I am not one who believes that everything that happened fifty years ago was good and everything that happens today is bad, but in the field of popular music, for my taste, at least, it is a truism. There was a glorious period between Rudy Vallee and the Beatles which was a golden age in every sense of the word. The writers were extraordinary, the big bands were wonderfully disciplined organizations, and along with them there were what we used to call "Lounge Singers."
They were different from "Saloon Singers," mostly in that they accompanied themselves on piano, and very often worked alone. Cabaret Performers, who formed a second leg of the triangle, were different; they often put together a program of music that told a story, and usually talked with the audience about the songs as they performed them. The lounge singers sang all types of popular music, and one could not estimate how many there were in the world at their peak. They worked in Cocktail Lounges, and if you were of a mind to do it, you could sit at the bar and nurse a 50 cent bottle of beer for most of the evening without feeling the least bit intimidated. There were dozens of them in every major city, and at least one in all small towns.
Two of the very best in that bygone time were Matt Dennis and Bobby Troup. They worked mostly in Los Angeles, and both of them made a few recordings, but they never caught on in the kind of big way that is necessary to stay in the public eye - or ear - these days. They and the others like them inspired no cover charge, no music charge and no minimum. They were there, courtesy of the management, and in that simpler time, no one thought anything about it. It never occurred to us that it was an era that would pass away. We expected it to go on forever. And in one sense it can. Their recordings are very hard to find, but if you persevere, you can do it, at a price. About fifteen years ago I decided that I would find a record from each of them that I remembered from the 1950's, and I did, although I could not buy the record. I had to settle for an audio tape, which meant I have none of the graphics on the albums, thus no picture of either one. There was an unusual record store on West 44th Street in Manhattan which specialized in hard to find items. It had been in business for a long time, and its secret was that the owner had a friend who had an extensive, and I mean extensive, collection. When someone came in asking for a specific record, he would call his friend and if the friend had it, they would make a tape and sell it the customer. It was obviously a breach of copyright, but it could not have been a secret, and apparently everyone who could be expected to be concerned about it just looked the other way. All of the records that they sold on that basis were out-of-print, and perhaps those who look after such things - and they have the eyes of eagles and the temperament of barracudas - thought it might help the singers if they could still be found in the market.
At any rate, I paid forty dollars each for a Matt Dennis, a Bobby Troup and a Sauter-Finnegan Orchestra recording, all of which are very difficult to find. And it was worth every penny. If you were to go see the best known of the current Lounge Singers, Bobby Short, you would pay a music charge which can go as high as $60. and be expected to buy two or three drinks as well. So, you can tell yourself that it is a bargain.
Matt Dennis was born in Seattle Washington on February 11, 1914. That makes him 83 years old at the moment, so I doubt that he is performing regularly. I saw him on a television program within the last year, performing with his wife of long standing, a singer herself whose professional name is Virginia Maxey, and we should all hope to look and sound as good when we reach that ripe age. He sang one of his best known songs, Violets For Your Furs and reminisced about the days in the late 40's when he could be found at lounges that carried the names, Tally-Ho, The Encore, The Captain's Table, and when you could walk down "restaurant row" in Los Angeles, La Cienega Boulevard was its other name, and never be more than a couple of hundred feet away from another lounge with another singer.
He was born into a musical family; his father was a singer and his mother a violinist, and the family business was a vaudeville act. There he made his debut as one of "The Five Musical Lovelands." In 1933, he joined the Horace Heidt orchestra as piano player and vocalist. Several years later, he formed a band with Dick Haymes, one of the great popular baritones of the time. Haymes fronted the band, but Matt Dennis was the musical brain behind it. At the same time, he was building a reputation as an arranger for popular singers. He worked as arranger, accompanyist and vocal coach for Martha Tilton, and helped out a new group that had recently formed called The Stafford Sisters. One of the sisters was named Jo, and in 1940, she when she had joined the Tommy Dorsey Band, she convinced TD to hire Matt as staff arranger-composer. In one year, Dorsey recorded fourteen of Matt's songs, including EVERYTHING HAPPENS TO ME, which was one of Frank Sinatra's early hits with the band.
Matt Dennis spent 3 ½ years in the US Air Force during World War II, and followed that with a stint in New York as an arranger and performer in a number of network radio programs. When Dick Haymes got his network radio show, Matt Dennis became the music director, and along with lyricist Tom Adair, each week wrote an original "theme" show-within-the show, which was called THE AUTO-LITE OPERA, honoring the sponsor of the program. Somewhere, the chances are that those little gems exist, but they have never been heard outside of those radio programs. Sad loss.
According to the musician's dictionary, Matt Dennis made a total of six albums in his career, and all of them appear to be out of print. The one that I knew was recorded live at the Tally-Ho in Los Angeles, and is a typical Matt Dennis program, which features songs for which he wrote the music. He is a very good piano player, and his voice is a light tenor, which he uses to great effect. If you are a lover of the music of that era, you will be surprised at the songs he wrote. This is the program on Trend Records: Composers Series. For what good it may do, the album number is TL1500.
It seems to me to be a perfect program. A song that I had never heard before and have never heard in any other setting, is JUNIOR AND JULIE, which had a perfect lyric for the romantic time in which it was written. "We're saving our pennies for Junior and Julie / the two greatest kids in the land / Julie's a doll and that Junior's a howl / when you see them, you'll understand." The song traces the parents' hopes for the kids. "Junior will be a great Doctor," and "Julie will be a great lady..." and at the very end, the song confesses that it might be to early to tell, because "We just got married today..." A very touching, very tender song, with lyrics, I think, by Tom Adair.
There is a cute touch in EVERYTHING HAPPENS TO ME. Dennis wrote a special chorus to tell what it's like to sing in a cocktail lounge, "And when I sing a solo / Then the Waring Blender goes" complete with a Waring Blender for sound effect, and LET'S GET AWAY FROM IT ALL give Dennis a chance to, as we used to say, "really swing." For my taste, the program is perfectly chosen and perfectly performed. You really do get the feeling that one had sitting there, nursing your drink.
Adair was a wonderfully clever writer, not literary in the sense of Johnny Mercer or Mitchell Parrish, and not as classyu as Ira Gershwin, but he had a real facility and a wry was of looking at things. WHEN YOU LOVE A FELLOW begins with, "When you love a fellow / You don't care if he's got dough / If he's tops with Dun and Bradstreet / That's all you gotta know..." COMPARED TO YOU, has the lines " A Bright Moonlight Sonata / A Rhapsody by Liszt / a sparkling ogligato / A story wityh a twist. . . ". Nicelt turned - we get the point.
After finishing this piece, I went by my music store to check Matt Dennis on the computer. They list only MATT DENNIS PLAYS AND SINGS MATT DENNIS, the album from which I quotes, and say, simply, "It is not being manufactured any more." In one sense, it is too bad to tell you about this treasure without being able to share it, or at least, where to find it. It is a little like passing an eight course meal before a hungry man, but if you persevere, you may be able to find it, or at least find someone who has a copy that you can, pardon the expression, copy. And that will make it all worth while.
It is a wonderful example of a world long lost. Let me know if you find it.