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.
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)
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
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
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
This is the longest song written by Irving Berlin.Cheek to Cheek
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
“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
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
This was the only song for which George Gershwin was nominated for an Academy Award.They Can't Take That Away From Me
“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
“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 if I could write a musical show and you two could be in it?”George Gershwin to Fred Astaire