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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Fred Astaire, "Steppin' Out: Astaire Sings"

Fred Astaire
"Steppin' Out: Astaire Sings"
Verve (1953)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

It’s initially a shock to consider Fred Astaire worthy of a mention in a book like “1000 Albums to Hear Before You Die,” considering that most viewers focus all of their attention on Astaire’s footwork fireworks and forget that he sang quite a bit too. But “Steppin’ Out: Astaire Sings” serves as a friendly reminder of Astaire’s vocal abilities. (Listeners beware: There is another album of a similar title, “Steppin’ Out: Astaire at MGM,” which is quite different.)

The album is vastly different from what many of Astaire’s film fans will be used to. As opposed to orchestra’s providing the music for the Gershwins’ songs, a four man jazz group handles the instrumentals while Astaire sings. The difference in musical approach makes for a difference in performance approach for the star as well.

The obvious difference is that Astaire doesn’t add a tap dance routine for every number. It may seem obvious that dancing is a moot point for an audio record, but studio soundtracks for his various films often leave the pleasant clicking and clacking as another layer and it works quite well. “Steppin’ Out” finds Astaire focused strictly on the music. Also, unlike the films, listeners shouldn’t expect guest spots from Ginger Rogers nor Astaire’s other female film counterparts.

Listeners might find the lack of female perspective or the lack of clicking heels the most obvious difference, but more relevant is the effect a smaller band has on Astaire’s approach. The actor always had a very suave and believable approach to his movies’ numbers, so it was hard to tell just how much volume he had to emit to keep above the orchestra. The jazz setup allows him to tone it down a notch. Less distraction from the band allows the listener to hear Astaire’s voice for what it truly is; suave as mentioned before, but not as strong as some might’ve believed.

Astaire might not be a powerful vocalist, but this is an easy listening album without a doubt, and it succeeds on that front. In the long run however, nothing can replace the spectacle of Astaire tap dancing in roller skates with Rogers.

INTERESTING FACT: Astaire was one of the five recipients of the first Kennedy Center Honors, a prestigious award for influence on American culture through the arts, when the ceremony debuted in 1978.

"Steppin' Out With My Baby"

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