FRED ASTAIRE Top Hat, White Tie & Tails
Complete Recordings Vol.3: 1933-1936
With this third volume of Naxos' Complete Fred Astaireseries, the Hollywood years begin. Not only would this period mark Astaire's ascendancy into worldwidestardom, but it would take his recording career to new commercial and artisticheights, too.
The move from Broadway to Hollywood would be a watershed inAstaire's career. Teamed with hissister, Adele, he had been one of the most potent forces in musical comedy inthe late 1920s and early '30s. Butthe dawn of talking pictures, the effects of the Depression on the Broadway boxoffice and his sister's retirement from the stage for married life allconspired to set a new career direction for Fred. And not a minute too soon. The Band Wagon, his last show with Adele, had been atremendous hit on Broadway. Hisfirst solo vehicle, The Gay Divorce, had equalled it. But he was bored and looking for a change. In an interview with Lucius Beebe, ofThe New York Herald-Tribune, he said, \The stage is beginning to worry me abit. Just why I can't say, onlyperhaps 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-RadioPictures, 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 spiteof his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that itcomes through even in this wretched test."
Newly married and armed with an RKO contract, the Astaires flewto Hollywood, where RKO was still trying to get a vehicle pulled together fortheir new star. Selznick hadbolted the studio to work for his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, and, since RKOwasn't ready to launch Astaire's film career, MGM did. On loan-out, Selznick cast him ashimself in the Clark Gable-
Joan Crawford film, Dancing Lady. Astaire performed only two numbers, but he provided the onlyexcitement in the dreary film, causing movie audiences that had grown weary ofthe deluge of early musicals to sit up and take notice. When he was finally put into RKO'sFlying Down to Rio, alongside former Warner Bros. musical comedysecond-stringer Ginger Rogers, the Astaire film career finally ignited.
Although Astaire and Rogers were subordinate to Dolores DelRio 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 ofthe 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 plunginginto receiver-ship. TheAstaire-Rogers cycle at RKO would last for nine films in all, not ending until1939.
At the same time that Astaire was deftly moving from stageto film star, his recording career took an upswing. As the two previous volumes of this set will haveillustrated, his recording career was erratic. He had recorded many of the songs from his stage shows inNew York and London for both Columbia and Victor. But he was hardly considered a recording star; rather aBroadway 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 weredown-right rickey-ticky, hardly befitting as polished and sophisticated aperformer as Astaire.
That pattern seemed destined to continue in the aftermath ofFlying Down to Rio, when he recorded the title song and Music Makes Me forColumbia in late 1933. In fairnessto the label, the record industry was still deep in the doldrums of theDepression at the time and sales were flat. But so was the Astaire recording session, with uninspiredorchestrations and musical direction. Both the U.S. and English release versions of these sides are includedhere. They were all recorded inLondon, where Astaire appeared in a short run of his previous Broadway hit, TheGay Divorce, before RKO began production on the film version of the show. The film title, incidentally, acquiredan extra "e" because the film censors didn't want any suggestion that divorcewas acceptable. Obviously, adivorce couldn't be gay, but a divorcee could.
As the box office power of Astaire grew, the recording industryat first did nothing. It isunfortunate today that none of the major labels saw fit to have him record thesongs from the next two Astaire-Rogers hits, The Gay Divorcee and Roberta. But finally Brunswick took the plungein 1935 and stumbled on to the perfect presentation of the Astaire voice andpersonality. In recording theIrving Berlin songs from Top Hat, he was paired with the label's two mostpopular society orchestras. Thethree sides with Leo Reisman - with whom he had recorded on Victor - were good,but not dazzling. It was thesession with multi-talented conductor/composer/pianist Johnny Green that wouldchange Astaire's recording career forever, particularly their collaboration onTop Hat, White Tie and Tails. Green's sophisticated orchestrations and his nimble piano style were theperfect complements to Astaire's light voice and superb diction. There is a bounce and polish to theGreen recordings that makes the Reisman sides seem flat by comparison.
It was the perfect meeting of two talents and twopersonalities, similar to what would occur in the 1950s when Capitol pairedFrank Sinatra with conductor Nelson Riddle. The right combination at the right time creating a soundthat would personify an era. Bothin manner and performance, Green was the piano-playing, baton-wieldingequivalent of Astaire. He waselegant, graceful and witty, a man who never looked more comfortable than whenhe was dressed in white tie and tails, sitting at the piano performing in asprightly, well-rehearsed style that matched Astaire's ability to do the hardthings and make them seem effortless. Not to be discounted in this mix was Green's own admiration andaffection for Astaire. He had beena fan since the age of eleven, when he saw him on stage in Apple Blossoms. Their mutual friendships with theGershwins, Cole Porter and other top composers and performers created anotherbond and, one suspects, a level of comfort with each other.
This Naxos collection demonstrates the growth of Astairefrom an artist who also recorded to a true recording artist, particularlythanks to the Green sides. Itcontains the justly famous and familiar Brunswick sides from the scores of TopHat, Follow the Fleet and Swing Time, plus the alternate takes of the two songsfrom Flying Down to Rio. Thiscollection 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 pianoonly. But an earlier versionincluded Astaire's tapping. Thatrejected test pressing is heard here for the first time.
Greg Gormick, July 2003
Toronto, Ontario, Canada