pondělí 14. července 2014

Don Romano: "For me, I think the composer shrouded in the most mystery is Irving Berlin."

Some people love Great American Songbook. And some know a lot about its history and people that were associated with it. My dear friend Don Romano is one of a kind. He's a great expert. Don has been collecting sheet music, photographs and other memorabilia for years. Great American Songbook is his passion! I was delighted when he agreed to answer some of my questions on his favorite topic. Here is our interview...


Great American Songbook. History, artists, songs, songwriters and lyricists. It’s so much more. It’s also the people who keep it alive nowadays. Don, you are truly one of the most knowledgeable people I know. Can you please tell us how did it all start for you? When were you introduced to these wonderful songs and this era?
Thank you for the kind words, Anna. My love of the Great American Songbook began when I was very young. I would play with my mother’s Victrola that she had purchased from an estate sale when she was young (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). The record player came with three records that I played endlessly: Billy Murray and Billy Jones’ „Down By the O-Hi-O“, Henry Busse and His Orchestra’s „Alexander’s Ragtime Band“, and Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra’s „Afraid To Say ‚Hello‘ (Since You Said Goodbye)‘“. That was my first exposure to early popular American music from the first half of the twentieth century. I also had a healthy exposure to an array of popular music while growing up.  My parents gave me many CDs by early rock ‚n‘ roll artists (i.e. Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, etc.), Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (where I learned about and grew to appreciate pop music), and most importantly Frank Sinatra (where I was first exposed to popular interpreations of the Great American Songbook).  Additionally, I devoured library books about musicians and liner notes to CDs.  My interest in the songwriters deepened after I saw „High Society“ at a family party and was introduced to the work of Cole Porter.
I seemd to be enjoying the Great American Songbook through crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Perry Como as I was growing up.  By the time I reached the fourth grade, however, I became distracted by The Beatles.  I learned a lot about their music, read countless books about the band, and learned everything I thought I could know about them.  I began to realize that some of my favorite Beatles songs were either written by American composers (Meredith Willson’s „Till There Was You“ and Milton Ager & Jack Yellen’s „Ain’t She Sweet“) or were written in the style of early American song (Pau l McCartney’s „Honey Pie“ and „When I’m Sixty-Four“). This helped me renew my interest in the genre.
I suppose my relationship with the Great American Songbook turned from interest to obsession in college when I made the most important musical purchase of my life: the box set of Ella Fitzgerald’s Songbook albums produced by Norman Granz.  I would not have a radio show or a Facebook Page if this collection did not come into my life. I fell in love with the arrangements and the unique style that each songwriter had in his catalogue. I thank Ella and Norman every day for making such quality albums.  I wouldn’t be typing this today if they had not come into my life!

 Don with Debbie Reynolds

Some of Stardust Melodies fans already know your wonderful facebook page Don's American Songbook. I know that your page celebrated the first year of existence. Congratulations! You have posted so many wonderful photos and great and detailed info about many artists and musical pieces. I am sure you must have learned a lot from doing such facebook page as well...
Thanks, Anna.  Yes I have.  I am glad you enjoy the photographs and facts. I spend a lot of time trying to find unusual photographs I have not seen before and facts that I find interesting. I have developed quite a library since I began researching the Great American Songbook and get many of my facts from there. Other times I find facts on the Internet. I refer to these sources each time I make a post.  Oftentimes, I spotlight Great American Songbook figures or Hollywood actors and actresses on their birthdates. I spend a lot of time reading about their lives and pick out facts I find fascinating.  I also started a series of posts on my page called „Great American Songbook Connections“ where I spotlight everybody from historical figures to pop stars who have been refrenced in or had a brush with the Great American Songbook in one way or another. It is really fascinating how often non-musical subjects and the Great American Songbook can interact with one other!
When I started my Facebook Page I called it „Don’s American Songbook“. I really didn’t think much of it and never suspected it would become the success it is today.  I thought about Michael Feinstein’s wonderful PBS program „Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook“, because the show was about the Great American Songbook in the context of his own life. This radio show has a similar concept. I play songs that are pleasant, interesting, and meaningful to me. Sometimes, however, I feel the title of my Page is a misnomer. I tend to post about anything I am interested in, which is not always limited to the Great American Songbook. I post about actors, actresses, films, old Hollywood, musical theater, rock ‚n‘ roll, and anything that captures my interest. I always try to tie whatever I am posting about to the Great American Songbook in some way.

