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Vintage Vanni Broadway

 

Sample Songs

Deep Purple
The Things We Did Last Summer
When The Moon Comes Over The Mountain
Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

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The Last Crooner

Hit Songs 1918-1960

(DV-CN-700926-1)

Introduction & liner notes by Clarkspur Emden, critic-at-large

The Art of Crooning

Once upon a time, there was a place called Tin Pan Alley. It bloomed up from holes in the wall or fine suites in New York City. Formed somewhere in the ‘teens of the 20th century, it was the place for tunesmiths to hang out together (usually a melodist and a lyricist) and create what would eventually become the American popular musical standard. And what a legacy! The songs were churned out by the hundreds and peddled in local music stores, where someone who could play and sing them, would perform the tune upon a customer’s request. Later on, the phonograph and the radio took over a large part of selling the songs to the public. The very early composers read like a who’s who: Irving Berlin’s first hit was in 1911, Jerome Kern (1914), George Gershwin (1919), Vincent Youmans (1921), Nacio Herb Brown (1921), Cole Porter (1919), Richard Rodgers (1925), Harold Arlen (1930), Arthur Schwartz (1929), Harry Warren (1922), Victor Young (1928), Kurt Weill (1928), Robin & Ranger (1929), Burton Lane (1933), Jules Styne (1941), Ray Henderson (1922), Sammy Fain (1926), Fats Waller (1929), Frank Loesser (1943), and on and on. This empire of music was fondly recalled by some as the “Jewish musical mafia” since most of the composers were of that extraction, hard workers, talented and, of course, good salesmen. But, as we’ll hear, they really had something to sell!

At the close of the 19th century, immigrants like Romberg, Friml, Oscar Straus, Franz Lehar, and Victor Herbert brought their operetta styles from Europe to the theatres of Broadway. But as the new and young America separated itself more and more from the European continent, the gap grew wider and America required a popular musical language of its own. Hence was born the “pop” song, up tempo or ballad, these new compositions appealed to the everyday man or woman whose lives were uplifted by the music representing them. The first real mass-communication other than reading and word of mouth was born.

What exactly is “crooning”? Simply a laid-back way of singing? Like all art forms, this style evolved from a handful of men at the dawning years of the phonograph and radio industries. These were specialized voices filling grooves and airwaves with “the most romantic music this side of heaven”. Al Jolson, Harry Richman, Rudy Vallee, Russ Colombo, Bing Crosby, Dick Haymes, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, early Frankie Laine, Tony Martin, Perry Como, and, finally, this critic’s choice for the end of that chain, Pat Boone. Of course, there were others along the way: the careers of Tony Bennett, Vic Damone, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bobby Darin, Matt Monroe, Jerry Vale, Andy Williams, etc., began in that style, but branched out to different respective specialties. The commercial forces that helped channel these men into living rooms and bedrooms recognized the increasing buying power of the American female. Eventually, she would count for over 72% of record sales in America between 1926 and 1950. Today, I am told, the domestic music world female consumer is around 83%!

Crooning becomes an art form because a true crooner must have (a) a smooth, warm, and enjoyable sound, usually pitched between low-G and high-E in the lyric baritone range, (2) good musical instincts, and (3) a technical ability to color the voice warmly while, at the same time, making it all appear mostly effortless. A good arranger never hurts. Perhaps the most widely known and beloved of the early crooners was Bing Crosby. His long career (c. 1927 to the early 1960s) set standards, created spaces for unique and likeable personalities, crossed over all major mediums from live bands and orchestras to the old Brunswick phonograph recordings, (later on he would help build Decca into a major label) onto the movies and, finally, he would have his own television show and specials. Through Crosby (especially during the WW2 years) a spirit of “we’re okay” permeated, as if he could put on a cowboy hat, place a coke in his hand and sing Don’t Fence Me In with the Andrews Sisters—and the world felt okay again. Crosby’s appeal was truly international. This seemingly casual, romantic image was coupled with superior tunes crafted by the likes of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwin brothers, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, Victor Young, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, and many other tunesmiths who were genuine craftsmen. Simple was the name of his crooning—but deceptively so. A song may appear simple in construction, but choosing key, tempo, and arrangement for it and the right singer was no easy task. Great arrangers followed great composers of the time, i.e., Nelson Riddle rekindled Frank Sinatra’s career, John Scott Trotter helped Crosby’s.

