“Whiners and bleaters defiling the air.” That’s how Cardinal William Henry O’Connell, the Archbishop of Boston, described radio crooners, as reported in The New York Times in 1932. His denunciation, seconded by the New York Singing Teachers Association, dismissed crooning as “a degenerate form of singing” containing “the basest appeal to sex emotions in the young.”
That quaint nugget of journalism prefaced Monday evening’s performance of “Croon,” a show at the Metropolitan Room by the Los Angeles-based singer Todd Murray. This suave, handsome baritone, who bears a strong physical resemblance to George Clooney, is such a confident singer that his performance, directed by the pianist Alex Rybeck, leading a quartet, is the real deal. There wasn’t a hint of a smirk.
The show is a breezy, informal history of crooning, from the invention of the microphone to the present. It would be a disservice to describe Mr. Murray’s singing as generic. With his strong, smooth baritone, reminiscent, at its lower end, of Bing Crosby in his prime, Mr. Murray has the attitude and the body language to go with the voice. His gesticulation was relaxed and natural, and his unadorned interpretations of standards like “The Nearness of You,” “You’ll Never Know” and “How Deep Is the Ocean” were impeccable. But when called upon, he could also muster considerable vocal heft.
Mr. Murray pointed out that rock ’n’ roll stars in the ’50s and ’60s had grown up in the heyday of crooning and knew how to do it right. His prime example was Elvis Presley, whose ballad style came right out of Crosby, via Dean Martin, and infused “Love Me Tender” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” His most daring song choice was Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.”
Although Mr. Murray’s set included a couple of Frank Sinatra standards, he mostly shied away from the very soft, intimate style of the ’40s Sinatra, a seductive murmur whispered into a lover’s ear with a trembling sensitivity. The quiet intensity of that sound was the purest crooning of all, and as practiced by Sinatra, expressed the devotional fervor of a prayer.
"Lover, when I'm near you . . ." sings the debonair Todd Murray this past Monday night at Birdland, mere feet away from rapt eyes into which he pours himself. He's performing the waltzy song acoustically, voice full out in opposition to lyric mood. The back of the house undoubtedly finds sound muted. "This is how you would've heard a band singer in 1925, before a new technique called 'crooning'," he tells us. "From the time I started working, they always called me a crooner." (The term itself goes back to the 15th century definition: To utter a low, murmuring sound.)
Stepping in front of the microphone, Murray then delivers a languorous, declarative "I Want to Be Loved (with Inspiration)" and a mid-tempo, Latin "Lover, When I'm Near You," embodying the vocal finesse and authenticity that can be achieved when one doesn't have to raise one's voice. Bobbysoxers would've screamed.
We learn that Bing Crosby, who sang as if speaking, was uncomfortable with any lyric that held the word "love." Frank Sinatra, who followed Crosby as America's male singing idol, had no such inhibition, but feeling the term implied "old fashioned," he called himself a saloon singer. (To his credit, despite the icon's centennial, Murray refrains from crowding the evening with numbers from "Old Blue Eyes.")
In a 1932 New York Times article, a Cardinal O'Connor describes the "fad" of crooning as . . . a degenerate form of singing containing the basest appeal to sexual emotions in the young. "It's as if singers had blues and yellows and now they were given the passion and intimacy of red," comments the able torchbearer before us.This is a terrific show (highlights of performances at various venues in video below). The artist's deep, resonant voice, impeccable, unhurried phrasing, investment in lyrics, and warm sincerity holds the audience spellbound. That Murray also has a sense of humor about himself makes patter immensely appealing. (A jaunty "Learn to Croon" with Sean Harkness on ukulele is adorable.) That he's artistically self-demanding is reflected not only in performance, but also in solicitation of first-rate arrangements by a variety of musicians. Tonight's A-list band (also on the CD), who capably double as backup singers, includes: Alex Rybeck on piano, Sean Harknes on guitar (right in photo top), Steve Doyle on bass, and Dan Gross on percussion.
Selection of material is also singular. Charming, period arrangements of "Whispering" and an infectious "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps," eschewing its usual Latin interpretation for teasing, both offer harmonic backup reminiscent of The Mills Brothers or Lennon Sisters.
There are dreamy American Songbook choices like Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "You Are Too Beautiful," eliciting a slight, controlled vibrato, stroked by brushes, borne on delicate piano; "You'll Never Know" (Harry Warren/Mack Gordon) with notes that linger long enough to circle a waist; and a rendition of Irving Berlin's "How Deep is the Ocean?" which is sheer matinee catnip. Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" swings by way of plucked bass, thrummed guitar, light cymbals and terpsichorean piano.
Rock and Rollers of the late 1950s/early 60s grew up in, and were influenced by, the 1940s. "Love Me Tender" and "I Can't Help Falling," popularized by Elvis Presley, are buttery. Both hold up better than expected as honest, potent expressions. Harkness embraces his instrument palpably channeling the music. Rybeck creates almost visible ribbons of melody. We sway.
Even a tempered "This Guy's in Love With You" (Burt Bacharach/Hal David) sounds less corny in this performer's hands. No mean feat. Without bounce and brightness, it becomes an unblushing admission. Murray's own ruminative lyric for "And I'm Leaving Today" (music by Alex Rybeck) shows Bacharach's influence but eschews the plastic packaging. Poetic sentiments are empathetic, its tune a restive stroll.
"You'll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)" evokes the audience's spontaneous clapping in time. Starting with his back to us, arms up a la Saturday Night Fever, Murray sells it broad and deep with a subtle bit of knee and pelvis action. Suddenly we find ourselves singing the chorus: You're gonna miss my lovin . . . "Here comes that 70s fade . . . " Fun.
The highpoint of the show may be a completely original version of Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man." Without even a growl, Murray's smoky tones, round edges, and soft consonants make the song rough and tender; sensual, backstreet, and heavy-lidded. I swear I heard an ssssss and know it wasn't there. One pictures him walking into a wet dawn hands in his pockets, collar up. A high-spirited "I Wish You Love" sends us off with a smile. The vocalist prefers happy. Todd Murray is the real deal.
The CD is available for purchase or download at: www.ToddMurray.com
Photo top courtesy of Takako Suzuki Harkness
Photo bottom courtesy of Stephen Sorokoff
-Alix Cohen on the 23rd New York Cabaret Convention, Woman Around Town
-Frank Wildhorn, Atlantic Records