AMERICAN SINGERS by Whitney Balliett


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Elegant appreciations of some famous and some very unfamous singers, 14 supper-club or night-club stylists who mostly sing the kind of songs celebrated in Alec Wilder's American Popular Song. But there's a catch. Half of these pieces have appeared in books before, and, more important, this gathering seems to highlight Balliett's limitations: he really is too prim to write well about Ray Charles; too many of the profiles follow a tired New Yorker format--a brief Balliett set-up and then a long, often plodding (though no doubt highly edited) reminiscence from the singer; and there's a tendency here toward hagiography, with flaws flicked aside and ratified virtues somewhat inflated. Still, nowhere else will connoisseurs of Mabel Mercer be able to find out about such Mercer disciples as Mary Mayo, Barbara Lea, and the late Teddi King--and Balliett is also fine on majestic Joe Turner and troubled Anita Ellis. (Rather too effulgent, on the other hand, on precious Blossom Dearie and semi-precious Bobby Short.) Here also, of course, are the marvelous studies of Mercer herself and Tony Bennett--which appear to better advantage in the mixed company of Balliett's Alec Wilder and His Friends--and never does one doubt that Balliett is the smoothest word-man who has ever hung out with jazz people. (On Helen Humes: ""Her hands and feet are small, though the rest of her is mapped out in expansive meadows, sharp drops, and roomy valleys."") So: a bit of a muchness all together like this--but essential equipment for those who care about composers like Kern and Arlen and singers like Mabel Mercer.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1979
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press