The Second Disc

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Review: Matt Monro, “The Man Behind The Voice”

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In Michele Monro’s The Man Behind the Voice, the author sums up the career of her subject, who also happened to be her father: “Matt never acquired the ‘superstar’ tag, but quality was his code, and he earned the reputation for being a class act with a superlative gift.” 

Though Matt Monro died in 1985 aged just 54, his music continues to flourish today.  Monro’s voice is as vibrant now as when he first recorded “Born Free,” “To Russia with Love” or any of the countless other songs, both contemporary and classic, that form his discography.  And with Messrs. Merriam and Webster defining a “superstar” as one who is “extremely talented, has great public appeal and can usually command a high salary,” Ms. Monro has made a great argument for her father’s enduring superstar status.  She’s behind the impressive Matt Monro reissue campaign from EMI, and the latest creative release in that program, The Man Behind the Voice, is a “bookazine” consisting of a 64-page magazine, a 20-track compact disc companion (or soundtrack, if you will) and replica 45 single of “Portrait of My Love” b/w “You’re the Top of My Hit Parade.”  EMI and the Monro family have released this wonderful gift collection in conjunction with another high-profile reissue, the box set The Singer’s Singer.

The compact disc The Man Behind the Voice is thoughtfully compiled, showcasing the purity and clarity of tone in Monro’s voice over a variety of recordings.  (Pay special attention to the closing sequence, with “If I Never Sing Another Song,” “The Last Farewell,” “We’re Gonna Change the World” and “Softly, As I Leave You.”)  A number of Monro’s most famous recordings are here, of course, including “Born Free,” “To Russia with Love” and “Walk Away.”  But the real attraction for collectors will undoubtedly be two tracks (Clive Westlake’s “Only Once” and Roger Whittaker and Ronald Webster’s “The Last Farewell”) appearing here for the very first time on CD.  In addition, every track has been presented in the most up-to-date sound possible.  Remastering engineer Richard Moore has derived 14 tracks from his own 2010 remasters for EMI, while the remaining six tracks have all been derived from the original masters.  Two tracks, “Nice and Easy” and a medley of “S’Wonderful” and “I Get a Kick Out of You,” were subjected to noise reduction for a 2006 release, and Moore has worked wonders on restoring them to superior quality here.

Monro’s vocals were romantic but assured, capable of sensitively caressing the ballads and raucously swinging the up-tempo songs.  His style was a deceptively simple one: a dash of legit pipes, a touch of Bing Crosby-esque intimacy, a brash swinger’s confidence.  It added up to a sound uniquely Monro.  His arrangements were largely free of gimmickry, with the voice front and center.  Don Black’s lyric to “Born Free,” set so beautifully to John Barry’s majestic melody, took off in Monro’s capable hands, resonating beyond the original story of a lion cub.  There are hits from Broadway (Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “Gonna Build a Mountain” from Stop The World! I Want to Get Off!, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ fantastic, underrated “This is the Life” from Golden Boy and the deathless “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha) plus quintessential performances like Bricusse’s “My Kind of Girl” and Monro’s first hit, “Portrait of My Love,” which may be better-known to American listeners via Steve Lawrence’s successful version.

Monro had a sharp ear for contemporary pop, and as a result recorded fewer Tin Pan Alley standards than many of his contemporaries, but the “S’Wonderful” medley included here certainly shows his flair for the genre.  His treatment of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” still stands apart from the rest, and was spurred on by the producer Monro shared with John, Paul, George and Ringo: one Sir George Martin.  Monro’s recording was one of the song’s very first cover versions, and its sensitive arrangement and restrained vocal gained the singer a Top 10 single in the United Kingdom.  The CD is housed in a digipak; all that missing is discographical information as to the origin of each song, which would have pointed new fans in the right direction for further listening.

There’s plenty more Monro after the jump!

The bookazine itself recounts the story of the man born Terence Edward Parsons in straightforward fashion. Writing in the third person, Michele Monro (born in 1959) frankly recounts incidents that she would have been forgiven for wishing not to recall, including her father’s traumatic childhood, rocky relationship with manager/lyricist Don Black (represented on Broadway this season with the new musical Bonnie and Clyde) and an unfortunate car accident involving Monro which took the life of a pedestrian.  Although the singer was cleared of all charges, the incident nonetheless had a profound impact on him, and the details are presented unflinchingly.  Most affecting, though, are his daughter’s recollections of his lifelong struggle with alcohol, not to mention attendant depression and exhaustion. That Matt Monro found solace in alcohol doesn’t come as a surprise given the punishing tour schedule described in detail in these pages.  One leaves The Man Behind the Voice with a full sense of an international artist, deeply committed to his art and his audience.  (It’s downright shocking to read that Monro embarked on a grueling tour of the Far East a mere two months after treatment at the Priory in 1976.)

Though a personal remembrance, there’s a steady stream of factoids on hand, detailing awards, recognitions and chart successes in the strict chronological format.  But there are also personal vignettes told in the author’s matter-of-fact style, and marvelous day-to-day tidbits that could only have come from a biographer so intimately acquainted with her subject. 

The colorful cast of characters in the artist’s story includes Bruce Forsyth, Shirley Bassey, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett, Henry Mancini, Andy Williams and even Imelda Marcos!  But the most notable personage might be the late Maurice Gibb, himself a recovering alcoholic, who finally spurred his friend Monro on to successful treatment for his alcoholism.  Then there’s Peter Sellers.  Though Sellers was often mercurial, the comic genius knew talent. It was 1960 when Parlophone producer George Martin was seeking a voice that the great impersonator could use as reference for a Frank Sinatra spoof on his comedy album cheekily titled Songs for Swinging Sellers. Martin hired Matt Monro, and billed him under the very Sellers-esque pseudonym of “Fred Flange.”  But Sellers evidently knew that Monro was destined for greatness; the Fred Flange recording opened the record and Martin signed the man behind the curtain.

Much attention is, of course, on the music.  You’ll read of Monro’s “discovery” by an unlikely benefactor, pianist Winifred Atwell, to his early signings by Decca and Fontana before hitting the big time at Parlophone under Martin’s wing, with top-notch arrangers like Martin and Johnnie Spence.  There’s also a strong sense of Monro’s humble beginnings, which were noted by the press when the career of “the singing bus driver” took off.

The bookazine’s pages are of a heavier stock than a typical magazine, and photographs are plentiful, including a number in full color.  It makes for a fine stand-alone read, or a primer for the author’s full-scale biography, which like the box set, is entitled The Singer’s Singer.  (The biography is available in a standard hardcover or paperback edition, and also in a deluxe, slipcased set containing a complete Matt Monro discography and a bonus CD.)  Attention to detail is evident throughout this entire package, right down to the catalogue number and design of the red Parlophone single (45-R-47714)!

Matt Monro: The Man Behind the Voice is currently available in the United Kingdom through the newsagent/retailer WHSmith.  Should interest be sufficient, it’s possible that it will gain wider distribution.  Whether you’re a longtime fan of Monro or discovering him for the first time, you won’t want to “walk away.”  You’ll want to get to know The Man Behind the Voice.

Written by Joe Marchese

October 12, 2011 at 09:34

Posted in Compilations, Matt Monro, News, Reissues, Reviews

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One Response

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  1. Thanks for the essay on this great singer.

    Michelle’s work to provide Matt’s excellent recordings, many at bargain prices, is very much appreciated.


    October 12, 2011 at 10:59

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