Archive | May, 2011

Kathy Kirby: a Unique and Troubled Star

21 May

Kathy Kirby sings at the NME Poll Winners concert in 1964

Hits, Rarities and Lipgloss: demand for Kathy Kirby's recordings remains high, despite her years away from the spotlight

A star’s longevity is a complex thing, often defying simplistic interpretation based on chart placings, millions of records sold and accumulated decades of success. So how to explain the enduring enigma of Kathy Kirby, whose death at the age of 72 made the headlines, despite the fact that nearly half a century had passed since she was at the peak of her television stardom, and it was four decades since she had made any substantial recordings?

Discovered and mentored by the great band leader Bert Ambrose, Kathy Kirby was groomed in the image of his ideal woman – a kind of late 1950s hybrid of Marilyn Monroe and Diana Dors, with crisply styled peroxide hair and startlingly glossy red lips. Ambrose’s concept was dated even by the time Kirby became a major television star on the strength of her early 1960s appearances in Stars and Garters. But somehow – largely thanks to a winning and cheerful personality that knew instinctively how to reach a television audience beyond the camera and, crucially, a voice of spectacular power and emotional force, which commanded attention whatever she was singing – she transcended the stylistic straightjacket he imposed on her.

As so often in the annals of show business, Kathy Kirby’s life eventually came to mirror the more dramatic lyrics of some of her songs. This, combined with the unique qualities of her voice, dusted her with an almost mythical fascination, long after her active career had waned.

Ambrose had given Kirby her first break as a teenager, employing her on a short contract as a vocalist for his dance band after she had persuaded him to let her sing for him at the Palais de Danse in Ilford when she was just 16, in 1954. She spent the next few years paying her dues on the club circuit, singing with Ambrose on and off, and gaining valuable show-business experience. But it was not until he became her manager and took control of her recording and television career that things really took off, culminating in hit singles and albums for Decca, and some hugely popular television series. Their relationship soon developed privately and they would be together until his death in 1971, an arrangement that would have disastrous consequences for Kirby.

Kathy Kirby’s repertoire, tightly controlled by Ambrose, was heavily standards-based. Her most enduring hit was an up-tempo cover version of Doris Day’s “Secret Love”, and most of her television performances favoured the American song book and show tunes rather than the pop and soul songs that fuelled the careers of her contemporaries – Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Cilla Black and Petula Clark. Her look, too, was at odds with their fashionable styles, which would come to define the swinging 60s. And yet she carved a niche for herself in a competitive market, winning an NME Award for the best female singer of 1964 and singing “I Belong” with characteristic brio for the United Kingdom in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. She was defeated only by the mighty combination of one of Serge Gainsbourg’s yé-yé compositions and the nubile France Gall, who took the trophy for Luxemburg.

I Belong: Kathy Kirby’s performance at the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest

There’s no doubt that Kirby could – and should – have had a much more versatile and long-lasting career. But Ambrose’s artistic and financial control were absolute. Occasionally she tried to persuade him to try something new. She begged him to let her record “You’re My World”, a typically extravagant 1960s Latin ballad that would have suited her vocal range and majesty down to the ground. He refused, the song went to Cilla Black, and she took it to the top of the charts. Not only were Kirby’s sharp musical instincts constantly repressed but when Ambrose died, she discovered how badly he had mismanaged – and misspent – her hard-earned fortune (she was for a while the UK’s highest-paid female television star).

Rudderless and naïve, and at the mercy of her own increasingly brittle temperament, Kathy Kirby soon found herself marooned at the edge of the spotlight. If she’d had the steely, worldly-wise verve of a Shirley Bassey or the common touch of a Cilla Black, and the backup of an astute manager, she might have been able to reinvent herself for the 1970s. As it was, for her, that decade imploded into tabloid notoriety, bankruptcy, mental health problems and a difficult reputation which made work difficult to come by.

Secret Love: Kathy Kirby sings her greatest hit in 1982 – a rare, late appearance that shows she’d lost none of her vocal power

Kirby did come back, several times. As late as 1983, she was making occasional television appearances and singing in nightclubs. Then she turned her back on the business, retreating to her flat in West London. Living quietly, she unwittingly added to her own status as a reclusive enigma. Occasionally a newspaper article would ask, “Whatever happened to Kathy Kirby?” but the lady herself preferred to keep quiet on the matter.

