ON THE RECORD: Gershwin's Sweet Little Devil and John Pizzarelli's "Double Exposure"
By Steven Suskin
This week's column discusses the new studio cast album of the early Gershwin musical Sweet Little Devil and a new CD from John Pizzarelli, "Double Exposure."
Sweet Little Devil [PS Classics]
Gershwin spent that summer in London, where he wrote his first West End musical comedy, Primrose, a moderate hit which never jumped the Atlantic. After which he embarked on what would be the first major musical of his career, in part because of three major factors. Most important was the decision to cease wandering from lyricist to lyricist and settle on one, his elder brother. (Ira had been gathering Broadway experience under a pseudonym, so as not to infringe upon George's growing prominence.) The second was to tie his fortunes to a pair of young-and-eager producers with a taste for bright, dancing musical comedies named Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley. The immediate success of Al and Vin's Gershwin musicals enabled them, within three years, to build their own theatre, the Alvin. Which remains a prime house today, even though a later landlord changed the name to the Neil Simon.
The third key to the success of Lady Be Good, which opened December 1 of that same 1924, was in the choice of stars. George was already friendly with Fred Astaire and sister Adele (who was the charismatic one). The Astaires and the Gershwins were a perfect match. They would work together on one additional Broadway musical plus the smashingly successful London transfers of both shows. After Adele retired, Fred moved to Hollywood — where George and Ira wrote five immortal standards for him to sing in the movies (including "They Can't Take That Away from Me" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It").
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.
"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.
Double Exposure [Telarc]
Pizzarelli took several opportunities to plug his latest CD, "Double Exposure," and given the excellence of his act I immediately took the hint. The double exposure is pop and jazz; that is, he takes pop songs of his youth — the late '60s, the '70s — and "exposes" them to the jazz that permeated his home (courtesy of Bucky). Thus we get songs by Lennon & McCartney, James Taylor, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell and others, all in Pizzarelli jazz-style. There is also a new song — "Take a Lot of Pictures," inspired by an expression Sinatra used to use when he was annoyed — written by John and Jessica. Jessica also duets and provides special lyrics for Taylor's "Traffic Jam," and they are pretty special. As is Pizzarelli, and as is "Double Exposure."
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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