Fred Astaire

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  • Biography
  • Back Stories
  • First Person
  • The Great Songs
  • Career Highlights

It seems odd that the greatest dancer of the twentieth century should also be one of the best interpreters of American popular song. Notice the word interpreter rather than singer. Astaire, like many other great singers, understood the confines of his own range and compensated through an emphasis on performance, interpretation, and the rhythms of a song. It’s been stated that limitations make great art and so it is with singers. The challenge of escaping the margins of one’s natural talents can bring creativity to the fore, and great artists find new ways to communicate without relying on gimmicks.

It seems odd that the greatest dancer of the twentieth century should also be one of the best interpreters of American popular song.

In fact, many mediocre singers rely on the nice sounds they can make while never actually connecting with the meaning of a song. Others, especially of recent vintage, rely solely on lung power and cliché techniques and end up making every song sound exactly the same.

Astaire was smart and talented enough to find strengths that obviated his weaknesses. While some singers used their voices like horns (or so the old cliché goes), Astaire used the rhythms in songs to create a form of jazz singing all his own. In a way it makes sense that his singing, like his sublime dancing, relied on rhythms and accents as much as melody and tone.

Astaire always shared an affinity with jazz performers, preferring the jazzy feel of a Gershwin tune to the square operetta composers of his early career. He acted in the otherwise dismal Second Chorus because Artie Shaw was in the film. When he turned to television he collaborated with such greats as Jonah Jones and Count Basie. And his recording The Fred Astaire Story featured accompaniment by Oscar Peterson.

He made singing seem natural, conversational, and effortless, yet his listeners could always sense and appreciate the thought behind the performance. It all seemed so unforced, just like his dancing. Dance on the walls and ceiling? Easy. Use a trench coat as a matador’s cape? No problem. Take a hat stand as a dancing partner? Absolutely. Clarify the trickiest of rhythms in a song, build variations on them, make the connections between notes seem inevitable? All done with aplomb.

Never showing off but communicating in the simplest of ways the happiness and heartbreak of popular song, Astaire made the hardest phrase—or the hardest dance step—seem easy. When we dance around the living room, lost in the fantasy that we are lighter than air, we aren’t imagining ourselves as Gene Kelly or Mikhail Barishnikov--it’s Fred Astaire we have in mind. And when we sing in the shower or while mowing the lawn, it isn’t Ella Fitzgerald or Luciano Pavarotti we emulate--it’s the incomparable Astaire.

Whether the song was profound or Tin Pan Alley schlock—Astaire made it all sound good. Can you think of an Astaire performance that was bad, or even slightly below par? Doubtful. Considering he didn’t even think of himself as a singer. it must be noted that he introduced and made his own some of the greatest standards in the American repertoire. Like Bob Hope, Astaire brought humanity to his singing. Like Mabel Mercer, he took his limitations and made them secondary. Like Bing Crosby he emphasized through understatement. Above all, he was uniquely Fred Astaire. (KB)

Fred Astaire on “Night and Day”

It had a long range, very low and kind of very high, and it was long, as they all said, and I was trying to figure out what kind of dance could be arranged for it. I asked him to play it again and again, and after four or five times I began to get with it… It was a known fact that it made the show. Gay Divorce had an awfully rough trip when it first opened on the road and later in New York. It was known after it caught on as “The Night and Day Show.”Night and Day

Wrote it for your voice

 Cole Porter was nonplussed when Astaire worried about singing the song because of the range. Porter replied, “Sure you can. I wrote it especially for your voice.”Night and Day

Nothing particularly outstanding

 This number was danced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their first movie as a team, Flying Down to Rio. In his autobiography, Astaire wrote, “I was under the impression that we weren’t doing anything particularly outstanding in 'The Carioca.' I had thrown in a few solos, too, in the limited time given me, but I never expected that they would register so well. However, everything clicked.”The Carioca

The longest song

This is the longest song written by Irving Berlin.Cheek to Cheek

Infectious singing

One of the rejected songs from As Thousands Cheer, “Cheek to Cheek” took only a day to write, but it was one of Berlin’s most infectious songs. Fred Astaire sang in to Ginger Rogers later, in Top Hat.Cheek to Cheek

Second time's the charm

“I Won’t Dance” was written by Jerome Kern, Otto Harbach, and Oscar Hammerstein II for the 1934 London musical Three Sisters. The show was not a hit but Fred Astaire happened to see it and admired the song. When it came time to film Roberta at RKO, he suggested that the song be used in the film. Dorothy Fields amended the lyrics for the 1935 Hollywood version.I Won't Dance

