Chip Deffaa’s Irving Berlin: Love Songs and Such

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Chip Deffaa’s Irving Berlin:
Love Songs and Such

(Garrett Mountain Records)

May 13, 2022

Reviewed by John Hoglund

Typically, compilation albums, and there are many, don’t always get the recognition they deserve. Some are so overwrought with predictable songs or themes, that they lose something along the way regardless of their production quality. Too often they lack imagination. Not so here. On this profoundly ambitious and erudite collection, Chip Deffaa again proves his worth as a visionary producer. Irving Berlin: Love Songs and Such is filled with special singers and great arrangements and has all the ingredients of a classic album.

As a prolific writer of jazz books and for the New York Post for years (as well as other outlets, including Cabaret Scenes), Deffaa has made a respected name for himself in the world of jazz and theater. His writings have been referenced numerous times by other scribes. Stepping back from full-time reviewing or writing, he has devoted about two decades to mainly producing original tributary musical shows and recordings from a golden age (six of his plays are devoted to Irving Berlin!) This album is clearly at the top of the heap.

The disc plays like a musical encyclopedia of Berlin’s lesser-known songs as well as some revered ones. Deffaa has deployed his singers on no fewer than 28 cuts. The album is dedicated to multi-Tony-winning actress/singer Betty Buckley, who also sings on the album. It was honored with a 2022 MAC nomination.

Arguably America’s greatest composer/songwriter from the last century, Irving Berlin reigns with the best of the best. Many of his most familiar songs have taken their place among any conversation of the Great American Songbook—“White Christmas.” “God Bless America,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Easter Parade,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” A songwriting prodigy, Berlin never learned to read music and played piano only on the black keys (in F-sharp). Hundreds of his songs became hits over the decades. His career lasted more than 60 years with an estimated output of over 1,500 songs that included scores for 20 original Broadway shows, 15 original Hollywood films (which garnered eight Academy Award nominations), and simple tunes he just created randomly. Some of his songs became well-known themes and anthems.

His signature was writing music and lyrics in the American idiom—that is straightforward, simple, and candid. He is quoted as saying, “I wanted to reach the heart of the average American… they are the real soul of the country.” On his passing (at 101 in 1989!), legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite noted that Berlin “helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.” There’s more to his colorful story, but such principled praise should be noted as one indulges in an album that is in effect a hymn to Irving Berlin—a giant of a composer who is lovingly served on this relevant disc.

There are so many highlights here, sung by luminous singers, that it is difficult to choose the one to shine a light on first. For this listener, one particular song stands out and tugs at the heart. “When I Leave the World Behind” is an overlooked gem from 1915 with a poignant story attached. Berlin heard of a penniless man who wrote a will. He left sunshine, flowers, and things of beauty to the children of the world. Berlin was so touched by the sentiment that he wrote what would become one of his personal favorites. There are unusual twists to the story as detailed by Deffaa in his encyclopedic liner notes—they deserve an award themselves! Here, this melancholic song is trenchantly delivered with no frills by Broadway veteran and master storyteller Ray DeMattis, who should do an album of Berlin classics himself. On more familiar territory is the definitive love ballad “How Deep Is the Ocean (How High Is the Sky),” given a tender reading here by multi-award winner Bobby Belfry, whose warm phrasing and fluid tenor are as intoxicating as ever on this timeless classic, that is sung to perfection. Eric Comstock (another scholar of the Great American Songbook) swings in style with a sophisticated spin on “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” (first introduced on screen by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in 1936). Another rarity, sung by Sarah Rice (the original Johanna in Sweeney Todd), is “That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune,” a forgotten oldie (from 1909 no less!) that was a hit in its day. Rice gives it her unique, wacky take on the silly, rapid-fire tune with her glimmering soprano. Another obscure song is recorded here for the very first time: 1911’s “You’ve Built a Fire Down in My Heart” in a duet cleverly sung by Ellis Gage and Analise Scarpaci.

