Ronny Whyte at Pangea
Ronny Whyte is an old school gentleman, at the piano and otherwise; ever dapper, graceful at his instrument, easy with performance. Tonight’s show salutes the iconic George Gershwin and a few of those Gershwin helped along the way. The artist opens with an instrumental, “Rialto to Ripples” (George Gershwin/Will Donaldson 1917). A frothy ragtime, it sets the mood. “That wasn’t me,” the performer quips. “It was a piano roll.”
We hear four Gershwin tunes “written with his lovely wife Ira.” (Ira Gershwin was often his brother’s lyricist.) “Who could ask”- he shrugs- “for anything more?” he sings. (“Nice Work If You Can Get It”) The rarely heard “My Cousin in Malwaukee”: I got a cousin in Milwaukee/She’s got a voice so squawky/And though she’s tall and kind of gawky/Oh, how she gets the men… wryly ends the section.
Gershwin told Russian born Vladimir Dukelsky that if he changed his name and wrote some show songs, he’d make a great deal of money. Vernon Duke did just that. An intermittently waltzy “I Can’t Get Started” (lyric Ira Gershwin) is a firm reminder of the composer’s talent and, of course, Ira’s. Whyte points out the immigrant’s skill with language exemplified by “Autumn in New York,” for which Duke wrote both music and lyrics. Performance is serious, melancholy. Two from Cabin in the Sky (with John La Touche) include the insouciant “Leave Me Alone Today.”
Patter about alcoholic/piano virtuoso/composer/curmudgeon Oscar Levant – a good friend of Gershwin’s – introduces “Don’t Mention Love to Me” (lyric Dorothy Fields) which, Whyte notes, “says the same thing as the La Touche in a nicer way.” Few realize the beautiful “Blame It On My Youth” (lyric Edward Heyman) was also composed by Levant. “If it seems a little inappropriate for someone my age to be singing this song, Mabel Mercer performed it at 80. She said ‘My songs are not about me, they’re all about you,’” Whyte tells us after his very tender rendition.
Three by Kay Swift follow. “She would come see me at some of the tackiest joints I worked it,” the performer recollects with a smile. Though “Can’t We Be Friends?” (with Paul James) is undoubtedly familiar, “Sawing a Woman in Half” (lyric Al Silverman) is probably not: When you’re through playing Nola on the Victrola/Try sawing a woman in half…Sounds like the kind of song Groucho might sing.
We close with the oeuvre of George Gershwin himself (lyrics Ira Gershwin). “Up till now, everything I’ve done has been in 4/4 time, but I don’t think he’d mind if I sang this beautiful tune as a Bossa Nova,” Whyte says. “Soon” arrives in dancy ballad mode. Just as lovely, “How Long Has This Been Going On?” is next. I’m all at sea, he sings with a small smile. “Little Jazz Bird”: I’m a little jazz bird/And I’m tellin’ you to be one, too/For a little jazz bird/Is in heaven when he’s singin’ blue…leaves us feeling light. Here’s to those who remember and share.
Cover photo courtesy of the artist
Ronny Whyte at Pangea
March 29, 2023
178 Second Avenue at 11th Street