CD Review: “Chip Deffaa’s Irving Berlin: Sweet and Hot—Rare Songs, with an All-Star New York Cast”

January 24, 2021 | By | Add a Comment

Props to Chip Deffaa who specializes in recording rare songs from the American Songbook. Of course, one’s definition of “rare” depends on how much knowledge you bring to the party. There are certainly some extremely rare songs on this album, some of which are getting their first recordings. Then there are songs like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” which is one of Berlin’s most famous songs.

The CD’s title is a bit confusing since “Sweet and Hot” is a Harold Arlen/Jack Yellen song. Since the first cut on the album is “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” perhaps that would have been a better title. The album’s subtitle reads, “Rare Songs, with an All-Star New York Cast.” There are some very rare songs but the use of “All-Star” is questionable.

There is one certified star, Steve Ross, singer, pianist, popular music historian and one of New York’s treasures. I’ll bet that he already knew even the rarest of the songs on the album. Steve, however, sings and plays a medley of three better-known Berlin numbers and one new discovery: “Let’s Go Back to the Waltz,” “I Can’t Remember,” “Remember,” and “All Alone.” And he is excellent.

Three of the other performers are also brilliant purveyors of Tin Pan Alley’s century of standards having appeared in clubs, concerts, and on recordings to great acclaim. The always engaging Daryl Sherman accompanies herself singing of one of the rarer songs, “Me.” Larry Woodard performs on “Harlem on My Mind,” originally introduced by Ethel Waters. Molly Ryan effortlessly swings “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket.” She deserves to be known better as she is the real thing. All of them know how to put across a song with their formidable talents while still staying truthful to the song.

There are a few singers who have been on Broadway mainly in revues. Most of the others are young performers of varying quality. There are two problems with most of these singers, they have no point of view when singing the songs. And they have no familiarity with songs of the earliest decades of the last century. So, while they sing the notes they don’t have the energy that is required to put them over. The earliest of these songs were written to be heard in the second balconies of the theatres. And that energy gives the songs their lift. 

I can’t entirely blame the singers or the pianist. What they need is a lesson in the way to approach these songs. They could have immersed themselves in the era’s songs by a deep dive into Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Helen Morgan, Sophie Tucker, and Ethel Waters recordings. Even the Tin Pan Alley popular songs, though not written for characters as in Broadway musicals, usually incorporated a story of some kind that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. So, storytelling is an important element of interpreting the songs. Jazz chops would also help also. Some kind of direction could have helped the performers immeasurably. 

Many of Berlin’s earliest songs have strong syncopations and none of the singers understands how to sing that way. Even in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” they’re singing right on the beat with equal emphasis on each note. And they’re not helped by pianist Richard Danley who plays ballads and uptempo songs with the same strictly-by-the-book playing. But that may not be his fault because he gives wonderful accompaniment to Molly Ryan on “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket.” So, perhaps he had to simplify his playing to suit the performers’ abilities.

For all my caveats, this recording is important mostly for the unknown songs that it contains. I’m always excited to hear a Berlin tune I haven’t heard before. And Deffaa’s selection is a welcome mix of the unknown and better known. If you’re interested in early Irving Berlin songs of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway and can imagine how these songs were meant to be performed, this album is worth exploring.

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary

Ken Bloom

About the Author ()

Ken Bloom is a Grammy Award-winning authority on American popular song and musical theatre. As a co-founder of Harbinger Records, he has produced fifty albums including performing artists Peggy Lee and Maxine Sullivan (Grammy nomination), and songwriters Harold Arlen, Bock and Harnick, Cy Coleman, Hugh Martin, Jones and Schmidt, Charles Strouse, Kander and Ebb, among many others. He and Richard Carlin won the Grammy Award for Best Album Notes for "Shuffle Along." Ken has written sixteen books on Broadway, Hollywood, popular songs, theatre anecdotes, and has most recently co-authored "Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm and Race." His books have won the George Freedley Award, New York Times’ top reference book of the year, Choice Magazine Award, and have sold over 100,000 copies. On radio he was an arts reporter for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.” He most recently co-produced, directed, and wrote the documentary "Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon." A complete biography can be found on Wikipedia.

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