This is lecture 2 from the fall series of Music Americana. It is meant to be read in tandem with a series of videos; if you want to see those you'll need to attend the class.
Lecture 2—Gene and Dinah
Today’s lecture may seem like a strange pairing of talent, a man who was primarily a dancer and a singer known for her voice and interpretive ability. But look closer and we see they both are trying to do the same thing: to interpret the music, make it come alive. Let’s start with Gene Kelly, who as a leading man in Hollywood musicals was probably a better singer than people remember, because he was such an amazing dancer. In fact, if you ever watch those historic documentaries about Hollywood, you are, sooner or later, going to see this video, because it is considered one of the greatest song and dance routines of all time.
Singing In The Rain, from the film of the same title, and on roller skates from the 1954 film It’s Always Fair Weather, that’s Eugene Curran Kelly, born August 23, 1912 in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, third son of James, a phonograph salesman, and Harriet Kelly, an Irish Canadian family who’d immigrated from Ontario. When he was 8, Kelly's mother enrolled him and brother James in dance class; neighborhood boys called them sissies and they quit. But young Gene was a natural athlete and good at sports, and at 15, now able to defend himself, he took up dance again, graduated from Peabody High at 16 and entered Penn State, til the 1929 crash forced him to work for his family, so he and younger brother Fred danced and won prizes in talent contests. The act also let them observe other acts; according to author C Hirshorn in Gene Kelly, a Biography, “Gene made up his mind to 'steal' as much as he could from numerous touring shows...both he and Fred were absolutely shameless when it came to pilfering, and very good at it." Let’s check out their act, when they re-enacted an early bit in 1954.
Kelly re-enrolled at the U of Pittsburgh and joined the Cap and Gown Club, which staged musicals; he graduated in 1933 and was admitted to Pitt’s Law School. Meanwhile, his family opened a dance studio and named it The Gene Kelly Studio; he also taught at the Beth Shalom Synagogue until 1937, when he moved to New York to seek work as a choreographer. He didn’t find any, and returned to Pittsburgh in 1938, and then got his first job as a choreographer, at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. There he met choreographer Robert Alton, who brought a show to the Playhouse and saw Kelly teaching. Alton took Kelly back to NY, and this time he connected with a musical revue, One for the Money, and danced to his own choreography in the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Time of Your Life in 1939, followed by his first job as a Broadway choreographer for Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe. The biggest break came in 1940 as the lead role in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey, choreographed by Alton; his dancing and energy were soon the stuff of stardom, and reporters wanted to know how he did it.
“I create what the drama and the music demand,” he said. “While I am a hundred percent for ballet technique, I use only what I can adapt to my own use. I never let technique get in the way of mood or continuity." Colleagues noticed his work ethic; Van Johnson told the press “It was midnight and we had been rehearsing since 8 in the morning ...I could see just a single lamp burning. Under it, a figure was dancing...Gene."
In 1941 Kelly signed with David O. Selznick and headed for Hollywood; Selznick then sold half his contract to MGM to appear in For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland. Kelly said he felt "appalled at the sight of myself blown up twenty times. I had an awful feeling that I was a tremendous flop." But the movie did well, and MGM bought the rest of his contract and gave him the lead in Du Barry Was a Lady with Lucille Ball. MGM cut most of the Cole Porter songs that made the stage play a hit; Kelly’s version of Do I Love You was one of the few left in. MGM then loaned him to Columbia for Cover Girl with Rita Hayworth, where they sang Long Ago & Far Away and he danced it with his own reflection. After a stint in the U.S. Naval Air Service working in the Photographic Section in Washington, Kelly signed on for Anchors Aweigh in 1945, where MGM let him write dance routines with co-stars Frank Sinatra and Jerry Mouse, an animation by Hanna and Barbera that made critic Manny Farber write "Kelly is the most exciting dancer to appear in Hollywood movies." And he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.
It was a winning formula, teaming him up with actresses; Garland, for example, was an important singer who’d learned to dance as a child vaudevillian. Kelly could sing well enough to hold his own, and as a dancer, well, there’s a moment in almost every duet when his dance partner realizes, “Holy Cow, this guy’s good.” And it wasn’t just the ladies.