The crooning voice of Dario Vanni seems like an anomaly at first: hey, this American-Italian guy should be singing opera, Neapolitan songs, big Broadway stuff—right?--not this intimate drivel about love found, love lost, and boy, do I have her now! And the guy’s a tenor! Maybe if his name for this album were Bing Martin or something, it would seem natural for a younger guy to sing older guys’ music. But, you know, great talent is great talent and Vanni’s astounding versatility on this album shows why he not only qualifies for the job, but brings it his own brand of something special without losing the genre’s essence. Also, great quality songs never grow old. And they will always need good voices to do them justice. Whether he’s warmly intoning “After You’ve Gone”, laying back with the rhythmic blues of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”, or rising to the climax on “I’m Glad There Is You”, no two songs have a sameness that troubles many an album of other artists. Good singing is timeless and ageless. Period. So, I don’t have to say more. Flip on the disc, sit back with a glass of wine with or without a favorite person beside you—and listen. You won’t regret it.

Clarkspur Emden, September 2009

1. Deep Purple (De Rose/Parish) © 1934

A favorite and unusual tune, it was, probably, originally written for a trumpeter in a big band, due to its rather large range. The song rises an octave and a half in the first five bars. But, in order to draw together the intimacy, Vanni puts the first “and stars begin to flicker in the sky” down an octave and, only later when that passage is repeated, does he go for the high G on the words “tho’ you’re gone, your love lives on when moonlight beams…” and he does this twice. This is genius to my way of thinking, for who but a crazy trumpet player would shock us out of the lull of this lovely crooning tune up front? Vanni stays the course. I really like the simplicity. I’m sure this was an unrehearsed pick-up session. I remind you, Vanni never recorded anything he did with the intention of commercial sales; his goal was always simply to listen to the arrangements he’d made and see how they would play in a live venue.

The instrumentation of piano, bass, trumpet, mostly metal-muted, (you see, that guy did get in there somehow!) a bridge-break sax solo, and, every once in a while, I seem to hear some strings and flute, like near the end. The voice is always warm, even when it ascends. We must keep in mind this is a man with a tenor range, although I am wonderfully pleased that his resonant bottom register does the trick. Truth is tenors are not crooners as a rule. But Vanni wears the song like a custom fit glove. He owns the songs he sings, takes command and that’s always a sign a fine artist is at work. Into all this mix, we must place the emotional range of the singer and, of course, our response. We need not worry. His own life experience is worn on his heart-sleeve and we hear what it feels like to long for someone who you thought might’ve been perfect for you. So, sip your wine…

2. After You’ve Gone (Creamer & Layton)

Written in 1918, we know that both Al Jolson and Bing Crosby recorded this selection. Vanni brings sincerity, simplicity, genuine communication as he tells the story; no faking, no pretense or shallow Vegas showmanship here. Just “one from the heart,” as Jimmy Durante used to say. The song begins with the excellent jazz guitar work of Phil Masuto with Dennis Fiennes’ bass, and both complement Vanni’s voice throughout. The vibraphone and light strings do the rest of the backup. A musical rarity: on the second verse of the song, “After you’re gone, after we break up, after I’m gone, you’re gonna wake up,” Dario actually lowers the song a full step from its beginning key. Normally, one goes up a half-step or full-step. But, for this song, it works like a charm, making the lament somehow warmer. To the untrained ear, this would pass by un-noticed. Dario ends the song with a stylistic phrase all his own. Most enjoyable. I just love listening to this rendition over and over again. Can’t tell you why. Listen, maybe you’ll feel the same.

