Something a little different from the usual rock & pop stuff I grew up on in the ’70s and ’80s.
As I’ve written here before, the rise of the singer-songwriter was hell on old-school vocalists like Tony Bennett and Mel Tormé. Bennett was down to his last dime by the end of the ’80s, only to have his career resuscitated by a new manager — his son Chris. Mel Tormé had similar troubles during the first half of the ’70s. He recorded the forgettable Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head for Capital in 1969, and wouldn’t cut another album for eight long years.
It was worth the wait.
And it almost didn’t happen.
Tormé recorded the cheekily named A New Album* for Gryphon Records in 1977, a collection of contemporary hits originally written and recorded by artists like Stevie Wonder, The Carpenters, and Billy Joel. It also happened to be my introduction to Tormé. Both my parents fell in love with A New Album, and for about a year there, somebody seemed to be playing it somewhere more or less all of the time. But it never got old — I spent the mid-’80s prowling all of the record stores in St Louis, looking for a copy of my own, unaware that the label had gone bankrupt. Eventually I had to settle for used cassette, but it was still just so good.
Anyway, this is one of those albums which shouldn’t have happened, but somehow all came together. Tormé planned on recording with The Christopher Gunning Orchestra in London, along with saxophone god Phil Woods. Due to scheduling, they only had 48 hours to record the entire album, and the story goes that Tormé was still working on the arrangements on the plane into Heathrow. Yet somehow they made it all work — a washed up singer, a bandleader nobody had heard of, and a sax player on a very tight schedule.
(ASIDE: Geting Phil Woods to record a song with you makes your album 75% cooler. If you can get him to sit in for the whole album, that jumps to 1,000,006%. True story.)
I picked tonight’s cut off the New album, “Send In The Clowns,” because it’s just a dreary, awful song — when sung by anybody else. The first record I heard of it was Judy Collins’ 1975 smash hit, which is by any measure just dreary and awful. Later I came across Sinatra’s take, which was equally dreary and awful. Cleo Lane, whom I adore, also made a dreary and awful recording. If you know of others I’ve missed, please keep their dreary awfulness to yourself.
Mel Tormé’s version is neither dreary nor awful, because he unlocked the secret to making a good record out of Stephen Sondheim’s dreary and awful song.
Here’s how he did it.
“Clowns” is about a performer at the end of his career, watching helplessly as his younger and more talented lover ascends to superstardom.
Just when I’d stopped opening doors,
Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours.
Making my entrance again with my usual flair
Sure of my lines…
No one is there.
But Tormé realized that a real performer isn’t going to just exit the stage, all dreary and awful. A real performer is going to go out there and still give it all he’s got, even to an empty room. So that’s what Tormé did with “Clowns.” He hadn’t cut a record for almost a decade, but he still gave it everything he had.
On reflection just now, Tormé might have played a lot of empty rooms during his ’70s dry spell. Maybe that’s what inspired him to sing the only version of “Clowns” I can stand to listen to.
Stand it? No, I love it.
After A New Album, Tormé would go on to make tons more albums and money and concerts and TV shows and all that good stuff, and in no small part because he took a dreary and awful song and made it buoyant and breezily awesome in a way nobody had ever imagined before.
You just don’t want to be in the car with me when it comes on — because I will sing along, and while I’m not dreary… I am awful. So send in the clowns already, because I’m done.
Hope you enjoy Mel’s version.
*After Gryphon went bankrupt, later re-releases were titled The London Sessions and included several bonus tracks.