Tag Archives: Gwyneth Herbert

Album review – Frances Ruffelle: I Say Yeh-Yeh

13 Oct

On her own: Frances Ruffelle turns iconoclast – in a good way

I Say Yeh-Yeh: quirky, melancholy and insouciant in equal measure

I Say Yeh-Yeh: quirky, melancholy and insouciant in equal measure

Gamine and quirky one minute, drenched in melancholy despair the next – and with the occasional dash of Rive Gauche insouciance – Frances Ruffelle’s I Say Yeh-Yeh is an album of startling contrasts: part homage to the fragile-voiced yé-yé singers of the 1960s, part tribute to the wrenched-from-the-gut emotional force of that chanteuse réaliste nonpareil Edith Piaf, and part affectionate nod to the part played by Les Misérables in the launch of her stellar stage career.

Throughout, her profound love of Paris shines through with luminous clarity. An air of nostalgia, tempered perhaps with the odd regret, shimmers around the whole project. The moment things threaten to get a bit too Proustian and rose-tinted, an edgy dash of uneasiness undermines you, coaxing you into a darker place. The gritty “Paris Summer”, for example, which features newcomer Rowan John, is a case in point, infused with complex shifts and sinister nuances.

Ruffelle’s “La Foule” is a hubristic risk, but she swerves the dangers of a Piaf pastiche by refocusing on the song as a piece of street life, easy-come and easy-go: a soaring, fleeting experience snatched on an evening breeze rather than the whirling descent into madness suggested by the original. But as befits a true Piaf fan, there are respectful, spare versions of “Non, Je Ne Regrette  Rien” and, most touching of all, the tumultuous “Hymne á l’Amour”.

The quirky comes courtesy of the Cher classic “Bang Bang” and a revitalised Francoise Hardy number, “À Quoi Ca Sert?”, brought up to date with Rufffelle’s own English lyrics. Elsewhere, her French is impeccable, giving the lie to the notion that British singers can’t cope with the francophone demands of the chanson.

The creative partnership behind Les Misérables – Schönberg and Boublil – is saluted with the inclusion of “L’un Vers l’Autre”, a gentle ballad written for Eponine, which didn’t make it into the show, and “On My Own”, the song which became her calling card in the role. This is an iconoclastic take on such a well-loved number but again, the risk pays off as she transforms it into a poignant, swinging pop song.

Ruffelle’s vocals are sublime. And in her quest to evoke the spirit of this eclectic material, she has an exceptional ally in producer Gwyneth Herbert, one of the great musical talents of her generation. Herbert’s arrangements, sprinkled with accordions and clattering tin-pot percussion, are inspired in the way they conjure scene after scene.

It comes as no surprise to learn that the record was made in just three days, recorded on vintage 1960s kit, in a converted East London brothel. You’d expect nothing less from this perfect coupling of idiosyncratic artists.

Album Review – Fiona Bevan: Talk to Strangers

22 Jun


Fiona Bevan explains how Talk to Strangers is a reflection of her life

Talk to Strangers: timeless themes explored through eclectic forms and styles

Talk to Strangers: timeless themes explored through eclectic forms and styles

 

Given her pedigree as a songwriter and in-demand collaborator on a wide range of musical projects, it seems extraordinary that we are only now hailing Fiona Bevan’s debut album, Talk to Strangers.

The co-writer – with Ed Sheeran – of One Direction’s “Little Things”, Bevan also made a notable contribution to Gwyneth Herbert’s treasurable The Sea Cabinet song cycle. Like Herbert, she is a unique talent, capable of harnessing styles, riffs, hooks and melodies and spinning them into complete, multi-tiered and utterly absorbing stories.

The lyrics of these songs are scintillating. Bevan’s voice, with its flexibility and that helium shimmer at the top, is the perfect vehicle, treating them with a pop sensibility that seduces you, allowing the darker streaks and uncertainties to sneak up on you and pull you deep into the narrative labyrinth.

Don’t be fooled by the quick tempo of the opening tracks, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Slo Mo Tiger Glo”. Sinister underlying forces soon emerge, piercing the guitar-driven ballads with doubts and questions, not least in the pent-up rage of the “The Machine” and the pure sadness of “Dial D for Denial” – a break-up number that pitches torch-song lyrics against an up-beat melody to heart-wrenching effect.