3. Speak Low from One Touch of Venus (Weill-Nash)

Often, a so-so Broadway show produces a gem. Speak Low is one of them, composed by Kurt Weill (of Three Penny Opera fame and Bobby Darin’s mega-hit, Mack the Knife). Weill’s 1943 associate was famous limerick writer Ogden Nash, who somehow turned serious enough to write admirable lyrics for Weill’s melody. The song is an intimate ballad, a statement of how long we sometimes wait for love—and then, finding it, discover it’s too late and we have to cram 30 years of living into a small space of time remaining to us. Dario begins the song freely, establishing the mood. The introduction starts with grand piano and strings. As the vocal begins, the strings ascend beautifully in the higher octaves, capturing the beauty and the starkness. Soon a wonderful Latin beat picks up from the percussion section and the acoustic bass does some wonderful things as well. The voice is warm and free as it moves like a trapeze artist from rung to rung on the notes, dipping just enough to make the style appear casual. But, that, too, is an illusion. The bridge brings the rhythm temporarily to a conclusion and it is here that Dario separates himself from 90% of most male popular singers: his incredible sound and technique soar the music to new heights, but only briefly—and he never leaves the idiom of his interpretation by being histrionic or overly emotional. He genuinely feels the music and his natal intelligence clearly grasps the heart-felt meaning of the lyrics. He speaks for all of us: how many times did we act too late in life? The Latin beat resumes on the lyrics, “we’re late, darling, we’re late,” and, briefly, we hear two trombones filling in to warm those places. Dario ends the song with an unexpected high note that, for me, completes the song, reminding us that, after all, it is from a Broadway musical, but, at the same time, contains a timeless, universal message.

4. Where the Blue of the Night (Roy Turk/Fred Ahlert)

This track is an obvious homage to radio days and the Bing Crosby of the early 1930s. In fact, in a respectful parody, Dario introduces the song as if it were coming from a 1930s radio broadcast. It is informal, laid back yet communicates the lyric. Vibraphones and background strings support the artist. It’s amazing that Vanni’s tenor-baritone sound gets so much mileage from his lower register and he gets all the little grace-notes of the crooning style. The voice is very warm, no audio gimmicks here, no reverb, but simply a radio-like microphone with a direct line from that wonderfully open throat to our ears. “Just like shining shoes, or cruisin’ in the blue…” the singer speaks to us, waxing nostalgic over the airwaves—a nice touch. The bridge rises in volume and intensity, but never leaves its roots, with that perfect vibrato of Vanni’s controlling the expansion and contraction of the dynamic contours. “And after a word from our sponsor, more music…for you,” the singer concludes. As simple as this tune sounds, it is a perfect example of the true art of crooning. Listen carefully to the detail on this recording and I think you’ll hear what I mean.

5. About a Quarter to Nine (Warren-Dubin)

Harry Warren and Al Dubin were major contributors to the Tin Pan Alley pool of talent. This song was written for an Al Jolson movie in 1935 entitled, Go Into Your Dance. Jolson’s recording of this tune had that marvelous Mammy kind of ping to it and harkened to earlier decades. Warner Bros. was not happy with Jolson’s later films, as he was stuck in the live circuit theatre mindset of the late ‘teens and 1920s. His career soon faded. Had it not been for Larry Parks’ sparkling portrayal of Jolson in the late 1940s (The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again, with voice tracks actually recorded by an aging Jolson in remarkable voice), Jolson would have faded out a decade earlier than he did.

Warren was a show and film composer, most of his early hits had his lyricist coming out of Broadway. Some of his greatest hits were I Only Have Eyes for You (also originally sung by Jolson), I Found a Million Dollar Baby, and September in the Rain in the early thirties, to name a few. In 1940, he wrote for big band leader Glenn Miller for the films Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives. Mega-hits for the war years came out of these scores, including Chattanooga Choo Choo, I Know Why and Serenade in Blue. In 1943, he hit gold again, writing for Alice Faye’s You’ll Never Know. In 1948, he topped his career off with The More I See You.

Vanni’s version of this tune is short and sweet, but typically unique. Like Crosby, Dario likes to whistle in some of his songs and he does so here, quite charmingly. Talk about laid back! Keeping the old radio mode, he says, “Well, I gotta date tonight…” and then launches into the song. The high-hat and cymbol with the whistle give way to a nice piano, walking bass, light strings and what seems to be almost inaudible saxes in the background. A nice ending touch: he says he’ll be there, “I sure hope you will be, too!” as he concludes the tune.

