STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In the early 1900s, Ethel Agnes Zimmermann of Astoria, Queens, dreamed of a career in show business. Her parents made her learn secretarial skills instead and Ethel earned a tidy $28 a week at her first job, but she didn't keep typing for long. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has some just-released old recordings of this one-time stenographer.
SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:
Ethel Merman and her brass band of a voice ruled Broadway musicals in the 1930s, '40s, '50s, '60s. George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin all wrote for her. Merman was Annie in "Annie Get Your Gun," Momma Rose in "Gypsy." Ethel Merman never starred in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" which didn't stop her from singing that show's hit song.
(Soundbite of song "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend")
Ms. ETHEL MERMAN: (Singing) A kiss on the hand may be quite continental but diamonds are a girl's best friend. A kiss may be grand, but it won't pay the rental on your humble flat or help you at the Automat.
STAMBERG: It was Carol Channing's song on Broadway, but Ethel Merman recorded it in 1950 for Decca Records. Now Decca has put together 20 songs Merman recorded as singles in 1950 and '51. Brian Drutman is senior director of Decca Broadway, and he produced the collection in this age of hip-hop and reggae tone.
What in the world made Decca decide to go Merman?
Mr. BRIAN DRUTMAN (Senior Director, Decca Broadway): Part of what I do at Decca Broadway is look for great stuff which I want to introduce to the public because I want to keep Broadway recordings on everybody's minds. So--and Merman was really a pillar and such a seminal figure in the history of Broadway in the 20th century that anything I can put out of hers I like to do.
STAMBERG: Yeah. Well, joining her on some of these cuts is another huge Broadway star of the '40s and the '50s, but, you know, audiences today really know him best as The Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," and that's Ray Bolger and they do a duet that reminds us just how goofy the songs could get in the 1950s.
(Soundbite of song "I Said My Pajamas (And Put On My Prayers)")
Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) I climbed up the door and opened the stairs.
Mr. RAY BOLGER: (Singing) I said my pajamas and put on my prayers.
Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) I turned off the bed and crawled into the light.
Mr. BOLGER: (Singing) Why?
Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) It was all because you kissed me.
Mr. BOLGER: (Singing) And how I love to kiss you.
Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) Then you do think it was worth it?
Mr. BOLGER: (Singing) Oh, baby.
Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) Good night.
STAMBERG: You know, they don't sing them like that anymore. They don't write them like that anymore, Ray Bolger, but, Brian, with a much softer, gentler Ethel Merman there, her reputation was as a belter on the Broadway stage.
Mr. DRUTMAN: Well, I think she had a certain respect for the guy she was working with and compensated her usual style for him. There are all these stories that on stage, she would never look another performer in the eye, she would always cast her gaze out at the audience, but in this case, I think she was in the studio and she really like Ray Bolger and I think she compensated in that sense.
STAMBERG: Let's talk some about Merman on stage. She never used a microphone. She had no amplification. She had that instrument.
Mr. DRUTMAN: That was it. I mean, it was the age before performers were miked. There's a famous story that Irving Berlin said, `You'd better write Merman the best lyric you can write because the guy sitting in the last row of the second balcony is going to hear every word of it.'
Mr. DRUTMAN: And I think that sort of illustrates what Merman was about and why composers like Cole Porter and Berlin and even Stephen Sondheim loved her so much. You heard those lyrics, every word of them. Every note was precise and it was right there for you.
STAMBERG: And also absolute pitch. I mean, she never wobbled on a note. She got them.
Mr. DRUTMAN: You know, the amazing thing is she never took a singing lesson. She's a bit modest they say about it. She said, `I get up and I sing,' you know.
STAMBERG: Yeah. You know, Brian, I interviewed her before you were born for National Public Radio. This goes back to 1978. Merman died in 1984, but I thought you'd enjoy hearing a little clip, but first, let her sing.
(Soundbite of song "Small World")
Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) Funny 'cause I'd love to go traveling. Small world, isn't it?
(Soundbite from interview)
STAMBERG: Do you like to listen to your own records?
Ms. MERMAN: No, never play them.
STAMBERG: You don't?
Ms. MERMAN: No.
STAMBERG: Do you own them?
Ms. MERMAN: Do I have them?
Ms. MERMAN: Sure, I have them.
STAMBERG: But you don't play them?
Ms. MERMAN: No, I've heard them. I don't want to listen to them again. No.
STAMBERG: Well, some...
Ms. MERMAN: And I hate it when I go to someone's house and they put on an album or a record. I don't like it. It--I'd rather listen to someone else.
STAMBERG: What she said on NPR was it just bored her to listen to herself. She says, `I've heard it.'
Mr. DRUTMAN: I don't know how it could be boring.
STAMBERG: Yeah. Yeah. There's a song on this compilation that I for one--and I guess it's pretty obvious I grew up with her and her Broadway cast album. I was very surprised to hear Ethel Merman sing this one.
(Soundbite of song "Make The Man Love Me")
Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) I must try to make the man love me, make the man love me now. By and by, I'll make the man happy. I know how.
STAMBERG: It's a gorgeous song but, Brian Drutman, how did she come to record that in the 1950s? Do you know?
Mr. DRUTMAN: Well, the song comes from a show called "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" which was by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields which was a big hit on Broadway. And this song, "Make The Man Love Me," was essentially the standard that came out of that show. So it made perfect sense for Merman who was a personality and who's doing a lot of cover songs to take the one big hit and record it.
STAMBERG: Ethel Merman was a force of nature and there's really nobody like her around these days. What do you think? Is that a great loss or is it just simply easier on our hearing?
Mr. DRUTMAN: Well, you know, Broadway has changed so much since the days when Merman or Jimmy Durante or even Ray Bolger. She was very much a part of the Broadway tradition of that period, but even in her era, I think Merman was a standout, the kind of person who composers wrote shows around. I mean, that rarely happens today. So in that sense, she was a totally unique American original.
STAMBERG: Thank you so much. Brian Drutman has put together a compilation CD of Ethel Merman's Decca recordings from 1950 and 1951. It's called "The World Is Your Balloon," and Jimmy Durante is on it, too.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
(Soundbite of song "You Say The Nicest Things")
Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) Would you say that I compare with Betty Grable?
Mr. JIMMY DURANTE: (Singing) Yeah.
Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) Do you find that...
INSKEEP: You can hear the rest of that Jimmy Durante-Ethel Merman duet at npr.org.
This is Merman Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne.
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