I have never made a secret of my love for old ballads, and torch songs. Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, with my Dad working in the music industry from 1959 to 1974, I was always aware of the songs that had come before, as well as the explosion in pop music that had arrived. Watching old musical films, listening to recordings of Broadway shows, I was immersed in the history of the love song, from a very young age.
When I was old enough to be able to afford to buy my own records, my first instinct was to go back in time, and to collect the records of the stars of the 1920s, up to the war years. I never tired of watching the films of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, or Astaire and Rogers, revelling in the memories of those classic soundtracks, and wonderful old songs. Research showed me that many of the songs were much older than I had imagined, and had been covered countless times. I soon discovered Helen Morgan, Ruth Etting, Al Bowlly, Helen Kane, and Ruby Keeler. Alongside my contemporary passion for Soul music, and Tamla Motown, I was regularly travelling back in time, enjoying the sounds of yesteryear too.
Here’s Helen Morgan, from the 1929 musical production, ‘Great Day’.
In 1968, Barbra Streisand had a huge hit with the film ‘Funny Girl’. She was playing the real-life Broadway star, Fanny Brice. Everyone loved the songs in the film, and relished Barbra’s performance too. The big torch song from the film was ‘My Man’. That had audiences shedding a tear at the end of the film. But I already had a 1921 recording of that song, by Fanny Brice herself.
Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were child stars, and made many films together. The films featured some classic songs, often beautifully rendered by the young Judy. ‘Babes In Arms’ was one of those films, released in 1939. It featured the emotional love song ‘Where Or When’, written for the 1937 stage version by Rogers and Hart. By the time I was 17 years old, I owned the cast recording on vinyl, sourced by my Dad from who knows where. This is the version from the film.
In 1955, Doris Day starred alongside James Cagney, in the film ‘Love Me or Leave Me’. This was a biopic about the life of Ruth Etting, who had been a huge star decades earlier. When I was a teenager, almost everyone had heard of Doris Day, but few could remember Ruth Etting. I did though, and owned two of her albums, including one with this song on it, from 1927.
Most of us of a certain age will recall the cartoon character, Betty Boop. With her dog Pudgy, this saucy jazz-age flapper got up to all sorts of adventures in the short films that featured her. She was inspired by the hugely popular singer, Helen Kane, and this song, from 1928. Before I was aware of the cartoon, I owned Helen’s records.
And here’s Betty, with her version.
Whenever I am in a certain mood, I love to travel back in time with great songs like these. I hope that you enjoyed coming back with me.