It would be very difficult if someone asks me to name my favorite singers. I am sure it’s as difficult for you as it is for me. But still... who are your favorite vocalists and why?
Oh dear, such a tough question! I have many favorites. For female vocalists, one of my absolute favorite singers is Jo Stafford.  I believe she sang songs the way the composer would intend them to be sung. The same could be said for another vocalist I regard very highly: Ella Fitzgerald. There is nobody quite like her.  Another singer I am mad about is Irene Dunne. She may be better remembered as an actress today in her wonderful screwball commedies, but she left us some lovely renditions of Great American Songbook tunes. I love her Jerome Kern songs. I also love Lee Wiley, Helen Forrest, Doris Day, and Julie Andrews as well.  Three other names that deserve special recognition include Blossom Dearie, the Incomparable Hildegarde, and Peggy King. Blossom had such a unique style of singing, and there is a very special place in my heart for her. I believe Hildegarde has some of the definitive versions of popular American songs.  You could tell she loved what she did, and she did it very well. Peggy is a dear friend of mine and a wonderful singer. In my honest unbiased opinion, she has the definitive versions of „You’ll Never Know“ and „Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo“ from her Lazy Afternoon album. I mentioned a lot of names, but those are the females I love best!
For male vocalists, I was raised on Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.  They will always be the best in my opinion. I also love Mel Torme. To be perfectly honest, some of my favorite male vocalists are the songwriters singing their own songs. Koch International Records and the Library of Congress released wonderful albums of „singing songwriters“. Songwriters like Sammy Fain, Frank Loesser, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Hugh Martin all have albums featuring them singing their own songs.  These are my favorite recordings. Hearing the songwriters sing and play their own work is the best.  You feel like you are listening to them demonstrating a song to a director or singer for the first time.  Many of them were not professional singers, but there is something about hearing the songwriter sing their own songs that is magical.

Could you describe let’s say Top 5-10 songs you would like to take to a desert island with you and why?
Another tough question! This list changes all the time (almost daily), but I will give you my top 10 right now in no particular order:

(1) Better Luck Next Time (Irving Berlin)

I have so many favorite Irving Berlin songs, but this one is very unique from other songs in his catalogue. And who could forget Judy singing it in Easter Parade?

(2) Someone to Watch Over Me (George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin)

This will always be a favorite of mine. It’s a beautiful marriage of words and music and one of the best songs by George and Ira.

(3) It’s Easy to Remember (Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart)

I love almost every version of this song I have heard. The phrasing of the music is lovely and the lyrics are so evocative.  I love the chord progression in the bridge.  It’s always hard to listen to those lyrics and think about Larry’s life. Still, they are beautiful words. Peggy King has my absolute favorite version of this song from her album „Wish Upon a Star“. Percy Faith’s arrangement on that recording was just wonderful.

(4) Bill (Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, P.G. Wodehouse)

Oscar was very vocal about giving lyric credit to P.G. Wodehouse. Just reading over the lyrics, you can tell it is a Wodehouse lyric: „He can’t play golf or tennis or polo/or sing a solo/or row“. Sounds a lot like Bertram Wooster! This is one of the most beautiful Kern melodies in my opinion (next to „The Didn’t Believe Me). Outside of Helen Morgan’s definitive recording of the song, Margaret Whiting has the best version out there.

(5) You Are For Loving (Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane)

Another melody with beautiful phrasing and wonderful rhyming patterns. This is a lyric that reads like poetry. A wonderful combination of words and music. This song has so much Hugh Martin in it.  Listen to this lyric: „You are for loving/and loving, and loving, and loving/by someone just as wonderful as you/and so I guess I’ll never do“. That’s not a character for a situation. That‘s Hugh talking! He was very self-reflective, and his thoughts, dreams, and, in this case, vulnerabilities can be seen so clearly in his writing. In some ways, more than any other lyricist that comes to mind.

(6) It’s Been a Long Long Time (Jule Styne & Sammy Cahn)

This is a great song because it has a timeless theme. To the Great American Songbook novice, „It’s Been a Long, Long Time“ is a song about two people who are reuniting after „a long, long time“.  However, it takes on a totally different meaning when you think about the year it came out: 1945.  The lyrics are being sung by a person welcoming home his or her lover at the end of World War II.  It’s a timeless theme, but it takes on a special meaning when you think about the history. I love stories behind songs like that.

