After careful consideration, I’ve decided that one of the many things you should not do with dead people is sing a duet. Though this may seem obvious to most people it has become all the rage of late … a morbid affectation of the vocal standards genre and folks, it’s just not right.

The recent announcement of Scarlett Johansson singing a duet with Dean Martin (“I’ll be Home For Christmas”) on his upcoming My Kind of Christmas album (due out 9/20) had me scratching my head. Hey, Ms. Johansson is a superior ACTRESS … very, very (very) easy on the eyes and possessing excellent stagecraft … I really enjoy her ACTING. Hell, Dean might have enjoyed snuggling up to her to perform a holiday duet (I know I would) but maybe not … we just can’t know for sure?

With only a couple of exceptions that we’ll talk about later, I’ve always been dead set (sorry – pun intended) against synthetic duets with the great standards artists that have passed on. For some reason today my nagging irritation with this “duets with the dead” issue crossed into the ranting post realm. Might’ve been the one too many times (once is actually enough) hearing Joss Stone butcher Dean Martin in a synthetic duet of his classic “I can’t Believe That You’re in Love” (from the 2007 Forever Cool duets CD). Though as bad as Joss does on this song (oh my), my major issue with synthetic duets is not really related to the performance or recording quality.

It’s not a quality issue…

For the most part, the quality of synthetic duets is really very good. Modern digital mixing and editing technology in the hands of an excellent audio engineering team usually renders a high quality product — this is true going all the way back to 1991 and Nat and Natalie on Unforgettable. In my review of DEAN MARTIN cool then, cool now I mentioned Robbie Williams and Kevin Spacey both delivering excellent duets with Dean (what is it with Dean Martin and these synth duet hounds?). It’s not a quality problem.

It’s not a moral issue…

Not really. Hey, we’re talking about music here not war crimes … duets with the dead does not rise to the level of moral outcry. That said, there is something in this neighborhood that eats at me … I think there is a propriety line in the sand that is crossed in the making of these duet numbers.

Some disagree and cite Frank Sinatra’s Duets/Duets II albums as a proof point. True, from a process standpoint Frank never stood next to his duet partners for those recordings — the duet partner laid down their tracks and sent them off to Frank’s studio where he laid down his tracks and the engineers mixed and mastered the final versions.

All well and good — the process is virtually the same as the synthetic duets of today. The difference is that Frank knew and agreed to the partner pairings, songs, arrangements and all the details … he opted in.

Dean and the other guys and gals that have gone before us are being paired up for these synthetic duets today and obviously they don’t get a chance to opt in. They don’t get a chance to meet with the people and agree to any of the details of the songs. Dean was a super-star. He didn’t do ANYTHING he didn’t want to do for the last 15-20 years of his career … it’s just wrong that his ongoing legacy is taken out of his hands just because of a little thing like death.

Hey, Deana and the family that are managing Dean’s estate and copyright material may indeed know what he would want — they certainly know better than I do so maybe I should just shut up, sit down and enjoy the show … Sorry, it still seems wrong to me.

The exception…

There’s always an exception that proves the rule … (though I’ve never really understood that phrase) and in this case that exception for me is Nat King Cole and Natalie pairing up on Unforgettable I and II. It’s hard to argue that any father or mother would not relish the opportunity to travel to a special place in space and time where they could sing with their kid … both in their prime singing the great songs they love. This works for me and particularly with the Nat/Natalie.

How I see it…

I wish I could un-hear Joss Stone flogging Dean Martin — it’s an abomination. Most of the high quality numbers from Forever Cool by Robbie Williams, Spacey and the like are well done but they nibble at my soul a bit and I can’t help wondering if Dean or any of the other classic stars, now playing only the best rooms in heaven, would opt in for any or all of these synthetic duets. Nat and Natalie, James and Mel Torme, Deana and Dean … these are the exceptions as I see it.

The question is how do you see it? Where do you stand on duets with the dead?

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  • K. Rock

    Hi there, I wanted to say – thanks for writing this article. I personally don’t mind the duet CDs that are done this way, but hadn’t thought of it from the viewpoints you mentioned above. I have the Forever Cool Dean Martin Duets CD and I really enjoy it. That is, with the exception of the duet with Joss Stone. I love the song as performed by Dean originally, but this version – I just can’t stand it. So for me, I think it’s more a quality issue. If you’re going to venture down this road, then I feel it is imperative that the quality of the music be that of what the original artist would have expected. At the very least, it shouldn’t lessen the quality of the music. I too, wish I could unhear the Duet with Joss. Ironically, I thought I would end up enjoying that song on the CD. I do enjoy some of the other work Joss has done. However, with Dean’s voice – hers isn’t a match. Anyhoo – overall, I suppose I am not opposed to these types of CDs. I just expect the music to keep the integrity of the original recording by the artist. Thanks again!

    • scox

      Thanks for stopping by K.Rock. I agree that quality makes a difference; as I hear more of these synth duets on, like you I find myself enjoying the especially well produced renditions.

      I still feel like it’s unfair to “force” Dean Martin to sing with folks he may not have been interested in sharing a stage with … but I’m getting past it!

      The bigger problem is the voice cloning trend that’s starting to emerge. Using Frank Sinatra’s vast catalog to digitally clone his vocal tone, range and unique emotive style is just wrong. At least synthetic duets use the actual renderings of the artist; using a cloned “Synatra” voice to have him sing some craptastic Rap song written years after he left us is an abomination. I’m working up a real edge on this issue and will post on it soon.