When Ethel Merman opened on Broadway in 1930’s Girl Crazy, introducing the world to George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” The New Yorker described her, precisely and accurately, as “imitative of no one.” She was only 22 at the time, but already Ethel Merman was recognized as having a tone unlikely any before or since. The actress-singer with the booming, clarion voice called the Great White Way her home for the next forty years with regularity, going from triumph to triumph via the likes of Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy. Sure, there was the occasional misfire along the way. But with songwriters like George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerry Herman, and Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim tailoring songs for her over a four-decade period on the New York stage, who could ask for anything more, indeed? Thankfully, The Merm made frequent side trips to recording studios. One of her best albums, arranged and conducted by Frank Sinatra’s frequent associate Billy May, is finally arriving on CD from the U.K.’s Sepia label. Merman: Her Greatest was recorded for the Chairman’s Reprise label and released in 1962 and has been expanded by Sepia for a March 12 release.
In addition to her never-bettered cast album performances on the seminal aural documents of musicals including Annie Get Your Gun (twice, in 1946 and 1966) and Gypsy, Merman recorded a number of oft-anthologized sides from the earliest days of her career onward. Beginning with an RCA test session in 1931, Merman recorded in the thirties for labels such as Brunswick, Victor, HMV, and Liberty Music Shop. These sessions afforded her a chance to preserve for posterity many songs she introduced by Porter (“You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Down In the Depths (on the 90th Floor),” “Ridin’ High”) and others. In fact, Merman likely introduced more Porter classics than any other singer, having starred in five of his musicals: Anything Goes, Red, Hot and Blue, DuBarry Was a Lady, Panama Hattie and Something for the Boys!
In the forties, Merman scored her first – but not her last – Billboard chart appearance with 1944’s “Move It Over” on RCA, but she primarily called Decca her recording home. There, she committed songs from Panama Hattie to vinyl as well as the full 1946 cast recording of Annie Get Your Gun (a No. 2 success on the Billboard chart) and Songs She Made Famous, recorded in December 1947 with conductor Jay Blackton (Annie Get Your Gun).
Decca smartly held onto Merman, signing her to an exclusive contract. In 1950, she recorded her songs from her Tony-winning turn in Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam for the label, leaving the rest of the cast to record the show with Dinah Shore over at RCA Victor. (RCA held cast album rights and Decca wouldn’t loan Merman to the rival label for the occasion.) Merman’s album followed Annie to a No. 2 chart berth. Twenty singles were recorded for Decca in 1950 and 1951; these would be released on CD in 2005 as The World Is Your Balloon. Film soundtracks were released on the label, too, including Call Me Madam (No. 5, 1953) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (No. 6, 1954). 1955’s studio album Memories was a collection of songs from the 1890s through the 1920s like “A Bicycle Built for Two” and “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” and the same year’s A Musical Autobiography teamed her with Buddy Cole and His Combo for another walk down her own memory lane. Her starring role in the 1956 Broadway musical Happy Hunting, introducing “Gee, But It’s Good to Be Here,” was recorded not by Decca, however, but by RCA, following the expiration of Merman’s contract.
After the jump: the scoop on Merman: Her Greatest and beyond!
By the time Merman signed with Frank Sinatra’s fledgling Reprise label, she had already created what would ultimately be her greatest, and most dramatic role, that of Madame Rose in Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking 1959 musical Gypsy. At Reprise, Merman recorded two albums. 1963’s Merman in Vegas, released in 2002 on CD by Collectables Records, captured a nightclub-style performance at the “fabulous Flamingo Hotel” in Sin City. It featured many of her trademark showstoppers like “I Got Rhythm” and “Blow, Gabriel Blow,” as would studio album Merman: Her Greatest. With Billy May, the singer recaptured the magic on brassy arrangements of familiar songs like “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries.”
Ethel Merman continued to record throughout the 1960s and 1970s. As well as recording the 1966 Broadway Cast Recording of Annie Get Your Gun, she cut a single of the two songs she introduced in the final cast of Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! (her last regular Broadway role) as well as a number of albums: Merman Sings Merman (Decca Phase 4, 1972) and Ethel’s Riding High (Decca Phase 4, 1975). The latter added a number of new songs to her repertoire including “People” from Funny Girl and “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha. A new studio cast version of Annie Get Your Gun, her third recording of Irving Berlin’s score, emerged on Phase 4 in 1973, and the oddest decision of her career resulted in The Ethel Merman Disco Album on Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ venerable A&M Records in 1979. One year later, good sport Ethel proved she had quite the sense of humor with her cameo in the big screen comedy Airplane! It would prove to be her final screen role.
Seeing as how the (in)famous Disco Album made it to CD in 2002 via Fynsworth Alley, it’s a surprise that Her Greatest has taken this long! Two of the most important contributions to Merman’s recorded legacy came in 1999 and 2000, respectively, with the release of two volumes of Mermania! on the Harbinger Records label. These albums brought to light Merman’s private recordings including the eight-song Gypsy demo and much more.
Sepia’s reissue of Merman: Her Greatest, made possible by current U.K. public domain law, marks the album’s first CD appearance in full; a handful of tracks appeared on LaserLight’s 1996 American Legends CD. Sepia is adding a brace of bonus tracks from various sources: the 1959 television special Merman on Broadway, Merman’s 1961 Vegas stint, the 1955 Chrysler Shower of Stars, and a 1937 radio tribute to her late friend and mentor, George Gershwin.
Ethel Merman died in 1984 at the age of 76, but her stature as one of the great ladies of the American Musical Theatre (the greatest, some might fairly say) remains. To hear Merman singing her standards in peak form, you can order Her Greatest at the link below!
Ethel Merman, Her Greatest (Reprise R 6032, 1962 – reissued Sepia 1221, 2013)
- I Got Rhythm
- This Is It/Do I Love You
- I Get a Kick Out of You
- Sam and Delilah
- Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries
- Blow Gabriel Blow
- You’re an Old Smoothie
- Down in the Depths (On the 90th Floor)
- But Not For Me
- You’re the Top
- I Got Rhythm (Live)
- Eadie Was a Lady (Live)
- The Girl That I Marry/You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun (Live) – with Fess Parker
- Blow Gabriel Blow (Live)
- I Get a Kick Out of You (Live)
- That Old Feeling (Live)
- Over the Rainbow (Live)
- I Got Rhythm (Live, 1937)
- They Can’t Take That Away From Me (Live, 1937)
Tracks 1-11 from Her Greatest, Reprise LP R-6032, 1962
Tracks 12-15 from Merman on Broadway broadcast televised on November 24, 1959
Tracks 16-17 from Merman in Vegas at the Flamingo Hotel, February 2, 1961
Track 18 from Chrysler’s Shower of Stars, June 9, 1955
Tracks 19-20 from July 13, 1937 George Gershwin Memorial, WHN radio broadcast