The airy, wistful beauty of “Monsoon Sundance” provides some respite before things take another detour into the complex landscape of “Exorcist”, where jealousy eventually finds resolution, and the thoughtful title track – a cry for the power of human communication.

These are timeless themes, rendered in eclectic forms and styles that acknowledge Bevan’s cinematic and literary influences, while remaining proudly independent and resistant to categorisation.  The epic feel of the closing number – “Last Days of Decadence”, partly a response to the last financial crash – would resonate in any decade of the last 100 years.

Talk to Strangers is an ambitious piece of work. Bevan paints big, bold musical pictures. The joy of repeated listening lies in discovering the depth and detail which lie just beneath the surface.

Album review – Gwyneth Herbert: The Sea Cabinet

5 Jun

Gwyneth Herbert talks about the genesis of The Sea Cabinet

Haunted and haunting: Gwyneth Herbert's Sea Cabinet is a triumph of eclecticism

Haunted and haunting: Gwyneth Herbert’s Sea Cabinet is a triumph of eclecticism

Haunted and haunting. Poignant and achingly beautiful. Ribald and raunchy.  Evocative and nostalgic. These are just a few of the adjectives that spring to mind as Gwyneth Herbert’s inspired, crowd-funded and self-released new album scatters and spills its contents before the intrigued listener.

The Sea Cabinet started life at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, following Herbert’s artistic residency with Aldeburgh Music. The concert at which she introduced this cycle of sea-inspired songs was absorbing, heralding a work of great promise, albeit still very much in progress and charmingly rough-hewn in places. Almost three years later, that promise has been fully realised.

Herbert’s wide-ranging musical references – sea shanties, Edwardian parlour songs, folk airs and laments, chansons, bluesy bar songs – are impeccable. And she has woven them into a fluent, multi-textured piece from which her eclecticism emerges triumphant and accessible. There isn’t a trace of pretentiousness.  She has laboured over her lyrics, honing and polishing them so that they shimmer across a constantly shifting aural landscape of rhythms and ghostly echoes.

The concept of a solitary woman picking her way along the shore and storing the fruits of her beach-combing in a cabinet, provides a beautifully simple arc for the album. Herbert’s achievement is to populate the memories and ideas inspired by the woman’s discoveries with a cast of characters who spring vividly to life before they are absorbed back into the ebb and flow of diverse melodies.

Mrs Wittering, the owner of the Regal, emerges from the fading gentility of her tea room to take a bow. The petticoat-flashing “Fishguard Ladies” live once more to see off the French fleet. Old salts and soldiers jostle for position. But there is also plenty of underlying darkness and melancholy, not least in the sombre tale of wartime “Alderney”.  In the beguiling “Sweet” and the increasingly belligerent “I Still Hear the Bells” there is also a sense of the personal experiences that brought Herbert to the emotional place which inspired The Sea Cabinet.

She is ably assisted by fellow singer/songwriter Fiona Bevan, who collaborates on “I Still Hear the Bells” and “The King’s Shilling”, by The Rubber Wellies, and by regular band Al Cherry, Sam Burgess and David Price. But it’s Herbert’s own voice, ranging from that of a sweet folk siren to jazz canary and late-night blues singer, which gives the album its momentum.

Snatches of the songs continue  to swirl and soar in the air long after The Sea Cabinet has spun to a stop, not least the “Sea Theme” which opens and closes the set, tempered with field recordings that add pleasingly disturbing frissons of mystery and unease. In its lovingly-produced completeness, this album is a work of art.

Concert review: Girl Talk (Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson and Gwyneth Herbert), Mercury Theatre, Colchester, 29th March

30 Mar

Girl Talk: warm, generous, witty and sophisticated

Take three of Britain’s top female vocalists, each with her own distinctive style and a generous supply of sizzling one-liners. Give them the run of the complete songbook of womanhood. Ask them to come up with an entertainment that touches on the complexities of the female condition, offering catharsis for the women in the audience – and little windows of enlightenment for the men. Then sit back and enjoy the chemistry.

Girl Talk‘s I Am Woman, which unites the multiple talents of Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson and Gwyneth Herbert, sashayed on to the stage at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester last night and delivered a show that brimmed with warmth, generosity, wit and sophistication, but was also peppered with some searingly emotional moments and bittersweet cynicism.

