MAY 11, 2017
ARTIST: FRED ASTAIRE, ARR. NATHANIEL SHRILKET
RECORDED 1936, NOT RELEASED UNTIL 1974, DID NOT CHART
A popular song can become a standard in more than one way.
One person can cut a definitive, perfect recording of the song. In other cases, many artists can perform a popular tune in their own styles. In the case of “The Way You Look Tonight,” music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, it’s both.
Sure, dozens of singers have recorded “The Way You Look Tonight,” but Fred Astaire’s performance in the 1936 film “Swing Time,” in which he sings to Ginger Rogers, stands above. It’s his.
Astaire recorded this beautiful, understated song twice in 1936. The version released to the public on a 78 RPM disc, with Johnny Green’s Orchestra, is more formal and stiff than what is heard in the film. (It was a huge hit.)
But it was decades before anyone could enjoy Astaire’s film version on their record player. I don’t believe that it was obtainable until 1974, when EMI in Britain released two LPs of actual soundtrack recordings of four prime Astaire/Rogers films.
To be sure, Astaire—for my money, the best dancer in all movies—was an unusual romantic figure for the time. He was not blessed with the looks of his top contemporaries, and he lacked, for example, the mellifluous tone of Bing Crosby or the drama of Russ Columbo. But what Astaire lacked in magazine-cover star quality he made up for in sophistication, charm, interpretive skill, and technique.
Fred Astaire succeeded as a singer of love songs not because he was a superstar but rather an average-looking and average-sounding man with an extraordinary gift for interpretation and performance.
While his “talent” as a dancer far outstripped his “talent” as a singer, he delivered songs the way he danced: free and easy, with nearly perfect senses of timing and control, and with drama when necessary. Pound for pound, he got more out of his voice than perhaps any other singer. I might have fallen for him if he’d sung this to me.