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WITH A SONG IN MY HEART
HighNote Records 1999
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at "Wesla's iPod"
WITH A SONG IN MY HEART
- With A Song In My Heart
- Spring Is Here
- Blue Moon
- It's Easy To Remember
- This Can't Be Love
- Little Girl Blue
- Medley : My Romance / Johnny One Note
- You Are Too Beautiful
- He Was To Good To Me
- The Lady Is A Tramp
- Ten Cents A Dance
- Glad To Be Unhappy
- You Took Advantage Of Me
- A Ship Without A Sail
- I Didn't Know What Time It Was
- You're Nearer
- Thou Swell
WITH A SONG IN MY HEART
wesla whitfield: vocals
mike greensill: piano / arranger
Michael moore: bass
orrin keepnews: producer
WITH A SONG IN MY HEART
While it would be more traditional to use the standard credit sequence and refer to this recording as involving the music of "Rodgers and Hart", I invite you instead to think of it as a collection of songs by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers.
The distinction is an important one. I have no intention of taking credit away from Mr. Rodgers or denying the vital importance of his role in this collaboration. But, being a singer, a superior lyricist is someone I highly revere and carefully study, and of all those who might be placed in the "genius" category, Larry Hart is admittedly my very favorite. I came to an appreciation of his work late in the game by most standards, somewhere in my early thirties. And it was under the most perfect of circumstances. Someone on whom I had a mad crush at the time played for me several showtune albums and a very special recording by the late Teddi King, making me aware for the very first time that many lyrics I already knew and loved were written by Hart. Previously, I must admit, I had not paid any particular attention to who had written them – my musical life until that time had revolved around classical work.
I was immediately smitten and purchased a second-hand paperback version of the Simon and Schuster "Rodgers and Hart Song Book". My romance went unrequited – so often the case in a Hart lyric- and in the throes of that heartbreak I set about learning all 47 songs in the book, reveling in their exploration of pain so exactly like what I was then experiencing. I took special delight in the wonderful verses and have included many of them here, having found that they often tell the most important parts of the story. And each song actually is a short story, carefully crafted by Hart, with a beginning premise, a middle where adventures occur and an end where everything turns out well – or not so well.
Such a description is of course a gross simplification of his art. It's true that the songs, just like everyone else's, are almost always about love. But Larry Hart treats the subject with a sophistication and wit that are far above the norm, speaking with a deep understanding of the universal human condition while at the same time presenting thoughts and ideas of a most personal nature. The emotions expressed are easily identified as those we've all felt, making the songs easily accessible to the listener. What a joy and privilege it is to share the obvious enjoyment of an audience as they listen and respond to an hour-long evocation of Hart's brilliant combination of laughter, tears and love.
The songs recorded here were selected from a list of hundreds that seemed absolutely necessary. I finally gave up trying to include the "most important" or "most beloved" or even "my personal favorites". There just wasn't room – unless we were filling five or six CDs. And right not I can't really explain what, other than pure instinct, led to these particular choices.
The first two, With a Song in My Heart and Spring Is Here, are almost perfect examples of the Lorenz Hart treatment of polar extremes – first the discovery of love and the accompanying joy that will at forever, then the emptiness and isolation that follows its loss.
Blue Moon, performed as a bass/vocal duet, is a simple account of finding true love done in an unusual way. It was Michael Moore who came up with the idea of playing it in a minor key while I sang it in the major. It's Easy To Remember is unabashedly heartbreaking and soothed only by the funny story in This Can't Be Love immediately following. I wasn't sure if I was yet mature enough to do justice to Little Girl Blue until Mike Greensill pointed out that if I didn't do it very soon I'd be too old. So here it is, just under the wire.
There is a whole series of songs about how fabulous and wonderful and incomparably grand New York City is, but in my opinion it is Larry Hart who definitively states the case. I have seen Mott Street in July, and it isn't nearly as swell as he makes it sound, but the song makes even the listened who knows better want to drop everything and get on the next plane to Manhattan.