The new line-up (Herbert now occupies Claire Martin’s old spot) gives the singers a new dynamic to work with, pitching Jungr and Wilson’s hard-earned wisdom against the self-confessed young libertarian and allowing the sassy banter to set the songs up in hilarious ways. But more than anything, it gives them the freedom to show off their individual versatility within the framework of a trio. Between them, they share an abundance of musical gifts.

Barb Jungr: sings from the gut (photo by Steve Ullathorne)

Jungr, as always, sings from the gut. Even when she is ripping up a dubious lyric (the Doris Day number, “A Woman’s Touch” was delivered with many a knowing accent), she finds a way to wring some compelling truth from its remains. Wilson is a sublime song stylist with a voice of considerable range and the ability to give even the most familiar number a freshness that can make you feel you’re hearing the lyrics for the first time. And Herbert’s musicality makes her an endlessly fascinating presence, injecting some real edge with a timbre that veers from her trademark theremin tremelo down to a throaty contralto.

From the minute they launched into “Girls, Girls, Girls” – with the excellent Simon Wallace at the piano, standing in for the indisposed Adrian York – the harmonies were exhilarating. Several numbers were delivered a cappella, with an infectious verve that conveyed just how much fun they were having on stage. “Under My Thumb” was given a typically risqué introduction and liberties were taken with the lyrics of the Bacharach/David classic “Wishin’ and Hopin’”, sticking a stiletto into their dated, submissive message. “Where Do You Go to My Lovely?” and, gloriously reinvented, that bizarre, epic 1982 travelogue “I’ve Never Been to Me”, were given similarly arch treatment.

Mari Wilson: sublime song stylist (picture by John Haxby)

From “Jump the Broomstick” to the joyously anthemic “I Am Woman”, the songs flowed thick and fast, each one delivering its own thrills and surprises. A mash-up of “I’m Every Woman” (Jungr), the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman” (with an up tempo Wilson soaring) and the Lisa Stansfield mega hit “All Woman” (Herbert in whisky-and-nicotine mode) was the tumultuous highlight of the second half; the arrangement was exhilarating.

But it wasn’t just about three established singers kicking back and enjoying safety in numbers. Each also had a solo spot and treated us to some superb torch singing. Herbert led the way in the first half with an absorbing take on “The Other Woman”: the mistress materialised in front of us, trapped in the ebb and flow of her private agony. Then Wilson delivered a ravishing “Touch Me in the Morning” that had the audience hanging on every word and, I suspect, banished all thoughts of the haughty Miss Ross. Finally, Jungr tore into “Woman in Love”. Think Piaf at her peak with a dash of Callas in the characterisation, and you’ll get the idea. Streisand has always declined to sing it in her concerts, despite the fact that it was one of her biggest hits, because she doesn’t identify with the lyrics. If she’d been in Colchester last night, she might have found a clue or two.

Gwyneth Herbert: from theremin to throaty contralto

This new Girl Talk is tremendously promising. The arc of the evening is brilliantly set by the different qualities of the three singers. There is work to be done on the links, certainly, and the ‘journey’ through the emotions and facets of life could be more clearly defined. But these are quibbles about an act that is still at its formative stage, with the potential to explore so many possibilities in terms of material and style. As Girl Talk evolves, it will be fascinating to see how their characters evolve within the context of the show, and strike sparks off each other. If these women come to your town, don’t miss the chance to see them. They’re a class act.

CD Review – Renée Yoxon: Let’s Call it a Day; plus news of Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Girl Talk, Marianne Faithfull and a Sondheim cabaret season

24 Dec

Renée Oxon sings “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” on a fire escape in Ottawa. The sound quality on her album, Let’s Call it a Day, (reviewed below) is much better!

Wilson, Jungr and Herbert: the new Girl Talk line-up hits London in February

Congratulations to Barb Jungr, whose album The Men I Love has just been named Cabaret CD of the Year by Time Out New York.

Barb and Mari Wilson will be joined in the new year by the equally talented Gwyneth Herbert, as they launch a revived Girl Talk with a new show – I Am Woman. Girl Talk begin a week-long residence at The Pheasantry in London’s King’s Road on 8th February.

Mari has just released a fabulous slab of electro-pop, with a slash of retro hi-energy, collaborating with Boisounds on a party floor filler, “O.I.C.”, which is available for free download.

