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George M. Cohan and Al Jolson:
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Reviews by Rob Lester

The past and present projects put together by Chip Deffaa to survey and celebrate prominent early icons of American musical entertainment beg for their own index or Venn diagrams to show reappearing songs and returning participants. He's come up with several different stage pieces focused on George M. Cohan; decades-long collecting and research have spawned several recordings of Cohan material (as has been the case with his deep dives into Irving Berlin we've covered here in the past). And he has also issued collections of rarer Al Jolson performances. Let's catch up with the catchy tunes rewarding reminders of sturdy, "simpler" (and simply terrific) songs and styles.

Garret Mountain Records
CD | Digital

The spunk and sparkle of vaudeville and early Broadway come alive through the through-and-through infectious performances by the cast of The George M. Cohan Revue. Swirling through more than 50 numbers (some in combinations or as fragments, some reprised), it's a dizzying delight.

Playing songwriter/entertainer/playwright/producer Cohan (1878-1942), indispensable Jon Peterson ignites the material with firecracker flare and flair, as also evidenced by his portrayal in George M. Cohan Tonight!, the one-man show, cast recording, and film. It's great to hear him here in the company of kindred spirit castmates nailing the old-timey panache, plus a wink at the ancient fad for uber-sentimental, tearjerker ballads of despair. Cohan's original music and lyrics are impressively supplemented by the deft work of Chip Deffaa (a Renaissance Man himself who handled script, direction and producing), who fashioned additional words and some of his own splendid melodies. The period pastiche is vibrant and very much in sync with the established flavor and fervor. A couple of very brief oldies by others are tossed in for good measure and extra authenticity/schmaltz.

Curiously, the packaging of the CD doesn't specify the year of recording or the performance venue for what the cover vaguely calls "The Cast Recording," but my confirmed-via-Google memory points to the middle of the first decade of this century when there were productions with this cast around Manhattan. In any case, the happy news is that it's commercially available now, and sounds spiffy.

There are bonus tracks: poet Jack Foley offers an impassioned spoken appreciation on the oeuvre and the power of songs, and Michael Townsend Wright winningly sings the perfect postscript with the proposition that "Life Is Like a Musical Comedy."

Several splashy specialties of the full Cohan family troupe of four are grand fun. Dawne Swearingen adds her rich, supple voice as sister Josie and a strong sense of born-to-the-breed veteran showbiz savvy comes with solo moments for either of the parents. Cast as Mr. and Mrs. Cohan, Joan Jaffe and Hal Blankenship (married in real life) are a pleasure to hear, mining laughs from lines like her growled words "hot potato" and "red-hot radiator" in "The Warmest Baby in the Bunch" and the late Mr. Blankenship's cute asides between fleet phrases in "My Babe from Boston Town." And all four romp with glee through the ode to the "Musical Moon."

Beyond his go-to mode of all-stops-out showstopperdom, Jon Peterson evokes sympathy by projecting a sobered perspective with "I'm Mighty Glad I'm Living and That's All" and "I Won't Be an Actor No More." It's a treat to see his robust and bromidic style matched in eager-beaver duets with super-charged Seth Sikes on "I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune" and "All Aboard for Broadway." Ensemble singing in Peterson-led group numbers is robust and bright. "All-American Sweetheart" is a personality-plus sweetheart of a pleaser with the Cohan melodic bounce and Deffaa chipping in new words.

Credits for the musical direction and piano accompaniment for the recording of the production go to Michael Lavine and Sterling Price-McKinley, and their work drives but never overwhelms the bliss and bluster. I like the way the anthem "Give My Regards to Broadway" isn't merely a one-mood jubilation and determination, but takes its time to linger in the longing to return and then builds up speed and steam to steamroll its way to imagined triumph without losing the pang of memories. Likewise, "Over There" is more than a glib rah-rah rally; it seethes with resolve and an undercurrent of acknowledged danger. The short entr'acte emphasizes Cohan's gift for rock-solid, sprightly melodies.

I hereby give my regards to all those who made it possible for us to mingle with the old-time throng of memories and music cued by the release of The George M. Cohan Revue.

