Fred Astaire: The Early Years at RKO [Sony Masterworks/TCM]
What is it about Fred Astaire that transcends the decades — and by this point, the century — since the five-year-old dancer and his eight-year-old sister stormed vaudeville in 1905? Unlike other international stage stars of the time, Fred found himself transplanted to Hollywood in 1933, at the age of 34, where he was transformed into the iconic screen legend who retains his celluloid glimmer a quarter century after his death in 1987.
The man was best known for his dancing, of course, but we have only to listen to his recordings to catch the magic. While busily engaged in a string of Astaire-Rogers movie musicals at RKO for six years, the punctilious perfectionist found time to make studio recordings of the songs he introduced in the movies. These have been collected into a new two-CD collection, "Fred Astaire: The Early Years at RKO," and song after song retains its sparkle. The voice does not quite approach that of contemporaries like Jolson, Vallee, Chevalier and Crosby, but the recordings of those guys sound hopelessly old fashioned, and they have to many listeners since the 1960s. Astaire's recordings remain as bright and fresh as ever, floating along as if on a cloud of melody. Well, they are on a cloud of melody.
And I'm not just saying that. I know most of these songs well, as many readers of this column presumably do. I expected to just put the thing on as a refresher, give it a spin, and that would be that. But no; listening to "The Early Years at RKO," I find myself marveling once again at recordings I've heard over and over. Marveling at the ease with which Astaire breezes through the material; marveling at how good it all sounds; and marveling that within a short span of time, Broadway's top composers — transplanted west due to the economics of the Depression — turned out so many gilt-edged songs to order for that voice. The 31 songs (not counting duplicate tracks) include at least 16 that belong on anybody's list of bests. And that, all said, is an astounding ratio.
The songs mostly come from the Messrs. Berlin, Gershwin and Kern. Berlin wrote three of the films, with "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" and "Cheek to Cheek" from "Top Hat;" "Let's Face the Music and Dance" from "Follow the Fleet;" and "Change Partners" from "Carefree."
George and Ira wrote the Astaire-Rogers film, "Shall We Dance" (with "They All Laughed," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me"). Kern and Dorothy Fields' "Swing Time," meanwhile, gave us "Pick Yourself Up," "A Fine Romance," "Never Gonna Dance" and "The Way You Look Tonight."
There are a few songs from the first Astaire/Rogers films — two by Vincent Youmans (including the snappy "Music Makes Me") and Cole Porter's "Night and Day," which was written for Fred on Broadway. But it's the Astaire-songs by Berlin, Gershwin and Kern that take the crown. Half of the tracks come from conductor Johnny Green, with others from Leo Reisman and Ray Noble. The album — a joint project of Masterworks and Turner Classic Movies — was assembled by Michael Feinstein, who also contributed the liner note.
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