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Wed June 5, 2013
Music Interviews

'The Greatest Songs You've Never Heard,' Rescued From History

Originally published on Fri July 5, 2013 2:19 pm

Three for a Song is a performing trio with a love for the 1930s, during which some of the greatest songwriters who ever lived wrote music that would enter the canon of American popular song. But the group has recently added a quirk to its repertoire: performing songs that were never popular.

"You will always hear Burton Lane's 'How Are Things in Glocca Morra?' " says the trio's pianist, Alex Hassan, who is also a pop-music archivist. "But you will not hear an incredible torch song that he wrote for a 1935 MGM flick that never got made."

That Burton Lane tune, "Blue Serenade," is just one of many to appear in The Greatest Songs You've Never Heard, a traveling production created by Hassan, tenor Douglas Bowles and soprano Karin Paludan. The three found their material in a trove of virtually unknown music by Lane, Vernon Duke and other luminaries; it came to light recently when the Library of Congress digitized it.

Some of these songs were hitched to movies that were never filmed or Broadway musicals that flopped. Others appeared in entertainments so strange, the stories might have overshadowed the music. Take, for example, "Low Down," originally performed by Lillian Roth in an over-the-top 1930 film called Madam Satan.

"Lillian plays the female plaything of an aristocrat who has become bored with his wife," Bowles says. "The wife realizes he's messing around. She introduces herself to Lillian Roth's character — who's named 'Trixie,' of course — and Trixie teaches the wife what she's doing to fascinate the husband. The wife redefines herself as Madam Satan and attends an orgiastic party on a blimp. She seduces her own husband back into her arms — at which point the blimp catches fire."

The members of Three for a Song spoke with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel and performed selections from The Greatest Songs You've Never Heard live in the studio. Click the audio link to hear their full conversation.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. And this is a song that's you've probably never heard. It's called "Two Heads In The Moonlight." It's performed by Alex Hassan on piano. He's part of a trio. We'll meet the other two later. But this is a solo piano piece from their show, "The Greatest Songs You've Never Heard."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: And now, let's introduce all the members of Three For a Song.

ALEX HASSAN: On the piano, Alex Hassan.

KARIN PALUDAN: I'm Karin Paludan. I'm originally from Lawrence, Kansas.

DOUG BOWLES: And I'm Doug Bowles. I'm a tenor, singer, sing with these crazy people.

SIEGEL: And the three of you perform - the whole point of the songs you're playing is these are songs often by great songwriters and songs we've probably never heard of.

HASSAN: That's the idea. I mean, you will always hear Burton Lane's "How Are Things In Glocca Morra," but you will not hear an incredible torch song that he wrote for a 1935 MGM flick that never got made.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PALUDAN: (Singing) Nights are getting lonely. My life's become a blue serenade. Lost my one and only and now I am a blue serenade.

SIEGEL: Okay.

PALUDAN: We have a little bit of fun.

SIEGEL: Bravo.

HASSAN: "Blue Serenade" from the unfilmed MGM extravaganza in 1935 elegance.

SIEGEL: And we've truncated that for time. One of the other songwriters whom you've discovered some obscure songs by is Vernon Duke, who someone might think of as one of the great songwriters. "I Can't Get Started," "April In Paris," Autumn In New York," "Taking a Chance On Love," these are really some of the best songs, I think, ever written and you manage to find something by Vernon Duke that didn't see the light of day?

HASSAN: This one that we do in our show is called "This Is Romance." It is a 1933 real sort of deco-type pop tune. "This Is Romance" exists in two different versions in 1933, one of which was a little bit too dark. It got yanked really quickly in favor of a second version and it's a little bit sunnier.

SIEGEL: Well, which of the two lyrics are we going to hear right now?

HASSAN: We're going to hear the one that actually got recorded at the time.

SIEGEL: Okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BOWLES: (Singing) This is romance. There's a sky to invite us and a moon to excite us, yet you turn from my kiss.

PALUDAN: (Singing) This is romance. It's a moment of splendor, yet you fail to surrender to a night such as this.

DOUG BOWLES AND KARIN PALUDAN: (Singing in unison) The dreamy magic of your eyes enchanted my heart, but will the magic of your love be granted my heart. I'm in a trance, dear.

BOWLES: (Singing) Let us be (unintelligible)

PALUDAN: (Singing) This is paradise found, dear.

BOWLES: (Singing) This is paradise, dear.

PALUDAN: (Singing in unison) Sweetheart, this is romance.

SIEGEL: Very nice. Alex Hassan, you know, is it more likely that you'll turn up a forgotten song that was written by a terrific composer, Vernon Duke or Burton Lane, than it is by a terrific lyricist like Ira Gershwin or Oscar Hammerstein II?

HASSAN: I would agree there. They're more likely probably to be overshadowed by the Lorenz Harts and the Ira Gershwins, but there are a ton of tunes by thems as well.

SIEGEL: Let's hear another gem.

BOWLES: Sure. This is a number that was introduced by Lillian Roth called "Low Down." It's from a 1930 film called "Madam Satan."

SIEGEL: "Madam Satan."

BOWLES: And in this film, Lillian plays the female plaything of an aristocrat who's become bored with his wife. The wife realizes he's messing around. She introduces herself to Lillian Roth's character, who's named Trixie, of course, and Trixie teaches the wife what she's doing to fascinate the husband.

SIEGEL: Is this before the Hays Code? Is this one of the movies, yes, before they began censoring movies? Okay. Now, I understand.

BOWLES: The wife redefines herself as Madam Satan and attends an orgiastic party on a blimp.

SIEGEL: On a blimp.

BOWLES: On a blimp, yeah.

SIEGEL: Even before the Hays Code, before the Von Hindenburg.

BOWLES: Yeah, exactly. Oh, but get this. Before the Hindenburg, this party goes crazy, right, and the wife is wearing this very - it's very easy to see that this is the wife. Anyway, she seduces her own husband back into her arms at which point, yes, the blimp catches fire and conveniently, all of the cast members in this movie happen to have parachutes and they jump to safety and everything's happy in the end.

SIEGEL: Doug, I don't think you have to sing the song, right. No, go ahead. No, go ahead and sing the song.

BOWLES: It's all over now. It's all over now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC )

BOWLES: (Singing) Don't send them away. Tell them to stay. Tell them to play that sweet love melody. Do it for me. I want to be just low down, low down, don't tell me to slow down. I now and then get up again, fall right into new sensation. Bach and Chopin can't give me what Jess can. No new kick. I like my music low down. (Scatting)

SIEGEL: Alex Hassan on piano, Doug Bowles and Karin Paludan, that is to say Three For A Song, thanks so much for performing some of the greatest songs we've never heard.

BOWLES: Thank you.

PALUDAN: Thank you so much.

HASSAN: Delighted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HASSAN: This is James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith composed this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BOWLES: (Singing) Our love was just like a rhapsody. That's how I thought it would always be. (Unintelligible) I concentrated all my love on you, but little did I know, my reward. Oh, your love and kisses make me believe that every night would be just like a New Year's Eve. And then you brushed me right off your sleeve. How could you put me down? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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