6. The Things We Did Last Summer (Cahn/Styne)

Another dynamite writing team, Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne, wrote this 1946 ditty with the crooner in mind, no doubt. Vanni seems to be throwing away this song with loose phrases, a little patter, Phil Masuto’s well-fitted jazz guitar work, stopping the beat now and then to interject a word or two—until we realize he is dealing with heartache. He’s conflicted. The memories of last summer were wonderful, but he stops the rhythm on the words, “How could a love so right go wrong?” Now we get it, this was all part of the story he’s telling us. With strings and Dennis Fiennes’ fine acoustic bass work, Dario ends with the-joke’s-on- him attitude by simply stating with hope against hope, “See ya next time, honey…” Vanni’s crooning style is perfect for the song and he uses his own modeling here. I can imagine the song was probably recorded by Nat Cole or Dean Martin at some point, but I can’t recall those recordings. No matter, this one invokes the memories for me!

7. Cheek to Cheek (Irving Berlin)

Irving Berlin, like Cole Porter and others, wrote both music and lyrics. They often fit hand-in-glove as the composer felt them. Cheek to Cheek was written in 1934 for the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers 1935 film, Top Hat. He had already written classics like What’ll I Do?, How Deep is the Ocean?, Blue Skies, and Say It Isn’t So, to mention a few. Astaire’s vocal charm definitely leaned toward that of a crooner. He didn’t have a lot of voice, just a personable vocal style—and a believable romantic charm that was perfect for the 1930s. But could that guy dance!

Dario’s arrangement does not take the Astaire route, instead, he begins the song with a lively Latin beat and keeps it rolling until the first bridge, “Oh, I’d like to climb a mountain….” The wonderful musical motif of the instrumentation in the beginning has both bass and two trombones in 3rds harmony echoing those memorable first 16 bars. The Latin tempo returns on the lyrics “Dance with me, I want my arms about you…” The walking bass work is good here, the keyboard seems rather bland to my ear, but it’s the voice that counts here, anyhow. That this tune is crooned there is no doubt; but one wonders, how relaxed can a singer be and still say what he intends? To point up its casualness, as the song finishes, Vanni simply says, “That’s all.” An abrupt chord. That’s all!

8. When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain (Harry M. Woods/Kate Smith/Howard Johnson)

The popular female vocalist Kate Smith made this song a hit in 1931. I asked Dario why he had chosen such a remote (if lovely) piece of music and he said it made him nostalgic and perfectly captured the mood of the lonely depression years. “Memory and regret are such a part of romantic love passing from our lives,” he remarked. “Lots of lesser known songs embrace this theme. Kate’s tune is one of them.”

This simple, yet ornate, arrangement is beautiful, a gem of a piece and Vanni is in top form. The strings, some vibraphones in the background, a haunting soprano over-voice with a wonderful moving acoustic bass inter-play underneath introduce the song. Highly unusual. I love verses. And this song has a perfect verse. “All by myself at twilight, watching the day depart…” takes us down memory lane with all kinds of nostalgia. These wonderful songs tell a story; storytelling is so essential to good song writing. And in the chorus: “Once again we stroll ‘neath the mountain…through a rose covered valley we knew.” Dario becomes the perfect crooner here, straight-forward, warm, sincere, the voice melting through us. Nothing cloying or “gluey” as some singers can be; there’s no personality in the way, so, in other words, I’m not singing to be heard, but I’d like to have you feel this moment with me, is what I get from the singer. The voice climaxes on “each day is grey and dreary” and we experience what a truly excellent singer this man is. There is no moment in which he is not in complete control of that marvelous instrument. In a tag ending, Dario repeats the title lyrics like the stark aloneness that envelops and haunts one of: “When the moon comes over…….the mountain.” By separating the last two words, the singer winds down the song to have us stand on the grass of that rose colored valley as the last rays of sunlight dwindle out of sight. Take another sip of wine, I say, because this musical interpretation is what crooning is all about. Enjoy.

9. Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? (Louis Alter/Eddie De Lang)

More than likely, one shelf over, Dario Vanni could easily have been a jazz/blues singer. Even though he croons his way into this tune, there’s a fancy turn or two that smack of a slightly different musical idiom.

