She had the blessing of two phenomenal careers, both of which remain unparalleled.
I’ve collected Barbara Cook’s recordings for years, and started to delve into them more systematically a number of months ago after I read “Then & Now,” her almost painfully honest memoir. Following her recent passing, I returned to her catalog of work, and once again found myself astonished by her way with a song.
I was fortunate to see her live twice. The first time she performed many of the songs on her “It’s Better With a Band” album, but what remains indelible in my memory is the encore she sang—Jerome Kern’s “Long Ago and Far Away,” without a mike—just that silvery sound with no electronic enhancement whatsoever. The song just floated throughout the hall. I later heard her with the New Jersey Symphony, conducted by Wally Harper, her long-time music director, and most of the material came from her “Disney Album,” which had just been released. Was there ever a more perfect match of singer and song? The most refreshing aspect of her performance was her lack of pretense. I remember her putting on her glasses to read the sheet music during the “Disney” concert (for lyrics–she famously never learned to read music). This carried through in an interview she gave at one point on WQXR, New York’s classical music station. She was asked “How long do you warm up before a performance?” Ms. Cook replied “I don’t warm up. I just hum a few bars to see what I’ve got to work with that night.” And she was also a knowledgeable and opinionated opera fan (Is there any other kind?) whose interviews during Metropolitan Opera broadcast intermissions were a treat.
I have to think being Broadway’s favorite ingenue during the 1950’s and early ’60’s was excellent preparation for her second act as a solo performer. Among her many accomplishments, she created three indelible characters: Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” Marian Paroo in Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” and Amalia in Bock and Harnick’s “She Loves Me.” She also graced revivals of “The King and I,” “Showboat” and “Carousel,” both as Carrie Pipperidge and later as Julie Jordan (she famously preferred the former). While her performances in all of the these shows have been captured on disk, the one I always return to is “The Music Man.” Is there a more evocative number than “Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You?,” Marian’s duet with the barbershop quartet? The real 1912 was, I’m sure, far removed from the theatrical River City, but listening to that number automatically transports you to a long ago summer night. It’s the way we always wished that era had been.
As great as her Broadway career was, she set an even higher bar as a solo/cabaret artist. What I most liked about her was the emotional level she brought to a song. Nothing drives me up the wall faster than a singer who goes dramatically over the top, pedal to the metal, when the song is not intended to carry such heavy baggage. Singers who consistently resort to that approach don’t trust the material they’re performing, which makes me not trust them. Ms. Cook, on the other hand, knew what a song was saying, and within that context illuminated the composer and lyricist’s intent. Musically she sang what fit her voice, whether it was traditionally a “man’s song” or a “woman’s song;” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to
Her His Face,” “This Nearly Was Mine” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” were standards in her repertoire, and on “Marianne,” a lovely Jerry Herman number which surprisingly fit her voice like a glove, she didn’t bother to change pronouns, letting the music carry the emotion of the song. Few singers possess the art of illuminating both music and words simultaneously, but Ms. Cook certainly did. Listen to “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy” from her “Barbara Cook at the Met” album. She so obviously loved singing it–she relishes the phrase “corny as Kansas as August,” and leans on certain words to build to the eventual climax of the song: “fearlessly,” “loudly,” “flatly” finally, of course, “love.” Her musicianship was superb. I had no idea that Stephen Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” had such lovely music until I heard her sing it.
She never remained static in her approach, instead revisiting a song to find more within. Case in point: Jerry Herman’s “Time Heals Everything” from his show “Mack and Mabel.” Her first recording of this number, on “Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall,” presents an almost objective approach, as if she’s trying to give herself a pep talk to overcome the present grief of loss. A number of years later, on her “Barbara Cook’s Broadway” album, she’s sadder but just as determined to survive the pain. On this recording the song is paired in a medley with a beautiful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” in which her ability to sing legato—the smooth transition from note to note—is on full display. She could go the dramatic route—she makes her voice break twice in an even later, more pain-driven version of “Time Heals Everything” on her live “The Champion Season” recording—but it really doesn’t suit her. Nevertheless she manages to save that performance with a floated final note so ravishing that a “Lovely!” from a man in the audience is audible.
Fortunately she left a considerable body of work covering the best of the American Song Book. It’s so hard to pick my favorite Barbara Cook recordings, but I’ll try. All of these are currently available:
“Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall.” Her return to performing after many years away. Although the lady tells the audience “I’m not as nervous as I thought I’d be,” you can tell she is at the start, though two songs in, she’s totally relaxed. “Carolina in the Morning,” with its peach of an arrangement, and “Wait Till You See Him” are tremendous.
“It’s Better With a Band.” Here she’s in full command of her resources, with excellent material, and her confidence as an artist is off the charts. “Them There Eyes,” her vocal/kazoo duet with tuba, the medley of Leonard Bernstein songs, especially “I Can Cook Too,”and the aforementioned “Marianne” are highlights. You can see her perform a number of songs from this album in “An Evening With Barbara Cook,” on YouTube.
“Follies.” With all due respect to Dorothy Collins, who originated the role of Sally Plummer, Ms. Cook delivers what may be the definitive version of “Losing My Mind.”
“Oscar Winners,” consisting entirely of songs with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, on which Ms. Cook sings a stunning “All the Things You Are” and “The Gentleman is a Dope.”
“The Disney Album.” “Lavender Blue” alone is worth the price of the CD, though hearing Barbara Cook in triplicate, courtesy of over-dubbing, on “When I See an Elephant Fly” is an absolute treat. I love songs from the older Disney films, and I only wish she had recorded “Never Smile at a Crocodile.”
“No One is Alone,””Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and “Loverman.” These four recordings date from 2007 to 2012, and though she was pushing 80, she could still sustain a phrase. Her voice maintained its quality, and in fact only became warmer when she lowered the keys in which she sang. If your only acquaintance with “I’m Through With Love,” is hearing Alfalfa sing it in an old “Our Gang” short, you need to hear Ms. Cook’s version on “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” as well as her superlative rendition of Sondheim’s “I Wish I Could Forget You.” That last song also appears on “No One is Alone,” which features a lovely medley of “Long Before I knew You”/”I Fall in Love Too Easily,” as well as Sondheim’s “One More Kiss.””You Make Me Feel So Young,” from a live 2011 performance, has some great up-tempo numbers on which she clearly has a ball—“Frim Fram Sauce” and “Love is Good For Anything That Ails You,” plus her discourse on how difficult it is to find a good kazoo. “Loverman” contains an arresting a capella version of “House of the Rising Sun.” While her voice by then was not what it once was, what she did have was far more than most singers, and she makes it work.
One last compelling example of Barbara Cook’s way with a song: “For All We Know,” on the “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” album (I had always thought of this as the quintessential World War II song, and was surprised to learn it had been composed in 1934). Accompanied on piano by her then-music director, Lee Musiker, Ms. Cook delivers an indelible performance. It’s easy to go over the top with this number, but she underscores the sentiment with just a touch of sorrow. She tells you volumes, not only about the woman who’s able to face such a parting while keeping it together, but also about the man she’s singing it to, who inspired such emotion.
Two minutes of heaven.