The Second Disc

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A Second Disc Interview: Talking “Matt Uncovered: The Rarer Monro” with MICHELE MONRO

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A remarkable treasure trove of Matt Monro rarities has just been released by EMI Gold, a timely reminder of the artist’s life and career. He was sometimes known as the “Cockney Como” or the “English Sinatra,” but both descriptions fail to adequately capture the essence of the beloved singer’s unique and enduring style. Fortunately, Matt Uncovered: The Rarer Monro offers that singular sound in abundance as it traces the arc of his entire career, via almost entirely unheard material. Click here if you missed our introduction to The Rarer Monro, or read on to join us in welcoming Matt’s daughter, MICHELE MONRO, to The Second Disc.  With engineer Richard Moore, Michele has curated this new collection as well as an ongoing series of Matt Monro reissues, and she has also written the definitive biography of her father, The Singer’s Singer.

Michele, thanks for your kindness in taking the time to speak with The Second Disc!  We’re thrilled to have you here, and especially in conjunction with a project as special as Matt Uncovered: The Rarer Monro.  This is a remarkable, singular collection, and indeed, those words also describe your dad’s voice.  In the past, I categorized Matt’s vocal style as “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.” Who were his influences and who were his most favored singers among his contemporaries?

There were several artists dad admired greatly and Sarah Vaughan was one of them, and it was a regret that he never came to work with her. An early ambition when he first started in the business was to sing with the Ted Heath Band; nothing could be better. He couldn’t know that years later they would be his backing band on broadcast. He also loved Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr. and of course Sinatra. He actually coined the phrase ‘The Governor.’

That’s fantastic!

I think one of his favourite couplings was when he worked The Tony Bennett Show. Tony had arranged to come to England to record a series of shows and Dad was not only asked to appear, but asked to appear on three of the shows. They were made at London’s Talk of the Town and I know they had a ball together. On each show they performed a duet together and the performances were absolutely awesome.

Ah, to have been a fly on that wall!

[Michele kindly provided us with this quote from Matt: “There is no denying that Sinatra has influenced me, but so have Perry Como, Tony Bennett and Dick Haymes. A singer simply has to listen to the masters, you learn so much in this way. I don’t try to copy these people; that would be pointless. I have simply learned things from them and have tried to incorporate these things into my singing.” — Matt Monro]

What Matt shared with all of those artists was an unerring ear for quality material.  He especially recorded so much wonderful contemporary material at a time when musical styles were in tremendous flux, especially for an interpretive singer.  What did he look for in a song?

The one thing that can be said was that Dad only recorded tracks he felt had a quality about them. With any artist it is not just the songs you sing, but the reaction that is wrought from the audience. If it was good and they enjoyed his rendition of a song, then there was no better high. Having been established for some time and with quite a few hits to his credit, Dad was booked in America, presenting several shows each night. The management wanted a different repertoire for each show. Opening night came and when the second house audience didn’t hear all the hits they had come for, there was an uproar and they refused to let Dad leave the stage. The following night Dad sang all the hits in both shows.

He found it very difficult to change his repertoire because the fans that came to see him all expected to hear their favourite and were left disappointed if that were not the case. When Dad could slip different songs in, he preferred the rarer tune, one that might not have as much focus as the ones aired on the radio. One of his favourites was a track called “Ethel Baby” [from Jerry Bock, George Holofcener and George David Weiss’ Broadway musical Mr. Wonderful, which starred Sammy Davis, Jr.!].

There wasn’t one performance he didn’t glow in the aftermath but then analyze how it could be improved or bettered.  He was a perfectionist in his art and he never rested on his laurels; he felt every audience deserved his best performance. What makes Matt Monro special is that he sang a song how it was written; he made people feel special and sang with true feeling. He made people feel good about themselves.  He chose good lyrics, great musicians and the best producers in order to give the song the best possible treatment. He didn’t try and fool an audience with a lacklustre performance.  When he went on that stage he meant it and it came across.