(7) You Took Advantage of Me (Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart)
I love the musical phrasing of this song.  Lee Wiley recorded my favorite version of the song.

(8) I’ll See You In My Dreams (Isham Jones & Gus Kahn)

This is a wonderful song. Jeannette MacDonald’s version of this song is one of the few recordings that can move me to tears any time I hear it.

(9) In the Shade of the New Apple Tree (Harold Arlen and E.Y. „Yip“ Harburg)

I guess this is an odd Arlen/Harburg collaboration to select, but without it, their score to „The Wizard of Oz“ may never have happened. This song from their 1937 show „Hooray for What!“ caught the attention of Arthur Freed who thought it was exactly the tone that would fit with the 1939 musical, so he hired them.

(10) I Cling to You (Vernon Duke and Ted Fetter)
This is a very underrated song from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1933. I only know of a few recorded versions – Hildegarde and Anthony Perkins (!!!) recorded nice renditions. It is a great little gem that is not nearly as well known as it should be.

I have learned so much from listening to your radio program. Can you please tell us more about it? I know you have been enjoying it very much... And so have we!
I should begin by saying that my show is recorded at Elmhurst College, the school where I did my undergraduate work in Elmhurst, Illinois. Their radio station, WRSE, broadcasts locally. I record and archive each of my shows. They are housed at my friend Peggy King’s website (http://peggyking.org/DonRomanoPageFour.htm) for you all to listen to.  They are generously posted by Al, who manages her webpage.  I am very grateful to him for doing this.
On my radio show, I play popular American music from 1900 to about 1950. I always have exceptions, but that is the general time range I pull from. The songs come from Hollywood flims, Tin Pan Alley, and Broadway shows. Those are the songs that make up the Great American Songbook. I scour record stores, antique stores, the Internet, and various other sources for the material I play. I enjoy playing some favorite standards that everybody knows and loves, but I also look for obscure songs that are forgotten about. Oftentimes popular recording artists omit precious verses because they were too wedded to the show they came from or they were simply not commercial enough. I try to play recordings that feature the verses so my listeners know how the songwriter intended the song to be heard. Oftentimes, the verse gives the refrain a different context. For example, I did not know Rodgers and Hart’s „Here in My Arms“ had a verse. Then I heard Lee Wiley’s version, and I found that the verse was almost essential to the refrain! I have also begun playing old time radio shows such as George Burns & Gracie Allen, The Edgar Burgen and Charlie McCarthy Show, Our Miss Brooks, and The Fred Allen Show. Oftentimes the broadcasts I play are related to the Great American Songbook one way or another.
The general format of my show is very simple. I usually do not have much time to prepare themes for my shows throughout the week, so the format is very similar to having your Ipod on „shuffle“ mode. I generally play four songs in one set. After the set is complete, I talk about the songs I played. I try to provide facts, interesting background stories, and information about the particular recording. It is very simple, but it is a format that has worked well.

You are also an active collector of photos, sheet music and other things. Do you have any really special pieces you treasure? Perhaps personally signed photos?
I began collecting autographed photos and sheet music a few years ago. I tend to find my treasures on ebay.com or Amazon.com for very reasonable prices. My collection is not nearly as impressive as people who have done it for a long time, but I have some gems.  From the top of my head, here are a few of my favorites: I have a piece of sheet music for the song “I Said No” that is signed by Frank Loesser. I have a copy of Meredith Willson’s “Eggs I Have Laid” that is signed by him. I have a copy of Lyrics on Several Occasions signed by Ira Gershwin, a gift from my mother. Another favorite is a book of records featuring Hildegarde singing Noel Coward songs.  It is signed by her. I have a photograph signed by the three Boswell Sisters. The most fascinating autograph I have is a single envelope signed by Fred Astaire, Dorothy Lamour, Lillian Gish, Andy Griffith, and Bob Hope. It is the most unbelievable item in my autograph collection. It was very inexpensive, and I was able to purchase it as a college student with a part-time job! I love collecting autographs. I have scanned most of my collection, and I post the scans on my Facebook page for all of you to view and enjoy.
In 2010, I purchased a number of items from the estate of Blossom Dearie. I managed to purchase many of the items very inexpensively. The items I purchased include several unpublished personal photographs of Blossom, signatures, record albums, gifts from family members, a handwritten leadsheet, lyric sheets, and personal items. The most interesting items include two autographs.  The first is a fan letter from Cary Grant.  In the letter, he thanks Blossom for sending him a few of her records. It is typewritten on his Faberge letterhead. The second item is a signed photograph of Jo Stafford. Jo inscribed it: “To Bloss, Love Jo”. Since Blossom and Jo are two of my favorite interpreters of the Great American Songbook, this is a particularly special item in my collection.

