Sony Masterworks, in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies, has issued a double CD by the legendary Fred Astaire The Early Years At RKO. Astaire is the star of the month on Turner Classic Movies for December 2013 and is known for the classic movies he starred in along with Ginger Rogers for RKO including “Top Hat,” “Swing Time” and “Shall We Dance.”
Backed by orchestras led by the esteemed conductors Leo Reisman, Ray Noble, and Astaire’s friend Johnny Green, Astaire introduced the world to many of the cornerstones of what we call today “The American Songbook.” Among the songs heard here, written some of American’s greatest songwriters and composers including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and George and Ira Gershwin, are Night And Day, Cheek To Cheek, The Way You Look Tonight, They All Laughed, They Can't Take That Away From Me and Nice Work If You Can Get It.
In his liner notes, Michael Feinstein observes that Astaire is “considered by many to be the most sublime popular singer and dancer of any generation.” These were recorded around the time of the films these appeared in and Astaire’s vocals seem as effortless as his stunning dancing, coveting a fair amount of his sophisticated charm. The orchestrations are sublime with very skillful use of strings along with some muted trumpet obligatos, some doses of stride piano and some showcase his dancing (for example Let Yourself Go).
As Michael Feinstein notes, Fred Astaire was a favorite singer for songwriters such as Berlin and Gershwin, although he hated his voice. Yet listening to the controlled exuberance as he sings about going out on the town in Top Hat, White Tie and Tails, as well as the humor of sailors who looked to see the world, but instead sings that We Saw the Sea. Fred Astaire’s performances on The Early Years At RKO still enchant over 75 years when they first were recorded, and help us realize that even apart from his movies, he was a superb interpreter of songs.