Saturday, 3 April 2010

They Turned Me On - Part Four: Benny Green & Robert Cushman

It's no reflection on the late Benny Green that it's harder for me to recall the specific songs he played on his Sunday lunchtime programme on Radio 2 than it is to bring to mind the content of Hubert Gregg's shows. Green was an important influence in my life, nevertheless, and not only for his radio show:
I used to devour Punch magazine in the early eighties, soaking up his writing style (I think he was a film critic at the time, although I'm not sure where that leaves Dilys Powell in the magazine's chronology), and sought out his books about music.

My strongest memory of the regular Sunday ritual of listening to his radio show is of the regular blasts of brass which punctuated Sinatra's singing on so many numbers chosen. Actually, that's not entirely fair, as one of his favourite Sinatra performances was the more restrained One For My Baby ("The singing is so good, it's silly," Green told one interviewer).

But overall, unless my memory is playing tricks, it seemed that Benny Green inhabited a slightly later period than Hubert Gregg, so their two programmes complemented each other. And maybe the liking for horn-driven records reflected the fact that Green was a saxophonist - had, indeed, played for pay on Lord Rockingham's infamous Hoots Mon.

Some favourite numbers on the programme could be called brash - like Johnny Mercer's own rendition of his novelty number Pineapple Pete. But like Ken Sykora, Green loved Peggy Lee, and The Folks Who Live On the Hill seems to have been a favourite - as, indeed, did another Mercer number and performance: The Days of Wine and Roses, in a simple rendition from a live performance.

And as a man who'd written a book about PG Wodehouse, he was keen on Wodehouse's gently humorous musical collaborations. So yes: he was about more than Sinatra at full tilt.

I think my memory is becoming clouded because Robert Cushman had a series on Radio 3 round about that time, Book, Music and Lyrics, which concentrated on some lesser-known musicals, and now I can't separate some of the artists heard on that from Green's programme. Did both of them play Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short recordings? Probably. Short, in particular, made a point of recording neglected Broadway numbers. But Green's programme was more of a regular fixture, so it may be fair to say that through it I became aware of a wider range of musicals, mostly via interpretations of their songs by jazz singers, whereas I think Cushman favoured original cast recordings. I suspect that I heard In the Morning, No from Cole Porter's Du Barry Was a Lady on Cushman's programme - this was certainly the musical he seemed to rhapsodise about above all others. But Green's love of wordplay also puts him in the frame. And the Garland/Mercer recording of Friendship was, I'm pretty sure, played on both programmes.

Maybe it's hard for me to be specific because Green's programme was around for so long - whatever I didn't learn from Hubert Gregg or Robert Cushman I absorbed, almost unknowingly, from Benny Green; cruel friends used to delight in pointing out that all my spoutings about music were cribbed from his programme, which may have been truer than I cared to admit.

I didn't know it at the time, but Green was gradually and painlessly filling me with knowledge which was ultimately to prove professionally useful as well as a source of pleasure and metaphorical enrichment. I never met him, although I did have a close encounter with Robert Cushman - several, in fact.

Cushman had a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, probably around 1983 or thereabouts. It was remarkable, because he wasn't any kind of a singer, I think it would be fair to say, but he understood how singing worked: he knew about phrasing, although his equipment was cruelly lacking. So what he did was, in effect, to hypnotise us: he gave us an impression of how a gifted singer - as it might be, Mabel Mercer - might tackle De-Lovely - and it worked. When we applauded, I think it was for what he had conjured up, as though he hadn't sung at all, but somehow described with extraordinary vividness and intelligence someone else, some gifted other, singing (and there is an example of his doing precisely that in a few paragraphs' time). I can't remember any other numbers but I do hope there were some other performers to help him out.

The following year, or maybe two, later, he was part of an entertainment called Fingers in the Jam, songs about children, I think where he was not called upon to sing, if I remember. And I would have remembered, believe me. One of the songs chosen by a young female singer was John Lennon's Beautiful Boy, which makes me wonder whether Cushman had the final say in the choice of material or not (although I see on the plays database that the entertainment is credited jointly to him and Colin Sell).

My final contact with Robert Cushman was a non-event, although not in the painful Jake Thackray way described here. I was very briefly (as in a couple of days) an agency kitchen porter at the BBC's Broadcasting House when I first arrived in London. I worked pretty hard on the first day but on the second an old hand showed me the dodges, which basically involved spending a lot of time in the canteen. I noticed Robert Cushman in conversation there but something - my awareness of my current status? simple politeness? - kept me from going over and praising him for Book, Music and Lyrics.

Had it been Benny Green or Hubert Gregg, would I have held back? Was it about a perceived coolness in Cushman's presenting style or simply the far greater and more regular exposure to the other two broadcasters? I don't know. Possibly there was an educational air in Cushman's programme - there was certainly a specific agenda, where the other two were freer to range more widely, even though their tastes must have dictated what was played. Yet that's unfair, because his programmes did exactly what he describes in this Independent appreciation of Jonathan James-Moore, who produced the series:
We proved, I think, that it was possible to treat popular music on radio and to be entertaining without compromising anyone's intelligence: our subjects', our listeners' or our own.
Maybe it was the memory of his "singing."

And yet ... that Edinburgh performance has stuck in my mind for almost thirty years, especially the pause he relished at the line about the new stork-bought arrival - "He's apalling" - before getting all animated like a loose-limbed marionette for the home stretch. And Hubert Gregg would surely have understood: conviction is all. (So what am I saying, then - that it was a  good performance? I don't know; maybe the hypnosis still hasn't worn off.)

