Since Fred Astaire, perhaps the greatest song and dance man ever to grace American pop culture, died in 1987, at the age of 88, the long list of honors and awards on his Wikipedia bio has continued to grow. Few performers have left as lasting a mark or remained so beloved and so vivid in cultural memory.
That’s partly thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which shows his pictures on frequent rotation, and this month TCM together with Sony Masterworks released Fred Astaire: The Early Years at RKO, a two-CD set of Astaire’s vocal recordings made during his glory years making movies with Ginger Rogers in the 1930s. The selections include many classics of the American songbook, quite a few of which Astaire introduced: “Night and Day,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and more.
A listen to these tracks, one after another, may surprise younger fans of Hollywood’s golden age who know Astaire best as a dancer of sizzling creativity and skill; they present an assured vocal interpreter of some of the greatest songs by the greatest songwriters of the 20th century. True, Gene Kelly declared that “the history of dance on film begins with Astaire,” and George Balanchine called Astaire “the most interesting, the most inventive, the most elegant dancer of our times.” But the great songwriters and singers of Astaire’s day weren’t shy about praising his vocal accomplishments too. His voice didn’t have the richness of tone of, say, Bing Crosby’s. And he was humble about his singing abilities, to say the least; according to Michael Feinstein’s liner notes, “Astaire hated his own voice, so much so that in his own home copies of his dance numbers from his films, he excised the vocals preceding them! He couldn’t bear to listen to himself sing.”
Honestly, that’s a little hard to believe, considering the amount of singing and recording he did over the course of his career. And surely if he really did feel that way, he was the only one. His contemporaries and posterity agree that he brought to his singing the same stylish sense of surefootedness and lightness of touch that made him so unequalled a dancer. He sounds as easygoing and relaxed as a Piedmont blues singer, or a Bill Evans piano solo. It’s as if performing vocally took no effort at all.
That parallel between dancing and singing was no coincidence. In Astaire’s own words: “Working out the steps is a very complicated process – something like writing music. You have to think of some step that flows into the next one, and the whole dance must have an integrated pattern. If the dance is right, there shouldn’t be a single superfluous movement. It should build to a climax and stop!” You can say the same for a song, or a musical arrangement, or, for that matter, a symphony by Mozart.