Horses & High Heels: Marianne Faithfull's new album, out in March

Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses & High Heels comes out in March. “I don’t really do conventional,” she warns us in advance publicity. As if we didn’t know. A taster track, the self-penned “Why Did We Have to Part”, is available for free download until 19th January.

Back at The Pheasantry, there is a really good reason for fans of Stephen Sondheim’s work to join the Sondheim Society. In tandem with the Society, producer Sam Joseph has conceived a series of Monday night cabarets starring some of the biggest names from all areas of London musical theatre. Society members benefit from advance notice of the programme and discounted ticket prices. Confirmed so far are: Alex Young (10th January), Sally Ann Triplett (21st February) and Mrs Lovett-to be – at Chichester later in the year – Imelda Staunton (14th March). Future appearances are expected by Rosemary Ashe, Janie Dee, Robert Meadmore, Adrian Grove, Graham Bickley, Michael Peavoy and leading West End musical director Gareth Valentine.

Let's Call it a Day: an auspicious debut from Renée Yoxon

Who’d have thought a physics degree would be the ideal foundation for a career as a torch singer? OK, so she was doing a little music on the side, but Renée Yoxon’s decision to ditch formulae for the jazz clubs of Ottawa is one of those left-field decisions that can occasionally lead to thrilling careers. And on the evidence of her first album, Let’s Call it a Day, this young Canadian could be the biggest female talent to emerge in her field since Diana Krall.

It’s an assured and auspicious debut. Accompanied only by veteran virtuoso René Gely on a selection of guitars – his steel string, in particular, rings with marvellously crisp authority – and occasional piano, Yoxon has reinvented a selection of standards with a refreshing boldness. Not in a revolutionary way, but mainly by re-establishing the lyric as the focus of attention, stripping it away from the overblown tendencies of so many younger interpreters at the moment.

Yoxon’s voice is something to treasure. Like one of the UK’s rising stars, Rumer, with her slightly husky accents and bang-on vocal authority, nothing seems to intimidate Yoxon. The opening track, “The Look of Love”, is a case in point. Bacharach’s off-beat melodies are notoriously tricky to do well, but Yoxon slides through it with lightly-oiled ease.

Undercurrents of melancholy and Billie Holiday-like phrasing seep through her interpretations of “Willow Weep for Me”, a shimmering “The Masquerade is Over” and of course – with an intimacy that’s almost audaciously spare – “Don’t Explain”. Two self-penned numbers, “Let’s Call it a Day” and “Lovers’ Lullaby” add to the album’s sense of freshness. There’s also a French-language version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well be Spring”.

If the final track, “One For My Baby”, betrays her youthfulness and lack of cynicism – catharsis seekers will probably miss the spirit of a wracked and bloodshot Sinatra – equally, it hints at what we can expect from Yoxon in the future. She’s set herself a high bar indeed.

Concert review: Gwyneth Herbert, An Exploration of the Sea, Britten Studio, Snape, 1st October 2010

2 Oct
A legend in her own living room: Gwyneth Herbert’s acoustic version of “My Narrow Man”

Gwyneth Herbert: a vocal chameleon in statement shoes

It was quite a night to head up to Snape on the wild side of Suffolk for the premiere of Gwyneth Herbert’s sea-inspired new song cycle. The heavens seemed to be hurling buckets of water in rapid succession at the windscreen, making the A12 in the rush hour even more of a challenge than usual.

In the 30 seconds it took to dart from the car to the dry haven of the Britten Studio foyer, some of us had good reason to consider returning our waterproofs to their manufacturer with a stinging reference to the Trade Descriptions Act. Out on the salt marsh, curtains of rain continued to blow in from the North Sea. Autumn had arrived with a wet fanfare. Could Herbert’s experimental piece – the fruit of a six-month Aldeburgh Residency – possibly live up to such an appropriately elemental setting?

Yes, indeed it could. First, however, she sharpened our appetites with a set based mainly on songs from her most recent album, All the Ghosts, setting off at a cracking pace in statement heals and polkadots. “So Worn Out” was an instant showcase for one of the most fascinating, multi-textured female voices on the scene. Herbert can veer from smoky blues to a keening falsetto in a single phrase – a stiff challenge for the dextrous sound engineer, on his mettle throughout the evening. One minute, she has the sweet, clear timbre of the innocent folk singer. The next, she’s growling Grace Slick-style with the throaty rasp of a leather-lunged survivor. She’s a vocal chameleon, and it suits the rich imagery of songs that tell eccentric, sad, joyful and vibrant stories of life in London town that ring with authenticity.

