Personnel: Richard Rodgers (vocals, spoken vocals, piano); Don Ameche, Edgar Bergen (vocals, spoken vocals); Bernice Saunders, Dorothy Lamour, Jerry Cooper, Lorenz Hart (vocals).
Liner Note Authors: Albert Petrak; Ken Bloom; Michael Feinstein; William Bolcom ; Hugh Martin.
The music of Richard Rodgers has worked its way into the general consciousness of American popular music to such an extent that it almost seems spontaneously generated; arguably, no civilized person has missed contact with some part The Sound of Music, but even some listeners devoted to American Musical Theater remain inexplicably incurious as to the man himself. We do not extend to Rodgers the same fascination that we have, for example, with George Gershwin, who died so young, or with Irving Berlin, who lived so long. Yet in Salzburg, they have opened a museum to The Sound of Music, and many experts agree that this work is the greatest musical of all time. Certainly, others with music written by him -- Babes in Arms, Oklahoma, South Pacific and The King and I -- would place very highly in any ranking of great musicals one could conceive.
Harbinger's Command Performance is about the first package in any format -- tape, LP, or disc -- to concentrate solely on Rodgers as a performer. Command Performance skims the various, scant groups of recordings retaining Rodgers pianism, conducting, alleged singing, and commentary, ranging from Ampico piano rolls cut in 1926 through a bit of a radio interview recorded in 1971, where he discusses the nature of his collaborations with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. Clearly, Harbinger is aiming for overall comprehension, yet sticks to the best material available. Eight of Rodgers' 14 known piano rolls are included, and these represent the only instance where he created records of his own playing for direct public consumption. Rodgers was not a flamboyant showman like Gershwin, and reserved what performing he did for purposes of promotion, both in-house to prospective backers and in limited public engagements such as radio guest appearances and the obligatory first night stint leading the band. In the first category are eight extraordinary 1934 demos that apparently feature Rodgers' own reedy, but surprisingly tuneful and endearing, singing voice in demos made for the film Mississippi (1935); as these demonstration records are uncredited, the identity of the vocalist is a little uncertain. Rodgers was not particularly fond of his own singing voice and reportedly didn't even do it in the shower. Another recording of this kind is South Pacific cast member Bernice Saunders singing "A Wonderful Guy" in a version with a first draft lyric from 1948, as is Rodgers performing "Waltz for a Ball" from the TV musical Cinderella taken from a rare promo LP. The rest is all from broadcast sources -- a guest appearance with Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen in 1937, "My Heart Stood Still" from the opening of WMGM radio in New York in 1948, and so forth.
Rodgers was a fine pianist, though again, not a heart-stopping virtuoso like Gershwin or an uproarious cut-up like Cole Porter, just a fellow whose playing worked in the service of his art. One of the reasons for the general sense of incuriousness regarding Rodgers is that, apart from his activities on the Great White Way, he was an intensely private man, and one wonders how he would have found the time to produce more than 900 songs if he hadn't been so. That's one of the real benefits, and joys, of Harbinger's Command Performance; hearing Rodgers play affords a rare glimpse of his personality, something he wasn't always dying to reveal to the public at large. Many of the songs are obscure, and one would have loved to hear him play, say, "Carousel Waltz" or "March of the Siamese Children" from The King and I -- but such recordings were never made. Equally fascinating are the vintage photos included, featuring Rodgers in his twenties, freshly scrubbed and looking like an accountant for a Wall Street firm. This Harbinger release enters the field as an invaluable resource for understanding one of the greatest composers in American Popular Song, and as such, recommends itself. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis
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