Garret Mountain Records
CD | Digital

Here's a pizzazz-packed collection with many singers capturing the vivacity and sweetness of presentational vintage songs. Without condescending or self-conscious approaches that could make things feel forced, tepid or twee, The George M. Cohan Songbook feels fresh and bubbling over with joy.

The legacy of the legendary composer/lyricist's merry material is alive and swell with the continued dedication of his champion, Chip Deffaa: musicologist, playwright, producer, et. al. Last year, he curated a release called Rare Performances that included renditions of Cohan songs by the tunesmith himself and celebrated the release of a film treatment of his George M. Cohan Tonight! with song-and-dance dynamo Jon Peterson channeling the icon, as he has done over the years in numerous mountings of the one-man autobiographical musical, its cast album, and The George M. Cohan Revue.

This 34-track set is peppered with peppy Peterson's renditions. He revisits a few of the most iconic numbers like "You're a Grand Old Flag" as well as well-polished rarities not covered (or uncovered) before, like "Dancing Our Worries Away," where he's joined by amiable Mr. Deffaa himself. The latter also charms, stepping decisively into vaudeville mode, complete with breezy banter and historical tidbits when paired with up-and-coming young talent like the confident, capable Jeremy Lanuti on "Harrigan." Old-school sensibilities welcome newer "old souls."

A wide range of material encompasses numbers heard in the prolific Cohan's many Broadway shows, such as Forty-five Minutes from Broadway, A Little Bit of Everything, Little Nellie Kelly, Little Johnny Jones, The Little Millionaire, and more than a "little" from other sources. The many tracks deliver the goods efficiently and effectively, satisfying even when super-short and sweet (with running times around a minute or even less).

The CD version comes with a booklet with the producer's conversational liner notes about songs and the singers. Most are members of what's become a kind of repertory company for studio sets mixing old pros and the game but green; this is certainly one of the most even of the offerings.

David Herzog, who has also taken on the role of Cohan in the one-man stage vehicle, has a few appearances, impressing most strongly with the precise crispness and briskness needed for "Until My Luck Comes Rolling Along," matching, note for note, the meticulously tickle-tempoed keyboard playing by this set's ideal choice of musical director/accompanist, veteran Richard Danley. Other especially effective and engaging work comes from Dea Julien with "Down by the Erie Canal," slyly switching musical gears to describe and demonstrate the socko presentations producers want in show tunes and the duo of Michael Townsend Wright and Melodie Wolford longing for the old days (now even older!) "When New York Was New York."

The shot-out-of-a-cannon energy on many tracks is complemented by some devotional romantic turns and the lilting nostalgia of things like "Ireland, My Land of Dreams," crooned with unblinking wistfulness by Jack Corbin. The craft of these solidly built songs is highlighted with the singers' attentive diction that showcases the rhyming and their general comfort with the pow or plushness of melodies laid out in period-invoking atmosphere by the piano.

The George M. Cohan Songbook is a refreshing refresher course about this formidable forefather of music. And what an enjoyable smile-inducing history lesson it is!

Garret Mountain Records
CD | Digital

A trio of show tunes written by George M. Cohan, the evergreen "Am I Blue?" when it was fairly new, and the plea synonymous with the Depression ("Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?") join material Al Jolson more famously sang throughout his career on the collection King of Broadway. The usual suspects—"April Showers," "You Made Me Love You," "Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo'bye)" and more—are not heard in their most-often-heard renditions (classic studio and soundtrack versions that have been reissued over and over, over the decades). The famous become fresh. Standbys can stand being shaken up with different arrangements and looser phrasing. It's not radical enough for us to overstate the changes by invoking Jolson's famous movie line, "You ain't heard nothin' yet!"... but vive la différence!

These rare renditions, taken from live radio broadcasts and even performances for the troops in Korea, add welcome flavors that spice up the same old/same old brew for those who'd grown accustomed to his pace. For the uninitiated, the "replacements" are full of more than enough Jolsonisms to serve as worthy introductions.

