Welcome to a very special edition of Back Tracks! For this week’s Friday Feature, Mike took a look back at the music of Psycho. One of the few films still retaining the power to shock and thrill after some 50 years, the repercussions of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece are still felt today. And its musical legacy, enhanced via some very controversial sequels and remakes, encompasses some of the greats, with Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman and Carter Burwell all having built on the foundation laid by Bernard Herrmann. Part of the reason for Psycho‘s longevity can no doubt be attributed to the performance of Anthony Perkins (1932-1992) as one of the most complex if ghoulish individuals in pop culture history, Norman Bates.
After making his film debut in George Cukor’s 1953 The Actress, written by Ruth Gordon, Perkins was quickly rewarded with a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year – Actor for his role in The Actress, and found himself an Academy Award nominee for his second film, William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion (1956). A Tony nomination followed for 1958’s Look Homeward, Angel, and in the same year he charmed screen audiences as Cornelius Hackl opposite Shirley Booth’s Dolly Gallagher Levi (Booth’s role having been originated by Ruth Gordon on Broadway) in the film adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker.
Concurrent with this great wave of success in both comedic and dramatic roles, Perkins was developing his interest in music. Prior to his role in Friendly Persuasion, the actor had starred opposite Kim Stanley in a dramatic television presentation on Goodyear Playhouse entitled Joey. Perkins’ character sang the song “A Little Love Can Go a Long, Long Way” by Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Fain; his performance so impressed Epic Records that the label offered Perkins a contract. He recorded six sides for three singles, including the theme to Friendly Persuasion. (Pat Boone, however, had the hit!) Albums followed for both Epic and RCA, but in 1960, Psycho changed everything for Anthony Perkins. In the years that followed, Perkins would give many more memorable performances in a variety of roles, but despite showing his versatility, Hollywood immortalized him in one part. The role of Bates would uncomfortably follow him until he finally embraced it for Psycho II in 1983. He then reprised Bates for two further films. After a long, public and brave fight with AIDS, Perkins died in 1992.
As Halloween-timed screenings and TV airings remind everyone of his indelible performance as Norman Bates, Back Tracks invites readers to take a look at another side of Anthony Perkins. Hit the jump to join us in 1957!
Tony Perkins (Epic LN 3394, 1957 – reissued Collectors’ Choice CCM-349-2, 2003)
Despite being a young, handsome up-and-coming actor, Anthony Perkins resisted the usual 1950s teen idol conventions for his solo LP debut. After recording six sides for Epic in 1956, he was summoned to the label’s Hollywood studios in April and May of 1957, where he lent his voice to 12 standards. Renowned arranger/conductor Marty Paich (best-known for his work with Mel Torme and Sammy Davis, Jr., and father of Toto’s David Paich) wielded the baton for this elegant set. Highlights include a gently-swinging rendition of Arthur Freed and Burton Lane’s “How About You?,” a dreamily romantic arrangement of “But Beautiful” and a smoky, languid take on the Gershwins’ “How Long Has This Been Going On?” The album sounds much more like the work of an assured pro than a first-time singer as Perkins skillfully navigates the limitations of his voice and interprets the songs confidently. Perkins’ apparent poise as a singer may have owed mostly to his ability as an actor. He commented in 1958, “Recording is the hardest thing I have to do…it makes me miserable.” The 2003 reissue from Collectors’ Choice appends seven bonus tracks: the six early Epic singles, and an alternate take of “If You Were the Only Girl” on which Perkins experiments with the song’s tempo.
From My Heart (RCA Victor LSP/LPM-1679, 1958 – reissued RCA/BMG Spain 74321453782, 1996)
After leaving Epic, Perkins signed with RCA Victor where he recorded another brace of singles (including his only hit, “Moon-Light Swim;” the Sylvia Dee/Ben Weisman song peaked at No. 24 on the Billboard charts in 1957). His 1958 long-player for RCA, From My Heart, saw Marty Paich replaced by arranger Al Cohn and conductor Urbie Green. From My Heart followed standard record company procedure whereby an artist’s singles were aimed at the teen crowd and albums at adults. So the rock-and-roll beat of Perkins’ singles was eschewed for his albums. From My Heart saw Perkins revisit the catalogues of Irving Berlin (“You Keep Coming Back Like a Song”) and Johnny Mercer (“Too Marvelous for Words”) as well as Paul Francis Webster (“Boy on a Dolphin,” co-written by film composer Hugo Friedhofer, whose scores include the recently-reissued One-Eyed Jacks). From My Heart received a no-frills CD reissue from BMG Spain in 1996.
