Rebecca Luker: Kern by the Queen
Since Jerome Kern and, indirectly, Rebecca Luker are partly responsible for this website’s existence, I’m taking a moment for some extra background before diving into my review of Luker’s new album, I Got Love: Songs of Jerome Kern (PS Classics, click for audio samples). It’s not that full disclosure is needed; it’s just that critiquing Luker sort of feels like confronting an old friend, even though I’ve never met the woman. As a guitarist in the 70s, I was aware of Jerome Kern and usually reminded of his work when I saw Frank Sinatra introduce a Kern song on a TV concert. In 1980, I was struck by Billy May’s arrangement of “The Song Is You” on Sinatra’s Trilogy LP. Later, in New York, I worked up solo-guitar versions of “All The Things You Are” and “Make Believe” without realizing they were written by the same composer. So when I finally became fully immersed in Kern’s work and history about 10 years ago, I naturally became familiar with—and a fan of—conductor John McGlinn and singer Rebecca Luker.
For those who don’t know the history, Luker (recently seen playing against type as the disapproving Sister Agnes on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire) is a Broadway legend. She still has the angelic face and voice that launched her into the musical theatre stratosphere when she originated the role of Magnolia in Hal Prince’s 1994 revival of Show Boat, Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 production that made the serious musical play a reality. Luker got the part after understudying Sarah Brightman and taking over the role of Christine in the New York production of Phantom of the Opera.
Even before that, however, in the 80’s, Luker had already appeared in productions of Kern’s rarely revived Leave It to Jane (1917) and Music in the Air (1932). These performances brought her to the attention of McGlinn, who included Luker in the chorus of his groundbreaking three-CD restoration of Show Boat, with the full, original 1927 score, one of the best and most important recordings of the 20th Century.
|Rebecca Luker sings Kern in 1990; from Broadway Originals: The Music of Kern, Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers with John McGlinn conducting the Boston Pops.|
I have written on the site before about Kern and Show Boat, which propelled the composer, in 1927 a 25-year veteran of Broadway and a revered composer among his peers, into a career writing songs—mostly for films—that would rank on anyone’s list of the top jazz and pop standards of the 20th century, including “All the Things You Are,” “Just the Way You Look Tonight,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” and the list, as they say, goes on.
For those who love the music from Show Boat and Kern’s other songs, McGlinn’s restoration opened a door to the composer’s body of work and an unexplored corner of music history that is full of buried treasure, a discovery as thrilling for light-music fans as it would be for Beatlemaniacs if someone at Apple had found an album’s worth of recordings that were cut from Sgt. Pepper. (The McGlinn Show Boat, released on EMI/Angel, was recorded at Abbey Road Studios.) What else was out there? Kern’s vast output before 1927 was rarely examined. The shows for which they were written had little resonance with modern audiences, and certainly the parade of lyricists with whom he worked in the early days were more interested in topical—and often silly—verses for the here-today-gone-tomorrow musical-comedy world of the 1910’s.
But these forgotten melodies, along with their full orchestrations, were beautiful and rich compositions written for the most accomplished singers of the day. McGlinn, who had discovered stacks of music thought to be lost in a New Jersey warehouse, made several more albums of songs and scores that revealed how far Kern’s melodic gifts stretched—and Rebecca Luker was almost always the principle soprano on these projects.
McGlinn died in 2009 without completing his goal of recording all the early Kern scores. With her new album, Luker carries on the work of mining Kern gems. By the year 2000, she had already recorded more Kern treasures than any singer since Irene Dunne (notwithstanding terrific efforts by Ella Fitzgerald and Margaret Whiting), and Luker’s new album revives this essential work. If Michael Feinstein is the king of researching, revealing, and reinterpreting the standards, Rebecca Luker may well be the queen.
McGlinn’s work with Luker is some of the most prized in my record collection, and Luker’s new one is one for the archives, but the question remains, how does it stack up to the greatest interpreters of Kern’s work? For me, those artists tend to be more musically than lyrically oriented—Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Whiting, and Billie Holiday, not to mention Oscar Peterson, who of course had no need for lyrics at all.
Comparing the greatest jazz and pop singers to the greatest Broadway and opera singers is an apples and oranges proposition. One group prizes naturalism and improvisation while the other cultivates power and technique in traditions established before electronics changed the way we perceive music. Nevertheless, Luker’s work in 2013 stacks up to that of the pop giants very well, indeed, with a couple of minor reservations. Luker not only has uncovered more gems unrecorded by her predecessors, but she also has provided new and interesting takes on some of the better-known Kern songs. When she is at her best, particularly on mid-tempo period pieces and Kern’s achingly beautiful ballads, Luker is unmatched. Her vocal gifts are undiminished by time, and she still conveys the sweetness of a modern girl who must confront timeless challenges.
Her readings of the ballads “Not You” (1918, lyrics by Herbert Reynolds) and “April Fooled Me” (1955, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, a decade after Kern’s death) alone are worth the price of the CD. But Luker’s classic interplay of low and high, evoking an earnest American woman in her lower register and hitting dramatic high points with her stunningly powerful head voice, is the perfect match for Kern classics like “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and “I’m Old Fashioned.” Kern Americanized operetta while creating challenging melodies for his shows that required superb technique yet were adaptable enough to become major components of the jazz repertoire. Luker has no rival in singing the songs as they were originally intended.
