Lyricist Dorothy Fields (1905-1974), while perhaps not quite as well-known as an Ira Gershwin or an Oscar Hammerstein, has collaborated on some of the best-loved songs of the last century. Her writing has graced both the Broadway stage and the Hollywood screen. She has worked with many of the most celebrated composers—Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Jimmy McHugh, just to name a few, and her work fills the pages of the Great American Songbook. It was no accident that she was the first and only woman elected to the newly-formed Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1971.
So the new release from PS Classics, a record label dedicated to the celebration of the heritage of Broadway and the American popular song, of a 17-tune collection of Fields’ work, featuring the vocals of label co-founder and Broadway performer Philip Chaffin, is no surprise. Original performances of her work have been collected in the American Songbook series, and Barbara Cook, for one, has done an album called Close as Pages in a Book: The Songs of Dorothy Fields. That it is the first male solo album devoted to her songs, on the other hand, is surprising. If true, it is long overdue, and Chaffin, a personable tenor with a real feel for her lyrics, is the singer for the job.
Wisely choosing only a limited number of her best-known songs in favor of some of her lesser-known pieces, even resurrecting one of her unpublished pieces for the album’s title, Chaffin samples work from the whole of her long career. There is “Diga Diga Doo” from Blackbirds of 1928, probably best known as sung by the Mills Brothers, and there is “You’re a Lovable Lunatic” from Seesaw, her 1973 collaboration with Cy Coleman.
Chaffin, working with a 25-piece orchestra, puts two of her most famous tunes—“I’m in the Mood for Love” and “Don’t Blame Me”—together in an arrangement by Glen Daum. He adds “The Way You Look Tonight” to “Let Me Look at You” in a John Baxindine arrangement. He ends the album with the classic “Exactly Like You.” These—no “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” no “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” no “A Fine Romance”—constitute the Fields ‘hits’ on the album.
Instead you get some wonderful neglected pieces. “Carousel in the Park,” with music by Sigmund Romberg is the kind of sweet remembrance of things past you don’t often hear from modern songwriters. “Somethin’ Real Special” gets a kind of noir treatment. “Alone Too Long,” from By the Beautiful Sea, is the plaintive cry of the timid lover. And if “A Cow and a Plow and a Frau” and “Then You Went and Changed Your Mind” are a bit too cute for modern taste, they will likely be welcomed by us old timers.
Dorothy Fields has written more than her share of great songs, and Philip Chaffin’s interpretations make it clear just how great—even those we may not have heard before—they are.