We Really Miss You, Fred
By Patrick F. Cannon
My contention that Fred Astaire was one of greatest singers of popular song of his era – hell, of any era – is often met with incomprehension or bemusement. Surely, people think, you mean one of the great dancers? That’s, of course, if they have any real idea of who he was in the first place. Like so many artists of even the day before yesterday, he has faded into the mists of entertainment history.
A case in point: I give tours at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home & Studio in Oak Park, and mention that the actress Anne Baxter was his grand daughter. Most of the 15 or so people on the tour don’t have a clue who she was, since her heyday was in the 40s, 50s and 60s. The exceptions would be people older than 70 and cinema nuts. While Fred Astaire had a much higher status and fame than she, he is just as dead for most young people.
Yet, he deserves their attention. In an age of increasing and unceasing vulgarity, he might offer an oasis of grace and elegance. Even his walk was worth watching. In one of his best musicals – and one of the best of all movie musicals – The Band Wagon, he has arrived in New York on the 20th Century Limited. He is a Hollywood star whose career in is decline, and he has taken a role in a new Broadway musical. On the train, he meets Ava Gardener, playing herself. They chat a bit, but when they get off the train at Grand Central Station, she is mobbed by reporters and photographers, while poor Fred is ignored.
Alone, he begins walking to the terminal, while singing “I’ll go my way, by myself…” I urge you go Google these opening lyrics, which should lead you to an outtake from the movie. Notice how Fred’s walk is gracefully attuned to the music, how this simple act becomes imbued with meaning and emotion. Notice also how beautifully the song is sung, how each word is presented clearly for your consideration.
Two of the greatest composers of American song of the 20th Century – really of all time – Irving Berlin and George Gershwin both were quoted as saying that they preferred Fred above all others to sing their songs. Why? Because they could count on him to sing the song as written, to annunciate the words clearly, and to be in tune and on pitch. I should also mention that the great Tony Bennett, now 90, many years ago mentioned Fred as one of his inspirations.
I have a CD of some of his greatest songs. I keep it in my car and play it often. Like Bach’s Goldberg Variations, I never tire of listening to it. If you don’t know Fred as a great singer, I’m sure you would be able to find albums on Amazon or any of a number of music sites that would convince you. While we all should keep up with contemporary music (selectively!), we should also find time to honor the great art of the past.
Finally, if you get a chance to watch any of his movies, you’ll discover that he could dance a little, too.
Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon