Rarely has an album so lived up to its name as in the case of The Intimate Keely Smith. The 1965 Reprise record, just brought to CD for the first time in a top-notch expanded edition via Real Gone Music, puts the song stylist front and center onstage in a tiny club, backed by just a small combo. The listener has a stage-side table. Other than the happy lack of clinking glasses and billowing smoke, you are there for a romantic, sensual, and yes, intimate set of classic ballads by Harry Warren, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, George Gershwin, and others.
The half-Irish, half-Cherokee chanteuse first rose to fame as the fourth Mrs. Louis Prima, providing the perfect foil for the entertainer’s larger-than-life antics with her icy-cool demeanor and sultry, smoky tone. As a solo artist, Keely worked with Billy May and Nelson Riddle at Capitol, then moved with Prima to Dot. At Dot, she worked with Billy Vaughn and even weathered the changing sound of music to emerge with a superior twist album, Twist with Keely Smith. After splitting personally and professionally with Prima, Smith began a new chapter at Reprise and reunited with Nelson Riddle for 1963’s Little Girl Blue/Little Girl New. (Real Gone promises to address all of Keely’s Reprise album in this series of reissues.)
The Intimate Keely Smith was her third Reprise album following Little Girl and the unexpectedly delicious Keely Smith Sings the John Lennon/Paul McCartney Songbook, arranged by Benny Carter. Producer (and then-Mr. Keely Smith) Jimmy Bowen captured her on The Intimate accompanied by Jeff Lewis (“and occasionally,” per Stan Cornyn’s original liner notes, Ernie Freeman), Irv Cottler on drums, Red Mitchell on bass, and Dennis Budimir on guitar. “They help,” Cornyn dryly noted of these great musicians, “but never has an album been so dependent on one solo voice.” Indeed, the accompaniment is subtle and elegant, but wholly in support of her voice.
Indeed, Keely’s cool, somber tone adds a striking new dimension to the opening track, George Gershwin, Buddy DeSylva and Ballard MacDonald’s 1924 standard “Somebody Loves Me.” Though often taken at a sprightly clip, Smith finds the underlying insecurity: “Somebody loves me, I wonder who/I wonder who he can be…Somebody loves me, I wish I knew/Who he can be worries me.” When she declares, “Maybe it’s you,” there’s a note of hope but also of despair. That air of desperation informs her misty-voiced, hushed rendition of Lionel Bart’s “As Long As He Needs Me” (from the 1960 musical Oliver!). Smith doesn’t overplay her hand on the torch song, nor on Arthur Hamilton’s “He Needs Me.” Though she professes “He needs me/I oughta leave him, but he needs me,” it’s clear from Smith’s interpretation that she needs him – however much of a louse he might be.
There’s a cry of vulnerability in her voice as Smith delivers Oscar Levant’s 1934 “Blame It on My Youth,” and on a soft, slow and hushed “It Had to Be You.” The attractively languid rendition of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Time After Time” and medley of “You Are My Sunshine” and “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” (substituting “Toni” and “Luanne,” Keely’s daughters, for Nancy) showcase Smith at her most tender. “God Bless the Child” takes intimacy to the next level, as Keely strikingly performs the song so closely associated with Billie Holiday in a cappella fashion. The least well-known track on the set is “The Whippoorwill,” performed by Smith for the 1958 soundtrack of the film starring the song’s co-author, Robert Mitchum. It’s not as profound a song as, say, Mack Gordon and Harry Warren’s moving “You’ll Never Know,” but it concludes The Intimate Keely Smith on a note of grace and simple beauty.
Two bonus tracks enhance the Real Gone presentation, which in Tom D. Kline’s clean, uncluttered design preserves the original LP artwork and a Keely Records Reprise-style replica label. First is a duet with Frank Sinatra on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s brief “Twin Soliloquies” from their musical South Pacific. The selection from Sinatra’s Reprise Repertory Theatre pet project features a lush, gorgeous Nelson Riddle arrangement. On the original release, it led directly into Sinatra’s passionate “Some Enchanted Evening” followed by Smith’s solo take of the ebullient “(I’m in Love with) A Wonderful Guy.” The second bonus track is in a different vein altogether: Carole King, Gerry Goffin and Phil Spector’s haunting “No One Ever Tells You.” This non-LP single is proof positive that Smith could have been a contender in the pop market as her unmistakable, controlled voice glides commandingly over Jack Nitzsche’s golden, string-laden chart.
“Sinner or Saint,” Keely asks on Irving Gordon’s 1952 song. Her piercingly direct vocals on The Intimate Keely Smith are equal parts both – in other words, human. Real Gone’s release features splendid new remastering from Mike Milchner at SonicVision as well as essays from journalist Steve Hochman and director Randy Johnson. This stellar reissue from a singular vocal interpreter is not to be missed.