If you'd like to read an example of Cushman's writing, about which no ambivalence is necessary or possible, as another Goldberg (not Marv) might say, his superlative account of approaches to These Foolish Things can be found in the collection Lives of the Great Songs (originally a series of articles in the Independent on Sunday about popular tunes which have lent themselves to a range of interpeters). You can still read the whole article on the Independent's website here; where Cushman compares performances by Hutch, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Bryan Ferry, Mabel Mercer and Andrea Marcovicci (no, me neither), but this is his description of Hutch:
Hutch, born in Grenada, professionally blooded in New York and Paris, was English society's pet exotic, exposed to a wider audience by records, radio and the last gasps of the music-hall. Right into the 1950s he remained the living definition of a certain idea of sophistication. There is a controlled ardour about his performances that is rather intimidating. Hutch served his public by reflecting, as in a shiny chafing dish, their own grandest conceptions of wit and high romance. Mostly he used American material - he was London's most reliable conduit for the songs of Cole Porter - but in 'These Foolish Things' (HMV 1936, reissued on Hutch at the Piano, World Records) he found a native work that suited him to perfection. The words with which Maschwitz unfolds his roster of regrets may not be greatly witty, but they are evocative. The first image is enough to create a feeling and a world: 'A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces.'

So it's a shock to find that that line doesn't figure on Hutch's classic recording. Maybe it was written in later, after the song took off; maybe Hutch simply preferred other bits of the lyric. He had plenty to choose from; the song, copious as a list song should be, boasts three choruses, of which he sings two.

He also sings a verse: one that begins, after a brief snatch of muted trumpet, with the blunt inquiry 'Oh, will you never let me be?'. It goes on to set up the song with a reference to 'those little things . . . that bring me happiness and pain'. Most singers have tipped that balance in one direction or the other. Hutch keeps it exquisitely poised; he suggests that he has the heart for grief but would never dream of wallowing in it. His voice, famously, throbs; but it throbs with dignity. He is suffering greatly, but he knows how to live with it. His cut-glass diction, with its outlandishly elegant vowels, actually contributes to his haunted sound: the upper crust of soul. He must have sensed that in this still obscure song he had found a perfect showcase. He sings it as if it were already a standard.

In place of the opening cigarette, he offers us a more rarefied commodity: 'gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow'. Maybe the explicit sexuality of that image alarmed the publishers; subsequent singers, if they have used the line at all, have pushed it way down the song. It goes with 'wild strawb'ries only seven francs a kilo', a rhyme that Hutch's accent makes more plausible than most have managed. This, we are being told, is a lusciously cosmopolitan affair, the kind we would all like to be regretting. Another key memory is 'the Ile de France with all the gulls around it', again somewhat dubiously rhymed with 'the park at midnight when the bell has sounded'. Maschwitz was not always scrupulous in the way he combined his images, but he was a whiz at picking them.

The sights and scents are well enough, but what have always struck home are the sounds. For happiness, 'the tinkling piano in the next apartment'; for pain, the universal ache of 'a telephone that rings, but who's to answer?' - a brilliant blow below the belt, real chanson noire. Hutch serves them all up polished and gleaming, at a pace noticeably faster than later generations would think proper for a ballad.
If you have spotify, you can listen to Hutch's recording here (the other available version is a later and inferior one). I must write at some point about Hutch in my life, but for now I will only say that when John Donne wrote about making one little room "an everywhere" he forgot to mention that Leslie Hutchinson would be singing softly in the background.

There is a Benny Green anthology, drawing on his various books about music, entitled Such Sweet Thunder (top). You can read an excerpt online and order a copy of the book on Dominic Green's website, here, but this is part of a longer paragraph in which Green sets out his stall; it seems especially noteworthy in light of recent discussion on this blog about Tea for Two:
Taking as its tools the basic of Blues improvisation, Jazz discovered the ideal vehicle in the ‘standard’, the thirty-two bar popular song from Tin Pan Alley, whose discreetly complex chords were fecund soil for progressively elaborate improvisations. The early and middle decades of the twentieth century were blessed with an almost improbable succession of songwriting talent, the Gershwins, Kerns and Berlins of legend. Through their cross-fertilisation with cinema, the sons of Tin Pan Alley were party to that most entertaining of mongrel spectaculars, the Hollywood Musical. By hijacking the songs of those composers and stripping them down to the essentials of rhythm and harmony, Jazz created some of the most exciting and dynamic music ever to reach the human ear.

Sadly, Benny Green is no longer with us. If I recall correctly, his Radio 2 programme was taken off the air at some point then reinstated after angry protests. Russell Davies inherited his mantle, with a similar focus on the great American songwriters; like Green he is both a musician and writer. That magical hour on Sunday which has enthralled me for several decades has now been shunted to the evening but the programme is still going strong. You can listen to the most recent show here. He's not a carbon copy of Green, and there are often some more quirky choices included, but I'll discuss him more fully in the next of this series.

I checked on the net just now to find that Robert Cushman is still around and now writes for the Canadian National Post - see a brief biography and links to recent columns on the paper's website here.

Part On: Ian Whitcomb
Part Two: Ken Sykora
Part Three: Hubert Gregg
Part Five: Russell Davies
Part Six: Those Unheard  or There is a Balm in Islington

1 comment:

  1. September 2011 at 15:11

    i to enjoyed listening to benny green,in fact i used to sprint home from my local on sunday afternoons, last orders was 2 o clock and i think benny started at 3,then it was alan dell at 4, happy days.