Following recent releases from such pop vocal legends as Margaret Whiting and Bing Crosby, Sepia Recordings has turned its attention to the late Billy Daniels (1915-1988). The pioneering singer most remembered for his smash hit recording of “That Old Black Magic” graduated from the big band circuit to share a stage with Charlie Parker and Nat “King” Cole, appear on Broadway alongside Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis, Jr., and shatter records in nightclubs in New York and Las Vegas. Though Daniels broke barriers as an African-American, he also drew on a heritage that could be traced back to Portuguese and Native American lineage, and even to frontiersman Daniel Boone. Sepia’s two-for-one release brings together 1958’s Live at the Stardust, Las Vegas and 1957’s You Go to My Head, plus a rare 1962 single, on one CD.
Live at the Stardust commemorated the 1958 opening of the Las Vegas casino-hotel where Daniels signed on for a run of forty weeks over a three-year term. Despite the title, the spoken introduction, and the applause throughout, it’s been revealed that Live wasn’t live at all, but most likely recorded at Hollywood’s Radio Recorders studio. What’s indisputably real, however, is Daniels’ incandescent talent captured with a jazz group led by his onstage comrade and foil, Benny Payne. (Payne had once been Cab Calloway’s pianist at the Cotton Club.) Daniels’ cool, mannered style as heard here on both swingers (“Oh, Lady Be Good!,” Who’s Sorry Now?”) and ballads (“Tenderly,” introduced as his favorite song) inspired a generation of cabaret and nightclub artists. One could hear hints of Daniels in the deliveries of Bobby Short, Mark Murphy, and countless others.
Though he could certainly be full-voiced in his approach, Daniels more often than not conveyed intimacy in his confident vocals and urbane swagger. Those qualities made him particularly well-suited to both the stage of the Stardust and the recording studio. Most of the tracks on the 1958 album are of standard vintage. Naturally, Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish’s timeless “Stardust” made the cut. One exception is the then-current “The Beat Generation,” taking satirical aim at the beat culture. Benny Payne contributed an original song, as well – the ballad “I’ve a Tendency to Fall in Love.” Even a song as poignant as Kern and Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River” could be fit to Daniels’ loose, casual mold. Live at the Stardust captures the experience of a classy night out in the Vegas of days gone by with a legendary entertainer.
The second album on Sepia’s set actually predates Live at the Stardust. 1957’s You Go to My Head, released on Verve in the U.S. and HMV in the U.K., paired him with another great Benny: arranger-conductor Benny Carter. This time, a big, brassy orchestra (featuring great players like Harry “Sweets” Edison, Ben Webster, and Milt Bernhart) was employed on a number of tracks, while others relied on Daniels’ voice and the rhythm section. Carter’s charts also provided ample room for instrumental soloing. In any setting, though, Daniels’ vocals commanded attention.
Again, the repertoire is filled with standards which are still well-known today, in large part due to the recordings made by artists like Daniels and his contemporaries. Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and Cole Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely” are among the songs to have gotten Daniels and Carter’s most hard-swinging treatment; a carefree ebullience permeates such performances as “Just in Time” and “Hallelujah.” The ballads, like “You’re My Everything” and the title track, are as tender as they are innately theatrical. Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s affecting “Time After Time” gets a particularly beautiful reading.
The final two tracks on this release have been culled from a 1962 single on Jubilee Records. Both “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and “Gonna Build a Mountain” hailed from Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s then-current musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. Though Daniels can’t claim the definitive versions of either of these songs, both sides of the single are compelling. “What Kind of Fool” is the kind of dramatic ballad at which he excelled, although Sy Oliver’s arrangement (veering from lush grandiosity to a Latin samba groove) leans towards the bombastic. The joyful, gospel-inspired showtune “Gonna Build a Mountain” is more playful in Daniels and Oliver’s capable clutches. (Like Sammy Davis, Jr. in his memorable version of the song, Daniels retained original writer-performer Anthony Newley’s English pronunciation of “moun-TAIN.”)
Given the lack of master sources, sound is solid throughout this enjoyable new release. It’s been issued in conjunction with current U.K. public domain laws, and is also fully authorized by the Billy Daniels estate. An eight-page booklet is enclosed. Tony Middleton provides liner notes with background on the singer and both albums, and an excerpt is also included from a forthcoming biography of the artist written by his son Jack Pearce Daniels. Clearly, that old black magic still casts a potent spell.
- Who’s Sorry Now
- I Got It Bad
- The Beat Generation
- Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me
- Oh, Lady Be Good!
- The Birth of the Blues
- OL Man River
- I’ve a Tendency to Fall in Love
- Begin the Beguine
- Blue Skies
- Blue Prelude
- It’s De-Lovely
- You Turned the Tables on Me
- Comes Love
- Just in Time
- You’re My Everything
- Time After Time
- Just Like a Melody Out of the Sky
- You Go to My Head
- How Am I To Know
- What Kind of Fool am I?
- Gonna Build a Mountain
Tracks 1-12 from At the Stardust, MGM LP E-3762, 1958
Tracks 13-24 from You Go to My Head, Verve LP MGV 2072, 1957
Tracks 25-26 from Jubilee single 45-5437, 1962