Nellie McKay, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Doris Day
Doris Day saved America.
The second World War left America and Americans in a purple funk. Never before had so many resources — both human and natural — been mobilized in such a singular national cause. Men and women who had never been more than a few dozen miles beyond their rural homes were suddenly thrust into urban factories or sent half way around the world to kill, some to die, many to be wounded and with nearly all to watch others die. While the war ended, their experiences and exposure to another world did not.
This societal post traumatic syndrome pervaded post war life in America and was reflected in it’s arts. Painting was giving way to expressionistic abstractions by Motherwell and Pollock and Rothko’s unfathomable emotionalism. Bebop numbered the days of swing. Publishers fully embraced existentialism in the form of pulp fiction writers such as Jim Thompson and David Goodis.
Nor was Hollywood was immune. It produced, what would be later coined by French film critics, film noirs by the dozens. While most were B movies that played neighborhood movie houses, there were plenty of major pictures in downtown theaters incorporating those themes and and some received Oscar nominations in the process, e.g., “Crossfire,” “In a Lonely Place,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Out of the Past.”
Hollywood, once the Disneyland for adults was on the verge of falling under it’s own weight of negativism. No matter how good those pictures were — and, with the assistance of time and emotional distance, what a golden age of American cinema it was — Hollywood needed to be rescued. The movies were still the country’s primary source of not just entertainment, but of national identity as well. It needed someone to represent the new America, an exuberant America, a positive America.
She came in the form of Doris Day.
Doris Day was from Cincinnati, a town so conservative that even when I went to college there you still had to go across the river into Kentucky for any nightlife. (The town’s conservatism was especially interesting given that many Utopian communities were founded along the Ohio River in the late 1800’s, just a generation or two before Day was born.) Day, like June Christy and Peggy Lee, was a big band singer. But with a substantial difference — while Christy & Lee could swing harder and were sexier, Day had a much warmer voice, a more inviting, softer presence and a face that the camera loved.
Even in her early roles Hollywood did not really know who they had, how good she could and would become. She was not only in light comedies at first, but also dramatic roles such as “Storm Warning” and “Young Man With a Horn” where she more than held her own with more accomplished actors and actresses.
However, it was soon obvious to everyone that Day had a magical screen presence coupled with an uncanny timing in light romantic comedies while crafting a screen personalty that was attractive to both men and women. Hollywood not only put her in well-scripted, sophisticated pictures, she usually played a professional and at a time when the vast majority of movies were shot in B&W, hers were in color at a time when color could nearly double the production cost.
Doris Day’s ascent was complete by the mid-50’s and the days of noir were over. During the next ten years she was the movies biggest star. A singular presence, she saved Hollywood. She was the face on America’s bright, shining and affluent star among the world’s nations. And she made Americans feel good about themselves. She remains today over 50 years later Hollywood’s biggest box office draw.
And she continued singing. Not just in a lot of her movies, but stand alone albums as well. Long before home video, you could go see a Doris Day movie and then bring her home. When you heard her voice you could see her as well. No matter how good a singer or actress anyone had been up to that point, no one before Day had been able to achieve that aspect of intimacy with the American public. Not the icy goddesses of Garbo and Dietrich, not even the wonderful Jean Arthur.
Now, jump forward 40 years or so and imagine yourself a young, precocious girl on the verge of puberty and you see Doris Day: an intelligent, professional, attractive, witty woman who effortlessly has the world on a string and can sing to boot. Wouldn’t you be enthralled?
Nellie McKay was.
While it’s difficult to get into the movies at her age, music was a different matter. And that that music represented the Great American Songbook. And Day was just the tip of the iceberg of one of the three most significant American contributions to art in the 20th century.
While she is based in the standards, Nellie’s talents did not stop there. On her first three albums — with occasional timeouts for writing & performing songs for movies and acting and always singing standards, always — Nellie was like a water spider, never stopping long enough for fear of sinking. The result was unparalleled lyric interplay, as if there were a dozen Cole Porters and Johnny Mercers trying to get out at the same time, but with twists. Those twists include social, political and cultural allusions that are as entertaining as they are astute. Just think of her, in this respect, as a song writing, singing, piano & ukulele playing Jon Stewart. It’s a strange world when we get our most thorough analysis of politics and the world around us through music and comedy.
Then her considerable talents went a step further in 2007’s “Obligatory Villagers.” She not only wrote all the songs, she also arranged and orchestrated them — and pulled it off. Even though I have heard it two hundred times, her work on “Oversure” never ceases to amaze me. What is it that makes — or enables — women to be the best in creating stimulating arrangements for large ensembles? Other prime examples: Maria Schneider, Carla Bley and, until fairly recently, Toshiko Akiyoshi.
“Obligatory Villagers” was not only my album of the year for 2007, it’s my favorite album of the past half dozen years or so. And her many, varied live versions of “Zombie” is lyric improvisation at its finest. And “Identity Theft” is, to paraphrase Johnny Mercer, too marvelous for mere description.