The distinctively emphatic and "big" performing style of Al Jolson (1886-1950) is due, in part, to the necessary method of projecting songs from the stage in the era he found early fame: before amplification with microphones was the norm. The supersized expressiveness and vocal mannerisms, served with generous amounts of ham and a side of corn, may seem cartoonishly quaint to those who have had minimal exposure to the brash, stylized entertainer and his ilk. The three dozen performances here, including several of the trademark numbers done in two different ways, don't span a wide range of "36 expressions, sweet as pie to tough as leather," to quote a lyric from Funny Girl, but they offer quite a few chances to be won over by the guy who was arguably the greatest star of his time. Breaks from the show-biz fizz do arrive: witness "The Cantor," sung in Yiddish, and the understated delivery of "The Anniversary Song" from the last year of his life.

The title King of Broadway reminds us not just of his popularity, but that he appeared many times on the Great White Way way back when, and sang many of what became his signature songs on its stages. Sometimes they were interpolated into the planned scores, the works of outside writers, or added during a run. Most are now far better known than their shows, destined to become stand-alone standards. For the CD version, the titles of those productions are helpfully indicated on the track list, but, alas, the songwriters' names are not given. Some, however, are announced in Jolson's spoken introductions or mentioned in the appreciative liner notes by curator Chip Deffaa, longtime fan.

Songs extolling wonderful times to be found in specific locations are in abundance, lavished with love for each home sweet home or dripping nostalgic homesickness: "California Here I Come"; "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" (a zingy duet with Martha Raye); "On the Banks of the Wabash"; "On the Road to Calais"; and, memorably, the glorifying of the South with "Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody," "Swanee," and "My Mammy." Vicarious travels are rarely so full of happy trails or frequent cryer miles. The staycation comes with appreciating where "happiness lies," remaining "Back in Your Own Backyard."

George M. Cohan might contest Al Jolson's coronation as The King of Broadway during their overlapping years in the spotlight, but the writer's material is well served in this set. The solo of "Mary's a Grand Old Name" segues into "So Long, Mary," an adorable duet with Peggy Lee, and "Give My Regards to Broadway" shared with comedian George Jessel.

Al Jolson sings Irving Berlin in bulk on another volume of this series, titled–what else?–Al Jolson Sings Irving Berlin, and there's another treatment of one of those here: the mantra "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." It's contagious; let him sing and I'm happy.

Garret Mountain Records
CD | Digital

It isn't too late to discover early versions of material that the irrepressible Al Jolson would revisit over and over, on records, radio and concerts. Among the 25 tracks on Al Jolson's Broadway are seven numbers that appear in other musical treatments on the companion compilation King of Broadway. Certain differences are more striking overall; several performances are more straightforward, not as embellished with personal touches and shtick, and the voice is higher on some tracks. Oh, but the idiosyncratic Jolson showmanship shows its bright colors. To give one example, a live "My Mammy" is plenty hammy, complete with spoken lines midway.

The collection's title is a stretch. The liner notes don't offer a justification for the choice. You'd probably guess that something called Al Jolson's Broadway has a batch of show tune covers, going beyond the musicals he was in. No, oddly most of the songs herein were not hatched in Broadway musicals beyond the items Jolson did in productions like Bombo, Big Boy, Sinbad, and Robinson Crusoe, Jr.–ten numbers in all, as indicated next to the respective song titles (but no tracks get writer credits). To be literal, Jolson may have sung some of the independent songs while on Broadway stages during concerts he did there or "encore" sets he was known to do after the cast bows. But there are plenty of worthy standards and novelties, so, to quote the title of one such inclusion, by Jack Yellen and Milton Ager: "Who Cares?"

There are a few Irving Berlin items not written for the stage, a three-part medley of classics ("Whispering"/ "My Melancholy Baby" / "Poor Butterfly") and "Is It True What They Say About Dixie?," which fits right in with the singer's predilection for Southern comfort. "Home in Pasadena" (Harry Warren/ Grant Clarke & Edgar Leslie) joins the West wing populated by alternate but lively, fully realized takes on "California Here I Come" and "Avalon."

As must be expected due to age and rarity, sound quality is uneven; there's some remaining surface noise in places, more than on other such releases on Garret Mountain Records, but it's all worth tolerating. The robust energy and presence come through loud and (somewhat) clear.

Enter the entertainment world from a more carefree era with a visit to the vintage vault. Mr. Jolson awaits...