I think the singer simply “hits” the notes directly here, rather than slip and slide about as some crooning songs offer. There is no introduction. The vocal begins on beat-one with the piano, bass, and light percussion – pushing the song along down the Mississippi. But, being a true balladeer, Dario breaks out of tempo at the first bridge after he is joined by muted trumpeter Gil Evans. He re-creates the “moonlight on the bayou, a creole tune that fills the air, I dream about magnolias in June, and soon I’m wishing I was there.” Stopping the tempo allows the mood of the music to soak in; we suspend time as well as the bustle of the beat. Now the second bridge is weird, I admit. It smacks of “bent jazz” notes and does not adhere to the exact melody. Is Vanni experimenting? Yet it resolves well and some nice Gil Evans harmony with the vocal ends a fine rendition of this 1946 hit.

10. How Important Can It Be? (Benjamin/Weiss)

This was a 1955 Joni James jukebox hit—what’s it doing in a crooner’s treasure chest album? First of all, the warm, rich and virile voice of Vanni comes on close-mic’d and intimate. Secondly, observe what the singer does with the bridge: he “spans” it with his voice, dropping inflection a bit here and there, but decidedly crooning it. “Mine was a young and a foolish heart, seeking love at every turn….” Done in a nice low key, the mellow resonance reaches us deep down and the accompaniment (grand piano, strings, stand-up bass) never distracts from the vocal. Also, the arrangement stays true to the 50s feeling with the voice allowed a straight-forward course. I never heard a Joni James song crooned until now and, you know what? I like it!

11. As Time Goes By (Herman Hupfeld)

Who knew in 1931 that, ten years or so later, Mr. Hupfeld’s song hit of that year would be immortalized in one of the greatest black and white films of Hollywood’s long history? Bogart and Bergman are branded onto our brains when we hear this music, as is Rick’s café and gambling joint. However, a lot of folks sang this song before Sam at the old spinet. It is with the song’s intrinsic worth, disassociated from the film that Vanni has chosen to sing it.

This is a young Dario here, working with a lot of talented people: Gil Evans on trumpet; Vim Carter on sax; David Cherry on keyboards, and Dennis Fiennes on bass. Strings finish out the ensemble. The reason I know this is early Vanni is because of the key signature, E-flat. Way high for a crooning song. Yet…hang on, there’s a lot more.

This is a straight-forward arrangement, yet not; the seldom heard verse is mostly with bass and vocal and some keyboard; when the chorus begins, the strings and Dennis Fiennes’ bass really add sugar to the proceedings and they are well written to compliment the performance. The bridge (“Moonlight and love songs never out of date”) soars up to a high-F for the singer. Gil Evans’ nice open trumpet work in the break adds so much to the feeling of this selection. Dario ends the song with a soft and melting high-G down to the final E-flat. But, all in all, the singer does croon the tune with proper portandos and glissandos, never lapsing out of good taste and never making fun of a song that I’m sure has been hackneyed to death by a jillion singers. When I asked Dario why he chose this for his Volume One in The Last Crooner disc, he replied, “The sentiment remains the same: moonlight passion leads so often to jealousy and hate—so it is still the same old story. But the world will always welcome lovers because they represent the unattainable ideal of how romantic love should be. And, I guess, people feel as long as blissful lovers do exist—then there’s hope for all.” Oh, by the way, another anthology time-capsule giveaway: Carl Sagan’s theory in the lyrics. Hmmmm…..what decade was he all the fad in the cosmos? In the 1931 version, it was Einstein.

12. I’m Glad There is You (Dorsey/Madeira)

Big band leader and sax player Jimmy Dorsey wrote the tune and lyricist Paul Madeira wrote this fine song. Written early in the WWII years (1942), Vanni once more chooses to speak a beginning verse, that I think is quite effective here. “Said I many times, love is illusion, a feeling, result of some confusion!” When he begins the haunting melody, Dario is assisted once more by Gil Evans’ trumpet and the two make wonderful music together. The voice is warm and very romantic, filled with the kind of tone every guy probably envies when he wishes he could sing to some woman in order to woo her. And even though the tenor whooshes to a high-F, modulates the key up a full step after Evans’ solo and slams a high-G, unlike the previous song, it doesn’t sound that high and remains in the “warm belt” of the song. The sentiment of the song is in superior lyrics and unusual melody line and the singer brings the tune home with a final, mellow, “I’m glad there is you….”

13. BONUS SELECTION: Gigi from The Movies’ Greatest Hits album.

If you liked this CD collection album, you might be interested in one or more of Dario’s other albums.