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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The so-called Great American Songbook is made up of popular songs your parents and grandparents may have danced to - standards by Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin and others written for movies and Broadway musicals. Today's singers are often discovering these songs, and making the music their own. That's the case with a jazz and pop singer NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg just discovered.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: In 1941, Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill wrote a song for the Broadway musical "Lady in the Dark" that is so beautiful, it's been recorded by lots of singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY SHIP")

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) My ship has sails that are made of silk. The decks are trimmed with gold...

JOHNNY HARTMAN: (Singing) And of jam and spice, there's a paradise in the hold...

STAMBERG: Daniel Schorr sang it once on this radio program.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY SHIP")

DANIEL SCHORR: (Singing) My ship's aglow with a million pearls and rubies fill each bin. The sun sits high in the sapphire sky, when my ship comes in.

STAMBERG: Now, the singer and pianist named Anthony Strong has taken up the tune, on his new Eponymous album "Stepping Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY SHIP")

ANTHONY STRONG: (Singing) My ship has sails that are made of silk. The decks are trimmed with gold. And the jam and spice, there's a paradise in the hold...

STAMBERG: Anthony Strong joins us from the BBC in London. Hi. You have brought that glorious oldie into the 21st century.

STRONG: Aw, thank you very much. It's a fantastic song.

STAMBERG: But wait a minute. You are a Brit?

STRONG: I am indeed.

STAMBERG: Wait. How do you get rid of that accent when you sing?

STRONG: Well, I think I learned very early on that dance and romance don't rhyme. For me, that was always a problem. And, you know, I sing a lot of American music and American music is really my inspiration. So, early on in my career I decided that that kind of mid-Atlantic sound kind of works for me.

STAMBERG: It takes a lot of nerve to tackle classic tunes. Many of them, our greatest singers have done. Here's one example:

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITCHCRAFT")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Those fingers in my hair, that sly come-hither stare, that strips my conscience bare, it's witchcraft...

STRONG: (Singing) And I got no defense for it. The heat is too intense for it. What good would common sense would it do? It's witchcraft, wicked witchcraft. And although I know it's strictly taboo...

MARTIN: So, Anthony Strong, why did you decide to record this one, this Sinatra classic?

STRONG: When I recorded the album, I really wanted it to be a snapshot of what we did live, you know. And "Witchcraft," we play it about three times the speed of Frank's version. And it's a great, great sound. It's one of my favorites.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITCHCRAFT")

STRONG: (Singing) And I got not defense for it, oh, the heat is too intense for it. What good what common sense would it do? Oh, it's witchcraft, wicked witchcraft. And although I know it's strictly taboo...

STAMBERG: Tell us your story. You started out as a session player and after that you played pubs, clubs all over London. Now, you're doing music festivals all over Europe, huh? Was that scary for you to do, to get out from the crowd and be the front guy?

STRONG: It should have been, but for me I kind of felt like it was time. I'd been doing the session thing for a few years and been writing for many years and I kind of just decided that now is the right time. And I didn't want to go out at 21 and record a jazz album that wasn't sort of authentic.

STAMBERG: How old are you now, 22?

STRONG: I'm 29. I was 29 last week, so it was a couple of weeks ago.

STAMBERG: Well, happy birthday to you. And you had formal music training, eh?

STRONG: Yes, I did. Well, I mean, I started playing piano by ear and just sort of what I call messing around, you know, playing lots of tunes and improvising and writing things. I won a competition to play at the Hollywood Bowl when I was about 11 or 12. After that, my parents said, you know, you're pretty good at this music thing, maybe you should take it a little more seriously. And it was then that I started having serious musical training.

STAMBERG: And you write songs too. This one, "Someone Knows," to me, it sounds like an anthem for paranoids.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEONE KNOWS")

STRONG: (Singing) Someone knows someone out there, and by the propaganda, a private psychodrama is no longer a two-ender. I can feel the real bad karma and the extra pair of eyes. Someone's getting wise...

STAMBERG: I think the NSA and Edward Snowden could dance to that one.

STRONG: Let's send him a copy.

STAMBERG: What was the idea? What was the thinking around it?

STRONG: I don't know if you know a movie called "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."

STAMBERG: Sure.

STRONG: My lyricist guy, Matt, he's a fantastic lyricist - had just seen that film. And he called me straight afterwards and like, man, you've got to see this movie. I've written some lyrics to it but you've got to see the film. So, I watched the film and I was sort of pretty amazed by it. And we just sat down and he brought his lyrics and the music just flowed. So, I think he wanted to write a love song with a sort of espionage theme to it, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I understand that you have had contact with a grand dame of jazz and a woman so close to NPR's heart. Tell us that story about you and Marian McPartland.

STAMBERG: I was doing some shows in a fantastic club in Paris called the Duc des Lombards. And a lady came up to me after the show and she said I've just got your CD. Will you sign it for me. By the way, I'm the granddaughter of Marian McPartland. And she said I'm going to take this copy and I'm going play it to her and I'm going to get her own copy as well. Fast forward a year - she came back to the show. And she said, hi, do you remember me? And I said of course. And she said, obviously, you know that Marian passed away. And I said I know. I'm so sorry for your loss. And she said but the really crazy thing is that when she came to clear out her house, there was a letter addressed to me on her kitchen table. And it's a complimentary letter saying how much she liked what I did and how much she liked the album and how excited that she was that young people like myself were doing this music. And it was just a really sweet, sweet letter. Yeah, it was an honor and a pleasure to just receive anything from her let alone a little note saying how much she liked. So, it was fantastic.

Anthony Strong of England. His album is called "Stepping Out." Thank you. I think this stuff is smoking.

STRONG: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO DARN HOT")

STRONG: (Singing) It's too darn hot, it's too darn hot. I like to sup with my baby tonight...

MARTIN: NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg speaking with singer Anthony Strong. You can see his video of the song "Too Darn Hot" on our website, nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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