Broadway, movie, and cabaret favorite Anita Gillett (who appeared in Berlin’s last Broadway show, Mr. President) lights a fire with “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” joined by her multi-talented pianist/singer Paul Greenwood on this fun duet. Broadway and cabaret’s Karen Mason kicks off the album with a perfect “Always” and melts the heart as only she can.

Cabaret royalty is served well by Steve Ross, who continues to show why he has been named the “Prince of Cabaret” by The New York Times. His take on the rarity, “Maybe It’s Because I Love You Too Much” from 1933, paired with the classic “What’ll I Do?,” sung with expressive sentiment, is another high spot. The outrageously talented Jon Petersen adds some of his signature tap steps to his dynamic spin on “Steppin’ Out with My Baby.” Petersen, a regular in Deffaa’s productions, always delivers show-stopping performances—no exception here. Multi-award winner and cabaret diva Natalie Douglas offers a star turn on an unlikely choice with a tender “Yiddisha Nightingale” that is truly bucolic. A young Dea Julien sounds like she’s right out of a 1920’s flapper musical with an infectious spin on a bouncy “Stop! Stop! Stop!”  Rising musical theater star Emily Bordonaro brings wonder to a beautifully sung rarity, “Whose Little Heart Are You Breaking Now?,” which deserves a lot of praise.

Broadway’s Jerry Dixon puts his lively stamp on and brightens up with panache on another impossibly “lost” song “Lock Me in Your Harem” from 1914. Brian Letendre brings sweet passion to “Somebody Else May Be There While I’m Gone.” Jeff Harnar shows a more serious side of Berlin on the 1932 beauty “Say It Isn’t So” (which Berlin almost discarded). Here, with Harnar’s flawlessly paced interpretation, accompanied by Alex Rybeck on piano and Andy Stein on violin, is another highlight that lingers in one’s memory.

Speaking of lingering, this impressive disc will remain with the listener as long as there are ways to hear fine music. Space limits more applause for some powerhouse performances from the likes of Steven Bogardus, Seth Sikes, Giuseppe Bausilio, Keith Anderson, Matthew Nardozzi, Jack Corbin, Molly Ryan, Michael Townsend Wright, Joan Jaffe, Jed Peterson, Alec Deland, Luis Villabon, Katherine Paulsen, Ryan Muska, Mark Dodici, Will Alvarado, and Chip Deffaa himself who joins in on a few cuts.

A serious nod also goes to the lady known as “the voice of Broadway,” Betty Buckley, who performs a jazz-tinged romantic cut of her previously recorded “Blue Skies,” which once again displays her unmatched artistry and technical expertise with glory.

Not enough can be said about the personalized arrangements and skill of musical director Richard Danley and the other accompanists on this disc, which features the definitive artistry of such masters as Alex Rybeck and Steve Ross as well as the lush sounds of Andy Stein’s haunting violin on several cuts.

This is a lovingly assembled tribute to Irving Berlin by a producer who knows what he is doing. It is elegantly packaged, and the informative liner notes and booklet are filled with knowledgeable and thought-provoking tidbits that show how to get it right. The CD contains mostly older but still relevant songs of impressive range, technical expertise, and, perhaps surprisingly for a product so adventurous, taste. Deffaa has turned his imagination loose in search of beauty, and he finds it here.

It all gives more meaning to the expression “an embarrassment of riches,” which sums up this sonnet to a musical genius. Above all, the main ingredient here is heart.

John Hoglund

For over 30 years, John Hoglund has been a respected entertainment writer covering cabaret, jazz, theater and recordings. His writings have appeared in numerous outlets including the Bistro Bits column for Back Stage. John moderated seminars and forums for the International Cabaret Conference At Yale. He produced many celebrity fundraisers in NYC including one of the first benefits after 9/11: “HeartSong:The Heroes' Concert” at The Bottom Line featuring 36 major stars. He co-produced “HeartSong2: The Heroes' Concert” for Katrina victims at Symphony Space and “Miracle On 35th Street” with a star-studded lineup. Other fund raising efforts include the first benefits for Broadway Cares and God's Love, We Deliver. John served on the Board of Directors of MAC for 12 years. He is well known for championing new and rising talents.