Johnnie Spence with Matt

It was usually a joint collaboration between the three musketeers – George Martin, Johnnie Spence and Dad. In the early years, Dad and the record company were inundated with material and the threesome would spend days listening to all the candidates and see what might work. The most important tool for any songster is the song itself, and Matt had been lucky with many of his choices, although he was the first to admit that he didn’t have an immediate eye for a hit. He hadn’t thought “Portrait [of My Love]” a possible commercial success, and then made a monumental mistake in turning down an exclusive on “The Shadow of Your Smile” [written by Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster] long before Tony Bennett cut the 1965 Academy Award winner.  The song’s author had sent the composition to Matt, but the singer didn’t think it would appeal to the mass market. When it appeared in the film The Sandpiper, Tony Bennett sent Dad a thank you note!

After the jump, there’s much more from Michele!

Matt obviously had a very special relationship with George Martin as producer.  Could you share any insights as to their process together?

The making of a record would start with George and Matt having lunch together and talking for a couple of hours about what should be on the next record. The first item of business was organising a routine session. “Routining” meant that George would collect a number of songs he thought would be suitable for the artist, and then Dad would go to the office and they would run through them on the piano. Having agreed on the numbers they would sing, they would work out which keys they would be sung in, what size orchestra Dad wanted, what the shape of the recording would be, how many choruses they would have, what kind of orchestral backing, what kind of beginning and ending and so on.

It would be George’s job to organise all those things.  But when the appointed day came, the engineer took charge. They had great experience in the placing of the microphones and the acoustics of the studio and their ultimate aim in those days was simply to recreate the sound as faithfully as possible.

Recording was hard work and there was tremendous pressure on the whole team to deliver on time. George, Matt and Johnnie found the ultimate weapon for sustaining them through the subsequent long days and nights spent in the studios and alleviating session tension and anxiety: laughter. They all shared a similar sense of humour and each session would see one or all three of rolling around the floor in stitches.

Needless to say, the work created by those three musketeers continues to endure today.  If you could only select one song from The Rarer Monro to introduce someone to the music of Matt Monro, which would it be?  How about from his entire discography?

I don’t have to think about this answer; it is without doubt “My Funny Valentine.”  [The track can be found on Disc One, Track Seven.]  A chance remark by a retired radio and television producer who had worked with my father in Hong Kong led us to a company in England called Reditune. They used to provide music to the Rediffusion radio stations around the world and also deal in what was deemed elevator music. We tracked down their archives to their current owners Mood Media, but it took months for the company to actually confirm if any tracks were held in their archives. It was a long wait.

My father always used to sing “My Funny Valentine” when my mum was in the audience.  It was their song and it was a tragedy that he never came to record it – or that is what I thought. Several months after first contacting Mood Media, a list arrived of thirteen tracks. On that list was “My Funny Valentine.” The date the email came was 14 February 2011!

It took another eleven months until I actually got listening copies of those thirteen recordings; it was one of the most frustrating periods in my life. The company were in the middle of transferring their archives to digital media and Dad’s tracks were amongst thousands of tapes that were in line for treatment. Trying to extract them was a logistical nightmare, but the managing director Mick Bennett came to the rescue when he heard that I wanted to include the recordings on a brand new release if they were in fact playable. I received them two days before leaving on a six-month business trip and I wept when I heard them, for every one of those songs was pristine and even though there were a couple on the list that Dad had recorded later in his career, they turned out to be completely different arrangements. I couldn’t believe that they were nearly sixty years old; they sounded as if they had been recorded yesterday, and it was a wondrously exciting moment.

As I listened to each track on the disc I was in awe of the perfection of each performance and as the tune came to an end I held my breath in hope that the next in the play list would be as good. Each of these unexpected gifts was as wonderful as the last but I have to say that “My Funny Valentine” would have been enough. I feel that the other twelve were an extra bonus. This is the sort of thing that doesn’t happen every day and it makes this project even more special in that I am able to share it. I can’t think of anything more tragic had they been left undiscovered, just a list within someone’s computer document, never to be heard by the very fans that came to love that unmistakable voice from what was a remarkable artist, man, friend and father.