New Jersey farmer

One day in 1937, Ira Gershwin was speaking to his brother-in-law, English Strunsky,who was telling him that the local New Jersey farms didn’t understand when Strunsky said “to-mah-to” rather than “to-may-to.” Ira complained in turn that Strunsky’s sister Leonore insisted that the proper pronunciation was “eye-ther” while Ira said “ee-ther.” Pretentious or not, the Strunskys’ affected pronunciation led to one of the greatest songs in the popular repertoire.Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

The lonely award

This was the only song for which George Gershwin was nominated for an Academy Award.They Can't Take That Away From Me

It was as simple as that.

“One time when I had gone with my mother to fetch Adele, I put on a pair of ballet slippers. I found them in a corner while I was dawdling around the place, killing time, waiting for Adele to finish her lesson. I had seen other children walk on their toes, so I put on the slippers and walked on my toes. It was as simple as that.”Fred Astaire

A great challenge

“Writing for Astaire—God—it was such a great challenge to satisfy this man’s talent musically and lyrically. ... Writing for him was my opportunity to imitate George Gershwin, to try and give Astaire what I saw Astaire do best, and that was wonderful rhythm beats in the music.”Burton Lane

Wouldn't it be great?

“Wouldn't it be great if I could write a musical show and you two could be in it?”George Gershwin to Fred Astaire

09/10/1896
Adele born on September 10.
05/10/1899
Born in Omaha, Nebraska on May 10.
1905
Mother and children move to New York City in January to develop Adele’s talents; premiere of act in Keyport, New Jersey in November.
1906
Travel on the Orpheum Circuit for $150 a week plus train fare.
1909
Appear in vaudeville with Eduardo Cansino, father of Rita Hayworth; break from performing until children come of age.
1911
Classes at Ned Wayburn’s dance school; creation of new act, “A Rainy Saturday”; Ginger Rogers born.
1912
Minor vaudeville engagements.
1917
Debut on Broadway in Over the Top on November 28.
1918
Second Broadway show, The Passing Show of 1918; Fred introduced to horse racing by two cast members and wins!
1919
 Father comes from Omaha to rejoin family in spacious new apartment that kids pay for.
1924
Father dies; Lady, Be Good! opens on Broadway.
1928
Funny Face opens on Broadway.
1930
 Meets Ginger Rogers while choreographing “Embraceable You” for Girl Crazy.
1931
The Band Wagon opens on Broadway.
1932
Adele leaves tour of The Band Wagon on March 5 to marry Sir Charles Cavendish and quits show business; Gay Divorce opens on Broadway on November 29, marking Astaire’s debut as a solo performer.
1933
Marries Phyllis Potter on July 12 and they leave for California and the movies on July 14; Film debut (uncredited) dancing with Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady; Flying Down to Rio opens marking beginning of screen pairing with Ginger Rogers as well as choreographer Hermes Pan.
1934
The Gay Divorcee opens—star billing and a percentage of the profits.
01/21/1936
Fred Astaire, Jr. born.
03/28/1942
Phyllis Ava Astaire born.
1944
Entertains troops in Europe.
1946
Retires from show business in October with end of filming of Blue Skies.
1947
Opens first Fred Astaire Dance Studio.
1948
Replaces Gene Kelly in Easter Parade after Kelly breaks ankle.
1949
 The Barkleys of Broadway reunites him with Ginger Rogers.
1950
Awarded an honorary Oscar.
1953
The Astaire Story recording released with Oscar Peterson’s backup.
1955
Television debut on Toast of the Town, What’s My Line?, and I’ve Got a Secret promoting film Daddy Long Legs.
1958
First dramatic television role in Imp on a Cardboard Leash; Television special, An Evening with Fred Astaire.
1959
Autobiography, Steps in Time; Film dramatic debut in On the Beach.
1961
Host of anthology television series, Alcoa Premiere.
1968
Last film musical, Finian‘s Rainbow.
1975
Records album in London with Bing Crosby.
1976
Breaks wrist after falling from skateboard.
1980
Marries Robyn Smith.
01/25/1981
Adele Astaire dies.
06/12/1987
Fred Astaire dies.
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Recordings
Fred Astaire Discusses “The Gay Divorce” and “Night and Day”
Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Garson Kan, and Alan Jay Lerner
The 3 part PBS Series
Own the DVD