ON THE RECORD: Gershwin's Sweet Little Devil and John Pizzarelli's "Double Exposure"

By Steven Suskin
10 Jun 2012

Rebecca Luker

Sweet Little Devil came directly before Gershwin blossomed. Playing through those earliest 90-or-so Gershwin songs, only four in my opinion stand out — most definitely not including the items from Sweet Little Devil. (The four, for those of you who must know such things, are "Swanee," "Boy Wanted," "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" and "Blue Monday Blues.")

All of which is to say that I never thought much about Sweet Little Devil; I never anticipated someone digging it up, putting it back together, and recording it; and I certainly didn't expect that it would turn out sounding so delightfully good.

But here we are in 2012, eighty-eight years later, and here we have the first-ever recording of <i>Sweet Little Devil</i>. Tommy Krasker, presently of PS Classics but formerly archivist for the Ira Gershwin Estate, came across the materials back in the late '80s. He was involved with most of the studio recordings of Gershwin musicals over the years, all the while keeping Sweet Little Devil in mind. This spring, Krasker and partner Philip Chaffin — in the midst of its the recent revivals of Follies, Porgy and Bess, and the soon-to-arrive Encores! Merrily We Roll Along — finally decided the time had come to gamble on this delicious slice of early Gershwin.

The lyrics, rather, are by B. G. DeSylva. Three years older than George, "Buddy" by this point had a handful of songhits to his credit (including Jolson songs "California, Here I Come" and "April Showers," plus the immortal Kern ballad "Look for the Silver Lining"). The lyrics for Sweet Little Devil, it turns out, are quick and clever, closer in style to Larry Hart (who was just then a year from his first hit) than Ira. But the music, as always with George, is the thing. No songhits here, or anything resembling the sort of tune Gershwin was turning out with regularity almost immediately thereafter. But this is a bright and friendly score filled with distinct if minor delights. "The Jijibo" is the big dance tune, with a raggy beat. They play refrain after refrain, and it does leave the thing imprinted on your memory. ("Everybody ought to know — the Jijibo" says DeSylva, who had considerably more success with the dance song "Black Bottom," written with his post-George collaborators Lew Brown and Ray Henderson for the 1926 edition of the Scandals). "Hey! Hey! Let 'er Go!" is another dance-happy tune, despite a less-than-helpful lyric.

Danny Burstein

"Virginia (Don't Go Too Far)" is a pleasant enough song for the heroine, the fiction-writing cousin of an outgoing Follies girl. (Ziegfeld is implied, not Weissmann.) The nice-and-sweet Virginia has been answering Joyce's fan letters, which causes complications when a young American engineer returns from Peru, see? The hoped-for big ballad of the show, "Someone Believes in You," is in the merely pleasant category; the lack of a song hit helped relegate this score, and this show, to the forgotten side of the ledger. (By the end of 1925, Gershwin's musicals — even the forgotten ones — were peppered with songs like "Fascinating Rhythm," "The Man I Love," "Kickin' the Clouds Away," "Looking for a Boy," "Sweet and Low Down," and "That Certain Feeling.")

So Sweet Little Devil is not top-drawer Gershwin. It is, though, a happy and unexpected delight. The original orchestrations are long gone, needless to say. Most surprisingly, the charts for the touring production — cut down to a band of only ten — were found. Samuel French used to license the show, although I suppose it was already gathering dust when FDR took office. These orchestrations are by Russell Bennett, who presumably worked on the Broadway edition. (Bennett started orchestrating musicals in late 1922, and Sweet Little Devil is the sort of show he would at that point have been assigned.) In any event, the orchs are bright, crisp and inventive. Some of today's Broadway musicals are forcibly restricted to ten pieces, but few of them sound as good as this. And Bennett was working without synthesizers or electric keyboards. Two winds, two brass, four strings, drums and piano. It all sounds lovely.

PS Classics has provided a customarily classy production. Sam Davis conducts from the piano, with David Loud providing vocal arrangements. The seven principals are accomplished and well chosen, although I find myself singling out those Broadway favorites Rebecca Luker and Danny Burstein. They are joined by Sara Jean Ford, Philip Chaffin, Jason Graae, Bethe Austin and Sally Wilfert.

All in all, a very sweet Sweet Little Devil.