We've paired two sides of Hart as a medley, each selection presenting one personal view of love, My Romance in a more traditional approach and Johnny One Note describing a singer whose mating call is unusual, to say the least. You Are Too Beautiful deals with something deep in every woman's heart, the hope that her lover finds her more desirable than anyone else in the world, and Thou Swell is a most proper proclamation of the same thought. Many people have voiced the opinion that He Was Too Good To Me is perhaps the most beautiful melody Richard Rodgers ever wrote. I'm not sure about that but the lyric is certainly one of Hart's most tragic.
In a show put together about a decade ago for the Plush Room at the York Hotel in San Francisco, I grouped a few Rodgers and Hart tunes together and announced them as such. They seemed to go over well enough, but after one night's performance a fan expressed outright anger that I had dared offer such a collection and not included The Lady Is a Tramp. For some reason that reaction has stayed with me. So, okay, in my continuing depiction of all manner of women as seen through the eyes of Larry Hart, here is: Lady – as tramp! (We do it a little differently to avoid monotonous repetition of the title phrase).
I think that as a woman I am so lucky to be living here at the end of the 20th Century instead of at its beginning. From what I've heard, life back then was extremely difficult for us girls, and the woman described in Ten Cents a Dance would have been seen as…well, as a slut, while in these more enlightened times we understand she was just a hard-working girl trying t make ends meet. Talk about sad songs!
Glad To Be Unhappy is the song that first made me realize two decades ago that Lorenz Hart was the most masterfully skilled lyricist I'd ever encountered. The uniqueness of the song's basic ideas, and the joyous exploration of it from the perfect verse through the stunning chorus reminds me of why I haven't changed my opinion of Hart's brilliance. This is almost like an oxymoron set to music, but it is never awkward or unclear or convoluted. It just spins itself fluidly through the whole idea, and it is one of the most 'singable' songs I know.
It is so much fun to sing You Took Advantage of Me with Greensill and Moore playing so brilliantly. This song is all tongue-in-cheek, and we three have a good time doing it. That's why I've positioned it just before what I consider to be one of the saddest songs ever written, A Ship Without a Sail. Serious depression never had a better description, and Larry Hart was no stranger to the affliction. I wonder if without his suffering so very much in life he would have written this song – and I for one would feel so much the poorer without it.
Greensill arranged I Didn't Know What Time It Was as a waltz, and it was a brilliant idea. It sounds as though it should always have been done as such. Listen to his solo! And finally the whole thing ends with a declaration of love that will last no matter what happens. I'm not sure how emotionally healthy this is, but You're Nearer promises undying devotion so eloquently that even the most pessimistic has to acknowledge the sincerity. From what I've read and heard about Lorenz Hart, and in all his wondrous words, this song suits him admirably.
At least, that's how I feel about him.
San Francisco, July 1999
Although, like any surviving American boy of my age who was born and raised in the Big City, I grew up on a steady diet of Great-American-Song-Book music that prominently included the work of Richard Rodgers. I only had one direct encounter with the great man. It was at a party in (where else?) an East Side Manhattan apartment, the home of a friend who happened to be a niece of the composer, and it must have been in the late 1940s period in which "Oklahoma" and "Carousel" had newly remade the face of musical theater and the brand-new team of Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II seemed to have in just a few short years, surpassed the accomplishments – of the twenty-odd year run of Rodgers and Hart. I was personally unhappy with that turn of events; besides the senior partner in the book publishing firm where I earned my living, a man with whose views I rarely agreed, was outspoken in his belief that Oscar Hammerstein was a major American poet.
But I was, I must admit, fairly drunk. That was the only way this story could have happened. Otherwise, I could never have gotten up the nerve, finding myself in one-on-one conversation with Dick Rodgers, to express the view that I much preferred Rodgers-and-Hart to Rodgers' work with the other guy. To his everlasting credit, the composer took the news in stride. Furthermore, he never lost his cool. All he had to say to me, very quietly (perhaps even icily), was "You seem very young to have that opinion."