I’m often asked what my favourite song is, and this is not actually an easy question for me as my response changes all the time depending on my mood.  To me my father’s songs are like close intimate friends, something I grew up with.  Some I fell in love with instantly, and some I learnt to love over time; some are passionate, some sad and some are breezy, bright and uplifting. I know them really well; they have seen me through my private nightmares, my highs and lows, my reveries and my demons. They are always there for me whether I want them or not, but invariably they will elevate me to a better place.  They take me to a wonderland of imagination and sometimes I can quite easily live there for a while and when reality hits, I’m better for the song I’ve heard. A song is as changeable as my disposition and that is why my answer varies from day to day.

One very special track was recorded back in 1972. Dad had just finished a week at The King’s Club in Ilford and the following day was booked into Air London. The session included five tracks, all pinpointed to go on the new album For the Present. Dad took me with him which was very exciting. It was the first time I had been to the studio with my father. I had no idea what he was recording. Air London was full of people running back and forth but suddenly everything went quiet and Dad held my hand and started singing “Michelle” to me. It was such a special moment, the memory of which has stayed with me throughout my life.

Thanks for sharing such a precious memory, Michele.  I can imagine the joy in discovering these tracks for the very first time.  Were there other challenges involved in assembling the final release?  What was the biggest obstacle?

Putting together an album is always a challenge but we usually grab the tracks from the vaults of EMI. This album has material from other companies and of course permission is needed in every case. One track that was scheduled for the new release was “Bound for Texas.”  The track is a country and western style pastiche composed by Charlie Chaplin and included in the film The Chaplin Revue, a compilation of three of his silent films, all given new orchestral soundtracks. The song, the only included vocal, was used in the new score for The Pilgrim. The soundtrack was given a limited CD release in Japan in the 1990s, and more recently the film was issued on DVD.  “Bound for Texas” has never been released on a Matt Monro album and so I was eager to include it. We applied for permission to Universal but unfortunately they couldn’t find the official paperwork that showed ownership. Even though the song is public domain, being more than 50 years old, we didn’t want to go that route. Waiting for permission resulted in the album being delayed twice, but in the end I realised we could be waiting another year and still not had resolution so we went without it.

That must have been such an incredible disappointment, but looking over the treasure trove that did see release, I completely understand your decision to go ahead without the song.  How much more is in the vault?  Might there be subsequent volumes of The Rare Monro series?

Never say never.  When we released The Rare Monro in 2006, I would have said we’d pretty much used what was in the archives.  But over the last six years, my partner in crime Richard Moore and I have continued to dig and delve into archives across the globe. A chance remark actually led us to numerous tracks in a vault in England, which had sat there since 1957. They were near on perfect, and they are all now seeing an appearance on the new album. One can only hope that new material keeps appearing and if we feel it is of the best quality, I certainly will endeavour to get it released. After all, the music should be shared with the fans, not sit in a dusty vault for years on end.

I couldn’t agree more.  How did your collaboration with Richard begin?

Each time Matt went into the studio with George Martin, he’d lay down five or six recordings.  Those were then listened back to, and a song was chosen that the record company heads thought would be the next hit.  Sometimes their choices were wrong, but what if those that were relegated to the dusty corridors of EMI’s archives had been given the chance of release?  Would there have been different hits that would have been associated with Matt’s name today if history had been rewritten?

This idea inspired me to see what might still be available.  A listing was obtained and I was shocked to see several hundred entries logged at the record company’s storage facility.  Some of these of course were different versions and takes of songs we are already familiar with, but others had such obscure names as “Cuddly Old Koala,” “Sitting on a Bench Theme,” “No Reply,” and yet others had only a few seconds of audio footage which were recorded as bench markers.  The latter tracks were later found not to be Matt’s vocals but that of other artists misfiled. Whereas I assumed the same mistaken identity had been made on other tracks, these were indeed Dad’s velvet baritones.

While this process was taking place, I decided to access all the cassette recordings that were at my disposal.  Having been stored for several long decades the first one promptly snapped when placed in the stereo.  I was horrified that I had just destroyed a piece of history.

