© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"Matt Dennis had an ability to write the most beautiful and sophisticated melodies, and yet they were never hard to sing. He was also a gentle, lovely man."
- Julius LaRosa
There are those few musicians who also happen to be singers who also happen to write the songs they [and others] sing, and do all three magnificently well. They are a select group and they are very special, indeed.
One such musician–singer-songwriter was Matt Dennis and he was so exceptional that the editors of JazzProfiles had to turn to the Gene Lees for this treatment on Matt simply because there is none better.
Gene’s profile on Matt appeared in the May 2002 of his Jazzletter. [Vol. 21 No. 5]
© -Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with permission.
'Scuse Me While I Disappear
“David Raksin, whose song with Johnny Mercer's lyrics, Laura, is one of the great classics, said, I write all kinds of music, including concert music. I think that our country's greatest musical gift to the world is not concert music, and not jazz ‑ and I love jazz. Our greatest contribution is the American popular song." David was talking about what is now seen as a golden era, roughly from 1920 to the end of the 1950s. He said, "It is the most incredible flowering ever of that kind of music."
One of the greatest practitioners of the songwriter's art in that time was Matt Dennis, whom we had the misfortune to lose recently. The body of his work was not large, compared with that of, say, Cole Porter or Jerome Kern, in part because he was not a creature of the Broadway musical theater or part of that group, like Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, who wrote mostly for films. But what he did write is unfailingly exquisite: Let's Get Away It All, Will You Still Be Mine, Everything Happens to Me, Violets for Your Furs, The Night We Called It a Day, Junior and Julie, We Belong Together, all written with lyricist Tom Adair, and Angel Eyes, with lyrics by Earl K. Brent. It was written for the movie Jennifer, with Ida Lupino and Howard Duff. Some of Matt's songs have lyrics by his wife, singer Ginny Maxey.
One of my close friends, and one of the best singers to emerge in the generation influenced by Frank Sinatra, is Julius La Rosa. He said, "Matt Dennis had an ability to write the most beautiful and sophisticated melodies, and yet they were never hard to sing. He was also a gentle, lovely man." Sometimes when La Rosa and I are talking on the phone, he (or I) will sing an opening phrase of a Matt Dennis song, and continue through the whole thing, in unison, laughing. So steeped were we in Matt Dennis songs in our high‑school years.
Back around 1960, when I was editor of Down Beat, Mel Torme was playing Chicago, where the magazine's head office was located. Mel asked me to go along with him on a disc jockey interview. The disc jockey said, "Don't you think the singing of Matt Dennis was influenced by yours?"
Mel flared slightly. He said, "I've heard that before, and it's not true. If anything, I was influenced by Matt Dennis."
In fact it is difficult to estimate the reach of the influence of a career in the arts. Obviously I was influenced by all the great songwriters, but certainly Matt Dennis and Tom Adair were a powerful force in my becoming a songwriter. One of the factors in great songwriting is an appropriate match of a melodic interval with what would be the natural inflection if you were speaking the lyric. La Rosa points out that The Night We Called It a Day is a superb example of the up of intervals. And the octave leap on the opening phrase, "The was a moon (out in space)" sort of makes you look up, lending a visual dimension to the song. In fact, that is a very visual song. It is also a very literate one. It was in that song that I first encountered the phrase "the song of the spheres." I first heard the song among the four "sides" Frank Sinatra recorded for RCA Victor's Bluebird subsidiary with arrangements by Axel Stordahl: The Night We Called It a Day, The Lamplighter's Serenade, The Song Is You, and Night and Day. I became an instant fan of Frank Sinatra, Matt Dennis, and Tom Adair. That has never changed.
Matt recalled to Ed Shanaphy, the editor of Sheet Music Magazine: "I will never forget when I first played and sang The Night We Called It a Day for Tommy Dorsey, backstage at the old Paramount in NYC. Tommy was seated next to Harry James and Ziggy Elman. As I ran the song over, I noticed Tommy looking at Harry and Ziggy and nodding their heads in approval.
