Welcome! Fridays are the day when we at the McElrath Cabaret Blog are going to present blog posts in our Cabaret Through Time series. We are going to present historical cabaret singers, venues, writers, and musicians, and will begin to compile a cabaret timeline. We hope that you find it informative, and that you enjoy it!
Fred Astaire–The Performance Artist Who Originated Many Standards
Today’s focus is on the multi-talented Fred Astaire. Much has already been written about today’s subject such that a short blog post cannot do him justice. I choose instead to mention a very few of the highlights of his long and artistically productive career. Today I will focus a bit on some of the songs that Astaire originated in film, which went on to become standards that are sung by cabaret performers today.
I am reading Fred Astaire’s autobiography, Steps In Time. Published in 1959, it covers Astaire’s early years working with his talented sister Adele in vaudeville and theatre both in the United States as well as overseas, most notably in London, along with the shift he made into film work, and film musicals in particular. He talks about his personal life, his youth and growing up, his first marriage to Phyllis Potter, experiences on the sets of his many pictures and more. Later editions of this book include a forward written by Ginger Rogers. The pictures included in this volume are wonderful–you will enjoy this easy-to-read, entertaining volume. I am using this book as a reference source for this blog post.
Mr. Astaire’s early life was spent in entertainment. He began working very early on with his sister Adele, who was four years older than Fred. He started life in Omaha, Nebraska, but soon he, his sister and his mother headed to New York to learn more about performing and to try to break into show business. Like many youngsters that show performance aptitude, they both took acting, dancing and singing lessons. They eventually performed a vaudeville act, and really had to work to gain a foothold and make it–it didn’t come particularly easy for them to break in, but they stuck with it, gained experience, and finally they gained fame in vaudeville. He speaks of seeing and working in the same theatres as Bill Robinson (48), Eddie Cantor and Arthur Freed (53) as well as Jack Benny (56).
Eventually they moved on to Broadway shows. Some of their Broadway highlights will be listed in the timeline below. Shows that they were in included 1920s hits Lady Be Good, written by the Gershwin Brothers. Others were Funny Face and The Band Wagon. The Band Wagon was Fred and Adele’s last show together, as Adele got married. This left Fred as a solo performer for the first time professionally, and he had to make his way on his own. His sister always encouraged him, and was supportive of his efforts even after her retirement.
As everyone knows, Mr. Astaire went to Hollywood and the rest was history. A string of film musicals were made, classics that are cherished and revered to this day. In 1933 he made his film debut with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in Dancing Lady. After this, he made a long string of hits with his most famous dance partner, Ginger Rogers, in the 1930s for RKO Studios, including Flying Down To Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Top Hat , Follow the Fleet , Swing Time, Shall We Dance and Carefree .
Cabaret performers find a wealth of wonderful songs for which Mr. Astaire was the first to sing. His autobiography is full of interesting and humorous anecdotes, including his description of meeting George Gershwin for the first time when Astaire was in New York doing vaudeville. Gershwin was working as a song plugger for Jerome H. Remick’s, and Astaire went in, looking for new songs for their act. He recounts that they became friends, and that Gershwin “was amused by my piano playing and often made me play for him” (55). Of course, later Fred Astaire was to perform in the Gershwin Brother’s Lady Be Good on Broadway, as well as several films for which the Brothers wrote music.
Fred Astaire also performed songs by Irving Berlin, whom he did not meet until both were working on films in Hollywood. Astaire originated many songs written expressly for him by Berlin for films such as “Top Hat, Follow The Fleet, Holiday Inn, Blue Skies, Carefree and Easter Parade” (55)
Astaire also originated songs from Cole Porter’s Gay Divorcee, Jerome Kern’s Roberta, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Field’s Swing Time, the Gershwin’s Shall We Dance and Damsels in Distress (204).
