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Dancing Cheek To Cheek with Fred Astaire: His 56 Finest: 1926–1952
Songs by Fred Astaire, Irving Berlin, Con Conrad, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Harry Warren, Vincent Youmans
Fred Astaire (song and dance man), with Adele Astaire, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and the Orchestras of Bob Crosby, Johnny Green, Ray Noble, Van Phillips, Leo Reisman and Al Starita
Re–issued from 78 rpm and 33 1/3 rpm discs recorded between 1926 and 1952.
RETROSPECTIVE RTS 4102 [79:23 + 79:21]


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Fred Astaire a song and dance man? No Fred Astaire is THE song and dance man. George Balanchine and Rudolph Nureyev called him the greatest dancer of the twentieth century, and it is acknowledged that he was the most influential dancer in the history of film and television musicals. The American Film Institute named Astaire the fifth Greatest Male Star of All Time – only the fifth?

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, his mother took Fred and his sister on the road – Adele showed an early talent for dance while Fred refused lessons but he mimicked his sister and soon the act was known as Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty. Incorporating tap dancing into their act, Astaire was inspired by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (whom he celebrated in Jerome Kern’s song Bojangles of Harlem (the only time Astaire appeared in blackface, in the film Swing Time)) and John “Bubbles” Sublett (who Gershwin chose to create the role of Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess) from whom he took lessons in 1920.

Fred and Adele appeared on Broadway and in London’s West End in shows by Gershwin and others and in 1930 American humourist Robert Benchley wrote, "I don't think that I will plunge the nation into war by stating that Fred is the greatest tap–dancer in the world.". The partnership broke up on Adele’s marriage to Lord Charles Cavendish, a son of the Duke of Devonshire.

As would be expected, Fred found himself in Hollywood where a report on a screen test (now lost) is supposed to have contained the comment, “Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little.” No matter what it said, David O Selznick, one of the great Hollywood producers and the man who had signed Astaire to an RKO contract wrote, "I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test." Astaire’s debut came in 1933 when he danced with Joan Crawford in the MGM film Dancing Lady. His RKO debut came when he was fifth billed, alongside Ginger Rogers, in the film Flying Down to Rio – the stars being Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond – where Variety noted, “The main point of Flying Down to Rio is the screen promise of Fred Astaire ... He's assuredly a bet after this one, for he's distinctly likeable on the screen, the mike is kind to his voice and as a dancer he remains in a class by himself. The latter observation will be no news to the profession, which has long admitted that Astaire starts dancing where the others stop hoofing."

Despite Astaire not wanting another partnership, with Ginger they produced nine more films together and achieved stardom, causing Katharine Hepburn, supposedly, to say, "He gives her class and she gives him sex." After The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) the partnership ended, but Fred and Ginger made one more film, The Barkleys of Broadway ten years later, but more by accident than production.


Fred danced with many other partners, Eleanor Powell (Broadway Melody of 1940), Paulette Goddard (Second Chorus (1940)) Rita Hayworth (You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942)) Joan Leslie (The Sky’s the Limit (1943)), Lucille Bremer (Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946)) and Cyd Charisse (Silk Stockings (1957)), and good as many of his partners and their films together were it’s the partnership with Ginger which is remembered.


But it’s really no matter who Fred danced with, for he was always partnered with music by some of the greatest composers at work at the time – Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Harry Warren, Vincent Youmans – and the number of standards introduced by Astaire is astonishing, One for My Baby, A Fine Romance, Cheek to Cheek, The Way You Look Tonight, They Can’t Take That away From Me, A Foggy Day in London Town, A Couple of Swells, to mention but a few. Moreover, were it not for Fred Astaire some of the greatest love songs ever written would never have come into being.


Composers loved writing for Astaire because they knew that he would not add anything to the song, no crooning, no overt emotion, he’d just sing it and make magic with it. On this fantastic compilation we are given most of the songs from the films, but not in the soundtrack performances, in studio recordings, many made at the time of the film (so Fred sings Music Makes Me from Flying Down to Rio whereas it was Ginger’s song in the film) and he’s accompanied by some of the best bands of the time. Just about everything swings here, even the ballads, and when Fred dances, oh yes he does, you can hear him, he really swings. Astaire’s voice comes across as the very pleasant light tenor we know and his personality shines through each track. The transfers are excellent, you can hear every department of the various bands quite clearly, and there’s a rich bloom to the sound. Of course, the wonderful period feel is there and surely that’s how we remember both the music and Astaire.


As Fred wrote, in his song, and sings “If Swing Goes, I Go Too” but it won’t as long as we have such enjoyable re–issues to help us swing. Maybe “I’m Old Fashioned” but, “Dearly Beloved” with “A Couple of Swells” like this I’ll be kept very happy.


Bob Briggs

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