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TV Review: Big Band Vocalists (My Music)

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The latest entry in the PBS fund raising series My Music is an anthology of what they call “the greatest singers of the 1940’s at the dawn of their careers,” Big Band Vocalists. Hosted by Nick Clooney and Peter Marshall, the special uses vintage performances from motion pictures and television shows both in black and white and color. This is nostalgic footage that will bring back a lot of fond memories for the grandparents among us and perhaps a raised eyebrow or two on any youngsters accidently tuned in.


The audience for this kind of show must inevitably skew old, and since it couldn’t skew much older than me, I must acknowledge that I found watching it a joyful journey back in time. Frank Sinatra is a smooth cheeked young boy with dark wavy hair. Peggy Lee is a fresh faced blond. Their voices and their songs are the sounds of my youth, and what could be more endearing. Singers you haven’t thought about in years—Buddy Clark, Dick Haymes—come back to awaken great memories. Fifty years from now, I would imagine a new crop of old timers will feel the same about Adele and Katy Perry.

Featuring twenty or so performances, highlights include Bob Eberle and Helen O’Connell singing “Green Eyes” with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, The Andrews Sisters decked out in WACS uniforms doing their classic “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” with the Harry James band, and Dinah Shore taking an uncharacteristic blues turn with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra with “Blues in the Night.” Perry Como pokes some fun at his famous laid back image as he fronts the Ted Weems Orchestra in “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now.” The younger Crosby boy, Bob, does his “Big Noise From Winnetka” along with a bravura turn by its composer bassist Bob Haggart and drummer Ray Bauduc. 

Nat ‘King’ Cole and Tony Martin do a song and dance routine with “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and Martin does a little impression of Ted Lewis. Louis Armstrong is at his wild eyed best in “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” It seems somewhat odd if not downright absurd that with all the great black vocalists of the period, these are the only singers who managed to make it into the special. The same could be said for the fact that the Duke Ellington Orchestra is the only black band included.

Frank Sinatra sings Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” strolling amongst a bevy of beauties playing grand pianos and violins dressed in elegant tales in a typical over the top ’40’s production number. Helen Forrest, and a largely augmented Harry James Orchestra, do “I Had the Craziest Dream” to open the show in another Hollywood production with a few extras dressed as Indians alongside the bandstand. Alice Faye’s “You’ll Never Know” and Dick Haymes’ “You Send Me” are more subdued and spotlight the singers. Clearly the great moment of the show is the glorious Kate Smith with orchestra and chorus singing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” complete with the rarely heard verse.

Big Band Vocalists (My Music) is set to air in March as part of special programming on PBS stations. Viewers will have to check local listings for time and date in their area.

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About Jack Goodstein