I still find his handling of the situation quite impressive: could Jerome Kern or Harold Arlen (or any composer who was not his own lyricist like Porter or Berlin, or tied by blood like Gershwin) have done as well? But as the years have gone by, I have gradually come to realize that there was one thing lacking in Rodgers' putdown of Keepnews. The fact is: he was wrong.
Clearly, he was saying that the future belonged to his new partnership, that the time for Rodgers and Hart had passed. However much he may have believed that – and there's really no fault to be found with his choosing only to look ahead – it wasn't entirely true. What time would be now seem to have proven is that, at least for a solid and unwavering body of listeners which includes Wesla and me and a lot of you who are reading this booklet, it is the combination of Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers that is timeless, forever relevant, eternally young – with all the joy and all the heartbreak remaining wonderfully and tragically alive. I may have been callow, and undeniably I was drunk, but I wasn't wrong – and the proof of my youthful accuracy is on this record!
It is rare today, and it was just as unusual back then, for a teen-ager to be grateful for his family, but in 1941 my aunt was the press agent for the original Broadway run of "Pal Joey" (the first starring role for an amazing young singer/dancer named Gene Kelly and the last of the great Hart-Rodgers musicals), and I managed to see the show five times, which was something like going to heaven without having to die first! But this music is not only relevant for those who, like myself, began listening when Larry Hart was still on his incredible two-decade creative roll. It is also, to be entirely specific relevant for a singer who was at best barely born – and certainly not yet listening to this music – when I crossed paths with Richard Rodgers.
I have been involved with the recording career of Wesla Whitfield for a full decade. Consequently, her affection for the lyrics of Hart was no secret from me. What was somewhat unexpected was the erosion of a prejudice Wesla has had against the concept of the single-composer album. But once she fought free of that a couple of years ago to record a highly-rewarding Harold Arlen compilation, it was only a matter of time before Lorenz Hart (and of course, Richard Rodgers) came to the fore. As Wesla recounts in her notes in this booklet, there was no sensible way to pick a mere one-CD handful of songs. Fortunately, Wesla and her instrumental co-workers were able to spend a few months performing a full Rodgers and Hart program before club audiences in New York) at the Jazz Standard), Los Angeles (the Cinegrill) and elsewhere, and a certain number of selections survived that demanding process by proving that they were not only good (which was never really in doubt) but entirely workable and compatible for Wesla, Mike and Michael. There were some others that somehow insisted on being included – most notably With a Song In My Heart – always a favorite but, in this particular version, newly constructed in the recording studio. And, finally, there were a few others (which shall remain unidentified) that we just couldn't bear to omit from the sessions but, since even compact discs have unavoidable physical limits, simply couldn't be fitted onto the final list either.
Having been going into recording studios for one reason another for what is astonishingly close to a half-century, I am always grateful for sessions that make relatively few physical or emotional demands. This one made me incredibly happy. The artist was clearly going to pick her own material, but there was no possible way any of her choices could be less than welcome. The performance reflected the impeccable meshing of Wesla with Mike Greensill (her longtime accompanist, musical director and husband) and Michael Moore (a truly major jazz bassist whose choice it has been for some years to work as often as possible as part of this team). Engineer Phil Edwards has successfully worked with them on several occasions and is thoroughly tuned-in to the proceedings. The mutual decision that this music called for nothing but piano and bass – the instrumentation most frequently utilized on the job – was also correct in all respects. I kept waiting for something to go wrong (because, doesn't something always?), but it soon became apparent that, short of a last minute California earthquake, everything was in the best of shape.
There was no earthquake in the Spring of '99. My only problem now is, Wesla Whitfield having set down this generous helping of Hart and Rodgers in the presumably permanent Compact Disc format, what can we do for an encore?
San Francisco, July 1999