One evening in March 1972, a woman named Francy, carrying twins two months shy of their due date, climbed to the fifth floor of a Greenwich Village walkup just to introduce her friend Joan Morris, a mezzo-soprano, to a slight acquaintance, the composer and pianist William Bolcom. As Bolcom tells the story on a liner note for Autumn Leaves, the latest of his recordings with Morris, "We've been together ever since." Setting aside any Wagnerian implications, I'm tempted to call Joan and Bill the Tristan and Isolde of popular American song.
From Rodgers and Hart's "Ten Cents a Dance" at parties, it was but a hop, skip, and a jump to college concert stages, the Smithsonian, and listener-supported WBAI Radio with programs of standards from the '20s and '30s. In 1974, Nonesuch released their debut recording After the Ball, a candy box from the Gay 90s. Why the Gay 90s? The music was in the public domain. (No royalties!) As the cherry on the sundae, Morris copped a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Vocal Soloist, 1975.
As Bolcom and Morris, Bill and Joan threw themselves into their research with the zeal of scholars but delivered the goods with the zest of vaudevillians. In my mind's eye, I still see them parading their period finery in the glow of a Tiffany lamp. Deliberately or otherwise, their shows may have taken a page or two from the lecture-demo playbook; their entertainments were sheer delight, but also you learned a lot. As stylists, they disarmed cynicism, steering a sure course between camp and deadly earnest. With items ripe for parody, they were in on the jokes but never took cheap shots. Conversely, they never indulged the diva impulse to obliterate a song with anachronisms or Method acting. In that sense, they never "made the material their own" and probably did not want to. They let sentiment speak for itself. Lucky Stephen Foster. Lucky Henry Clay Work. Lucky Eubie Blake and Leiber and Stoller. Lucky Berlin and Gershwin and Porter and Kern and their fellow pillars of the Great American Songbook.
The Tristan and Isolde of American song, back in the day.
Thumbing their nose at chronology, the duo also performs tunes introduced on stage, screen, and phonograph record by the likes of Al Jolson; the Ethels Merman and Waters; the sex-goddess Mae West and the red-hot mamma (not the same thing) Sophie Tucker; Noel Coward, toast of the West End and Broadway; Hoagy Carmichael, king of nonchalance; not to mention such dissimilar icons as Ruth Etting and Anna Maria Alberghetti. The title track—music by Joseph Kosma, lyric by Jacques Prévert—is heard in a translation by Johnny Mercer (chorus) with a late assist from Bill (verse). These days, you can track down virtually every one of the landmark recordings on YouTube, with Joan's terse but scrupulous liner notes as your treasure map. How in character of the artists to shine a spotlight on the many who inspired them.
After four busy decades, Bill and Joan have given up touring. The word is that Autumn Leaves will be the final addition to their discography. But apart from the title track, only the last strikes much of a valedictory chord. If a listener recognizes just one song on the album, the smart money says this is it.
You must remember this,
A kiss is still a kiss,
A sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply...
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
With this wisp of a lyric and the wisp of melody that goes with it, Herman Hupfeld–who lived his whole life in New Jersey and never married—staked a slender yet solid claim on immortality. (No such luck with "When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba.") Joan notes that "As Time Goes By" was first heard in the Broadway flop Everybody's Welcome in 1931. Though it seems to have caught on immediately in a small way, it wasn't until eleven years later, when Dooley Wilson (Sam to you) sang it at Rick's in Casablanca, that it conquered the world. (In 2004, the American Film Institute ranked it second only to "Over the Rainbow" among the top 100 songs from American movies.)
Forty years on, a kiss is still a kiss.
Forty years on, a kiss is still a kiss.
Instead, Bolcom and Morris put it right up front, in the number 1 spot. Could it be because as an expression of romantic promise, the opening lines are simply perfection?
Life begins when somebody's eyes look into your own.
Life begins when you get your guy all alone.
From morning until twilight
I don't know I'm alive,
But I know love begins at 8:45.
Never mind that Joan's tone here is husky, that her pitch falters, and that it's a slog for her to the end of a long phrase. She damns the torpedoes and lets the chips fall.
So the first impression of Autumn Leaves is ambiguous. Who cares? This exact sentiment at this exact juncture sweeps our lovebirds back to the very beginning, when their history in life and art lay all in anticipation. The hint of frailty becomes a farewell turn. The years have yet to touch Bill and Joan's instinct for the lilt and truth of a song, or their God-given sense of mischief.
(That beverage? It was Coca-Cola.)