Sunday, September 2, 2012

Feel like I'm made out of Emmental

This is, or will be, my last word on September Song, I hope. It's now wearing a bit thin now after I was hoodwinked yesterday into thinking Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holliday recorded the exact same song with the exact same arrangement in the exact same vocal style.

Turns out both of them were by Sarah Vaughan, but someone(SOMEONE, not me!) had mislabelled one of the two videos and posted it as Holliday's rendition. There. Mystery solved. What embarrasses me is that I didn't get on to it right away: I did twig on the arrangement, which sounded so much the same that it puzzled me. But because I was expecting to hear two different vocal performances, that's what I heard. Sort of.

I was trying to find some strange versions of this song sung by comedians on variety shows like Ed Sullivan, just to prove that they could be Serious Artists If They Wanted To Be (which they couldn't). Rodney Dangerfield was one of them, I swear. He sang Fool on the Hill, I think, on  Hollywood Palace. I thought he also sang September Song, but I couldn't find any reference to it.

And I DO remember Milton Berle singing it, probably on the Muppet Show.  I found him offensive at the best of times, though the legend of his oversized penis is kind of entertaining. Once during an infamous dick-comparison in a bar somewhere, someone had the audacity to challenge him. His accomplice, probably a gangster in a zoot suit, whispered in his ear, "No problem, Miltie. Just take out enough to win."

I like the concept, if not the execution.

So I find this instead, and think: God, Sammy Davis. I used to buy his albums, incredibly, and marvelled then at how much he sounded like Frank Sinatra. He does, in his phrasing more than his vocal timbre which is actually warmer and smoother. Most singers try for beauty, and Sinatra didn't bother because he had Something Else. He appeared to think with his voice, and I don't know if anyone else has ever done that. (Some men think with their penis, but that's another story.)

A couple of things put me off Sammy Davis. He became more and more Sammy Davis as he got older, and disappeared into the sunken trough of Living Legend. There was all that Candy Man business, followed by the appalling Sweet Gingerbread Man ("Feel like I'm made out of peppermint, uh-huh, uh-huh"). In the mid-'80s I saw the beef-on-a-stick skewering of Davis on SCTV, in which Joe Flaherty nailed him as a histrionic white guy in an Afro spouting show-biz hyperbole. Then I saw Jim Carrey's grotesque impersonation of him, which many found offensive. Well, yes, it WAS offensive, but that was the whole point.


With these situations, I find it useful to go back and actually listen to the recording(s) in question. It surprises me how often I am - surprised. For one thing, this arrangement (the factor that ruins nearly everyone else's version with sickly suds and squeaky, cheesy violin glissandos) is much cooler, dominated by saxophone, with a Rat Pack sound that suits his performing style. During "the days dwindle down" bridge, the accompaniment takes on a doo-wop quality that reminds me of the Platters (who also recorded this, though for some reason I don't like their version).

I think the song got sort of sung-out in the '60s and you don't hear it any more, not much anyway. It has that godawful introduction ("when I was a young man," and blah-blah-blah, as if we cared) that in some versions literally takes up half the recording. When I found the reference to limping around toothless in the original, it took something away from the song's charm.

You don't expect Quasimodo to stand up there singing a love song.

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