Saturday, June 19, 2010

The George Burns Catalog

After 7 year old Nattie Birnbaum's dad died during the influenza epidemic of '03, he formed The Peewee Quartet with some neighborhood pals. They'd sing on street corners, basements, wherever they could. Now how could Dolly Parton have known his story when she co-penned "Nickels and Dimes?" It's that song, wistfully sung by the very grown up Nattie, that closes the 1980 album I Wish I Was Eighteen Again. By this time, Birnbaum had been calling himself George Burns for nearly 70 years.

My tendency is to binge on records. After the family watched The Sunshine Boys, I immediately realized I had to buy George Burns albums. I loved his style of mumbling lyrics at a brisk pace. Why is it appealing? I don't know. Why do people like Yes? Taste can be a very mysterious thing.
A couple of eBay deals later and there I was, staring at three Burns LPs. Let's dig in.

The Sgt. Pepper spoof that greets you belies a serious endeavor in George Burns Sings (1969). The rushing pace that I expected was nowhere to be found. Buddah Records approached Burns, who assumed they were looking for laughs. Instead, label founder Neil Bogart presented the comic legend with a series of legitimate contemporary tunes to hash out honestly, not for yuks.

That's not to say the record is devoid of jokes. Just listen to "I Kissed Her on the Back Porch." But, dare I say it, Burns straightforward renditions are reminiscent of Willie Nelson, warbling with unpredictable, yet musically dead on instincts. His voice is warm and sweet, his New Yawk accent varying in intensity. "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "Mr. Bojangles" are stand out tracks. Most view Jerry Jeff Walker's "Bojangles" as tribute to a bygone era. For George, its real life. Burns starred in The Big Broadcast of 1936 with Bill Robinson, Bojangles himself! The biggest surprise, both in selection and delivery, was George's take on Harry Nilsson's "1941." It's Harry's song about his the year of his birth, when Burns was a whippersnapper of 45. Perfection.

Walter Matthau looms over Burns in the upper right hand corner, but George Burns Sings predates the great comeback of the mid-1970's. Flash forward to 1980. Burns is now the Oscar winning actor for his portrayal of Matthau's aged vaudeville partner Al Lewis in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. For Burns' sake, he also played God in Oh, God! At the start of his tenth decade on Earth, George Burns found himself the last standing symbol of an entertainment world long gone and a multi-media star - movies, TV, books and, once again, records.

That hat is never gonna touch that gray toupee and rest its brim on those fish lens glasses! George Burns in Nashville is simply another in a series of vocally challenged performers crooning in front of a crack team of Nashville session musicians. Ringo did it well on Beaucoups of Blues, Joey Bishop not so well on Joey Bishop Sings Country and Western. There's nothing wrong with this LP, a totally straight attempt. None of the songs are played as outright comedy, though some are too cute by half. He tackles "Ain't Misbehavin'" again, and, as he did on Sings, simply nails it.

Remember my Willie Nelson comment? Imagine my surprise when, on In Nashville, George sings "Willie, Won't You Sing a Song with Me." It's a great bit, Burns noting that Nelson has sung with everyone (and this was before Willie met Julio Iglesias!), and that they should get together. The offer is made and an opportunity missed. And Burns even had a television special tied in with the record. As the song fades, Burns pushes his credentials - I played God, I'm hot right now, I can help your career. Still, Willie demurred.

Also in 1980 came I Wish I Was Eighteen Again. Another piece of countrypolitan, there's a bit of vaudeville tossed in for good measure. "The Baby Song" is a ditty I'd heard Burns sing on TV, fast, funny, detouring into chatter as the punchline hit. Though slowed down and stretched out, it still works to great comic effect. Tom T. Hall's "One of the Mysteries of Life" starts with a touch of The Ink Spots in George's delivery. And Dolly's tune ends another pleasant album with a touching bit of autobiography.

I finally caught up with some Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. records that I've had on tape since college. That's the latest vinyl buying obsession. George Burns and Johnny Rotten - now there are a couple of contemporary record artists I'd love to have heard together.

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