Once upon a time there was a television in the den. One television in one room for one family to watch. It was about 12 inches on the diagonal and had a black and white picture. I was allowed to watch it from seven until nine if my homework was done. This was the era of the great variety shows of the 1950s and early 60s. We had Uncle Miltie, Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, Steve Allen among others and we had a one of a kind in Jimmy Durante.
The earliest TV shows were really radio and vaudeville moving to a new medium, and the variety shows were populated with entertainers from the previous 30 years. The conversation was often witty and urbane with a world knowledge and vocabulary level that must have challenged the audience, but it was an era when the night time audience was expected to think up rather than the networks aiming down to a lowest common denominator.
A couple of weeks ago, there was something on PBS in the background and during one of the please send us money commercials, the sound kept running instrumental versions of song after song from before 1960. It didn't register at first, and then I realized that I knew them all. Not one standard here or there but ALL OF THEM ... sort of a one woman "Name That Tune" and it wasn't taking much more than five notes. All of those evenings watching phenomenal entertainers joining other entertainers on a stage singing, hoofing it with rather stilted dance groups, or sitting on a couch chatting about their reasons for being in New York or Los Angeles. All of those evenings in the den were paying off with a lifetime of music recognition.
Jimmy Durante was a favorite because he always seemed so real. In the midst of the shticks and bits, there was a gentle man speaking warmly to his guests and audience with the iconic closing of "Good Night Mrs. Calabash wherever you are." to his deceased first wife. In researching "September Song", I came across the liner notes for the 1959 album:
Jimmy wasn't a great singer, but he was a great entertainer. What's more he was an excellent musician. You just sort of knew the talent was there in the middle of all the throw away lines because when he did decide to sing, it was usually a classic (If you don't count Inka Dinka Do). If you mesh Jimmy Durante with the talents of Hoagy Carmichael, the result is magic. For that matter, if you mesh Hoagy Carmichael with Hoagy Carmichael, the result is even greater magic if only because most people will hear a song and not realize that the composer was Carmichael. That can lead you to wonder what they put in the water in Indiana in the 1890s since Cole Porter came from the same state.
‘When Jimmy Durante stepped into the studio to record this album, it seemed as though a burst of dazzling sunlight had enveloped the stark, acoustically insulated walls and danced gaily amid the tangle of electronic equipment. Hat in
one hand, a cigar in the other; the familiar, irresistible grin flashing in the shadow cast by the most famous “proboscus” in the world…Jimmy the “pie-a-nist” had arrived…in person!
Seating himself at the keyboard of one of the two freshly
tuned concert grands in the room, Jimmy executed a beautiful, florid glissando. Looking a bit surprised himself, he quipped “Whatsa matter, didn’t you think I could do it?” Actually, no-one was surprised that he could do it, but amazed that he would let us know it. It is that element of his personality, a resolute
refusal to ever take himself too seriously, that has, perhaps more than anything else, endeared him to everyone he has ever met, either on or off stage.
If you were lucky enough to have a black and white TV in the corner of a den in the 1950s, you got an education in music before bedtime that is almost impossible to match today.
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