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Extended Analysis

Keely Smith: The Essential Capitol Collection

By Published: October 20, 2007
Keely Smith
The Essential Capitol Collection

Of all the great American female singers, Keely Smith may be the most naturally gifted. The instrument, the technique, the sense of melodic line all invite the closest analysis and emulation—simply exemplary, textbook examples of the art of singing. How do you explain such a phenomenon? There were no fewer than five Blue Note albums with titles referring to the "incredible" Jimmy Smith; little did the public realize it at the time, but there was at least one other incredible Smith, and she continues to amaze even to this day.

Keely Smith inhaled the smoke of Las Vegas' Sahara Lounge six nights a week for almost ten years, exhaling the strains of an angel over the din of a raucous band, all the while maintaining her cool as "straight man" for a headliner with the onstage persona of a manic Neanderthal—and she ends up with not only the voice but the technique of a singer without peer. If there's one song to put a singer to the test, it's Jerome Kern's incomparable "All The Things You Are," which is the first track of twenty-seven on this collection of Keely Smith material from the mid-to-late 1950s.

Listen to the evenness of the vibrato, the effortless phrasing, the contoured lines, the silky tones supported by firm and unfaltering breath support, the clear and pellucid soprano register that "floats" on a stream of uninterrupted melody, the varied articulations even while maintaining that sweet and rich timbre. Her pitch is always dead center, she's consistent throughout the entire register (no falsetto "breaks"), she catches the dramatic expressiveness of the lyric's meaning without exaggeration or gratuitous drama, and her diction doesn't risk the listener's missing a single word.

It's practically unfair to the aspiring singers who will study and practice long hours yet not come close to equaling Smith's skills let alone her voice. It's also a bit unfair—to her and the public—that she was not recorded more frequently as a "solo act." It's not unusual for a discussion of the great female singers during and since the swing era to go through thirty or more singers in short order without mention of Smith's name. Even as a septuagenarian, she's nothing less than amazing. She'll take Cole Porter's "Night and Day" (Keely Sings Sinatra, Concord, 2001) and, to insure that every note is in her "power zone," negotiate the octave shifts so impeccably and effortlessly that the listener hears a single unbroken line. A more recent live recording—Vegas '58: Today (Concord, 2005)—is more evidence that she used her voice so "correctly" that, unlike the 20-year (max) time frames during which most singers are in prime voice, this eternal singer has performed with ample breath reserves, full control of her smooth vibrato, and a relatively youthful and "alive" voice for over half a century!

Which brings us back to the present anthology, the subject of a recent interview with Smith on National Public Radio during which the announcer made a big deal out of its including "When the (sic) Day Is Done." Unfortunately, the track here is not even the studio version—look to I Wish You Love (Capitol, 1957) or Best Of The Capitol Years (Capitol, 1990) for the Smith-Nelson Riddle studio recording of "When Day Is Done." Moreover, The Essential Capitol Collection does not even include winsome if not indispensable Smith performances of "It's Magic," "Lullaby Of The Leaves," and perhaps what is the definitive recorded version of Jerome Kern's "Sweet And Lovely"—look, instead, to the collection Spotlight On Keely Smith (Capitol, 1994). So best view this sampler as another one of those "essential," "ultimate," "best-of" but arbitrary anthologies, necessarily incomplete and less than satisfying.

Still, even with 27 tracks and a singer whose solo discography on Capitol is discouragingly thin (a scant three albums), a listener could be forgiven for wishing the producers of the present collection might have done better, bypassing the Prima, Sam Butera, and Sinatra tracks in favor of exclusive focus on Smith. The public may have been relatively clueless to her supremacy but those in the business certainly knew the score, affording her on two sessions the arranging-conducting talents of Nelson Riddle, the peerless genius who was 50% of the success of Sinatra's critically-acclaimed "concept albums" (on Smith's "When Your Lover Has Gone," he delivers an irresistible chart rivaling the legendary "I've Got You Under My Skin" setting he supplied for Sinatra) along with another member of the Chairman's exclusive board, arranger-conductor Billy May, for the remaining date. At least it's understandable (though no less unfortunate) that some of Smith's recent, non-Capitol recordings, made 40- 50 years later, could not have been included, if only to demonstrate what a singular phenomenon she is.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned caveats, this collection is undeniably a bountiful treasure. Those young musicians who find themselves constantly referring to The Real Book on a gig and who marvel that some of us rarely require it, simply need to supplement their woodshedding habits with some serious listening to the "Great American Songbook." If Sinatra, Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald fail to attract a listener's attention, there's always the strong possibility that Keely Smith will. And practically all 27 tunes are standards (excluding the period-piece "Mr. Wonderful") worth keeping in mind for later use. Remembering a melody requires hearing it sung, and with knowledge of the melody plus a little basic popular song harmony, an instrumentalist has all he or she needs to reconstruct the song when the occasion calls for it. (Of course, there are always the notorious exceptions, viz. Jerome Kern's bridges, Cole Porter's harmonically ambivalent tunes, and "Lush Life.")

After hearing The Essential Capitol Collection some listeners will no doubt be left pondering why the names of Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore, Kay Starr, Patti Page, Anita O'Day, June Christy and all the rest get mentioned ahead of Keely Smith in any discussion of the female singers who came to the public's attention in the 1950s. Is it because she says "ma" instead of "my"? "Hort" instead of "heart"? Or because she's just too consistently perfect not to be taken for granted? Perhaps—and this is a big "perhaps"—she was a bit too quick to separate her life from her art. Maybe if we felt we got to know just a little more of the person behind that deadpan Buster Keaton face with the perfect angelic voice, we'd be less likely to overlook her undeniable claim to the top spot.

Tracks: All The Things You Are; It's Been A Long, Long Time; That Old Black Magic (with Louis Prima); Stormy Weather; S'posin; Fools Rush In; The Song Is You; How Are Ya' Fixed For Love? (with Frank Sinatra); The Birth Of The Blues; I Wish You Love; Someone To Watch Over Me; The Man I Love; Autumn Leaves; What Is This Thing Called Love?; On The Sunny Side Of The Street; Nothing's Too Good For My Baby (with Louis Prima); I Can't Get Started; There Will Never Be Another You; Imagination; The Whippoorwill; Nothing In Common (with Frank Sinatra); When Your Lover Has Gone; All The Way; Stardust; Don't Take Your Love From Me; When Day Is Done (previously unreleased "bonus" live recording from The Sahara).

Personnel: Keely Smith: vocal; with various others including Nelson Riddle: arranger, conductor; Billy May: arranger, conductor; Sam Butera and the Witnesses; Frank Sinatra: vocal duet.

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