In 1946 Kelly teamed up with the other greatest male dancer, Fred Astaire, for "The Babbitt and the Bromide" in Ziegfeld Follies. He was to star opposite Garland in Easter Parade, but broke his ankle playing volleyball; while healing, MGM had him design a series of dance routines, which led The Pirate, opposite Judy Garland and The Nicholas Brothers in Be A Clown, a routine today regarded as a classic, though the film flopped in 1949. Two pictures later came Take Me Out to the Ball Game, his second with Sinatra, which convinced MGM to let Kelly choreograph and direct On the Town, a story of three sailors on 24-hour leave in NY. On The Town made history as the first musical to shoot in the streets of New York instead of Hollywood; Kelly brought his friend and Broadway co-star Stanley Donen in to handle the staging and said "when you are involved in doing choreography for film you must have expert assistants. I needed one to watch my performance, and one to work with the cameraman on the timing...without such people …I could never have done these things." He then gave Donen co-director credit. Kelly also introduced modern ballet into the dance sequences, substituting leading ballet specialists onscreen for the other actors. On the Town won an Academy Award for its Compton and Green music, earned great reviews, and is today ranked #19 on the AFI’s list of movie musicals. In 1950 he performed "You, You Wonderful You" in Summer Stock with Garland, her last musical for MGM; Kelly earned a lot of respect from the MGM studio heads for his patience, helping the ailing Garland complete her part.
He was just hitting his stride; in 1951 he choreographed and starred in An American in Paris, dancing to Gershwin’s greatest hits. The film won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and debuted 19-year-old ballerina Leslie Caron, who Kelly found in Paris. Their 17-minute dream sequence, with sets and costumes taken from painters Dufy, Renoir, Utrillo, Rousseau, and Toulouse-Lautrec, was at $450,000 the most expensive scene ever filmed at the time. It’s the only film to win Best Picture with no actors nominated, though Kelly won an honorary award for his work in musicals and dance.
Though the long dance sequence ends with Caron as just a dream, a few seconds later she does run up the cathedral steps and come back to him. And that makes an interesting contrast between Kelly and Fred Astaire; Astaire, the quintessence of debonair, usually didn’t get the girl in his movies. Even Ginger Rogers seemed to look at him when he wasn’t dancing as if he was a frog. Kelly, who said of Astaire’s top hat and tails “I put them on and look like a truck driver," preferred workingman’s clothing, even white socks. He was no sissy, saying “dancing is a man's game" and “if a man dances effeminately he dances badly," and he trained relentlessly to keep in shape. Johnny Green, head of MGM music, said “He's a hard taskmaster and he loves hard work. If you want to play on his team you'd better like hard work, too. He isn't cruel but he is tough, and if Gene believed in something he didn't care who he was talking to…he wasn't awed by anybody, and he had a good record of getting what he wanted.” He was handsome, athletic and masculine, and when he got the girl, it made sense.
The AFI ranks An American In Paris #9 in its list of musical films; his next picture, Singin' in the Rain, was not as immediate a success, but is today ranked #1 on the AFI list, with its iconic title song and dance. Kelly then took a detour and spent 19 months in Europe working on Invitation to the Dance, a pet project to bring modern ballet to mainstream audiences that flopped when released in 1956. He returned to Hollywood but was forced to shoot Brigadoon, with Cyd Charisse, on studio back lots instead of in Scotland. In 1956 came It’s Always Fair Weather, with the roller-skating sequence we saw earlier, then Kelly's last musical film for MGM, Les Girls in 1957, with a trio of ladies including Mitzi Gaynor. But ticket sales dropped off; MGM stopped believing in musicals, releasing them to drive-ins instead of legitimate theaters, and Kelly negotiated an exit from his contract. The era of musicals was largely over, at least for him; but let’s see these last films, and what he did after that.
Kelly had learned about photography in the Navy, and after the musicals ran out he had a distinguished career as a movie director and non-singing actor, appearing in Inherit The Wind and Let’s Make Love. His first tv was for NBC's Omnibus documentary, Dancing is a Man's Game 1958, where he interpreted Mickey Mantle, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Bob Cousy’s moves, getting an Emmy nomination. But he was more than a mere athlete, he was a serious student of dance, influenced early 20th-century star George M. Cohan: "It's an Irish quality, a jaw-jutting, up-on-the-toes cockiness—which is a good quality for a male dancer to have," and by African American dancer, Robert Dotson, whom he saw perform in Pittsburgh in 1929. He also studied Spanish dancing under Angel Cansino, Rita Hayworth's uncle. But I think the key phrase here is “interpreting the music”; I think it’s important that he conceptualized dance as similar to a vocal, that it’s role was to express wordlessly the thoughts of the music. Critics noted that he usually used tap and popular idioms to express joy and exuberance, and used ballet or modern dance for pensive or romantic feelings.
A fluent French speaker, he went to Paris in 1960 to create a modern ballet for the Paris Opera; Pas de Dieux, based on Greek mythology with music from Gershwin's Concerto in F, earned him the Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. He appeared frequently on tv in the 1960s, notably as the priest in Going My Way, and directed more films, but rarely sang or danced anymore, and a 1973 appearance on a Frank Sinatra special shows why. In 1976 he directed and co-starred with Fred Astaire in That's Entertainment, Part II, getting the 77-year-old Astaire to perform song and dance duets remembering the glory days. His final film role was in Xanadu in 1980, an expensive flop that turns up on late night tv now and then.
Gene Kelly married three times, to actress Betsy Blair in 1941, one child, in 1960 to choreographic assistant Jeanne Coyne, two children. Coyne died in 1973, and he married Patricia Ward in 1990. Kelly was a lifelong Democratic and member of the Committee for the First Amendment, the Hollywood delegation that protested the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was also on the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America West, and a Roman Catholic who officially quit the church in 1939 when the Church supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and after a trip to Mexico convinced him the Church had failed the poor. He was a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Yankees who, with his wife, organized weekly parties at their Beverly Hills home to play a competitive and physical version of charades known as "The Game". He never won an Oscar, except for Lifetime awards, but was given Kennedy Center Honors in 1982 and a Lifetime Award from the American Film Institute in 1985, that’s his acceptance speech. And of course he had the ultimate honor, singing with the Muppets.
Gene Kelly died of a stroke, in Beverly Hills, February 2, 1996, age 83. His body was cremated, without funeral or memorial services, and his papers given to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Like Fred Astaire, he didn’t make records of the songs he sang, which were often vehicles for the ensuing dance; nonetheless, he was a great interpreter of music.
Our second artist today was also known as a great interpreter of songs, one of those rare singers who could stand there and sing and be totally captivating.
Let’s start with the first song: What A Difference A Day Makes was originally written in Spanish by María Grever, a Mexican songwriter, in 1934 with the title "Cuando vuelva a tu lado" ("When I Return to Your Side"). English lyrics were written by Stanley Adams, and in 1934 it was recorded by the Dorsey Brothers and other artists. Dinah Washington won a Grammy in 1959 for Best Rhythm and Blues Performance with this slowed down, pensive version; the hit single, even slower and more intense, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. In 1959, twenty years singing professionally, it was the first top ten hit for Dinah Washington, born Ruth Lee Jones August 29, 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her family moved to Chicago when she was 4, where she played piano in St. Luke's Baptist Church in elementary school, directed her church choir in her teens and joining the Sallie Martin Gospel Singers. After winning a talent contest at 15, she began performing in clubs, and by 1942 was in the Downbeat Room of the Sherman Hotel with Fats Waller. A friend took her to hear Billie Holiday at the Garrick Stage Bar, where she sang "I Understand" with the band; owner Joe Sherman quickly hired her for his upstairs room, with Holiday downstairs. It’s Sherman who changed Ruth Jones’ stage name to Dinah Washington, naming her after one of Bessie Smith’s biggest hits. Lionel Hampton heard her and hired her as his female vocalist, and with him she made her debut on Keynote records in December 1943 with "Evil Gal Blues" and its follow-up, "Salty Papa Blues", both making Billboard's "Harlem Hit Parade" in 1944. We also heard That’s All I Ask Of You, from 1955; I couldn’t find it listed in her album tracks, and don’t know if it was ever released as a recording.
Washington toured with Hampton's band until 1946, an eye-opening experience for a nineteen-year old raised in church. It was her only real experience as a big band singer, because with this kind of talent, it wasn’t long before she had her own career.
After Keynote folded, Washington signed as a solo with Mercury; her first record, Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'", was a hit, and between 1948 and 1955, she recorded 100 songs and had 27 R&B top ten hits, making her one of the most popular singers of her time. Two of her early tunes hit #1 on the R&B charts, "Am I Asking Too Much" in 1948 and "Baby Get Lost" in 1949, and "I Wanna Be Loved" in 1950 made it to #22 on the main pop chart. She had a distinctive sound and a restrained style that was most compelling in the blues, but she also covered standards, novelties, pop tunes, and even Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart", a #3 R&B hit in 1951. She bought a townhouse in Chicago for her mother and children to live in as she toured; when home, she entertained and took the kids shopping, surviving bad marriages, constant friction with her religious mother and her own drug use. And she kept on having hits.
Teach Me Tonight in 1954 was Washington’s second single to make the pop charts at #23, and the first in four years; a Sammy Cahn lyric, it’s been recorded by many singers, including the Decastro Sisters, whose version hit #2 a year later. But like Pat Boone’s covers of Fats Domino hits, no one plays the DeCastros today, Washington’s version is the gold standard for this tune, as it should be; it’s exactly what she did best, turning a pop tune by a white Hollywood songwriter into a torch blues. She could sing fast when she wanted to; Lover Come Back To Me, from the 1954 album Dinah Jams, is a great set of her singing jazz with Clifford Brown, Clark Terry, Maynard Ferguson, Junior Mance on piano and Max Roach on drums, she swings pretty well. But her best stuff is the slow bounce, a ballad with a beat, with air in the notes, like Only A Moment Ago, another song on video that was apparently never released on its own, so you have to ask, why did they video that instead of one of her hits? I don’t know, but it’s good. What I also notice is that it’s from 1954, she was thirty; she certainly looks older, heavy, puffy and middle-aged, perhaps as a result of the abusive marriages and drugs.