All the Ghosts: vibrant stories of London life

Herbert’s virtuosity, and her eclectic taste in obscure instruments, asks a lot of her band: guitarist Al Cherry, Dave Price on a multitude of percussion, and Steve Holness on the double bass. And they did her proud through a roller-coaster repertoire, from the jaunty ode to a quaint boyfriend (“My Narrow Man”) to the melancholy torch-song “Some Days I Forget”, as close to an English chanson as you will find. “My Mini and Me” rang bells with anyone who finally has to say farewell to their first car, and “Annie’s Yellow Bag” struck a bittersweet blow for creative individuality. Sung live, “Put Your Mouth Where Your Money Is” came across like a gallows march for the critics, and despite Herbert’s disarmingly cheery wink, had some of us shifting uneasily in our seats.

But for me, the most affecting moment in the first half was the detour she made via a song from the score Herbert was commissioned to write for a screening of the Marion Davies silent film The Patsy. Even out of context, “Not the Sort of Girl” was an exquisite portrait of a whimsical creature, brought to life by Herbert’s plain, restrained vocal work.

That gift for conjuring characters in the space between the stage and the audience became even more apparent after the interval. For the eagerly awaited second set, Herbert and her band were joined by writer Heidi James and idiosyncratic folk trio The Rubber Wellies for a piece described as “An exploration of the sea”. Weaving the spoken word with Herbert’s evocative lyrics and audio tracks, the enlarged group proceeded to paint an aural seascape, populated by figures who sprang readily to life in the mind’s eye.

Herbert explained how she’d been inspired by her walks on the Aldeburgh shingle, by random conversations and encounters, to create a song cycle that roams far and wide for its references. In her pungent lyrics and engaging melodies, tavern drinkers rub shoulders with the redoubtable Fishguard women who repelled the invaders at the end of the 18th century; a captain thinks longingly of home; the brilliantly-sketched Miss Wittering – my favourite – sighs her way around the decaying gentility of her seaside hotel. And all are linked via Heidi James’s absorbing tale of the beachcomber, obsessively cataloguing her finds and sorting them in the shack, her “museum”. You waited agog to find out what the next list of detritus would contain.

The audience was enthralled. This was a mesmerising set, peppered with moments of drama, that found its way to the heart of our intense, ambivalent relationship with the seaside. There was, for example, a minute of eerie magic as Herbert, who had disappeared from sight, hypnotically rolling pebbles across the stretched hide of a drum to replicate the ebb and flow of the sea, reappeared at the back of the auditorium, her siren voice floating unaccompanied down to the front row.

As a subject, the sea plays to all Herbert’s strengths as a songwriter, and she has responded in kind with laments and shanties to stir the heart. Any quibbles are minor – a cluttered stage, which sometimes prevented her from moving fluidly from mic to piano, for example, and the lack of an imaginative lighting plot that would have heightened the drama – and will surely be resolved as the piece evolves from being a freshly minted work in progress.

This is only the beginning for Gwyneth Herbert’s sea song cycle, which surely has an exciting future in live performance and – please, Mr Producer – a good recording.

Why Was She Born? The Legacy of Helen Morgan

11 Apr

Helen Morgan: a strong legacy for today's torch singers

It’s been a fine week on BBC4 for lovers of old- and new-style torch singing. The channel’s celebration of the Great American Songbook was stuffed with profiles, documentaries and performances rich in the genre, from a biography of Ella Fitzgerald to a welcome repeat of Walk on By, a series on the history of popular song.

One of the highlights was a BBC4 Sessions concert featuring Gwyneth Herbert giving an exemplary take on the Ruth Etting classic, “Love Me or Leave Me”, Melody Gardot’s exquisitely underplayed “Over the Rainbow”, and a great “September in the Rain” from Sharleen Spiteri – all demonstrating that the torch song has never been in better hands.

But most poignant of all was the excellent Clint Eastwood-produced exploration of the life of lyricist Johnny Mercer, The Dream’s on Me. One hundred minutes sped past in a succession of comments and performance snippets – Julie Andrews, Cleo Laine, Margaret Whiting, Maude Maggart (singing a wonderfully touching “Skylark”, accompanied by Jamie Cullum.)

