Lea and Keith Ingham
Mad About the Boy - The Songs of Noel Coward
Challenge Records, 1999
by Peter Wagenaar
Johannesburg, South Africa
ninety-nine delivered a hat-trick of songwriter centenaries - but
you might be forgiven if you missed the fact. For the US media,
especially, 1999 was the year of Duke Ellington, whose significance
in the scheme of jazz and popular music was assessed, re-assessed
and celebrated with ferocity. The Ellington centenary almost completely
overshadowed that of fellow American Hoagy Carmichael, and it was
hardly surprising that Noel Coward, a quintessential Englishman,
came in a distant third with little fanfare to mark his 100th birthday.
then Coward has never received the same recognition accorded the
great American songwriters of what, for want of a better 'brand'
name, I'll call the Gershwin school. Yet he was arguably one of
the single most talented individuals alive in the twentieth century.
Astonishingly versatile, he did it all and did it well, writing
plays (both drama and comedy), book musicals, revues, short stories
and a novel. As songwriter he wrote both music and lyrics in diverse
styles: operetta, patter songs, up-tempo novelties, sophisticated
love songs, torchy ballads. They stand comparison with the best
work of his American counterparts, such as Cole Porter (to whom
he is most often compared), yet only a handful made it into the
standards repertoire of the predominately American exponents of
one wonders? Perhaps the most likely reason is that the best interpreter
of Noel Coward songs is generally agreed to be
As early as the 1920s, Coward's recordings of his own songs were
so well received that in some cases no recordings exist by the singers
who actually introduced them on stage. In the 1950s, as changing
tastes saw the theatre-going public turn away from the sophisticated,
stylised works that had been Coward's trademark, in favour of the
kitchen-sink realism of the angry young men, Coward wrote less and
performed more, emerging (to his own astonishment, as he subsequently
admitted) as a very successful and sought-after cabaret attraction.
More than ever, Noel Coward songs seemed to have become the preserve
of Noel Coward. With this in mind, certain writers have argued that
he was the first true "pop" star, performing his own songs
almost exclusively while prolonging his career by reinventing himself
with each decade as the world around him changed.
he enjoyed considerable popular success in his lifetime (with his
knighthood in 1970 bringing a revival of interest and a couple of
nostalgic revues in the years prior to his death in 1973), his reputation
and fame seem to have declined in the years since and even in his
native Britain his centenary passed with relatively little fanfare.
One of relatively few news articles rather patronizingly dubbed
him "our Cole Porter". (Would any American writer have
called Porter "our Noel Coward", one wonders?) Admittedly,
there was a tribute CD released in late 1998, on which a number
of pop stars brought their own individual approaches to the Coward
oeuvre. One charitably assumes that it was well-intentioned
but, a few numbers apart, it was a misguided mess.
an American singer to redress matters. And Noel Coward couldn't
have gotten luckier. Barbara Lea burst onto the jazz scene in the
mid-1950s to rapturous critical acclaim and a great future seemed
assured. Unfortunately, the rise of rock 'n roll and its erosion
of what music critic Joel E. Siegel once described as "the
jazz-pop middleground" meant that she never achieved the heights
predicted for her. But for 40+ years, she has remained one of the
classiest acts around.
believe in jazz and in singing, but not necessarily in jazz singing,"
she declared in the self-penned sleeve notes of her third album
in 1957. The ensuing decades may not always have been easy, but
Lea has never abandoned this philosophy, respecting the music and
the lyrics and singing them with care and precision. "I'm aware
that there are people out there who might find my singing bland,"
she told me recently, "but I came to terms a long time ago
with the knowledge that not everyone would understand what I was
doing - going for truth."
went for truth too. His lyrics run the gamut from the giddiness
of new love (You Were There) to mature retrospection (If
Love Were All) and their resonance is often breathtaking. They've
seldom, if ever, sounded better than they do on this album, to my
knowledge only the third ever Noel Coward songbook by a female vocalist.
Few voices age as gracefully as Barbara Lea's. At 70, her warm,
textured voice, with its distinctively "furry" quality,
sounds almost exactly the same as it did 25 years ago.
by pianist Keith Ingham, with whom she has collaborated successfully
before, Lea presents a programme that balances Coward's well-known
songs with a few more obscure gems. The former include the title
track, a medley of the three famous waltzes (I'll See You Again,
Someday I'll Find You, I'll Follow My Secret Heart) and If
Love Were All, one of the finest love songs ever written. Lea
opens the verse at a jaunty tempo which initially comes as a surprise.
On a second listening one realises how appropriate the setting is
to the lyric ("Life is very rough and tumble
laugh their fill, You mustn't sleep till dawn comes creeping.")
Mid-way into the verse and in the refrain, as the tone of the lyric
becomes more resigned and philosophical, so too does Lea's approach.
The lines "Although when shadows fall I think, 'If only
have seldom been sung with such wistful longing and yet without
making the singer sound victimised.
of the rarities deserve special mention. Something Very Strange
and Come the Wild Wild Weather, both written in the early
1960s, contain some of Coward's most satisfying lyrics. Works of
maturity, Lea sings them with a grace and understanding few singers
working today could have mustered.
music was long overdue for a retrospective such as this one, and
there isn't a false note in the entire project, which is a triumph
of good taste, elegance and, most significantly, understatement.
Ingham is to be commended too for his accomplished backing, and
he adds a few sly imaginative touches of his own, such as the use
of a motif from Gypsy in My Soul to introduce Coward's Zigeuner.