'When Tommy decided he really did like my tune, I rearranged my own chart for Frank and the Pied Pipers. What was not expected, however, was Frank and Tommy were not getting along too well. Frank was reaching a popular level and wanted to leave the band and go on his own."
Sinatra's departure from Dorsey, who had a firm contract with him, is by now one of the legends of show business.
Matt said, "So I decided to re‑arrange it again to fit Jo Stafford as the soloist. As fate turned out, later in 1944 TD's recording came out of The Night with Jo Stafford and a good cut, too. Frank did record the song on his own and fortunately it became a collector's item. F. S. recorded and certainly performed it over and over during all the ensuing years, keeping the tune very much alive."
Matt had an impact on Jo Stafford's career as well. Jo's entire interest was group singing, and she became a star half by accident because of Matt's song Little Man with a Candy Cigar, with lyrics by Frank Kilduff. She heard it, went to Dorsey and said, "Tommy, this is the first time I've ever done this, and it'll probably be the last, but I want a favor of you. I want to do the record of Little Man with a Candy Cigar solo." He said, "You've got it." From then on he assigned her to solos, and of course she became a major artist, all of it starting with Matt's song.
A few years ago, Jo told me she had been driving and heard one of those Sinatra Bluebird tracks on the car radio, and impulsively said to herself, "My God, could he sing." Indeed. And so could she.
Knowing how much I admired Tom Adair, Matt at one point offered to introduce us, but I moved too slowly, and Tom Adair died. I hope he knew how much I loved his work. Maybe Matt told him; I would like to think so.
Tom Adair was born in Newton, Kansas, on June 15, 1913, and went to Los Angeles Junior College in 1932 and '33. He wrote scripts for television and movies, as well as night‑club material. He was a sitcom writer on My Three Sons, The Munsters, My Favorite Martian, and other shows. For Matt's tunes, he wrote lyrics for Let's Get Away from It All, Everything Happens to Me, Violets for Your Furs, The Night We Called It a Day, and Will You Still Be Mine, as well as There's No You (with Harold S. Hopper) and In the Blue of Evening (with Alfred D'Artega).
Matt was born into a vaudeville family in Seattle, Washington, on February 11, 1914, and went to San Rafael High School in California. His father was a singer and his mother a violinist. Matt made his professional debut in the family act, called the Five Musical Lovelands. In 1933, in San Francisco, Matt joined the Horace Heidt band on piano. Later he and Dick Haymes had a band, with Haymes in front and Matt as its organizer. Then he became known as an arranger and accompanist for singers, and sometimes as a vocal coach. He held all three roles with Martha Tilton.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, there were a number of sister vocal groups, including the Boswell, Andrews, DeMarco, Clark, Dinning, and King Sisters. Jo Stafford and her older sisters, Pauline and Christine, became active as the Stafford Sisters. They had their own radio show on Los Angeles radio station KHJ. They replaced Jo with another girl when Jo joined an eight‑voice group called The Pied Pipers.
Matt's association with Jo went back to the days with her sisters. Matt told Ed Shanaphy in a letter: "I used to accompany (the Stafford’s) ‑ fine singers of the blues, and good pop songs. Then Jo organized the group of singers that Tommy Dorsey hired for his summer radio series in the East, naming them The Pied Pipers.
"Prior to that I continued playing piano for the group in appearances in and around L.A. during which I seriously started writing songs. Jo heard my songs and set up an audition for me with Tommy Dorsey at the Palladium Ballroom, which led me to a contract with Dorsey, writing songs which he wanted to publish, and did most successfully ‑ glad to say. Jo, the Pied Pipers, and Sinatra all started singing and recording my current songs, Let's Get Away from It All, Everything Happens to Me, Will You Still Be Mine, The Night We Called It a Day, and others."
