GORDON MACRAE IN CONCERT
RELEASED: April 1958 CAPITOL RECORDS T-980 - 12 inch
An album review by Enda Bracken

In Concert
    1. Begin The Beguine*
    2. So In Love*
    3. Lost In The Stars
    4. Ol' Man River
    5. Summertime
    6. I Believe
    7. Water Boy
    8. I Love Thee
    9. Stranger In Paradise*
    10. Danny Boy
    11. Where Or When*
    12. Without A Song*

Arranger - Conductor: Van Alexander
*These 5 songs were later included in the CD "Gordon MacRae - The Capitol Years" EMI (UK) 1990


This is a must-have album.

Apart from the soundtracks of "Carousel" and "Oklahoma" this is the first stereo LP by Gordon. Though the stereo of the time was quite primitive, the engineers on this album did an excellent job. There is a good spread of sound with the instruments miked and processed to give a sense of depth and to highlight the best features of each instrument. "Water Boy" and "Summertime" are extraordinarily evocative because of what seems to be a very close collaboration between the engineers and arranger-conductor Van Alexander. On e has only to compare this with the LP of the previous year - "Cowboy's Lament" which besides being in mono, was miked fairly harshly - particularly in the strings area. An example of a well-miked mono recording was the 1957 "Soundstage".

Gordon can be regarded at the height of his vocal powers here, tempered by extraordinary taste and interpretative skills whereby he employed an astonishing vocal and dynamic range sliding from caressing softness to fortissimo without jarring the ear. It could be argued that Gordon had two fortissimo "voices" each with its own tonality and harmonics:

a) the "high classical/formal baritone" tonality that is evident in most of his operettas such as "Desert Song" and "Naughty Marietta"

b) a "tenor-baritone" that often encompassed the same notes but which was most evident in "By The Light of The Silvery Moon (Just One Girl)", "Oklahoma", "Carousel" and "Best Things In Life are Free".

Gordon employs his "tenor" tonality for the "big" numbers in this LP. This voice is particularly good as the diction is clearer, more "naturalistic" and emotion is conveyed convincingly.

Whilst this album is titled "In Concert", it is a studio production. The back of the original cover had a drawing of a Gordon figure performing on what looks like the Hollywood Bowl stage with the audience spread over the hill, sitting on the grass. What the album appears to be is a collection of "showstoppers" that he may have found successful in his concerts. None of the selections are "intimate" ballads - rather they are songs that would have been "projected" to the audience.

Of the selections two - "So In Love" and "Stranger In Paradise" - were previously recorded on 78s with different arrangements and fortissimo endings. Whilst these newer versions are an improvement, especially in the softer endings and show Gordon's increased interpretative skills, it seems the squandering of an opportunity. There were so many ballads out there that were waiting for Gordon to commit to posterity. One look at Bruce Leiby's outline of the catalogue of songs Gordon sang on various radio shows, TV and club appearances in his book "Gordon MacRae: A Bio-Bibliography"(1991. Greenwood Press. N.Y.)" causes frustration. Gordon produced so few "ballads" LPs that every opportunity should have been taken to expand the record of his body of work.

Nevertheless, there is not one ho-hum selection:

His "Beguine The Beguine" has to be regarded as definitive. It is a passionate roller-coaster involving crooning, torn-from-the heart fortissimo passages and a pained falsetto finish.

"Lost In The Stars" is simply wonderful interpretation of a song that confronts existential desolation and a loss of faith and direction. The phrasing is outstanding but Gordon's use of vocal dynamics - power and falsetto - is peerless.

There is only one version of "Ol' Man River" that nearly matches Gordon's interpretation. It is another American singer - bass baritone Earl Wrightson, who was a fellow page boy with Gordon at NBC in the postwar period. However Gordon pips him simply because he has far greater coloration and variety on his vocal palette. He uses near-bass notes, uses his baritone range and at the end ventures into his near-tenor range. He shows extraordinary expressiveness and passion without losing his excellent diction.

"Summertime" in Gordon's hands is no dreamy rendition (though the orchestration is dreamy). It is a joyous celebration of the good life that commences full-throated and ends with the sweetest male sound imaginable bringing it back to a lullaby motif.

"I Believe" makes other versions seem either innocuous or (like Frankie Laine) unconscious parodies. It commences with Gordon's warmest voice and beautiful phrasing that holds back on the beat and then develops incrementally into an aria/anthem with a powerful (but not over the top) declaration at the end.

His version of "Water Boy" stunning. Until I came across Gordon's version, I had seen Nelson Eddy"s or Paul Robeson's versions as benchmarks. But nothing has surpassed Gordon's reading since. The song is a "work" song reminiscent of chain gangs or field workers singing in "shouts" and responses. But Gordon's phrasing and his wide variation of intonation (bass to soft falsetto) and his "Southern" accent is matchless. He is able to vary the tempo - holding back and then advancing - so that it all flows to produce a narrative which is nevertheless very muscular showing the protagonist's pride, irritability and exhaustion. It is by far the most "musical" of interpretations - the melody is very apparent without subverting the brutality of the song - as well as being the most dramatically true. This is the definitive version. This shows Gordon as a songmeister (see "I Love Thee").

Gordon then sings "I Love Thee" based on Grieg's "Ich Liebe Dich" (which he sang at his daughter Meredith's wedding). This is a difficult song whose melody structure is a challenge and which has to be "sold" by the interpretative ability of the singer to link lyrics to the melodic line. It demonstrates that if Gordon had chosen to follow a different path, he could have sung German lieder with conviction - Dietrich-Fischer-Dieskau would not have been ashamed of Gordon's rendition. (It could be argued that "Water Boy" is in fact a jazz version of lieder).

There are so many of interpretations of "Danny Boy" around. There is even a Punk Rock version. It is a song that attracts all genre of singers from Kiri Te Kanawa to the whiskey-scarred voice of Mariane Faithful. However - in my opinion, which has no more authority than the next bloke - there are four who I regard as the best and whom I cannot separate them except to identify the leader. They are all male American singers and they all male. They are Elvis Presley, John Gary, Mario Lanza (yes) and Gordon MacRae (the leader - but not by much).

Back in the mid 60's when I first heard this on my 2nd hand copy, it stopped me in my tracks. I was born in Ireland and I heard the song ad nauseum in Australia when my father and his pals had passed the 8th beer milestone and, really, I think I had developed antibodies to the song. Until Gordon's version.