The guardian angel that came to my subsequent rescue was one of Matt Monro’s staunchest fans. Specialising in audio restoration, Richard Moore offered his services.  Having been a member of the singer’s growing fan website [www.mattmonro.com] Richard contacted me.  Under the code name “Operation Santa,” he undertook the laborious task of transferring each tape to CD.  This was done purely for listening purposes as it gave me a chance to analyse a plethora of material without the worry of damaging any more original tape as I clicked back and forth a hundred times.  It took months to dissect each tape, but finally a list was put together of album possibilities.  That would only be possible if the audio could be restored to a reasonable quality. Having volunteered originally, I cajoled Richard into seeing the project through to the bitter end, and once again he was given the rather daunting task of getting the tracks up to an acceptable parity. After weeks of backbreaking work he managed to salvage what I think are some of The Rare Monro’s most outstanding tracks. I have to tell you that when I gave this material to Richard, I didn’t imagine for a minute that it would take months of laborious work, but the results are stunning.

In 2006 I had the opportunity of buying the rights to the Nelson Riddle concert masters and with the backing of EMI jointly decided to release this exceptional concert to the mass market. I decided Richard Moore was the man for the job and he had the arduous task of re-mastering the album from scratch. The source for this recording was a 3-¾ inches per second, quarter track, reel to reel tape which had been recorded directly from a TV line source. Professional standard mono recordings are made at the very least on 15 inches per second full track tape. As you decrease the speed of the tape the quality and frequency response of the recording drastically reduces.  On quarter track tape the sound is squashed into a smaller area and any defects on the tape become more pronounced causing what is known as “dropouts,” where the sound disappears for a fraction of a second.

The original restoration by Alan Bunting had removed some of the hiss and tape noise but had left behind some smaller defects that still needed to be addressed, [and this] meant removing them so as to bring the recording as close to its original sound as possible. The first problem was a hum (caused by the mains electricity supply) that ran throughout the tape, but was most pronounced during the spoken sections. The recording also had had a considerable amount of high frequency distortion removed and had then been re-‘EQ’ed’ to compensate for the slow recording speed.  After more hiss removal, there were still two more faults that needed attention [and these were] altogether much more time consuming. The microphone that Matt used during this broadcast had a minor flaw, which caused some strange clunking noises to appear on the soundtrack whenever the microphone was jolted. On the finished album, many of these noises were digitally removed where possible, but only where the removal of the noise would not harm or interfere with the original recording. Lastly, as many of the large “dropouts” as possible were repaired, although once again immeasurable care was taken not to harm the original recording.

Richard had been well and truly thrown in at the deep end but his love of music gives him the patience of Job. Since that collaboration, Richard has been my right arm, my co-conspirator, my rock and my confidant. We have spurred each other on, leaving no stone unturned looking for a Matt Monro item, even when some such piece looked irretrievable. Everyone should be lucky enough to have such a friend in their lives.

In addition to wonderful compilations like these, is there any chance that more expanded editions of original albums might arrive in the future?

The material that we have is probably not suitable for an expanded edition of an existing album. The Hoagy Carmichael session, which was issued on Words and Music, was an exception to the rule. Obviously if there comes a point where we have the opportunity through unearthing lost material then certainly we will consider releasing it.

Once again, Michele, thank you for taking the time to speak with The Second Disc!  We eagerly await chatting with you again about future projects, and wish you all the best!

You can order Matt Uncovered: The Rarer Monro hereAnd join us for our interview with Michele’s collaborator on all things Matt, Richard Moore!

Written by Joe Marchese

September 5, 2012 at 14:18

Posted in Interviews, Matt Monro, News, Reissues

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3 Responses

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  1. This is great. I really appreciate original material like this. I’ve printed it and saved it in several LP covers, and I expect collectors will discover this interview many years from now when my collection scatters to various corners of the globe.

    I also appreciate your effort, and especially Michele’s effort to keep Matt Monro’s excellent singing alive. Michele’s work is unmatched!

    I’ve done a few radio specials on Matt over the years, and maybe another will happen sometime soon

    Kevin

    September 5, 2012 at 15:58

  2. What a wonderful insightful piece. Even if you’re not a fan, it’s always interesting to read of the process by which these rare recordings see the light of day. And of course, the passion and dedication of all involved is both inspiring and endearing.

    Erik

    September 5, 2012 at 19:32

  3. Thanks for the kind words, gentlemen. They’re much appreciated.

    Joe Marchese

    September 6, 2012 at 01:42


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