Everything Happens to Me and Let's Get Away from It All were recorded February 7, 1941. In fact Dorsey recorded 14 of Matt's works in that one year, including a little‑remembered patriotic song called Free For All, recorded on June 27, and Violets for Your Furs, recorded on September 26. Sinatra would retain a taste for and powerful loyalty to the Matt Dennis tunes throughout his career. He would re‑record Violets for Your Furs, Angel Eyes, and Let's Get Away from It All, for example, during his period with Capitol Records, when he had become the biggest superstar in the history of American show business.
With the U.S. entry into World War 11, Matt served in the U.S. Army Air Force, with the Radio Production Unit and the Glenn Miller USAAF orchestra. He spent three and a half years in the Air Force. When the war ended, he settled in New York City and became an arranger and sometime performer on a number of network radio shows. And when his friend Dick Haymes got his own radio show, Matt became its music director.
In 1955, Matt starred in his own NBC‑TV series, doing some of the very first coast‑to‑coast color shows. "I replaced Eddie Fisher that year. I had Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Vaughn Monroe had Tuesday and Thursday," Matt said. "Then in December I joined the new Ernie Kovacs five-mornings‑a‑week show with Ernie, Edie Adams, and myself "
Matt was a very fine pianist, and a sympathetic teacher who wrote a piano method, available from Mel Bay.
I was always enthralled by Matt's singing. He had a light and airy voice, which indeed was not unlike that of Mel Torme’, for reasons already noted in the disc jockey interview I mentioned. He made an estimated six albums, far too few.
One of them I treasured for years was on Trend Records. It contained all of Matt's well‑known tunes and a few that were not so known. Alas, I no longer have it. And my local “record” store, which is always very accommodating, finds nothing by Matt in American CD reissues.
Since Gene wrote this tribute to Dennis, all of Matt’s records have found their way to CD reissue including the Trend Matt Dennis Plays and Sings Matt Dennis which has been released as Fresh Sound 385 and contains the following of his “well-known tunes:”
1. WILL YOU STILL BE MINE?
2. JUNIOR AND JULIE
3. THE NIGHT WE CALLED IT A DAY
4. WE BELONG TOGETHER
5. ANGEL EYES
6. VIOLETS FOR YOUR FURS
7. EVERYTHING HAPPENS TO ME
8. COMPARED TO YOU
9. THE TIRED ROUTINE CALLED LOVE
10. IT WASN'T THE STARS
11. WHEN YOU LOVE A FELLOW
John Bush offered this review of the recording on www.allmusic.com:
“Recorded at the Tally-Ho in Hollywood, Matt Dennis Plays and Sings Matt Dennis is a program of what visitors to his supper-club sets could expect from one of the best lounge singers in an era before the term became a dirty word. Accompanying himself on the piano with bass and drums for backing, Dennis sings 12 of his own tunes, including an avalanche of standards — "Will You Still Be Mine," "The Night We Called It a Day," "Angel Eyes," "Violets for Your Furs," "Everything Happens to Me," and "Let's Get Away From It All." Though his voice doesn't quite match his notable composing skills, Dennis uses his narrow range and soft, high-tenor tone to craft a sensitive vocal style. His deft sense of humor also comes in handy during several hilarious offsides to the audience and listener, often in the middle of a line. Virginia Maxey duets with him on "We Belong Together" and "When You Love a Fella."
Matt told Ed Shanaphy: "Looking back, I'm very proud to have had the success I've had ... and pleased that most of my tunes are still around the world after all these years, and also that I'm still around today, able to enjoy the pleasure of hearing some of my songs at this late date. Hallelujah."
Matt died June 21 in a hospital in Riverside, California, of natural causes. He was 89. He's gone. But the music isn't.
Of Matt Dennis’ many wonderful songs, Angel Eyes has always been my favorite so I used it as the audio track to the following video which has as its theme - “Eyes” - what else?