If you could go back in time, who would you like to meet? What would you ask the person / people?
For me, I think the composer shrouded in the most mystery is Irving Berlin. Most people who listen to my show or follow my Facebook Page know he is my favorite songwriter. Think about the man for a moment. His family came penniless to America from Russia after watching their home burn to the ground. He came from a Yiddish-speaking home and stopped going to formal school at age eight. He learned to play piano while he was a singing waiter in the seedy Pelham Café in the Lower East Side, Chinatown. He could not read or write music the way his contemporaries could. How did such a man go on to become one of the greatest songwriters in history? What was the method behind his songwriting? How did he write song after song after song – many of them hits? What did his songwriting process look like?  What kind of a person could write a song like “Always” in 1925 and then write a song like “I Don’t Want to Be Married (I Just Want To Be Friends)” in 1931?  How could an immigrant whose native tongue was Yiddish have such a command for the English language?  How could he make such sophisticated rhymes and observations about American society and culture while he was still so young? What kind of experiences did he have to write these songs? How much of himself did he invest in his songs? What did he think of his career in his later life? In the few interviews we have of Berlin, he seems to take a very business-like approach to writing songs – write from the heart (not the brain) and keep it simple if you want to write a hit. He was less like a songwriter and more like a hit-writing machine! I feel like I would have a lot of questions to ask him.  Knowing Irving Berlin from the countless books I have read, however, I do not think he would be very willing to answer them.

Don with Michael Feinstein

Apart from being Great American Songbook expert, you also enjoy other art forms. How about opera and operetta? Lyric Opera of Chicago is one of the most wonderful companies (I know that because I lived in Chicago 10 years ago)…
Opera is something I have recently discovered. The Lyric Opera set up a wonderful program called NExT for students enrolled in school. When you sign up for the program, tickets are a mere $20.  Fortunately I will be a student until 2017! The lovely Renee Fleming is the artistic director at the Lyric and does a great job overseeing the productions. Among my favorites from this past season were “Die Fledermaus” and “Madama Butterfly”. I am very excited for Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” next season. I have been getting a great education from their pre-opera lectures. The whole experience is just wonderful, and I am sorry I had not discovered it sooner.
I have seen almost every show this past season. Last season I went to see Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”. I sat in my seat imagining it was opening night in 1943 and Dick and Oscar were in the front seats watching as the audience heard songs like “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “I Cain’t Say No” for the first time. I imagined what it would be like knowing that your production would change the way musical theater would be produced for generations.  Maybe that sounds a bit silly, but it was an exciting thought for me!

You currently study at Elmhurst College in Illinois. What would you like to do after you finish your education?
I graduated from Elmhurst College in 2011 and I now attend Midwestern University where I am working on my Psy.D., a doctorate degree in clinical psychology. I oftentimes use music to connect with patients. I have always thought about writing a book or paper about psychology based on the songs of the Great American Songbook. Think about a songwriter like the tragic Lorenz Hart. He had a well documented history of alcoholism and depression. He wrote the lyric, „All alone/all at sea/why does nobody care for me?“ from „A Ship Without a Sail“. That sounds like a quote from a therapy session to me. Sadly, I believe it is one of the most autobiographical songs he wrote. How might a clinician understand Larry from a psychological perspective? I have some ideas that are much too dense to include here, but I believe a psychological conceptualization of the Great American Songbook would be interesting. Certainly unconventional in its approach. Maybe I will call the book „The Psychology of the Great American Songbook and Its Songwriters“.
I have also dreamed about writing biographical books on the side. For example, there is no definitive work about supper club singer Hildegarde. Besides her pseudo-autobiorgraphy „Over 50 – So What!“, I think there is a huge gap in the literature regarding her life and career. Her papers are housed at the Marquette University Library Archives. The library is not terribly far from me. I plan on making a visit to look through her papers and listen to the rare recordings that are housed there.  Maybe I can begin taking notes about her life and how I would outline the book. I know writing a book is a lot of work and an extremely difficult undertaking, but I think I am fanatical enough to do it. Unfortunately that dream needs to be put off for awhile – I have a dissertation to complete first!