk–Fred Ahlert)
I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues (Harold Arlen–Ted Koehler)
Satan's Li'l Lamb from Americana (E. Y. Harburg–Johnny Mercer–Harold Arlen)
Eadie Was A Lady from Take A Chance (Richard Whiting–Nacio Herb Brown–B. G. DeSylva)
An Earful Of Music from Kid Millions (Walter Donaldson–Gus Kahn)
You're A Builder-Upper from Life Begins at 8:40 (Ira Gershwin–E. Y. Harburg–Harold Arlen)
You're The Top from Anything Goes (Cole Porter)
I Get A Kick Out Of You from Anything Goes (Cole Porter)
Blow, Gabriel, Blow from Anything Goes (Cole Porter)
The Lady In Red from In Caliente (Allie Wrubel–Mort Dixon)
It's The Animal In Me from Big Broadcast of 1936 (Mack Gordon–Harry Revel)
Down In The Depths (On The 90th Floor) from Red, Hot and Blue (Cole Porter)
It's De-Lovely from Red, Hot and Blue (Cole Porter)
A Lady Needs A Change from Stars In Your Eyes (Arthur Schwartz–Dorothy Fields)
I'll Pay The Check from Stars In Your Eyes (Arthur Schwartz–Dorothy Fields)
Friendship from Du Barry Was A Lady (Cole Porter)
There's No Business Like Show Business from Annie Get Your Gun (Irving Berlin)
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