Then, in 2005, a biography (Secrets, Loves and Lip Gloss) written by her friend and manager James Harman appeared, generating new interest in her career and recordings. And in 2009, she made a DVD documentary with Harman – Kathy Kirby: My Story – giving her first live interview in decades. Some people were upset by her appearance – she was clearly not in the best of health, and perhaps they resented the changes that had taken place since she was last in the public eye. In fact, her lucid comments, her refusal to cast blame elsewhere for any of her troubles – she loved Bert Ambrose, she said, despite everything – and her gratitude for what she still considered to have been a career of high achievement (which indeed it was), proved a fitting and dignified valediction.

Among her considerable vocal talents, Kathy Kirby was a superb torch singer. You only need to hear her versions of “Body and Soul” or “The Man I Love” to understand the extent of her skill. Her large voice sometimes seemed too grand an instrument to be constrained by small rooms and venues, but given a classic number her phrasing and lyrical clarity were second to none and she was equally capable of great subtlety and an urgent emotional truth. We should have heard a great deal more from her.

I tried to interview her occasionally over the years, sending letters via Equity and Decca without a great deal of hope. Then one afternoon in the mid-1990s, the phone rang and a familiar, breathy, slightly off-centre voice started speaking to me in the third person about a note received for Miss Kirby from Mr Piers. Miss Kirby, said the voice, was not giving interviews at the moment but would pass the letter to her musical director who would let Mr Piers know when anything changed. As tends to happen on such occasions, I was too nonplussed to press the singer – for it was obviously the lady herself – any further and meekly thanked her for calling. Caller-ID allowed me to take a note of the number, which I kept for posterity but never had the courage to ring. Now, it’s too late. But I was delighted that the BBC bulletins made room for news of the death of this unique and quintessentially troubled star.

Album Review: Miriam Waks – Waksing Lyrical

10 May

O gente da minha terra: Miriam Waks in fadista mode

Waksing Lyrical is an elegant, sophisticated debut album from Sydney’s Miriam Waks. Light jazz inflections mingle in an intimate, lounge-inspired atmosphere as she tours an eclectic  set of standards, chansons and a couple of quaint, unexpected choices.

Why Suffer: Miriam Waks collaborates with Coptic Soldier

There’s no doubt Waks can deliver a genuinely contemporary sound when she has to. Check out her collaboration with Coptic Soldier on “Why Suffer” for evidence. So when I say that in some ways, the overall effect of Waksing Lyrical is disarmingly old-fashioned, I mean it in the most complimentary way: her diction is perfect, regardless of the language she’s singing in (and her linguistic skills are nicely showcased). You get every word, which is rare in an age of overwhelming production values. And there is an air of traditional, pared-back simplicity about the whole project that is utterly refreshing.

Kerrie Biddell has done a discreet job on the mixing desk, leaving plenty of air around Waks and her accomplished trio – pianist Michael Bartolemi, Ben Waples on double bass and drummer James Waples (they’re joined by her uncle, Nathan, on cello for “La Vie en Rose”).

Waksing Lyrical: an elegant debut for the Sydney singer

Waks has a lilting soprano voice that really tugs the heartstrings on the ballads. But she also throws in some earthy grit and nuanced comedy on more lived-in numbers like “Peel me a Grape”, “Black Coffee”, “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and the suitably torchy “I Keep Going Back to Joe’s”, phrasing with confidence and clarity. She attacks “There’s Gotta be Something Better Than This” with restrained bravado.

The Portuguese and Spanish numbers – “Chega de Saudade” and “Veinte Años”, in particular throb with dignified emotion, and she has a sweet, wistful approach to “La Vie en Rose”. Further proof of her stylistic range is provided by the Sephardic song, “Si Veriash”, on which she reveals real vocal ease and flexibility.

As I’m writing this Eurovision 2011 is fast approaching, so the presence of “Al di La” rates a special mention. Although Betty Curtis failed to win the 1961 contest for Italy with this stately, sentimental ballad, it became a signature song for Connie Francis. Dated it might be but here, dusted off and polished up by Waks, it gleams afresh, full of yearning and regret for what might have been.

Al di La: Betty Curtis sings at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1961

Album Review: Cæcilie Norby – Arabesque

10 May

The Dead Princess: Cæcilie Norby’s haunting take on Ravel

Arabesque: contemplative and modern treatments of classic melodies, with astringent lyrics

Arabesque is an edgy, moody collection of songs to thrill the musical iconoclast. Classical purists might run for the hills but Danish jazz singer Cæcilie Norby has come up with some extraordinary settings that shed new light on familiar melodies by Rimsky Korsakov, Satie and Debussy, boldly applying her own astringent lyrical interpretations of the stories behind them.