Tribute albums in any genre can be a daunting task or worse, resulting in travesty if a performer has no real sensibility (e.g., the embarrassing Linda Ronstadt’s imitations to the horrendous Rod Stewart’s sacrilege.) Tribute records to singers — not to mention ones of Day’s stature — are even more fraught with danger and the many pitfalls of self-importance. The two most successful ones that come immediately to mind are Billie Holiday by Carmen McRae and Lee Wiley by Barbara Lea.
So when I heard that Nellie was doing Doris Day my excitement was tempered with just a bit of anxiety. To prepare myself I reacquainted myself with the Day recordings I had, the original releases on vinyl from the late 40’s to the mid-50’s. And for additional perspective I also listened again to Peggy Lee and June Christy records from the era.
Unfortunately, when I first got the new album on Verve, “As Normal As Blueberry Pie” (sans insert) I was tied up with a couple of other projects, so I listened to it as near background music over the period of several days just to get a feel. Upon that first blush, it seemed a bit subdued, perhaps a little too reverential and included two songs I associated way more with Fred Astaire than Day. But then in the middle of making some biscotti for Mt. Stage friends, “If I Ever Had a Dream” popped out, perhaps, in part, because I had never heard it before and it was so surprisingly delightful. I just knew it had to be a very early Day song as I have never heard the words “calla lilies” anywhere else other than in a 1930’s Katharine Hepburn movie.
I wondered where Nellie found that song, “If I Ever Had A Dream.” No matter where it came from, it was an epiphany, my way into the rest of the record — and it was a perfect fit, snuck smack dab in the middle of the record.
No more casual dining, after the biscotti was complete, I put the record on the living room tubed-stereo where any imperfection, any miscalculation become glaring errors. The album came alive. Sure, it was not as texturally arranged as her previous records — it was not meant to be — and having just listened to original studio records from the 50’s I was immediately struck with how much the record sounded like those records, the aural spaciousness, that warm sound that can only could only be achieved in a 50’s studio. I found out the reasons later, not only was the album recorded in one of New York’s oldest studios, but ribbon microphones from the 30’s to 50’s were used. In other words, everything old was new again.
The album is comprised of thirteen delightful treats of sophistication that are not only an antithesis of our culture of prolonged adolescence but also to the current dumb downed American Idol-ness (pun definitely intended) state of our arts.
And when I finally got the album’s insert, I learned that it also is a mini-history of the great songwriters, only Johnny Mercer graces more than one selection. I also learned that she and her mother Robin Pappas were the producers.
But those were not the big surprises — Nellie wrote “If I Ever Had A Dream.” And during our conversation later, I also learned that she wrote it when she was 17, the same age as Billy Strayhorn when he wrote “Lush Life.” What company.
The more I listened to “Dream,” the more I became intrigued by it. The lyric first goes, and repeats as, “If I ever had a dream it would be you.” Until the end. The she alters it, becoming, “If I ever had a dream it would be for you.” A lesser, ordinary writer at any age would have said that the dream would be “of you” or just left it alone. Like Stephen Sondheim adding the words “it’s easy” after the self-titled lyric, “Anyone Can Whistle” it’s unexpected, and yet adds much more to the song than just a couple of words.
For her November 1 Mt. Stage appearance Nellie’s performance was comprised solely of songs from the new album backed by the always reliable Mt. Stage band. But with a twist, with normal bassist Steve Hill off due to illness, the jazz-oriented guitarist Ryan Kennedy filled in, and along with Bob Thompson and the saxophonist within hundreds of miles Doug Payne on stage, she had a pick up band extraordinaire. And it showed as she was, after a tentative start, noticeably comfortable on stage and after a couple of numbers got the audience into the groove — there were four Americana singer-songwriters before her, so she had to work it a bit — and by the time she closed her set with “Crazy Rhythm” the audience was on it’s feet, wanting more. The more was the Mt. Stage finale that included all the show’s performers doing a Day song that is not on the album, Que Sera Sera.” (If you want an updated version of that song, listen to Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women’s mostly un-ironic rendition.)
After the show I was fortunate enough to spend several hours with Nellie and her Mom. And even though she had spent most of the day rehearsing, performing, glad handing and being interviewing on video by the show’s host Larry Groce, she welcomed me with a graciousness that was heartwarming.
We spoke about the new record, how it was recorded, etc. as well as an album of standards she recorded some time ago and shelved. Apparently it did not meet her own level of expectations. And she’s not standing still, before year’s end she hopes to have final meetings with Oscar-winning writer Jim Taylor (“Sideways”) so that their musical based on another one of his scripts (along with Alexander Payne), “Election” can proceed. (“Election” is the 1999 picture starring Reese Witherspoon and is not only Witherspoon’s most invigorating performance, it is also the most subversive movie to come out of Hollywood in a very long time. If you have not seen it, do so. It’s script was Oscar-nominated.)
With Taylor doing the book and Nellie doing the lyrics and musics, I cannot wait.
And her Mom is a hoot. She reminded me of a younger Annie Ross. When I asked her where she hung out in the city, she responded, without hesitation, “The nearest curbside.” Witty and appropriately disarming.
For now, Nellie’s performance and our conversation are like a Rothko painting. Which is unusual for someone who has made a living out of words. Just go see her as she’s on tour with her current band, The Aristocrats with guitarist Howard Fishman.
On stage she’s that water spider again. You will not regret it.