By Alan Hurst
Great songs have been written for the movies since the late 1920’s and it continues today – although I must profess that the great ones don’t occur with the frequency that we saw during the hey day of film music that really hit its stride in the 1930’s and continued into the 1960’s.
In addition to giving a lift to the films they were written for, one of the benefits of great film songs has been the albums and vocalists they have inspired. It would be almost impossible to look at the track listing for any album recorded in the middle part of the last century and NOT find a song written for a movie. This was also an era when soundtracks for film easily made the top 10 on Billboard’s album charts – and stayed for weeks at a time. That doesn’t happen any more.
Now with streaming and downloading we have more access to this music than ever before. Anytime we feel like it we can listen to anyone we want to give their take on a Hollywood classic. Here are 10 (well actually 11) albums by some wonderful singers that deserve a listen:
Doris Day – Hooray for Hollywood Volume I (1958) and Volume II (1959)
Not only a terrific pair of albums of great movie songs, but one of the best projects that Doris Day ever recorded. Day, with arranger conductor Frank DeVol, pulled from the movie song catalogue of the 1930’s up to the 1950’s for one of the first “concept” albums. They included a group of 24 songs that work beautifully with each other and were perfectly suited to Day, then at the peak of her powers as a vocalist who could rival Sinatra with her musical phrasing and interpretation. Highlights are a wonderfully light “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat (1935), a sultry “Blues in the Night” from the 1941 film of the same time, and a sexy take on “That Old Black Magic” from Star Spangled Rhythm (1942). She also bravely and successfully attempts a nice variation on the Garland standard “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Steve Lawrence – Academy Award Losers (1963)
In 1978 Steve Lawrence and Sammy Davis Jr. performed a terrific medley of tunes at that year’s Academy Award show highlighting a bunch of songs that were never nominated for an Oscar. I’m wondering if the idea for that show stopping routine was this 1963 album of Lawrence’s. The album track list includes a group of great songs that didn’t win the Oscar, but it didn’t start out that way. When Lawrence and arranger-conductor Billy May initially got together they were going to record an album of Academy Award winners. Going through sheet music, they realized the treasure trove was actually in the songs that didn’t win. So, we have a wonderfully orchestrated and performed collections of “losers”, all delivered in the smooth, swinging Lawrence style. Standouts include “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from Born to Dance (1936), “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” from Something to Shout About (1943), and a lush rendition of “My Foolish Heart” from the 1949 Susan Hayward film of the same name.
Nancy Wilson – Hollywood My Way (1963)
A vocalist from the mid 1950’s until her retirement in the early 2010’s (she passed away late last year), Wilson was a consummate singer whose range allowed her to cover pop, standards, blues, jazz with equal proficiency. She was a near perfect song stylist and thankfully has left us a legacy of top-notch recordings. Near the top for me is this 1963 collection of film songs that pull from both then-current releases and some from earlier decades. Of the newer compositions, she does a breezy, jazzy version of “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and a gorgeous and languid “Wild is the Wind” from the 1957 film with Anna Magnani and Anthony Quinn. She kicks things off with a confident and swinging version of the Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen classic “My Shining Hour” from The Sky’s the Limit (1943).
Andy Williams – Call Me Irresponsible (1964)
Andy Williams was like a recording machine in the 1960’s, recording two sometimes three albums a year. Williams truly defined the term “easy listening” which meant that his music was a safe take on both contemporary and older songs, backed up with lush but straightforward arrangements. Listening to these albums now I’m struck by the range that Williams had and how really gorgeous some of the songs sound. He recorded a lot of film music and I think this recording from 1964 is among the best. It’s a great mix of songs including “Laura” from the 1944 film, “Mona Lisa” from Captain Carey USA (1950), and the more current “Charade” by Henry Mancini from the 1963 Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant film. It’s a really strong mix of songs, beautifully produced and presented.
Tony Bennett – The Movie Song Album (1966)
Tony Bennett was one of the many successful male vocalists of the era. This was well before his breakout in the 1990’s when he became everyone’s favourite crooner with a series of superb recordings that continue to today. Bennett was always a stylish, impeccable vocalist and this is one of his more interesting albums, primarily because it focused on movie songs but more specifically a mix of both popular and more obscure – songs that never really made it into the top tier of the American songbook. These included “Maybe September” from the very trashy The Oscar (1966), the beautiful “Emily” from The Americanization of Emily (1964), and “Samba de Orfeu” from Black Orpheus (1959). My favourite track on the album is the well known “The Shadow of Your Smile” by Johnny Mandel and Paul Frances Webster from the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film The Sandpiper (1965). It was the 1965 Oscar winner for Best Song and I think Bennett’s version is definitive.