The result is an impressionistic aural feast, punctuated by a burst of funky swing (“Bei mir bist du schoen”), a couple of Michel Legrand tracks and an inspirational take on Abbey Lincoln’s “Wholly Earth”. In short, Norby, who has been a pioneer of modern Nordic music, straddling the choppy territory between jazz and pop with her refusal to be categorised, has sharpened her maverick credentials and come up with an audacious concept. Just when you think you’ve pinned it down, the musical influence on each track shifts into new territory.

“The Dead Princess” takes Ravel’s haunting theme and turns it into an exploration of the character of the composer’s benefactress, Princess Winnaretta de Polignac. His “Pavane”, so evocative in any setting, is transformed into a brooding meditation on the power of music to arouse memories and sensations.

Norby isn’t the first musician tempted to take liberties with Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” – prog rock band Renaissance built an entire album around it in the 1970s – but she treats it with great respect, her Arabian Nights-inspired lyrics swirling among the excellent accompaniment of musicians including pianist Katrine Gislinge, co-producer Lars Danielsson (on bass, cello and organ).

The percussion of Anders Engen and Xavier Devandre-Navarre is a crucial ingredient of Arabesque, fluid and driven, providing a great counterpoint to the fascinating texture of Norby’s voice. There is more than a hint of Berlin cabaret in her timbre – at times, comparisons with Ute Lemper are valid – but her phrasing is always contemplative and modern. Norby is more about the inner monologue than playing to the gallery.

Other highlights include “The Tears of Billie Blue”, a shimmering interpretation of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”, and “No Air”, which turns Satie’s Gymnopédie into sultry, delicate soliloquy. There is also a Danish version of Legrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind” (“Hvirvelvinden”) and a bonus track, “How Oft”, a tribute to the singer’s father, Erik, who composed it. An absorbing landscape of an album.

Adele: a Torch Singer for the 21st Century

7 May

Someone Like You: Adele comes of age as a 21st-century torch singer at the Brit Awards 2011

When BBC Breakfast tackled the subject of Adele’s universal appeal and meteoric rise yesterday, the most enlightened comments came not from the ‘experts’ on the sofa but from the people interviewed on the street. One by one, they identified, easily and succinctly why her voice and lyrics strike such a chord with an extraordinary range of listeners. Back in the studio, meanwhile, the conversation got bogged down in sales figures and clichés, and an awkward segue into Cheryl Cole’s appointment as an X Factor judge in the States. What nobody identified as the root of Adele’s success is that she is, above all, the epitome of the torch singer – one of the finest of her generation – whose lyrics, combined with a voice of real range and depth, unravel the epic personal emotions of everyday heartbreak.

In the following article, a version of which appears in the current issue of Theatre & Performance magazine (with some unfortunate graphical errors), I have tried to analyse the eternal popularity of the torch singer, placing singers like Adele, Marianne Faithfull, Justin Bond and Mari Wilson – who here gives a splendid masterclass on the art of torch-singing – in this great tradition.

Marianne Faithfull: grande dame of torch singers (photo by Patrick Swirc)

Adele is dominating the pop charts with her lush, wounded ballads. Tracie Bennett is burning up the West End with her visceral performance as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow. Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses and High Heels is a useful reminder that there’s no substitute for experience when it comes to unravelling the nuances of lyrics we thought we knew so well.

Yes, the torch song – and our appetite for its cathartic powers – is alive and well. And singers who can deliver one effectively, honestly and with integrity, will always exert a special hold on our broken hearts.

Perhaps it’s the drama: the singer alone in the spotlight, spinning a tale of loss, abandonment, loneliness and longing. Regardless of the genre – rock and pop, country, jazz, cabaret, folk or musical theatre – it’s one of the most totemic images in show business. And it’s served its exponents well since the term ‘torch singer’ was first coined in the 1920s to describe a brace of singers who plied their trade on Broadway, in revues and after-hours nightclubs, and in the early radio and recording studios, specialising in melancholy numbers that struck an emotional chord in the listener that went beyond mere sentiment.

These days, only specialists and enthusiasts will give a second thought to performers like Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Fanny Brice Libby Holman or Lee Wiley. But they were all, in their way, trailblazers for the torch singers who have followed in their wake, and not just the great triumvirate of Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf; three women whose influence on technique, delivery and style continue to resonate with many performers half a century and more after their premature deaths.

Piaf’s place at the top of the tree is a useful reminder that the French chanson has always been a key influence on the concept of the torch song. Brice’s signature song “My Man” – still one of the darkest and most brutal examples of this type of lyric – started life as “Mon Homme”, a lament popularised in Parisian music-halls by the legendary Mistinguett.

