Oct 7, 2012

Porgy, Porgy, Porgy!

I've become obsessed lately with "Porgy & Bess," the Gershwin/Heyward opera first performed in 1935, then reshaped, revised and recut for subsequent generations, lately arriving as a passionless, if hotly controversial, Broadway musical. This new Broadway version reminded me that I'd never seen the 1959 movie adaptation with Dorothy Dandridge.

Surprisingly, the movie isn't available on DVD (or even a mangy VHS). Why? Because even though it's been selected for preservation by the U.S. National Registry, the Gershwin estate doesn't much like it, and so it's likely to remain unavailable until hell freezes over until they change their mind. Happily, I got my paws on a watchable bootleg.

Even though the movie is stagy to a fault - one can only imagine how much better it might have been if the boorish Otto Preminger hadn't replaced director Rouben Mamoulian - it does bring together a stellar cast, most of whom were reluctant to participate at all given the burgeoning civil rights movement.

The movie's story, which included drug dealing, poverty and prostitution, was regarded as racist, or at the very least, something that wouldn't exactly help the cause. Yet despite racially-charged content and the movie's clod-hopping direction, the cast deliver terrific performances.

And that includes not just Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier (Dandridge and Poitier had their singing dubbed by Adele Anderson and Robert McFerrrin) (yes, he was the father of Bobby McFerrin), but Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Maya Angelou, Geoffrey Holder and, of course, Sammy Davis, Jr., who nearly obliterates the movie's period setting by dancing and singing as if he were in a hot-cha! jazz-hands! Fosse musical (but he's allowed).

Better still is how plastic and bendable the score has become over the years, subject to endless rethinks and re-interpretations. My favorite these days is the one above by The Oscar Peterson Trio, which stays close to the score's melodies, but otherwise lightly gambols into its own springy jazz territory, especially during the inimitable "It Ain't Necessarily So," with a piano riff that's pure smooth-jazz delight.

In fact, it seems as if "Porgy & Bess" has become catnip to the best jazz vocalists and musicians . Everyone from Joe Henderson to Lena Horne to Louis Armstrong to Cab Calloway (on the "Porgy & Bess/Girl Crazy" twofer below) have put their mark on the Gershwin/Heyward opera.

Most of the LPs here are Cheerful Exclusives!, including a certain LP by a certain hot-cha! jazz-hands! performer who redeems his hammy movie turn with several surprisingly sensitive renditions from the score. And, yes, it helps a great deal that he's accompanied by Carmen McRae, whose version of "Summertime" ranks right up there with Lena's and Ella's and Adele's and Helen's and...the list seems infinite, doesn't it? It's an embarrassment of musical riches!

Which begs the question, if a woman is a sometime thing, what's a man?

If you ain't got no shame, leave a comment, why dont'cha?


Daddy Squeeze Me! said...

Wasnt interested in any of these versions of it. This is one of the most fantastic collections cheerful I must say so my baby. I am on the hunt for the rarest versions of porgy and bess of them all by the great June Richmond, whom I am presently archiving with all of her recordings. That porgy and bess one will cost a fortune so i havent jumped on that one just yet. Anyway, god i sure wish the Queen Dinah Washington had done an adaptation album like these...Lord I know Dinah wouldve blown it up. Ooooh I wish Della Reese had tried her hand at one.

Keir said...

Sterling commentary as always....

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

Thank you, Kier. And DSM, if you find that June Richmond, you better send it to me!! :)

grubbmichael said...

The Mel Torme and Frances Faye version is also needed, if anyone has the full version of that one. Miles Davis' 1958 version is probably my favorite.
Passionless on Broadway this year with Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis? Might not have gone that far. :)

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

Okay, maybe I'm being harsh, but Audra has always left me cold.

grubbmichael said...

She is all talent (and booty) and lacking in soul. I can say it. She is technically perfect, but no feeling.
Here is my contribution to the post: (1959) Porgy & Bess - Diahann Caroll & The Andre Previn Trio

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

I love Diahann Carol, thank you! I saw her at an event last year and she still looks fine.

NYC Smallville said...

Great post as always. I just read this about the movie on IMDB:

Sammy Davis Jr. sings and acts the role of Sportin' Life in the film, but for contractual reasons his vocals could not be used on the soundtrack album, so another legendary Sportin' Life, Cab Calloway, recorded his renditions of the songs for posterity, singing to the film's orchestral and choral tracks.

grubbmichael said...

Modern Jazz Quartet - Plays George Gershwin's Porgy & Bess:

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

Thanks, Smallville! And thank you - AGAIN - Grubmichael. I love the MJQ!

Faze said...

I'm currently digging the Cleo Lane and Ray Charles Version. She's incredible, he's a little out of his depth.

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

Ray out of his depth? Hmmm. Come to think of it, this isn't really his type of material...

Bob said...

Love the Oscar Peterson jazz versions. Really nice to listen to again and again.

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

Thanks, Bob! It's nice for a fall day, isn't it?

Michael Thompson said...

A little off topic but I've been drinking from your Cheerful well for some time and never left a comment, or rather a tree-mendous thank you. I don't have any experience blogging but I know it must be a heinous amount of work and I'm glad you're devoted to it. I hope you're not disregarding your Cuban in the process. Anywho, Thanks again for your witty commentary and turning me on to all these riches.

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

You're most welcome, Michael! I'm glad you're finding stuff you like. And not to worry, I never ignore the Cuban (and if I did, you can be sure he'd let me know) ;)

Tune Smith said...

A very nice collection of Porgy & Bess versions you have here.
Here are six more. I hope you like them. Feel free to post whatever you want.

Studio Cast (Mel Tormé & Frances Faye) - Porgy & Bess (1956)


Miles Davis - Porgy & Bess (1958)


Bill Potts Big Band - The jazz soul of Porgy & Bess (1959)


Georges Arvaniras Trio - Porgy & Bess (1973)


Ray Charles & Cleo Laine - Porgy & Bess (1976)


Clark Terry - Porgy & Bess (2004)


The Cheerful Earfull! said...

Fantastic! Thank you, Tune Smith.