During one of the numerous interview clips of Mercer talking about his craft he mentioned, in passing, Helen Morgan as an example of somebody you would write a particular type of song for. It struck a real chord. Morgan was briefly a huge Broadway star and created the role of Julie in Jerome Kern’s Showboat. But even by the time Mercer referred to her in the 1970s, she had been dead for more than 30 years, and today her name is scarcely heard.

Her style of singing in a light, throbbing soprano, is light years from modern popular taste. Yet Morgan was one of the first of the great torch singers. And a few weeks ago, I had no hesitation in drawing a comparison between Jessie Buckley’s intense, touching way with torch songs in her performance at Pizza on the Park, and Morgan’s way of luring the listener into her lamentations of love gone wrong.

When Helen Morgan’s picture flashed across the television screen, it reminded me of what sparked my interest in the torch idiom over two decades ago. So after focusing on some of the young singers who have piqued my curiosity in recent weeks, here’s a trip back to the roots of the genre.

Helen Morgan was a tragic figure – not in a hell-raising Amy Winehouse way, although she was equally profligate with her talent. When things got too troubled, she’d quietly have another brandy, eventually fulfilling a destiny that was pretty much prescribed in her first starring role as the doomed Julie. But it says much for her legacy that every now and then, a modern performance can still evoke her name and a nod back down the years to a great, if shooting, star.

Helen Morgan sings “Bill”

This is an article I wrote about her in the late 1980s, which hasn’t seen the light of day until now. It’s a bit stodgy and essay-ish in places – and naïve in its approach – but I’m posting it here because in many ways it sums up the elements of torch-singing that I continue to find so compelling – and because I can illustrate it with video, something that would have seemed impossible back then!

Why Was She Born? – The Legacy of Helen Morgan (1988)

Morgan's voice had a unique, pleading quality

Since its plaintive genesis in the early 1920s, the torch song has proved a consistent link between a galaxy of female singers who in other respects could hardly differ more greatly. As an idiom, it provides a historic, if unlikely bridge from Fanny Brice to Barbra Streisand, from Judy Garland to Kiri te Kanawa, from Ruth Etting to Shirley Bassey and from Jane Froman to Dusty Springfield. None of these ladies has ever limited themselves to the genre of the torch song. But each at one time or another has sung from the point of view of the woman on the losing side in love.

If Fanny Brice lit the first torch with her rendering of the classic “My Man”, (“Mon Homme”), consider how Billie Holiday interpreted the same song as a blues number and made it in turn her own. And if Edith Piaf ran the gamut of emotions, she certainly included in her repertoire chansons of a very torchy sentiment. All of these singers at one time or another have reflected through the torch song the suffering of a woman at the hands of a man who does nothing but let her down, but whom she can’t help loving.

Just as the idiom has become more lush and plangent, more downright dramatic, so it has tended to obscure its quieter and more tremulous origins. Now that Dame Kiri has extended her range to include classic torch by George Gershwin, and with a revival of interest in Dusty Springfield’s fulsome entreaty, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”, not to mention the interest that never went away in Garland bemoaning “The Man That Got Away”, it is high time to re-evaluate the contribution of the women who started it all with such sentiments as “Why Was I Born?”

With the release of a full-length, universally well-received recording of Showboat, it might be appropriate to focus on the woman who made its two classic torch songs, “Bill” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” her own. Her name was Helen Morgan and she might be even less remembered here had not Robyn Archer selected her as an example for her show A Star is Torn.

Helen Morgan made these two songs her own by stamping the torch style with her own delicate lilting soprano. At least two recordings of her renderings survive and are reasonably available. The later pressings can be heard on what amounts to the first cast recording of Showboat which is actually a record of the show’s 1932 revival.

They are remarkable not only for their clarity but for the freshness and immediacy of Morgan’s performances at a distance of over half a century. Her voice has little in common with modern popular tastes but through its unique pleading quality and her astute use of a natural huskiness on key lyrics, it is quite heart-rending in its subtlety.