Broadway shows have also contributed immeasurably to the evolution of the torch-song, ever since Helen Morgan perched on a piano and delivered a tremulous “Bill” in Showboat, and Libby Holman growled “Moanin’ Low” to a delightedly scandalised audience in The Little Show just before the Wall Street Crash unleashed the Great Depression.

Many great torch songs now recognised as standards started life as stage numbers – a tradition that has been continued by great composers and lyricists, including Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman and most recently, Jason Robert Brown.

But broken hearts have also always provided rich material for song writers and, as jazz and big band music moved over to make way for mainstream pop music in the 1950s, they discovered an even broader, global medium to explore the darker side of love. And so the torch was picked up by pop singers like Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Shirley Bassey and Elkie Brooks, superstars Streisand and Minnelli, and later by Annie Lennox, Sinead O’Connor and a string of rising 21st century stars including Adele and Amy Winehouse.

It’s no coincidence that the iconic status of many of the great torch singers has been assisted by their propensity for living in a way that seemed to perfectly reflect the lyrics to which they brought such insight and emotional substance. Even today, our response to the unique vocal qualities of Piaf, Judy and Billie is complicated by our knowledge of the personal price they each paid for success and affirmation by audiences – and a music industry – who perhaps did not always have their best interests at heart.

How else to explain the contemporary appeal of a play that focuses on the traumas of Garland’s final appearances at The Talk of the Town? In End of the Rainbow, Tracie Bennett has been a revelation as the self-destructing star, peeling back the layers of internal conflict and drug-fogged delusion one by one. And it’s in the songs that her characterisation is rooted, conjuring the essence of Garland with “The Man That Got Away” in a way that’s had the audience mesmerised night after night.

Even playing these women in dramatised accounts of their lives exerts a tremendous physical toll that gives an insight into the close relationship between the torch singer and the material that is her stock in trade. Piaf, Pam Gems’s play, pulls no punches in its depiction of the way the singer’s voice absorbed all the abuse the Little Sparrow inflicted on it, while still emerging powerful as a bell from her wracked body. For Elaine Paige, who played the role in 1992, it was a painful revelation.

“There was something about her I felt akin to, a kind of obsessive quality,” she once recalled in an interview with this writer. “I find something and I get involved and get hooked and it becomes a bit of an obsession. I didn’t realise it was going to be quite as exhausting. I was very fulfilled and very drained. Every night. I’ve had problems with my knees ever since, from walking around with bowed legs, bent double! She isn’t the easiest character to play without suffering a bit yourself.”

There are occasional reminders that self-destructive tendencies in a singer can still fuel an uncomfortable fascination, particularly when an artist seems completely absorbed by the experiences they are singing about. Look at Amy Winehouse who has long since proved herself one of the great torch singers of our age, despite a back-story that evokes the darker excesses of Billie Holiday or Judy Garland.

Winehouse could draw some inspiration from another trailblazer, Marianne Faithfull, who has long since emerged from the chaos of her own tabloid years to become a stately grande dame of dramatic song. Faithfull’s voice testifies to self-inflicted ravages but there is a beauty and an honesty in her lyrical interpretations that remains utterly arresting.

“I’ve always loved story songs,” she says. “I suppose it’s part of my acting thing, to get into character and live the story with the person. But I think it’s got stronger, probably because I’ve got a bit more compassion now, for myself and others!”

While torch singing – and the image of the torch singer – is primarily associated with female performers, there have also been great, intuitive male interpreters capable of twisting the heartstrings in this way. From Brel, Sinatra and Scott Walker to Marc Almond and Ian Shaw, great male vocalists have also demonstrated a way with desolate lyrics that come into their own at midnight.

For New York transgender singer Justin Bond, who prefers the pronoun ‘v’, the best torch songs achieve their power through evocation.

“Great torch singers create a safer space for us to address our desires and heartaches,” v says. “We get to live our pain through them. When singing a torch song, my mission as a singer has always been to reveal ideas and emotions that would allow my audiences to experience things in a communal way that they might ordinarily allow themselves to deal with only in private – thereby validating them and their experiences of loss, anger, loneliness or desire.”

In the End: Justin Bond spins a torch song at Joe’s Pub in New York

But is it really necessary to have lived to the extremes suggested by so many torch song lyrics? Go to a gig by any of our finest contemporary torch singers – Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Ian Shaw, Antony Hegarty, Martha or Rufus Wainwright – and at some point in the evening you are guaranteed an emotional workout as prescribed by Bond. But in most cases, the emotional realism that they generate with a particular song is founded on an understanding of the lyric that taps into their own human experiences rather than a 24-hour commitment to excess.