In 1956 Washington moved her children and self to New York and was even more successful, playing the Newport Jazz Festival for four straight years, with regular gigs at Birdland and the International Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C. "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes", her biggest hit, hit #4 in 1959, and you may remember from our first video at the Apollo Theater that Louis Jordan calls her The Queen of The Blues, and the audience applauds the opening line, they recognize her hit right away. According to Wikipedia she gave herself the moniker Queen Of The Blues, but Jordan certainly agrees. She had her own band, with Kenny Burrell on guitar, future Weather Report leader Joe Zawinul on piano, and Panama Francis on drums. Hit songs included two duets in 1960 with Brook Benton, "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" and "A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love)", #s 5 and 7 on the top ten and both #1 on the R & B charts. She recorded mostly standards, including a cover of "Unforgettable" that, unlike Nat "King" Cole's, actually has some rhythm in it; critics wrote she was trying too hard to repeat the success of What A Difference A Day Makes. But that was an obscure song she had popularized herself; it’s much harder to have hits with songs other people have already made famous. Her last charted single was "September in the Rain" in 1961, #23 Pop, #5 R&B. None of these was ever recorded on video; there are only five live cuts on video of one of the most influential singers of her time, and no interviews. It was said she and Benton didn’t get along, they only recorded together to please the label, and never sang live together anywhere. And perhaps, as a famously difficult person, she wasn’t a welcome tv guest. There is, however, this great biography from the BBC, and from 1958, Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair, which does seem to support the theory that she didn’t worry about what anyone might think; it’s from the album Dinah sings Bessie Smith. She was a big fan of Smith and Billie Holliday, that’s where she got that economy of phrasing, that sparseness that never overstates its case, even when she’s wailing. So it’s no surprise that she was herself a major influence on later singers who also wanted to sing the blues.
And that, with her head cut off and the ending chopped, is the last video I could find of this remarkable singer, it’s from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. Before that we heard one of this century's blues mommas, Amy Winehouse, who, like Washington, lived the blues until it killed her; and Aretha Franklin, who did an entire album of songs popularized by Washington in 1964, just before she gave up the blues to sing rock and soul. I suppose the lack of videos reflects that she was not a popular person; she was frequently chided in the press for such remarks as telling an audience at the London Palladium, with Queen Elizabeth sitting right there, "There is but one Heaven, one Hell, one queen, and your Elizabeth is an imposter." I presume she meant herself, the Queen of the Blues.
Dinah Washington was married seven times, beginning at 18 in 1942 and last to pro-football player Dick "Night Train" Lane. She had two sons: George Jenkins with her 2d husband, and Robert Grayson with her third, he’s in these interviews. She was an outspoken liberal Democrat, and used a lot of prescription drugs, so it’s no big surprise that on December 14, 1963, Night Train Lane awoke to find her dead at 39 from a lethal combination of secobarbital and amobarbital. She is buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
I was surprised to find how short her life was; I remember her later hits, she already seemed ancient to me. She was a wonderful singer, with a real distinctive style, and underneath the few videos on youtube are many comments from people who call her their all-time favorite singer, quite a compliment. She won one Grammy, in 1959 for Best R & B Performance for What a Difference a Day Makes, one of three recordings inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, along with Unforgettable and Teach Me Tonight. She’s also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence, and in the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, and in 2013, Tuscaloosa, AL, her birthplace, opened the newly renovated Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center.
People ask, what's the difference between blues and jazz? While some people think all jazz has to have some blues, that to me is like saying all country music has to have a truck. Blues is often described as a feeling, there's the awareness of suffering even as one makes music with joy. In musical terms blues usually has simplicity of lyrics, direct statements of feeling expressed in layman's terms. It’s not the sophistication of Cole Porter, or Mr Tambourine Man, it’s “my baby left me,” not “there's an incessant plethora of lies”. Straight blues often has a simple form with two repeated lines, and the third line is the punchline, My baby left me didn't say goodby 2x, Every mornin' I wake up and cry. What Dinah Washington, the self-styled Queen of the Blues, did was to take standard pop and show tunes and sing them as if they were blues, with that directness and taut phrasing. That’s why R & B, which evolved as a separate marketplace for black music without directly involving white people, is a separate genre from jazz; jazz, especially today, is a genre for complicated musicianship and improvisation, much of it academic, and doesn’t lend itself to simple, direct emotions in the same way.
But as with Gene Kelly, it does come down to interpretation, to the ability to portray the words and music in a way that makes them come alive before our eyes. Let’s take a pop song, written in 1953, and treat it as Dinah did, as a blues, even while we play the original chord changes and sing the showbiz melody.
Singing In The Rain