Harvey Granat Presents The American Songbook: Vernon Duke

Harvey Granat is a Broadway producer, cabaret vocalist, and historian/ educator of American popular song. His “classes” are illuminating entertainments. Accompanist for Granat – the very talented Rob Kelly.

Today’s Guests: KT Sullivan, vocalist and artistic director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation – one of the American Songbook’s best standard bearers, whose annual Cabaret Convention was, for the first time, virtual this year.

Will Friedwald, author – 10 books; endless expert articles and liner notes. Creator of Clip Joint, a series of music/performer lectures liberally peppered with impossible to find clips.

Rob Kelly and Harvey Granat

Today’s subject wrote with two personalities under two names. As Vernon Duke, he wrote scores for film, theater, and popular songs we sing today. As Vladimir Dukelsky (his birth name), he composed ballets, three symphonies, and chamber music. George Gershwin was also successful in both areas, but his classical music was powerfully influenced by jazz and popular song. Duke’s was a separate entity.

Dukelsky was born to a noble Russian family in 1903 and admitted to the Kiev Conservatory at age 11. In 1919, the family fled civil war emigrating to New York – in steerage. By some incredible stroke of luck, he met George Gershwin, whose “Swanee” (written with Irving Caesar) he admired. It was Gershwin who suggested the Americanization of his name.

Duke returned abroad, to Paris, where he wrote the ballet Zéphyr et Flore for Ballets Russes. Sergei Prokofiev described it as full of “superior melodies, very well designed, harmonically beautiful and not too ‘modernist’.” Duke returned to New York in 1929 and for 10 years wrote film and theater music. He then turned his view towards Broadway.

The composer paired with EY Yip Harburg on the musical Walk a Little Faster directed by Monty Wooley. It was a moderate success, but gave us the iconic “April in Paris.” Granat sings with smooth, pliant baritone. Accompaniment is lovely. Years later the lyricist was asked how he wrote a song about Paris never having visited. “I’ve never been over the rainbow either,” he quipped. “It’s a song about a city, a time of year, and lost youth/innocence,” Friedwald notes.

Will Friedwald

We then watch a clip of The Count Basie Band performing a decidedly upbeat version of the tune. Apparently inspired by organist Wild Bill Davis, the horncentric, swing version was a great success. In 1934, for the Ziegfeld Follies, Duke wrote “I Like the Likes of You” (with Harburg), “Autumn in New York” (both music and lyrics), and “What is There to Say?” (with Harburg).

The Follies, featuring every top tier singer, dancer, comedian, and the famous follies show girls, opulently ruled from 1907-1931, shut down during the Depression, and was revived in ’34 and ’36 by the Shuberts after Ziegfeld’s death. Unaccustomed to being at the piano, KT Sullivan sings the second and third songs, sweet and high.

Granat then performs a charmingly ingenuous rendition of “I Can’t Get Started (With You).” The song, written with Ira Gershwin despite the fact that George was very much alive, became the theme for jazz trumpeter and band leader Bunny Berigan. “Ira was not a jazz guy,” Will tells us, “but he acknowledged that if it wasn’t for Berigan, nobody would’ve heard the song.” As to the brothers collaborating with others, it was evidently not unusual. “George was kind of a figurehead of this really creative group of immigrants” (WF) who occasionally cross-pollinated.

In 1940, critical acclaim came with the musical Cabin in The Sky based on the story Little Joe by Lynn Root. The piece was written with John LaTouche after both Gershwin and Harburg turned it down. Granat describes it as a parable of southern black life with echoes of Lilliom and The Green Pastures. Like Gershwin, who spent time in the south before Porgy and Bess, Duke and LaTouche ventured to ‘the land of cotton’ in order to soak up atmosphere (and syntax).

The musical, starring Ethel Waters, boasted one of Broadway’s first all black casts. With three passionate Russians at the helm – Vernon Duke (Vladamir Alexandrovich Dukelsky), George Balanchine (Georgiy Melitonovich Balanchivadze) and Boris Aaronson – fireworks erupted every day. Duke quoted George Ross’ description from the Telegram: “Pit a threesome of turbulent Russians against a tempestuous cast of Negro players from Harlem and what have you got? Well, in this instance the result is a lingual ruckus approaching bedlam.” When the film followed, newcomer Lena Horne joined the cast much to the chagrin of its star.

KT Sullivan

We watch a clip of a very, very young Sandy Stewart (on The Perry Como Show) singing “Cabin in the Sky”- absolute satin – then hear Sullivan perform “Honey and The Honeycomb”: There’s honey in the honeycomb/There’s sugar in the cane/There’s oysters in a real oyster stew/And bubbles in sweet Champagne…followed by “The Love I Long Forgot” (Howard Dietz/Vernon Duke from the musical Sadie Thompson) which arrives like a milkweed pod on a breeze.

A swinging version of Cabin’s “Taking a Chance on Love” by Tony Bennett on The Steve Allen Show finds the then young vocalist as physically dancy as he is buoyant.

Much of the rest of the composer’s creative days were spent composing classical music. He was never able to replicate popular music success. Vernon Duke’s autobiography Passport to Paris was published in 1955.

All photos Courtesy of the participants.

COMING UP on American Songbook:

All 12-1:30 pm through 92nd Street Y
November 19: Rodgers & Hart with Guests Jamie De Roy, Steve Ross, and Barry Kleinbort
December 3: Carole Bayer Sager with Guests Marissa Mulder & Cheryl Segall

The Mabel Mercer Foundation

Will Friedwald’s Clipjoint

Will’s most recent book Straighten Up and Fly Right – The Life and Music of Nat King Cole

About Alix Cohen (920 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.