Thursday, 12 January 2012

Gene Kelly: The Underrated Singer

Fans, scholars, and critics alike talk all the time about Gene Kelly the dancer, Gene Kelly the director, Gene Kelly the choreographer, and Gene Kelly the actor. But rarely do they discuss Gene Kelly the singer. As a singer who is completely enchanted by Kelly’s light, clear, and pure tenor voice, I often wonder why it doesn’t get the appreciation it should. In fact, I once did a presentation on his singing voice in a high school music class just to give attention to another side of Gene Kelly. While Kelly is constantly heralded as one of Hollywood’s favorite song-and dance men, the “song” aspect of this phrase is too often silenced or dismissed in discussions of Kelly’s work and talents. I’d like to amend that here.

I was prompted to write this post because I’m currently reading Todd Decker’s Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz, a book focused solely on Astaire’s singing career. It’s a fascinating account of the dancer’s contribution to American popular music, and it made me wonder why there is no similar source devoted to Kelly’s vocals. Granted, Kelly didn’t introduce countless original standards by the likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Johnny Mercer as Astaire did, but his singing voice was almost always his segue into his legendary dances. And before Hollywood, he was singing live on Broadway in the critically acclaimed Pal Joey. Kelly was no slouch as a singer, to be sure.

A few examples of Kelly’s singing prowess:
  • What would “Singin’ in the Rain” be without his joyful vocal rendition preceding it? He sings in the rain before he dances, remember. Plus, his version of the song, though recorded by countless others including Judy Garland, Usher, and Jamie Cullum is still the definitive rendition.
  • Moreover, would Kelly’s dreamy “The Heather on the Hill” duet with Cyd Charisse in Brigadoon be nearly as romantic without his soft and crystal clear voice serenading her before they dance on MGM’s soundstage version of Scotland? I think not. The cut track from Brigadoon, There But For You Go I,” is my personal favourite vocal performance of Kelly’s, and it’s a crime that it didn’t make it into the movie. Not many singers are able to make me tear up just listening to them, but the first time I heard the outtake, there were definitely tears in my eyes as I marveled at his emotional and honest performance.
  • Finally, just this morning I was listening to the Les Girls soundtrack and was blown away by the power in Kelly’s voice at the end of his duet with Kay Kendall, “You’re Just Too Too!” Take a listen when you get a chance! It’s a side to his singing he shied away from showing us until 1957.

In a discussion of Kelly’s singing voice, we must not forget his pairings with Judy Garland. She brought out the best in his singing voice, and he brought out the best in her dancing — arguably a match made in heaven. Their infectious “For Me and My Gal” duet showcases her alto voice, which blends perfectly with his tenor. Moreover, their “You, Wonderful You” duet in Summer Stock is the definition of adorable as their two vocals blend in perfect harmony. Forget Garland and Sinatra’s or Garland and Crosby’s duets: I’ll take Garland’s and Kelly’s perfectly paired voices over theirs any day (not that I’m biased, of course).

One singing-related anecdote from the set of Kelly’s 1944 film Cover Girl has always stayed with me. In the film, Kelly premiered to the world one of Jerome Kern’s most beautiful songs, “Long Ago and Far Away.” Kern was in the studio the day Kelly recorded the song, so the latter was noticeably nervous. In fact, Kelly was never particularly confident and even self-conscious about his voice, so to have Kern himself in the studio that day only added to his tension. Kelly went for the first take, and nervously waited for Kern to weigh in. After some silence, Kern replied, “If you want to make the old man happy, please sing it again.” Pretty high praise from one of the great American songwriters.

In closing, Kelly had a unique tenor voice, great control of his sound, and more than ably serenaded his many leading ladies. So the next time you watch him in a movie, while you’ll likely always gravitate to his dancing first, you might also pay close attention to his singing voice. If you do, I think you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for the Hollywood legend that is Gene Kelly.

Sources and Further Reading
Hirschhorn, Clive.  Gene Kelly: A Biography.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1985.

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