The period of American songwriting from the 1920s up until the early 1950s was the richest time for music there’s ever been. Composers such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter were extraordinary people, inventing a new form. But the sadness is, these days there are very few outlets for this kind of music; very few radio presenters who play it. That’s why I wanted to do a compilation album and tour sharing these great tunes – to remind people of what they’re missing. Here’s a selection of songs that I particularly like.
Summertime - Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald
Louis reinvented jazz and is responsible for a lot of the music we hear today – it all started with that one man playing his trumpet. He’s my hero. Along with Ella Fitzgerald – the finest female singer in the history of popular music – he made a version of this great tune that I think is absolutely perfect in every respect. You have Armstong playing trumpet, you have Armstrong singing, but most of all you have Fitzgerald singing. It’s sublime.
I would have been about 12 when I first heard it. Whenever anyone asks me why I love this period so much, I say, ‘Listen to this and tell me anything today that comes near it’. Remember, this was a top 20 record, so you can see how much our tastes have changed.
The Very Thought of You – Tony Bennett
I had Tony on my TV programme, I don’t know, maybe half a dozen times. It was the only show he sang I Left My Heart in San Francisco on, which is some kind of tribute. But The Very Thought of You is a perfect love song. The lyrics are so romantic – I even love the title.
Everyday I Have the Blues – Count Basie and Joe Williams
This is a particular rabble-rouser of mine. It just reminds me of a wonderful time when I was in New York and I happened to catch Joe Williams quite by chance. I was listening to a pianist and this black guy walked in with a big fedora and big overcoat. He gave a high five to the pianist, relaxed next to him and sang this extraordinary song. He didn’t sing it like you hear it, with the Count Basie band blasting away in the background. But it was a marvellous moment.
You Make Me Feel So Young – Frank Sinatra
He was the best male singer of the lot and this performance is a celebration of being young. It’s from an album called Songs for Swingin’ Lovers [released in 1956] that was a fanfare for the 1960s in a sense. It was about the joy of music and of life. The 1960s transformed Britain from black and white to Technicolor and this was one of the albums that represented that change. The arrangement of this tune is wonderful.
Manhattan – Blossom Dearie
I used to haunt jazz clubs in London, including Ronnie Scott’s, when I was younger. I was intrigued by a singer called Blossom Dearie, a petite woman with blonde hair, blue eyes and the most extraordinary, tiny voice – and a wonderful piano player. But she was a cult figure, and when I went to see her I think there were three people in the room, including Ronnie Scott. Yet she came on and did the most extraordinary set I’d ever heard. It was just so uniquely her and personal. I booked her for the TV show and she was something of a hit, coming back three or four times. She was a charming, intelligent woman.
Manhattan was written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, an alcoholic and sometimes sour-minded man. The lyrics seem to be a celebration of New York, but they are lovingly satirical, describing a shabby and smelly place. Still, it’s a beautiful song, a wonderful contrast between the way it’s sung and the truth.
Change Partners – Fred Astaire
Irving Berlin was maybe the grandaddy of the Great American Songbook – certainly the most prolific writer. He would never let one of his songs be published until he’d heard Fred Astaire sing it. People reckon Astaire didn’t have much of a voice and that may be true. But he was the best lyric reader of the lot, so when he sang a song, he understood the lyrics and the tempo.
The opening lines of Change Partners are, ‘Must you dance every dance with that same fortunate man? You have been with him since the music began. Won’t you change partners and dance with me?’ I fell in love with my wife at a ball in Doncaster when she was dancing with another man. I was there thinking, ‘I’ve got to go and say hello,’ but in the end I bottled out. It’s a wonderful lyric about this guy sitting there going, ‘Why are you dancing with him, when I’m here?’ It brings back a great personal memory.
As told to Simon Hemelryk
Sir Michael’s 3CD collection, Our Kind of Music: The Great American Songbook, featuring more than 50 songs, is out now. His nationwide Our Kind of Music tour, where he’ll be discussing why he loves this period of music, along with live performances, starts in April. For more information, see faneproductions.com