Wikipedia lists in greater detail per show: Astaire introduced some of the most celebrated songs from the Great American Songbook, in particular, Cole Porter’s: “Night and Day” in Gay Divorce (1932); Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?”, “Cheek to Cheek” and “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” in Top Hat (1935), “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” in Follow the Fleet (1936) and “Change Partners” in Carefree (1938). He first presented Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” in Swing Time (1936); the Gershwins’ ”They Can’t Take That Away From Me” in Shall We Dance (1937), “A Foggy Day” and “Nice Work if You Can Get it” in A Damsel in Distress (1937); Johnny Mercer’s “One for My Baby” from The Sky’s the Limit (1943) and “Something’s Gotta Give” from Daddy Long Legs (1955); and Harry Warren andArthur Freed’s “This Heart of Mine” from Ziegfeld Follies (1946). Astaire also co-introduced a number of song classics via song duets with his partners. For example, with his sister Adele, he co-introduced the Gershwins’ “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” from Stop Flirting (1923), “Fascinating Rhythm” in Lady, Be Good (1924), “Funny Face” in Funny Face (1927); and, in duets with Ginger Rogers, he presented Irving Berlin’s “I’m Putting all My Eggs in One Basket” in Follow the Fleet (1936), Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up” and “A Fine Romance” in Swing Time (1936), along with The Gershwins’ “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” from Shall We Dance (1937). With Judy Garland, he sang Irving Berlin’s “A Couple of Swells” from Easter Parade (1948); and, with Jack Buchanan, Oscar Levant, and Nanette Fabray he delivered Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s “That’s Entertainment” from The Band Wagon (1953).
Astaire died in 1987 at age 88. He was a lifelong lover of golfing and horse racing; he married his second wife, who was a jockey, in 1980.
A very brief timeline for Fred Astaire (not complete–only a few major highlights)
1899–birth; born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska
1905–took the name of Astaire
to 1917–worked with sister Adele in vaudeville
1924–performed in Lady Be Good on Broadway
1927–performed in Funny Face on Broadway
1931–performed in The Band Wagon on Broadway; last show with Adele
1932–performed in New York and London is the stage play The Gay Divorce–first major role apart from Adele
1933–film: Flying Down To Rio–first time partnered on film with dancer Ginger Rogers
1934–film: The Gay Divorcee
1935–films: Roberta, Top Hat
1936–film: Follow The Fleet, Swing Time
1937–film: Shall We Dance
1940–film: Broadway Melody of 1940 with Eleanor Powell
1946–film: The Ziegfeld Follies–Astaire dances with Gene Kelly
1949–film: The Barkleys of Broadway–last film with Ginger Rogers
1952–The Astaire Story, a four-volume album was recorded. Won Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999.
1953–film: The Band Wagon
1957–film: Silk Stockings with Cyd Charisse
1958–television: An Evening with Fred Astaire–won nine Emmy Awards
1970s–animation for television: Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town–He voiced the mailman narrator
1970s–documentaries: That’s Entertainment! Astaire was in the first two of the three. In Volume Two, he dances with Gene Kelly, and these are some of his last times dancing in musical film
What I like about Fred Astaire’s performance in singing is that he always puts the lyrics first. He didn’t think that he was a great singer; nevertheless, many famous composers turned to him to originate their songs that went on to become standards. He did not sing with a heavy belt; his singing was more light, which is in keeping with stories involved in many of the lyrics of the songs that he introduced. I got a sense of a man who was kind of unassuming, without a large ego about the amazing work he had done over the course of his life, while reading his autobiography, which I found to be refreshing. Today’s cabaret performers would learn a great deal by listening to Astaire performing these classics with style, grace, confidence and a light yet effective touch.
Below is a great tune–I hope you enjoy it.
What is your favorite Fred Astaire moment in terms of the songs he sang in film? Leave us a note in the comments below—we always love to hear from our readers!
If you liked this post, then Like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter!
Weekly Post Lineup At McElrath Cabaret:
Tuesdays: Cabaret Tip Tuesday
Wednesdays: Ask A Cabaret Question
Thursdays: Featured Cabaret Blog, Website, Performer
Fridays: Cabaret Through Time