She also brings some choice items from the treasure chest to the table. Two comic songs from early and post-Show Boat Kern shows, “Saturday Night” (1916, lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse) and “My Husband’s First Wife” (1929, lyrics by Irene Franklin, a star of Sweet Adeline who got tired of waiting for Hammerstein to write them) are great choices for Luker’s well-developed comic gifts. Anyone who’s seen Luker’s cabaret show, however, will wonder why her light and tuneful ukulele duet with Broadway singer and pal Sally Wilfert on Kern’s 1919 “Bullfrog Patrol” is missing from the album.
If some of the obscure Kern tunes sound suspiciously familiar, such as the title “Once in a Blue Moon” (lyrics Ann Caldwell, 1923) with which Luker’s warm a cappella intro sets the tone for the collection, or the first notes of “Not You”’s refrain, which brings to mind the verse of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” it should be noted that Kern inspired the later greats of theatrical composing: George Gershwin was a rehearsal pianist on a couple of Kern shows, and Richard Rodgers attended Kern shows repeatedly as a teen. It helps the listener unfamiliar with early Broadway to bear this context in mind, especially when hearing something musical that sounds trite or overdone, and acknowledge who came up with the phrase in the first place. Kern and his early contemporaries are often the sources.
|Rebecca Luker, Lonette McKee, Gretha Boston, and Michel Bell singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from the 1994 Broadway revival of Show Boat (on PBS Great Performances—Some Enchanted Evening Celebrating Oscar Hammerstein II.|
In fact, one of the high points of Luker’s CD is her resurrection of the full original lyrics to the Show Boat classic “Bill.” Written with Kern’s first great collaborator P. G. Wodehouse for a show in 1918, it was shelved and minimally reworked by Kern and Hammerstein for their 1927 epic. Luker’s fine version will prick up the ears of Wodehouse fans and the song’s pairing with “Can’t Help Loving That Man” will bring back memories of Luker’s breakout role, teamed with the great Lonette McKee, for the 1990s Show Boat.
Luker also brings back the Deanna Durbin hit title song from Can’t Help Singing, one of Kern’s late-career films. This waltz, which opens Luker’s cabaret show, finds her fully in her element, soaring to heights that reach the heavenly hall of music where this composer and singer were matched. A perfect opener for her show, it’s central to the lighter section in the middle of her album. A favorite of mine is “And I Am All Alone,” well known from McGlinn’s album of Kern overtures (it’s from Have a Heart, one of the most melodic of Kern’s “Princess Theatre” shows with Wodehouse and librettist Guy Bolton). Luker sounds wonderful on these simple-melody early works, and makes you want to hear the ukuleles of “Bullfrog Patrol.”
Luker’s only miscue is in adapting her style to a swing number like the title track “I Got Love.” If you know the original, sung by the opera star Lily Pons in the obscure 1935 film I Dream Too Much (co-starring a young Henry Fonda), you can see why Luker chose it. Kern was famously resistant to swing, and practically disgusted by increasingly modern jazz reworkings of his painstaking compositions. “I Got Love” was a nice arrangement for Kern’s ba-doop ba-doop melody, and it makes a nice break from the emotional ballads and comedic songs that are Luker’s forte. But Lily Pons was all European, all opera, all the time in style, and her transitions from chest to head voice were seamless. Her approach is well understood by the time the song appears in the film. Luker brings a thoroughly modern American diction and sound to the song in her alto range, but her interval leaps to her bread-and-butter soprano can sometimes overwhelm the song and the listener, a not uncommon challenge for legit singers, particularly on a tune with this kind of rhythm.
Having written that just after seeing most of Luker’s cabaret act, which spawned the CD, during a taping for the upcoming PBS series The American Songbook at NJPAC (New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark), I can qualify that criticism with a fact that applies to just about all theatrical singers who move to cabaret: nightclub acts are designed to be seen as well as heard. “I Got Love” functions much better as an uptempo number when you can see Luker perform it, rather than in a listening environment where it’s competing with all the other swing voices in your head. Like all the songs on the album and in the act, “I Got Love” benefits from the expert arranging and piano playing of Joseph Thalken and bass of veteran Dick Sarpola.
One way to enhance enjoyment of the American Songbook and our best modern interpreters is to understand the history and evolution of the music. They can go hand-in-hand, just as understanding what the Beatles went through between 1960 and 1970 will change your perspective on what you’re hearing. What doesn’t change, of course, is the quality of the music itself. The American Songbook is only enriched by the multiple incarnations and interpretations of the many talents who’ve recognized its greatness. Rebecca Luker is an artist who gets it, who by her own admission is not a jazz or opera singer, but possesses one of the finest and most fluid voices for executing the prevailing style of the 20th century’s first half and making the music emotionally powerful for listeners today. Kern’s music doesn’t require careful study, but it does require an open mindedness to the sound of serious music before even radio was around. Theatre lovers understand this, and the CD may well be for … not you, to steal from Luker and Reynolds. But for anyone who doesn’t know the emotional range of American song, which dates back to the 20th century’s early years, Luker’s I Got Love is a great place to begin exploring some of our most lasting songs and some of the best music you’ve never heard.