“I don’t think ‘good acting’ alone can put across a torch song,” says Bond. “I was pretty much in touch with my emotions as a child, and I think I was capable of tearing up a Jacques Brel tune even in my teens. You’re never too young to understand great sadness OR sexual desire, trust [me].”

Bond cites Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” as a great torch number – “written from the perspective of a louche gay man coming of age in very tenuous times” – but says the torch song is in good hands with modern song writers.

“I like some of Jarvis Cocker’s songs. “This is Hardcore” is a great torch song,” v says. “Antony [Hegarty] writes beautiful torch songs and Rufus Wainwright has written some lovely examples. My record, Dendrophile, is coming out in the States on April 5th and includes covers of what might be considered torch songs – “Superstar”, “Diamonds and Rust” and Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark”.

“The fact that they are called ‘torch songs’ implies a burning,” adds Bond. “The greatest loves and strongest desires come from a deeply spiritual need. Great torch songs evoke a kind of dissatisfaction caused by uncontrollable, even unwanted, desires that aren’t being satisfied.”

The true torch singer, then, is defined by a capacity to touch us, regardless of sexuality or age, and the extravagance of many of the lyrics they interpret is a disguise for deep, shared, ordinary emotions. A great exponent gives us permission to acknowledge those emotions. As long as we need that, the torch singer’s future is assured.

Torch Singing Masterclass With Mari Wilson

Mari Wilson: you can be singing about all kinds of unhappiness (photo by John Haxby)

Choose your torch songs carefully. I was 15 when I first saw Julie London singing “Cry Me A River” in The Girl Can’t Help It. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Then when I started gigging properly in 1981, I was driving along in my Austin A40 and finally it came on the radio. I started singing it in my sets and it felt right – and it still does. It’s such a well-crafted song. Every time I sing it, it’s like being on a football pitch. I’ll decide to take it over there, or stay here in the middle. That’s why you never get bored singing a song of this quality. A great torch song needs that breadth and depth.

Use your experience to tell the story. It’s lovely when people write and tell me that my recording is the best version. But to be honest, I think I sing it much better now because I’ve lived twice as long – and I’m a much better singer! Back then, I hadn’t had my heart broken in a major, adult way. You can only sing from your own experience.

It isn’t all about age. Listen to Adele. She’s only 21 but she’s obviously singing from a deep hurt. Or Judy Garland singing “You Made Me Love You” at 14. Or Amy Winehouse singing “Love is a Losing Game”. You can have the experience to put across a torch lyric at any age. It’s about being able to be honest and vulnerable. You can’t be cynical, you have to be willing to open yourself up, because actually, when you’re singing a torch song, you’re admitting something about yourself and what the lyric means to you.

Write your own material. Trying to find the right songs is difficult. You have to be interested in the lyrics over and over again. I’ve been writing a lot of my own songs [Mari Wilson’s one-woman musical, The Love Thing, had its debut at the Leicester Square Theatre last November]. A lot of the time when you’re singing, you’re also acting. But you have to find an element of truth in the material.

Be your own age. I’m singing “My Love” at the moment and when you’re in your 50s, it’s all about how kind and dependable your love is. Because when you get older, that’s what you want! Friendship and kindness really matter. Of course sex is important but there’s more to it than being great in the sack. And pop music has always been about sex and young people. Jessie J’s “The Price Tag” and “Do it Like a Dude” are fantastic – but where is there to go after that? You need romance and love.

Understand the lyrics. Mick Jagger’s lyrics for “Wild Horses” were written about his relationship with Marianne Faithfull. They were relevant then, to a young person. But they’re equally relevant to me today – “I watched you suffer a dull aching pain…”, “Let’s do some living after we die…” – you can be singing about all kinds of unhappiness. That’s what’s so good about the words: there are so many possible interpretations and they can all have meaning, regardless of what stage you’re at.

Sing according to your venue. It really does make a difference. We did The Love Thing in the basement at Leicester Square, without a proper sound system and nothing between me and the audience. In contrast, I’ve just sung at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, which was really lovely. There’s something special about a larger room when the lights go down and the spotlight’s on you. You have some help creating the mood and it helps you to sing a torch song better. Equally, you need to be able to get up and sing at a party – like Judy Garland or, I’m told, Amy Winehouse who, by all accounts, is extraordinary in those private settings. I once sang “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” at a party. It was song that we played at my mum’s funeral, where it had everyone in a heap, so it’s a tricky one for me. But it was also very special to be able to move people in such an intimate space.

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