The seeds of revival…

An interesting thing happened in 1983 … Linda Ronstadt — one of my favorite progressive country singers at the time — surprised everyone when she crossed over and took a flyer on a concept album with Nelson Riddle — What’s New.

Ronstadt was a already a star — a hugely successful pro-country/pop singer at the time. Her willingness to truly collaborate with masterful Nelson Riddle and take his guidance on how to approach these numbers with the style of a “Frail” singing in front of an orchestra rendered a stunningly beautiful and surprisingly successful What’s New album release.

An Extraordinary Collaboration…

The verve Ronstadt and Nelson Riddle exhibited in reprising the songs of Gershwin, Berlin, Cole Porter and the like with this LP was exactly what the American Songbook needed to get out of the doldrums.

Team NR/LR continued their collaboration with two more albums (Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons) and a popular concert video release in the mid 80’s. Sadly, Nelson Riddle passed away in 1985 but his efforts with Ms. Ronstadt were not lost on his peers or the popular music arena with his arrangements for What’s New and Lush Life both garnering Grammy Awards.

These Ronstadt/Riddle releases reawakened my latent fascination with the standards — the foundation for which laid down by many years of watching Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams on my parents’ TV and discovering my dad’s Billie Holiday, Glenn Miller, Dean Martin and Bennie Goodman LPs back in the late 60’s.

Ronstadt and Riddle had me “Jonesing” for more which meant hitting my favorite local record stores (remember those!?) to look for similar music. I started listening to the few major releases on the shelf from the core classic artists like Sinatra and Sammy Davis (already steeped in Dean Martin) … then one day I came across this young kid from New Orleans with an amazing talent for Jazz piano, a distinctive vocal style AND an affection for the standards.

Another voice…

I was somewhat familiar with Harry Connick Jr. as a jazz piano child prodigy but in ’88 he released 20 — a title that alluded to his age and an LP that rolled down Tin Pan Alley more than Bourbon Street.

Harry did a great service to the standards revival effort. His success between ’88 and ~ ’92 with records either dedicated to the American Songbook or at least liberally laced with classic standards — When Harry Met Sally SoundtrackWe Are In Love, and 25 LPs — served as proof points that Ronstadt’s success before him was not an anomaly but might be a harbinger of a full-on standards revival.

For me it was just very cool that there was another new talent on the standards scene … another fresh voice to listen to. HCjr also made his way into films and TV specials … almost Sinatra-esk in his cross media foot print. Certainly not at the same ultra success level as Frank but still enough media triangulation to build more awareness for the American Songbook than his LPs alone would have attained.

In fact Harry used to take quite a bit of guff for supposedly trying to ape Sinatra. I saw his efforts as respect, rather than mimicry. Sadly I think the misjudged “Sinatra imitator” criticism may have convinced Connick Jr. to veer away from his standards success algorithm toward some strange mid-career diversions … the dreaded Star Turtle LP for instance (OMG!).

It took Harry a few years to make his way back to the American Songbook, but back he is … bringing his jazz stylings to the standards again — a good thing.

Regardless of his circuitous path back,  HCjr’s contribution to the “standards revival” was pivotal. At that point, regaining the spotlight was not assured by any means and his emergence in the late 80’s early 90’s suggested there were young artists out there that recognized the treasure that is the American Songbook.

Stop back by Wednesday for the conclusion of the Standards Revival Series (Riddle, Ronstadt, Connick, Cole & Krall) with…

Part 3: The Quickening …