On a Rainy Afternoon (RCA Victor LSP/LPM-1853, 1958 – reissued RCA/BMG Spain 743214212325, 1998)
Perkins’ second and final long-player for RCA Victor was another set of mostly laid-back song stylings, and his most overtly “jazz” recording. For On a Rainy Afternoon, Perkins tackled many theatre songs from the pens of Sammy Fain and E.Y. Harburg (“The World is Your Balloon”) Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II (“Why Was I Born?”), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (“Have You Met Miss Jones?”) and Cole Porter (“Miss Otis Regrets”). The result was another appealing set that would make a wonderful two-on-one CD with its predecessor. BMG Spain reissued On a Rainy Afternoon on CD, though like the release of From My Heart, it’s now difficult to find.
Greenwillow: Original Broadway Cast Recording (RCA Victor LOC/LSO-2001, 1960 – reissued DRG 19006, 1995)
Anthony Perkins certainly varied his days in 1960. While rehearsing the new Broadway musical Greenwillow by Frank Loesser (The Most Happy Fella, Guys and Dolls), Perkins was filming Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The roles couldn’t have been any more different. In Loesser’s fanciful fable, Perkins portrayed Gideon Briggs, a conflicted young man in the Village of Greenwillow who wishes to marry his sweetheart Dorrie, portrayed by Ellen McCown. But his family has been cursed with the “call to wander solitary,” which affects the eldest son of each generation, including Gideon. By musical’s end, however, love has won out. By 1960, the extraordinarily-talented Loesser had already expanded the horizons of the Broadway musical. The Most Happy Fella was quasi-operatic, and if How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was just around the corner (recalling the brassy, hit-filled sound of Guys and Dolls), Greenwillow had a mystical folk style all its own. Perkins beautifully and passionately brought Brigg’s conflict to life, and this performance is captured on RCA Victor’s original cast recording. Whether making a vow in the upbeat “Summertime Love” or lamenting “Never Will I Marry,” Perkins performed with conviction. His small voice may have been a better match for low-key jazz ballads, but he triumphed here all the same with sincerity. The warm and charming Greenwillow, however, might have been too delicate for Broadway. Despite some rave reviews, the musical folded after only 95 performances. Its original cast recording was reissued in 1995 on DRG; the recording remains in print for those who wish to take a chance on a unique Broadway musical.
Tony Perkins Chante en Français (Columbia, 1964)
Anthony Perkins continued his cinema success story after Psycho, picking up a Best Actor Award from the Cannes Film Festival in 1961 for his role opposite Ingrid Bergman in Anatole Litvak’s Goodbye Again. So successful was Perkins in Europe that he continued to work there. In 1964, he recorded this four-song EP for Columbia’s French arm; it has never been released on CD. A number of Perkins’ French language tracks (including “C’est Chouette Paris” from a 1964 EP, Pathe EG 770, and “Quand Tu Dors Pres De Moi” from Goodbye Again) can be heard today on YouTube, as can his spare but heartfelt recordings of a number of Christmas songs. These rare holiday tracks were recorded later in Perkins’ life, but his voice brought a sweetness to songs such as “Let It Snow,” “The Christmas Waltz” and “The Christmas Song.”
Evening Primrose (ABC-TV Stage 67, 1966 – reissued Kritzerland KR-20011-6, 2008 CD/Entertainment One E1E-DV-6780, 2010 DVD)
ABC-TV’s Stage 67 was a primetime showcase for original drama and musicals in a one-hour time slot. The era’s best and brightest composers were brought in to create these made-for-TV musicals, among them Burt Bacharach and Hal David (On the Flip Side, starring Rick Nelson and Joanie Sommers), Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (The Canterville Ghost), Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Getting Married), and one young composer/lyricist by the name of Stephen Sondheim. While the game-changing musicals Company and Sweeney Todd were still in his future, Sondheim had already made his mark by contributing lyrics to West Side Story, Gypsy and Do I Hear a Waltz?, and the full scores to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Anyone Can Whistle. For Evening Primrose, he teamed with James Goldman (with whom he would later write the groundbreaking Follies) to musicalize a short story by John Collier.
The story, and film, tells of sensitive young poet Charles Snell (Perkins), who seeks the nocturnal retreat of a department store. He soon finds an entire community of misfits who reside in the darkness of the deserted store, including the lovely Ella (Charmian Carr). Yet Ella lives in fear of the Dark Men, who can do the unimaginable to those who dwell in the store by night. This haunting, unsettling fable was exquisitely brought to life by Sondheim in such songs as Charles’ passionate “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here;” Ella’s wistful reflection of her former life, “I Remember;” their pulse-pounding duet “When?” and her yearning “Take Me to the World.” Perkins and co-star Carr (Liesl in the film The Sound of Music) perform Sondheim’s songs with ardor, and create believable characters in this fantastic framework. Evening Primrose was an audacious evening’s entertainment, with a dark, bittersweet ending that seems all but inconceivable in today’s whitewashed network climate.
