When I read that Frank Wess had died recently, I remembered that he’d been featured on the GMC in the past so I set about the process I usually follow to mark the passing of a notable musical performer, which is to revive the original post and add some new material. What I discovered was that he’d actually shown up twice; both times in my reviews of new albums. (Newer visitors to the GMC might not realize that many of the earlier posts were written during my ‘music critic’ phase.)
Wess, who died at age 91 in New York, was an award-winning flutist and saxophonist who performed in – and sometimes led – many different musical groups throughout his long career. During his seven decades of performing he worked with everybody from Count Basie to Mel Tormé, while earning many honors and the respect of his peers.
Here are links to the two earlier posts and a song from one of the albums. At the bottom is a video of Frank Wess.
REVIEW: Frank Wess Nonet – Once Is Not Enough
REVIEW: Hank Jones & Frank Wess – Hank and Frank II
Frank Wess Nonet -”Dementia, My Darling”
Although our mental image of a big band era crooner is of a suave, velvet-voiced charmer who could purr into the microphone while the ladies swooned, it wasn’t always like that. Harry Babbitt, who could certainly fill the bill as a traditional crooner – his boss, bandleader Kay Kyser, usually introduced him as ‘Handsome Harry’ – was sometimes called upon for something a little different. Like doing Woody Woodpecker’s maniacal laugh.
Kyser’s outfit could generate some solid music but it was also known for novelties, so when a special new song came along in the late 1940s Babbitt was enlisted to help. The St. Louis native had been with the band for a decade by then (minus a couple of years of WWII military service) and was an important part of the popular band’s many activities, including its numerous movie appearances. He’d also sung on many of the hits, like “Who Wouldn’t Love You,” but he was just as good with whimsical songs like “Three Little Fishies.” So when “The Woody Woodpecker Song” came along he was ready to tackle it.
Songstress Gloria Wood actually did most of the conventional singing in the song, but it was Babbitt’s crazy-sounding woodpecker laugh that sold it. The record became a best-seller for the band and led to the song’s use in later cartoons, which made it a part of every kid’s memories of those days. (Including mine.)
As for Babbitt, he eventually built up quite a list of hit records with the band, with songs like “I’ll Get By,” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” among his best. But he also had a lot of fun with other novelty pieces like his best-seller “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” (Another record I remember being around our house.)
By the 1960s he was ready for something else, and he spent a couple of decades in private business. However, when Kyser died in 1985 Babbitt bought the rights to his musical legacy and for many years led a reconstituted outfit on tour. He eventually retired for good and died at age 90 in 2004.
Kay Kyser Orchestra – “Woody Woodpecker Song”
Among the many actresses who sang, one of the best was the smokey-voiced Alice Faye, who for a while seemed to be in just about every colorful movie musical around. But she was the real thing, a trained singer and dancer who starred in a lot of films, even though her fierce independence might have helped contribute to a nearly two-decade lapse in her career.
Alice Jeanne Leppert was the daughter of a New York City cop and she grew up fast, working as a vaudeville chorus girl in the late 1920s when she was just 14. Within a couple of years she was calling herself Alice Faye while singing and dancing in the chorus of a Broadway show, and it was there that she was discovered by bandleader/singer Rudy Vallée, at that time a huge star. She joined his orchestra troupe and her career continued to build while she worked with him and others, on tour and in the recording studio.
A few years later Faye and Vallée co-starred in the movie version of the same Broadway show he’d discovered her in, George White’s Scandals. Over the next decade Faye was the go-to girl for just about every movie musical around, beginning with early black and white films and eventually blossoming into the lush color movies of the 1940s. Along the way she married and divorced Tony Martin, but then clicked for keeps with Phil Harris. Their marriage lasted for more than 50 years, until his death in 1995.
By the mid-1940s Faye had softened her look a little from the early ‘Jean Harlow’ style of thin eyebrows and platinum hair, and it suited her. It was at least partially helped along by advice from studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck, but she began to chafe from his constant meddling and after he threatened to replace her with Betty Grable, she pretty much said goodbye to Hollywood. For almost two decades she preferred to be a wife and mother but she also found plenty to do working with her husband, especially on a popular radio show. She did make a brief comeback in the 1962 remake of State Fair, but it would be her last big role and she was pretty much satisfied with the occasional spot appearance in later years. She died at age 83 in 1998.
Alice Faye – “You’ll Never Know”