Johnny Mathis and Henry Mancini – The Hollywood Musicals (1986)
As a composer, Henry Mancini was one of the kings of film and TV music in the 1950’s, composing the music for dozens of projects including The Pink Panther (1964), Peter Gunn (1958), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Days of Wine and Roses (1962) and Two for the Road (1967). Johnny Mathis was one of the top vocalists with a string of hits in the 1950’s through the 1970’s. The two combined for this wonderful collection of songs from film musicals. Traditional standards had become popular again, thanks to a series of albums by Linda Ronstadt and Nelson Riddle, so the timing was right. It’s a well produced album of terrific songs with Mathis in great voice. The album is only slightly marred with the occasional sound of synthesized arrangements popular at the time. I particularly like their take on the Mancini and Johnny Mercer song “Whistling Away the Dark” from Julie Andrews’ Darling Lili (1970). It’s a haunting song beautifully performed.
Michael Feinstein – The MGM Album (1989)
Feinstein has become the patriarch of the American songbook over the last 30 or so years thanks to a prodigious output of albums focusing on composers and songs from the early part of the last century. This album was one of the first times that Feinstein recorded with a substantial orchestra and the result is a wonderfully cohesive exploration of great songs written for MGM films from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. And kudos to Feinstein for not just pulling from the mainstream MGM catalogue. He included some beautiful, lesser known tunes that ended up being some of the best tracks on the album: “You and I” from the remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) by Leslie Bricusse and John Williams; “Wonder Why” from Rich, Young and Pretty (1951); and Spring, Spring, Spring from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). There’s also a wonderfully brassy arrangement of a medley of “You Are My Lucky Star” from Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935) and “All I Do Is Dream of You” from the Joan Crawford vehicle Sadie McKee (1934). The arrangement and Feinstein’s vocals just build and build to the point you want to pretend your Gene Kelly on an empty sound stage.
Eydie Gorme – Silver Screen Songs (1992)
I love Eydie Gorme’s singing. There’s something incredibly appealing about the mixture of brass, humour and pathos that she brings to her very straightforward song interpretations. She was probably the last of the great Vegas-style vocalists, and one of the most respected vocalists of her time. Thankfully she recorded a great deal from the 1950’s through to the 1980’s, with a marked slow down after that. This collection of film songs from 1992 reaches back to the 1940’s and runs up to the 1970’s with Gorme’s version of Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” from the 1973 film. The best tracks are the ones that allow Gorme to show why she was considered a singer’s singer: “You’ll Never Know” from the Alice Faye hit Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943); a stylish “The Look of Love” from the Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967); and “Secret Love” from Doris Day’s Calamity Jane (1953) where Gorme gets to show off both her lush tones and brassy belt.
Barbra Streisand – The Movie Album (2003)
Streisand had a major success in 1986 with an album that took her back to her roots: The Broadway Album. It surprisingly went to the top of the charts and won Streisand a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance. It took her a while to turn her attention to the movies, but in 2003 we were finally gifted with The Movie Album, an eclectic mix of familiar and obscure film songs, impeccably arranged and enhanced by Streisand’s still shimmering vocals. My favourite tracks are the Latin-influenced arrangement supporting “I’m in the Mood for Love” from Every Night at Eight (1935), the haunting “Calling You” from Bagdad Café (1987); and the Andre and Dory Previn composition “You’re Gonna Hear from Me” from the Natalie Wood vehicle Inside Daisy Clover (1965). Streisand’s performance of this song is so good it helps sweeten the memory of a not so good film. There’s also a simple, melancholy version of the Charlie Chaplin penned “Smile” from Modern Times (1936).
Ann Hampton Callaway – Jazz at the Movies (2018)
The most recent album on the list is from one of the best jazz vocalists of the past 20+ years, Ann Hampton Callaway. Callaway’s silky, low and smoothly crisp vocals are ideally suited to this collection of both songs written for movies and others that have a close association with some classic films. There are 14 wonderful tracks. Highlights include gorgeous renditions of Jerome Kern’s “Long Ago and Far Away” from Cover Girl (1944), another Kern classic “The Way You Look Tonight” from Rogers and Astaire’s Swing Time (1936), and a Bossa Nova influenced take on “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca (1943). Definitely worth a listen for those who are new to the charms of Callaway.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.