“I See Two Lovers” – a quintessential Helen Morgan performance

Anybody seeking for an introduction to her lamentably brief recording career should start right here. The extraordinary effect she achieved owes much to her own talent and the light orchestra or band backing favoured by artistes of the day, and little to the dramatic and histrionic lamentations of her future sisters in song. Perhaps the closest we can get these days is to listen to Julia McKenzie’s interpretation of Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” in Follies. This is at once a pastiche and wholly authentic.

Song of  Dreamer: great close-ups of a troubled torch singer

Although tracks by Morgan turn up from time to time on compilation albums (FLAPPERS, VAMPS AND SWEET YOUNG THINGS, Living Era 1982, AJA 5015), it is largely thanks to the Take Two label that a sizeable volume of her work has been gathered together. They have compiled a generous selection for the album HELEN MORGAN-Legacy of a Torch Singer, (1986, TT220) although it is rather biased in favour of her earlier material. Much of this is of interest more for its definitive period flavour than as classic torch singing.

It is really in the sessions recorded in the thirties that the depth of Morgan’s voice had matured considerably from the tremulous high notes which mark songs such as “Just Like a Butterfly”. But there are some real gems on this album, most especially the hauntingly regretful “I See Two Lovers”, which also turns up on the album FALLING IN LOVE AGAIN – Classic Female Vocalists of the ‘30s (Conifer 1987, TQ 155). This recording demonstrates to perfection the wistful catch in Morgan’s voice, a sadness which she was able to convey through restraint rather than high drama.

For a more general introduction, Take Two dips into the careers of four singers including Helen Morgan on its album THE ORIGINAL TORCH SINGERS 91980 TT207). The others are Fanny Brice, Libby Holman and Ruth Etting. The latter was probably the most prolific female recording artist of the thirties and numerous collections of her material are widely available. She seems to have endured the test of time more readily than Helen Morgan, while Fanny Brice is better know as Funny Girl these days.

Helen Morgan was a performance chanteuse who, apart from her major stage roles, sang in nightclubs and starred in the Ziegfeld Follies. She might have been a great film actress but after an auspicious debut in Applause the right parts never came along. She might have been an even greater recording artist but performing was her forte and she did other things only as time permitted. Nevertheless diligent searching can result in the discovery of rare pressings, including previously unreleased radio broadcasts which are increasingly becoming a source for the nostalgia buff.

Perhaps the greatest torch song of all is Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”. Yet Morgan never recorded the song commercially. It would be nice to think that an unpublished pressing or wireless performance lurks in a vault somewhere awaiting discovery. In its original working, as sung by Morgan, it would undoubtedly be a far cry from the lavish interpretations of more recent times.

As it is, we can still appreciate the difference in concept between then and now by listening to Helen Morgan’s soufflé-light rendering of “Why Was I Born?” which in accordance with more modern tastes is usually belted out over a rich orchestral backing. Suddenly, to hear how it was originally performed is to hear how it should be performed. The surprise is genuinely moving.

And Helen Morgan perhaps more than any other singer of her generation comes closest to crossing the line between torch and blues. Not that her voice bore any resemblance to Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday. But listen to her interpretation of “Frankie and Johnny” and hear how the divide between them is not so great after all.

There was clearly a brief revival of interest in Helen Morgan’s career after her sad life was given typical Hollywood treatment in a 1954 biopic (The Helen Morgan Story, with Ann Blyth’s singing voice dubbed by Gogi Grant, herself a great torch singer of the 1950s). Collections of her rarer recordings including standards like “Body and Soul” and “More Than You Know” were issued, usually pairing her off with Fanny Brice. There is also a 1969 album issued by RCA Victor in its vintage series which boasts a very discering selection of her material.

These recordings are obviously harder to come by but well worth seeking out. In many ways the quality of these pre-digital mastering issues is clearer than more recent efforts, mainly because the sound is completely true to the original.

Helen Morgan in characteristic pose atop a grand piano

Despite the quality of her more obscure material, the greatest testimony to her rare talent as a torch singer is her legacy of the show-stopping standards which enraptured her audience wherever she was performing, usually characteristically perched atop a grand piano. That such a quality can still capture the imagination after so many years is surely a reason for restoring Helen Morgan to her rightful place in the gallery of all-time-great female performers.

Love Me or Leave Me – a feature I wrote for Gay Times on the classic torch singers, from December 1991 read

Handing on the Torch – a piece for The Wire magazine, tracing torch singing from its roots to modern smart pop read