EDDY, Nelson: A Perfect Day

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"A Perfect Day" Original Recordings 1935—1947

It was once perceptively observed that the on-screen combination of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald may not have been exactly "a Caruso and Farrar doing Carmen, but very good box office of another kind!" And as a soloist, too, Nelson the straight singer was probably unknowingly one of the first commercial practitioners of "cross-over" as we nowadays call it, insofar as like other classically-trained singers of his generation the heyday of the film-musical kindled his aspirations to popular stardom. At first he trod the boards in opera and recital but when in March, 1935, film-star status was conferred on him suddenly and unequivocally in Naughty Marietta, Hollywood presupposed some slight adjustment to his rather ‘serious’ style. The basic difference between Eddy and his modern counterparts, however, is that he sang everything with the same uncompromising sincerity and in easy, undiluted tones and could bridge the divide between opera and musical without having to resort to mere crooning.

Nelson Eddy was born into a background of amateur music-making in Providence, Rhode Island, on June 29th 1901 and as a boy sang soprano in local church choirs. After his parents separated in 1915, he moved with his mother to Philadelphia where he worked in various occupations (including plumbing supplies, switchboard operating, newspaper reporting and copy-writing in an advertising agency). In his spare time he listened avidly to records by great singers, went to concerts and took his first voice lessons from David Bispham (1857-1921), the noted Quaker baritone and sometime member of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company who had been a pupil of the great bel canto teacher Giovanni Battista Lamperti (1839-1910).

Nelson made his singing début at a Philadelphia benefit in 1920 and, after several appearances in amateur Gilbert and Sullivan productions in that city from 1922, entered a musical competition in 1924 and took first prize: an appearance with the Philadelphia Opera Society, as Amonasro in Aïda in which, the Philadelphia Record reported, "Mr. Eddy was a star from the moment he appeared on stage." Later in 1924, with the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company, he made his début at the New York Met in a guest production of Pagliacci. He underwent further vocal tuition in Europe from William Villonat and Edouard Lippé and went on to perform a wide range of baritone roles in opera and worked the Columbia concert circuit.

In Philadelphia Eddy sang in the American premières of Richard Strauss’s Feuersnot (1927) and Berg’s Wozzeck (in 1931, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Leopold Stokowski) and in New York gave the concert premières of both Wozzeck and Parsifal. After further training in Dresden and Paris, in March 1932, at Carnegie Hall, he sang in the concert première of Respighi’s Maria Egiziaca, under the composer’s baton. He also undertook numerous successful concert tours and by 1932 had made the first of many broadcasts on commercial radio, meanwhile continuing an active career in opera until 1935 and regularly drawing good notices for his many leading rôles with the San Francisco Opera Company.

The revival of filmed operetta eventually provided Eddy with the right profile, albeit his first films (he was first signed by Louis B. Meyer in 1933 for three non-starring MGM B-raters) conferred upon him a secondary rather than star status and his career remained static until the studio realised that the Eddy voice and persona would complement their established film-musical soprano star of six years, Jeanette Macdonald (1902-1965). Overnight, in Naughty Marietta, the duo became ‘America’s Sweethearts’. The top box-office screen-partners of their day, prior to the US entry into World War II they made eight of the biggest escapist blockbusters in screen history, including Rose Marie (1936 — from this we hear the title-song and Indian Love Call), Maytime (1937), Girl of the Golden West (1938 — based on the same David Belasco story about the California gold rush which had provided Puccini with a theme for his 1910 opera, its Sigmund Romberg score included Sun-Up To Sundown) and Sweethearts (also 1938).

Nelson was twice paired with glamorous Hungarian starlet Ilona Massey (née Hajmassy, 1910-1974), first in 1939 in Balalaika (based on a 1936 London stage musical by George Posford and Bernard Grün, with lyrics by Eric Maschwitz) and again in Northwest Outpost, Eddy’s final film (whose Rudolf Friml score included Raindrops On A Drum) in 1947. Meanwhile, in 1940, the Eddy—Macdonald partnership was renewed for New Moon (MGM’s remake of its 1930 epic starring Lawrence Tibbett and Grace Moore, this features Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise) and Bitter Sweet (the screen version of Noël Coward’s 1929 musical masterpiece whose highlights include Tokay and I’ll See You Again).

In 1941 Nelson partnered Metropolitan opera mezzo Risë Stevens (b.1913) in her screen début The Chocolate Soldier (in this celluloid revival of the 1908 Oscar Straus operetta with story derived from Shaw’s 1903 classic Arms And The Man they duet in My Hero) and the following year was reunited for one last appearance with Jeanette for I Married An Angel (based on a 1938 Broadway musical, the Rodgers & Hart film-score included Little Workaday World, a "scena" for Eddy which was excised from the film prior to its première).

Ballads in the Eddy discography are many and diverse in style. Definitive accounts of show-stoppers like Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’ (from Oklahoma!) and Great Day (title-song of the 1929 Vincent Youmans show) are all of a piece with Smilin’ Through (an Arthur A. Penn song success of 1915, this was revived as the title of a 1941 MGM film starring Macdonald and her real-life husband Gene Raymond), Frederick Keel’s Salt Water Ballads and old songs by Reginald De Koven (a ballad first published in 1889, Oh, Promise Me was interpolated into his 1891 operetta Robin Hood),‘Guy D’Hardelot’ (notably Because, 1902 and "My Message", 1908) and Carrie Jacobs-Bond ("I Love You Truly", 1906 and A Perfect Day, 1910).

Peter Dempsey, 2002

Digital transfers and restoration by Peter Dempsey

Photo of Nelson Eddy, c.1935 (b/w original, Hulton/Archive)
Disc: 1
A Perfect Day
1 Smilin' Through
2 Dusty Road
3 Auf Wiederseh'n
4 Rose Marie
5 Indian Love Call
6 Oh, Promise Me
7 Sun-up To Sundown
8 At The "Balalaika"
9 Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise
10 Tokay
11 I'll See You Again
12 Tomorrow
13 My Hero
14 Little Workaday World
15 Because
16 Great Day
17 Oh! What A Beautiful Mornin'
18 Raindrops On A Drum
19 A Perfect Day
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