Robert Allen Remembered

Vocal jazz columnist Christopher Loudon blogs about the legacy of underrated composer Robert Allen

Chances are you’ve never heard of composer Robert Allen. But you’re undoubtedly familiar with much of Allen’s work, including the biggest pop success of his career, “Chances Are.” A dominant force during the early- and mid-1950s, when vocalists ruled the pop charts, Allen (most often with lyricist Al Stillman) penned career-shaping hits for, among others, Johnny Mathis, the Four Lads, Doris Day and Perry Como. It is estimated that sales of his songs have topped the half-billion mark, likely led by his oft-recorded seasonal chestnut “Home for the Holidays.”

Allen was also among the first songwriters to recognize the power of television to popularize music. In 1952, he joined NBC as a house composer, and subsequently delivered three title tracks –Studio One‘s “Song for a Summer Night” in 1956 and, the following year, Kraft Theater‘s “Come to Me” and Playhouse 90‘s “A Very Special Love” – that would become significant successes in their own right. In addition (for better or worse), Allen wrote Mitch Miller’s peppy “Sing Along” theme music.

So why, when we all remember Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen as the craftsmen who created the era’s distinct Sinatra sound, has Allen’s name drifted into obscurity? Likely because, while the Cahn and Van Heusen canon has rightly been celebrated for its suavity and sophistication, the Allen songbook has been unfairly dismissed as forgettable pop puffery.

But two years ago, Carolyn Leonhart, one of the brightest and most perceptive lights on the American jazz vocal scene, decided to set the record straight about Allen. Between recording 2007’s sublime If Dreams Come True and the just-released Tides of Change with her saxophonist husband Wayne Escoffery, Leonhart travelled overseas to create Chances Are: The Romantic Music of Robert Allen for the British label President. (Ironically, it was the famous 1934 Benny Goodman-Irving Mills tune “If Dreams Come True” that provided the title track for Leonhart and Escoffery’s 2007 album, and Robert Allen also wrote a hit, for Pat Boone in 1958, called “If Dreams Come True.” Leonhart though, opted not to include it on Chances Are).

Working with arranger, producer and saxophonist David Andrew Mann, plus trumpeter Tony Kadleck, drummer Clint De Ganon and her famous bassist father, Jay Leonhart, she takes 13 Allen tunes and makes them not so much new as newly venerable. (Oddly, online information about the album does not list a pianist, though one is clearly present). The trick, with credit as much due to Mann’s arrangements as to Leonhart’s performances, is that this baker’s dozen has been prepared with plenty of cream but no syrup.

Several of the selections will be immediately recognizable, including the title track, “Moments to Remember,” “It’s Not for Me to Say” and the peppy finger-poppers “Everybody Loves a Lover” (a Doris Day million-seller in ’58, with lyrics provided not by Stillman but by Jerry Adler of Damn Yankees and Pajama Game fame) and “Teacher, Teacher” (a hit for Mathis that same year). Leonhart and company do a terrific job of rescuing them from the waves of overproduction that engulfed the original recordings.

But the biggest pleasure of Chances Are is in discovering the lesser-known tunes. “You Are Never Far Away from Me,” a minor hit for Como in 1952, is a straight-ahead ballad, its edges beautifully embroidered by Mann’s sax. “I Don’t Regret A Thing,” introduced by Mitzi Gaynor and in the same vein as “Thanks for the Memory,” is at once urbane and tender. “Meantime,” written as a comic showcase for Carol Burnett for the landmark 1962 stage and TV production Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall (costarring Julie Andrews), is transformed into a Dietrich-esque slice of sultry desire. “It Could Have Been Worse,” once recorded by R&B singer turned standards-bearer Jesse Belvin, is a soulful portrait of sassy survivalism that could (and should) have been a showstopper for Peggy Lee or Julie London. Ditto the wistful “No Such Luck,” which recalls Irving Berlin’s much better known “Better Luck Next Time.” Most obscure, and perhaps most delightful, is the never-previously-recorded “I’m Loving You a Lot” which, despite its rather clunky title, is a sweetly romantic lullaby.
Chances Are caused barely a ripple when it was released in July 2008, perhaps because it was only available as a pricey import. But it is easily, and affordably, accessible on iTunes. Nor, for the record, is it the only Allen tribute out there. Nearly a half-century earlier, Shorty Rogers led a big band salute entitled Chances Are It Swings, also currently available on iTunes. The playlist varies from Leonhart’s, and includes the lilting “My Very Good Friend In the Looking Glass.” But, for the finest interpretation of that Allen gem, seek out Jackie Paris’ near-impossible-to-find but fully worth the hunt The Song Is Paris, his sole Impulse! album from 1962.

____________

If you’d like to share your thoughts on Robert Allen (or Carolyn Leonhart), or have ideas or suggestions for future installments of “Hearing Voices,” please email me at [email protected]