Steppin' Out: Astaire Sings
The Standard Starting Point for Singing Standards
To discover why Fred Astaire never got tangled up on his feet, listen to him sing. The most superlative dancer in film history, Astaire (1899–1987) had an exacting sense of phrasing and the ability to traipse through tricky vocal lines with an unflappable serenity. The composers of the Great American Songbook—George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern—depended on Astaire to introduce their songs to the world, and though he didn't have the most sterling voice or the sexiest persona, his innate musicality made him very well suited to that task. Virtually every jazz and saloon singer who reinterpreted these songs was familiar with his precise, unassuming treatments, which became the standard starting point for the singing of standards.
In 1952, during a rocky stretch at the box office (The Belle of New York had just tanked), Astaire and a top-shelf jazz combo gathered in Los Angeles to rerecord songs he'd done in musicals and films. The pianist Oscar Peterson was at the helm, and among the supporting cast was the virtuosic guitarist Barney Kessel and tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips. First collected on the four-LP The Astaire Story and now available as this single-disc "highlight" reel, these performances call from an era when poise mattered. Though the music around him gets "hot," there's nothing even remotely torrid about Astaire's singing—he catches the essential shape of such durable themes as "Dancing in the Dark," and then gets out of the way, leaving the instrumentalists plenty of breathing room. The atmosphere throughout is buoyant and assured, as Astaire, whose voice sounds warmer here than on the original soundtrack recordings, serves as an eager tour guide to these great songs, pointing out exactly what he finds so wonderful about each one.
Released: 1953, Verve (Reissued 1994)
Key Tracks: "Dancing in the Dark," "The Way You Look Tonight," "I Won't Dance," "The Continental"
Catalog Choice: The Essential Fred Astaire
Next Stop: Tony Bennett: Steppin' Out
After That: Chet Baker: Let's Get Lost