Introducing Janice Mars
Baq Room Records
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Janice Mars, try contacting All
Review by Michael Mascioli
Janice Mars is a mere footnote in the history
of popular music. It's safe to say she's never been discussed at
any length anywhere but in James Gavin's fascinating Intimate
Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret (a book which keeps
alive the memory of many otherwise forgotten artists like Spivy,
Nan Blakstone, Rae Bourbon, Dwight Fiske, and Claire Hogan). In
it, Gavin touches on Mars' reign, at 33, as the proprietor ofand
sole singer ather own club, the tiny Baq Room on 6th Avenue
in the late 1950s. There her following was comprised of the New
York cognoscenti, including Judy Holliday, Lauren Bacall, Richard
Burton, Comden & Green, Noel Cowardand Marlon Brando,
in whose study the master tapes for Mars' only albumnever
released were stored for safekeeping for the last 40 years.
The recent, long-overdue release of the CD Introducing Janice
Mars moves her at last out of the footnotes and onto the main
page, alongside more famous but no more talentednames,
where she rightfully belongs.
On the CD cover Janice Mars looks mild, staideven
(dare I say it?) a little boringand inside there's an old
newspaper photo of her holding court at the Baq Room (Tennessee
Williams sits ringside), looking for all the world like the quintessential
boite chanteuse sort of a white Mabel Mercer, only standing
up. So imagine the shock of playing this recording for the first
time and hearing an opening blast of trumpets and a huge orchestra
building to a crescendo to herald Janice, who makes a bold entrance,
blaring, "Damn the city!! I'm SICK of the whole city!"
It's the beginning of Baldwin Bergersen & Phyllis McGinley's
ultra-obscure and ultra-charming Commuter Song, from their
1948 revue Small Wonder. Mars quickly relaxes and begins
to extol the joys of quasi-pastoral living:
Got a bee in my turban
That I'd like to be suburban
And live among the vegetables and fruit...
Let's be commuters and commute.
The scenery's pretty and life is swell
In Garden City and New Rochelle
And every morning, come rain or sun,
We can hurry in a flurry to the 8:01....
And every night when work is done
I think we might have a lot of fun
For the very best families get begun
Between the 5:08 and the 8:01.
(Bergersen, incidentally, also served as Mars'
accompanist at the Baq Room.)
Janice Mars is essentially a dramatic singer, and
she shares the fluttering, heartthrob vibrato of Judy Garland and
Edith Piaf, as well as the latter's hearty, authoritative, clarion
style. Indeed, Mars was considered by some to be America's young
answer to Piaf. Both her singing and her interpretations arethere
is no other word for it charged. But she also owes much to
Eartha Kitt and to other theatrical singers who trod the floorboards
a block or two west of the Baq Room during Broadway's golden agebelters
like Susan Johnson and, especially, Eileen Rodgers, whom, along
with Kitt, I would name as the singer Mars most sounds like, though
clearly only by coincidence, not by calculation or imitation. But
Mars is, I think, more capable than either of examining all the
layers and levels of emotion and color below, shall we say, "the
belt." She can be sweet and tender, girlish and genuinely vulnerable
when necessary witness her readings of When the World Was
Young (which must be the quintessential cabaret song), Nobody
Told Me (also from Small Wonder) and especially the first
half of Bye Bye Blackbird (before it begins to build, thrillingly).
That same Broadway sensibility invests her with
a sparkling personality, a sense of fun and lightness missing from
so many other self-consciously serious, even somber, singers, especially
these days. After all, musicals used to be called musical comedies.
On Yip Harburg & Harold Arlen's "mockalypso" I
Don't Think I'll End It All Today (from Lena Horne's Broadway
vehicle Jamaica) you can almost see Mars sashaying and swishing
her skirts as she grinningly makes her way through a list of ways
to end it allonly not today.
Throughout, she is supported by vibrant instrumental
settings created by the triple-threat combination of orchestrator
Ted Royal, arranger Don Evans and conductor Milt Rosenstock (who,
significantly, was the Musical Director for classic shows like Funny
Girl, Gypsy, Finian's Rainbow, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bells are
Ringing and Can-Can). Their combined talents add infinite
excitement and color to the proceedings.
