Show scores by Dianna Ross and other top pop and jazz artists

Once upon a time, Broadway scores were so much a part of the popular music scene that the material from hit shows might have multiple albums in addition to an original cast recording. As strange as it may seem today, in the 1950s and 60s top recording artists would make the cream of Broadway’s crop the grist for their mill.

Want to hear the score of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! as instrumentals in the lush orchestrations of Nelson Riddle? You can. The album has been re-issued on MP3 paired with his album of Cole Porter’s score for Can Can.

How about Lerner and Loewe’s score for Camelot? It was recorded by Percy Faith. Want a somewhat more jazzy interpretation? Check out the album recorded by Andre Previn and his trio. It was one of the many score albums that Previn did – many with Shelly Manne. They tackled Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi, Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, and Gene De Paul’s lively L’il Abner as well.

Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella can be heard in a brassy dance band edition by Les Elgart and his Orchestra.

It wasn’t just the instrumentalists who turned out albums of show scores. You can get Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady as sung by a number of vocal stars. Andy Williams did an album of the songs. So did Nat King Cole.

None of the recordings mentioned above have had much of a life after their initial releases, but two shows sparked high art from jazz and pop artists that can be additions to a theater shelf for more than their curiosity value.

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Leonard Bernstein’s music for West Side Story really got creative juices flowing from Oscar Peterson, Andrew Previn, Cal Tjader, Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson. All of those albums are worth multiple listens, but one other West Side Story has wormed its way into my skull and into my heart like no other. There are times when I’d rather listen to Stan Kenton’s raw renditions than even one of the superb cast recordings (sorry, Mr. Sondheim) or even the composer’s own set of symphonic dances from the score.

Mr. Kenton also turned out recordings of the scores of Galt MacDermot’s Hair and Burton Lane’s Finnian’s Rainbow, but both of these tipped a bit too far toward commercialism in their arrangements. His West Side Story was a pure burst of jazz energy.

George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess has similarly stimulated superb recordings. In my opinion, the best of the bunch and certainly the most famous is the two-record set Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong made together. However, that was not the only vocal survey of the score. Duke Ellington made one with such vocalists as Francis Faye and Mel Tormé and another version featured Ray Charles and Cleo Lane.

Purely instrumental versions of Porgy and Bess have earned a place on both jazz and theater shelves including the one by Miles Davis and another by Clark Terry with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra.

Jule Styne’s Subways are for Sleeping got a jazzy vocal treatment from the McGuire Sisters, a lush orchestral one from Percy Faith and a jazz treatment from Dave Grusin, while Shelly Manne teamed up with Andre Previn on Styne’s score for Bells Are Ringing.

One vocal treatment of a Styne score that has been laying under the wraps of near obscurity for 45 years has just re-emerged in a digital re-release of note. It is of an album that had a rather wordy title “Diana Ross and the Supremes Sing & Perform Funny Girl.

In 1968, when Motown’s Berry Gordy was beginning to groom Ms. Ross for single stardom, he brought her into a studio in New York City for a two day recording session to lay down the lead vocals for a ten-track album of songs from the score that belongs so demonstrably to Barbra Streisand. The resulting album didn’t make a dent in Ms. Streisand’s ownership of the score to the show and movie which established her superstardom. Ross had her own super star moments, but this album wasn’t one of them.

Click to buy on Amazon

Click to buy on Amazon

Still, musically it is among the stronger pop-vocalist-tackles-Broadway-score albums of the period and Ross’ command of the material is thoroughly impressive. The re-release demonstrates the level of her talent, art and professionalism even more than did the original release for a very interesting reason. Essentially, this re-release is two versions of one album placed side-by-side so you can compare and contrast.

Let me explain:

When the album was recorded in 1968, composer Jule Styne was present to lend his participation to the project. He came away impressed, not only with Ross’ work, but with the work of Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson – the Supremes – in the very limited back-up material that arranger Gil Askey gave them to do. This was almost a solo album for Ross and minutes go by without any voice but Ross’ appearing in front of the big jazzy band.

However, as was his wont, in post-production Gordy added more voices to make the back up group feel bigger.

Apparently, Styne didn’t like the change but it was too late and he didn’t have control. The album was released, climbed only to number 150 on the top 200 album chart before stalling, while Streisand’s Funny Girl credentials continued to mount with an Oscar the same year for the movie version as well as a Grammy nomination for the movie’s sound track album.

Diana Ross and the Supremes Sing & Perform Funny Girl
Motown-Select MP3 Digital Download (Amazon and iTunes)
Running time 1:27 over 22 songs
ASIN: B00JSKI8EI

Now Motown has brought the Ross/Supremes recording back, but with a difference. Instead of choosing to release the version with extra back-up singers that Styne disliked, or releasing a version with the original back-up tracks laid down by Birdsong and Wilson alone, Motown takes advantage of the fact that they aren’t limited to two sides of a single 33 rpm disc of vinyl. They give us both!

Listening to each track in the alternate mixes makes clear the reason why Styne was disappointed when he heard the version that was released in 1968 – the sound is much fuzzier and Ross’ vocals are obscured at those points where the back-ups join in. In the clearer, cleaner version we now hear for the first time, not only is Ross’ work given a more effective framing, the sterling arrangements of Askey are allowed to shine as well.

Motown then throws in two live recordings from television appearances as bonuses. One is from the Ed Sullivan Show and the other is an outtake from the television show TCB (Taking Care of Business) that starred Motown artists Diana Ross and the Supremes and The Temptations. Both are fun to have.

Unfortunately, Motown has not released this in a physical package. You can only get it as a digital download. Fortunately, however, they have prepared an excellent booklet which can be downloaded along with the audio tracks.

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Brad Hathaway About Brad Hathaway

Brad Hathaway, Theatre Shelf columnist - Brad covered theater throughout the Washington area for over a decade. He is best known locally for his work as the editor and reviewer for Potomac Stages from 2001 to 2010. Among the publications that have featured his writing are The Hill Rag, the Connection Newspapers of Northern Virginia, Show Music Magazine and The Sondheim Review. As a member of the American Theater Critics Association, he hosted their 2008 annual conference in Washington and currently serves on that association’s executive committee. Brad received a League of Washington Theatres’ Offstage Honors Award for contributions to the Washington DC theater community. He and his wife Teddie live on a houseboat in Sausalito CA.

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