With her straightforward, emotionally honest and vocally pristine style, it’s no wonder why Margaret Whiting became one of the foremost interpreters of the body of work known today as The Great American Songbook. One of the earliest signings to Johnny Mercer’s fledgling Capitol label, Whiting scored approximately 50 chart hits in the 1940s and 1950s, popularized now-standard songs including “My Funny Valentine,” “It Might as Well Be Spring,” “Moonlight in Vermont” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and was the first major artist to record a songbook tribute album (1947’s Margaret Whiting Sings Rodgers and Hart). The discovery of unheard material by Whiting – a somewhat unheralded artist whose body of work did much to shape the sound of American song – is reason enough for any fan of classic vocal pop to rejoice; the discovery of unheard material by Whiting and the great pianist George Shearing makes for a very special release, indeed. Margaret Whiting’s daughter Debbi, with the cooperation of the George Shearing Estate, has recently released The Lost Jazz Sessions as a digital-only release via My Ideal Music. The eight-song collection, recorded 50 years ago, has a running time of barely twenty minutes. But it proves that good things do come in small packages.
Margaret Whiting had music in her bloodline; her father was the great composer Richard Whiting (“Too Marvelous for Words,” “Ain’t We Got Fun”) while her aunt (on her mother’s side) was Margaret Young, a pop singer in the 1920s who recorded Richard’s hit song “Ukulele Lady” at Brunswick Records. Richard died when Margaret was just thirteen, some months after the passing of another great composer, family friend George Gershwin. Johnny Mercer, a lyrical partner of Richard’s, mentored Margaret and a few years later, took her to his young label, Capitol Records. British pianist George Shearing, blind from birth, incorporated elements of swing, bebop and classical into his jazz style before establishing himself as one of the smoothest, most accessible jazz pianists. He collaborated on well-received long-players with Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson and Dakota Staton (and male vocalists like Nat “King” Cole, Mel Tormé and Michael Feinstein) and as a leader, recorded albums with titles like Soft and Silky, Satin Affair and Smooth and Swinging; all of these titles could have also described Margaret Whiting’s crystalline contralto.
Whiting and Shearing never recorded an album together, but were friends and occasional collaborators. Michael Feinstein recalled Shearing describing Whiting as his favorite singer, and when he premiered his own television show in 1965, he enlisted her to be his first guest. The Lost Jazz Sessions is culled from four broadcasts of Navy Swings, the U.S. Navy’s program designed to spotlight “the very best in jazz” and encourage naval recruits.
Five of the eight songs here were not commercially recorded by Whiting, making this program an extra-special treat. As he had with Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson and others, Shearing proved himself a sensitive accompanist for Whiting; his settings on The Lost Jazz Sessions are accessible and rooted in melody. (He’s joined by bass and drums on a handful of tracks.) As would be expected, the songs here are by many of the greatest names in the American songbook. The most recent songs here are a pair from Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer; the oldest is the 1918 standard “After You’ve Gone” by Turner Layton and Henry Creamer.
Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s supremely melancholy “Here’s That Rainy Day” was introduced in the 1953 Carnival in Flanders, which ran a mere six performances on Broadway. The song, introduced by Dolores Gray, has endured for more than six decades. Here, its’ sung by Whiting with dignified resignation. Shearing provides a stately, classical-influenced accompaniment for Maggie’s rendition of the 1942 standard “I’m Old Fashioned” by Jerome Kern and her old friend Mercer. She delivers it in such a simple and direct manner that it hardly feels old-fashioned at all, a testament to both the singer and the song.
Shearing and Whiting’s low-key take on Henry Mancini and Mercer’s 1963 “Charade” emphasizes the haunting quality in Mancini’s movie melody. It’s paired with the same songwriters’ evocative, darkly beautiful “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962). A trio of George and Ira Gershwin standards are delightfully performed: lightly swinging, insouciant treatments of “But Not for Me” and “A Foggy Day,” and a bright, spirits-raising “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” Shearing’s piano fills in for wedding bells to open Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “Get Me to the Church on Time” from their 1956 Broadway classic My Fair Lady. It gets the most enjoyable makeover here as Whiting and Shearing playfully go rock-and-roll (it was 1965, after all!), utilizing heavy percussion on the showstopper.
Margaret Whiting and George Shearing both passed away in 2011, at the ages of 86 and 91, respectively. But the music they created together lives on in this compact yet elegantly exquisite release, a welcome throwback to the classiest days of vocal pop and jazz. The Lost Jazz Sessions is currently only available as a digital download; you can check it out at the links below!
Margaret Whiting and George Shearing, The Lost Jazz Sessions (My Ideal Music, 2015) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)
- Here’s That Rainy Day
- I’m Old Fashioned
- Charade/Days of Wine and Roses
- They Can’t Take That Away from Me
- After You’ve Gone
- But Not for Me
- A Foggy Day
- Get Me to the Church on Time