The CD contains a dozen songsher entire recorded
legacyincluding a hidden bonus track, her commanding version
of The Battle Hymn of the Republic (of all things) which,
legend has it, a very young Janis Joplin would come to hear Janice
sing. I also especially like her uber-dramatic version of
Winter of My Discontent (a song I never enjoyed before) by
Alec Wilder and Benedict Berenbergwho, it turns out, was Mars'
first husband. If she performed this at the Baq Room with this kind
of intensity, they're probably still scraping the audience off the
Rounding out the esoteric yet accessible program
are Duke Ellington & John LaTouche's Take Love Easy,
Lilac Wine (earlier popularized by Eartha Kitt), The World
is Your Balloon (from the famous '51 flop Flahooley,
starring Barbara Cookand Yma Sumac!), Take it Slow, Joe
(also from Jamaica ), and Frank Loesser's Inchworm
(strangely, a big favorite with jazz and cabaret singers.)
Introducing Janice Mars has fast become one of my desert
island discs. Of course, my desert island is populated by singers
like Frances Faye, Elaine Stritch, Susan Johnson and Kay Thompsonconfident,
assertive, big-voiced women considered a little sharp, a little
edgy, a little too Broadway by some, especially, I would think,
by today's growing coterie of jazz snobs.
It's said that Janice Mars (who is alive and well
in New Mexico) mistrusted fame and sometimes even seemed to sabotage
her own careersurprising considering her enormous, self-evident
talent. We can only thank the gods that two members of her family
decided to resurrect and release these important recordings as a
"late-blooming gift" to Janice. And that Marlon Brando
keeps his study so well organized.
Can't Stop me From Dreaming
How grand it is to tell you that Alex Pangman's
sophomore recording, Can't Stop Me From Dreaming, is as good,
if not better, than her first! We worry sometimes that we'll go
overboard about a disc we like and later discover the well doesn't
go very deep. Happily, this isn't the case with Pangman and we look
forward to lots of offbeat, vintage and sincere recordings for years
Alex Pangman sticks to Popular music mostly
written between the World Wars. But one of her many talents is discovering
great songs that have escaped "standard" status. There
is no Stardust, I've Got You Under My Skin or It Don't
Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) here. Instead of Gershwin,
Porter or Arlen you hear works by Scholl, Silver and "Unknown".
To these old ears, it's a gas. Ten of the 15 songs were new to us
and the only song that might be considered a standard is Prisoner
Ms Pangman sings like a grown up cast member
of the Little Rascals. Or maybe Olive Oyl's talented sister.
She doesn't posses a huge voice but it swings and warbles and yodels
in all the right places. A young woman at the turn of this century
singing these old chestnuts in a vintage style is in danger of being
far too cute and none too musical, but Pangman is so sincere and
so right on the money stylistically, there's no need to worry.
On Pangman's very good last disc, They
Say, she was backed by a small hot combo that seemed to
be a little more confident than the singer. She always sounded fine
but the solos from the band members seemed almost a relief for the
singer rather than a chance to share the chores. It might be imagination
but on Can't Stop Me From Dreaming, it seems like Pangman
can't wait to jump right back in to the action after the various
solos. She's officially one of the boys.
It's going to be a while until we take Can't
Stop Me From Dreaming out of the CD player and neatly file it
away between Patti Page and Anthony Perkins on the CD shelf. In
fact, it probably won't be sent away until Pangman's next disc arrives.
Leon Russell Records
Signature Songs is rock legend Leon Russell's new collection
of hits, re-recorded with just Leon on piano and occasionally an
electric bass line and a funny little ricky-ticky percussion help.
The album would have been better with just the piano as the bass
and percussion sound like they're from a lounge in a Midwestern
Ramada Inn. So what's so wrong with having a beer in a Ramada Inn?
Aside from the occasionally odd accompaniment, the most striking
thing about Signature Songs is Russell's voice. The old quirks
that used to make him interesting have aged and mellowed and we
find him one of his generation's best singers. A great example is
the opener, A Song For You. Clearly, Russell must have sung
this song a thousand times too many throughout his long career but
now, rather than stick to the melody, he wanders around it and adds
a dimension that wasn't there before.
Next you're bound to notice the songs themselves. As played by
Russell, without all the trappings of a rock and roll act, there's
a distinct mathematical certainty to them that reminds you what
a topnotch songwriter he could be. A modern "song" seems
to be a team of producers and a vapid artist "chillin'"
in the studio and stealing, er, sampling riffs from more creative
people's recordings. Voila! A song is born. Russell's songs have
melodies you can sing, lyrics you can understand and occasionally
emotions beyond the grasp of someone who can't legally vote yet.
A lot of musical trips down memory lane end up in a bust. With
Leon Russell, we end up feeling a little guilty that we haven't
taken him more seriously throughout the years. It's awfully nice
that fellows like Billy Joel and Elton John have found continued
success but for our money, we'll take Leon Russell.