Evening Primrose was thought to be lost, having circulated only as low-quality bootlegs in the years since its airing. But it’s recently been excavated and restored thanks to the valiant efforts of the Archive of American Television. The Paley Center for Television’s intrepid Research Services Manager Jane Klain, with the aid of historian Jim Pierson, tracked down a nearly-perfect 16mm kinescope which has been used for Evening Primrose‘s first-ever commercial release. After over 40 years as a holy grail for fans of Sondheim, Perkins and the golden age of television drama, Primrose was released this past Tuesday, October 26, and its macabre subject matter – and another incisive performance by Anthony Perkins – makes it perfect viewing for Halloween! The DVD’s distributors, Entertainment One and KOCH Vision, have made it possible to preview the DVD on YouTube with clips including Perkins’ opening song, “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here.”
The DVD is a deluxe package, indeed, containing a 26-page booklet with a note by Karen L. Herman, the director of the Archive of American Television, a lengthy, informative essay by Klain, full song lyrics, and comments from Sondheim himself. No expense has been spared on this restoration; over 80 minutes of bonus material is also present. The most interesting of the bonus material is a lengthy reel of full color test footage of Perkins wandering the long-gone Stern Brothers department store; watching this silent footage is like being a fly on the wall in a long-gone era. There’s also a video interview with director Paul Bogart and an audio interview with Charmian Carr.
As a film, Evening Primrose is flawed; its composer and lyricist offers a number of critiques in his essay. But Sondheim hastens to add that the gaffes are “part of the charm of the piece.” He couldn’t be more right. The short running time may frustrate a viewer who wishes there was more time for the authors to flesh out the characters or their peculiar situation, but the film still has the power to surprise with its quirky touches. Its performances (from Perkins, Carr and Dorothy Stickney as the particularly unpleasant matriarch of the department store’s night society) are top-notch, and its score sublime.
For a purely aural experience, the Kritzerland label released the original soundtrack (with all songs and incidental music, arranged and conducted by Norman Paris, assisted by future film score legend David Shire) for the first time ever in 2008. This limited edition of 3,000 copies is still available and may be the apex of Perkins’ musical performances. He and Sondheim would remain friends, and they went on to collaborate on the screenplay to the 1973 mystery film The Last of Sheila. Evening Primrose, in both its DVD and CD forms, is simply essential.
The Prettiest Girl in School (El ACMEM135CD, 2008)
The CD era has only brought one anthology of Perkins’ musical endeavors, so it’s good news that El Records’ 2008 collection, The Prettiest Girl in School, is at least a fine one. However, 18 of the album’s 27 tracks had previously appeared on Collectors’ Choice’s reissue of Tony Perkins, so this one is more for the completist. What this disc offers that Tony Perkins does not is the presence of the more rock-and-roll-oriented sides cut by Perkins at RCA Victor. The charting “Moon-Light Swim” is present, along with other teen singles like “First Romance,” “When School Starts Again,” “Rocket to the Moon” and the song that gives the collection its title, “The Prettiest Girl in School.” The Prettiest Girl in School works well on a number of fronts; it’s of interest to the fifties pop collector, and to collectors of celebrity vocalists, of which there were a surprisingly large amount! But the music here holds up, largely due to Perkins’ natural, unaffected tones, and the tasteful arrangements throughout.
Perkins only sporadically recorded later in life. He lent his voice to a number of recordings produced by the maverick Ben Bagley for Bagley’s Painted Smiles label, celebrating various Broadway composers and lyricists. A versatile Perkins contributed to such titles as George Gershwin Revisited, Vernon Duke Revisited, the third and fourth volumes of Rodgers and Hart Revisited, Contemporary Broadway Revisited, and a studio cast recording of Rodgers and Hart’s Too Many Girls.
There might be some curiosity value today in hearing “Norman Bates” sing, and indeed, much of Perkins’ musical career (Evening Primrose a notable exception) will be a footnote to his lengthy career. But those looking for Golden Throats-style vocalizing will surely be disappointed. Anthony Perkins was a multi-faceted actor, singer, writer and performer whose gifts are showed off to fine effect on The Prettiest Girl in School and the other recordings we’ve discussed here. There’s no doubt that his work will continue to endure. Happy Halloween!