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Review: Joanie Sommers, “Come Alive! The Complete Columbia Recordings”

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Joanie Sommers - Come AliveOn the opening track of Joanie Sommers’ 1966 Columbia LP Come Alive!, the velvet-voiced singer seductively taunted, “You better love me while you may!  Tomorrow I may fly away…”  True, the Hugh Martin/Timothy Gray tune was originally sung by the late Elvira, a ghost haunting her husband in the musical High Spirits.  But it could just as easily have applied to Sommers.  Following a string of hit albums and singles for Warner Bros. Records, her home since 1960, the winsome “Pepsi Girl” and “Voice of the Sixties” decamped Warners for Columbia.  Though WB had guided Sommers to stardom from her teenage years, the move made perfect sense, as Columbia was home of the great vocalists – Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Doris Day, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, and Robert Goulet, to name a few.  Her brand of adult pop would fit right in.  Her label debut was titled after her Pepsi campaign jingle, produced by Allen Stanton and arranged and conducted by Mort Garson, perhaps best known for composing “Our Day Will Come.”  But soon, Sommers did indeed fly away from the music business.  Save a few singles and one unreleased LP, another new album didn’t bear her name until 1982.  And Come Alive! slid into obscurity…until now.  The original LP has been rescued and reissued by Real Gone Music, adding twelve rare sides (six of which are previously unreleased) to create Come Alive! The Complete Columbia Recordings (RGM-0185).

At Warner Bros., Sommers brought her sweet but deft touch to pop songs (Sherman Edwards and Hal David’s “Johnny Get Angry”), Broadway showtunes (“One Boy” from Bye Bye Birdie) and bossa nova ballads (1965’s Softly: The Brazilian Sound, with guitarist Laurindo Almeida).  Though promoted as a teen star, Sommers was also paired with jazz heavyweights like Marty Paich and Neal Hefti for maturely sung collections of standards.  (Her wide-ranging music can be sampled on Real Gone’s Complete Warner Bros. Singles.)  For her Columbia debut, Stanton and Garson didn’t veer too far from the formula, showcasing Sommers’ distinctive and seasoned pipes in beguiling settings.  Most of the album is devoted to then-current songs of stage and screen.  Sommers charms on Garson’s cha-cha arrangement of “You’d Better Love Me,” and is similarly radiant on the upbeat “A Wonderful Day Like Today” from The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd.  Most impressively, on the bright “I’m All Smiles” from the short-lived musical adaptation of The Yearling, Sommers holds her own against none other than Columbia labelmate Barbra Streisand.  La Streisand’s dreamy version can be found on her 1964 People LP; whereas that version was released before The Yearling hit the stage, the musical was long gone by the time of Sommers’ release.  Following eleven previews, it ran just three performances at New York’s Alvin Theatre in December 1965!

The film songs are an equally classy lot.  Sommers is as tender on the Academy Award-winning “The Shadow of Your Smile,” from The Sandpiper, as she is insouciant on “Sunday in New York” from the movie of the same name.  The Peter Nero melody was also recorded by Mel Torme, Bobby Darin and Nero himself.  If Sommers can’t beat Darin’s rendition for sheer swing, her invitation is just as delightful.  Her soft, girl-next-door vocals are gentle and persuasive on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s “Watch What Happens,” swathed in an orchestration with swirling strings, atmospheric flute and vibes.  Sommers and Garson even reached back to 1951’s Royal Wedding for a sensual reading of Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s wistful standard “Too Late Now.”  Sommers’ proclivity for jazz shines through on Neal Hefti and Bobby Troup’s slinky “Girl Talk” from the biopic Harlow, as well as on a brassy version of Tony Hatch’s (non-film song) pop hit “Call Me.”

Real Gone’s reissue, produced by Jim Pierson and sublimely remastered by Sean Brennan at Battery Studios, adds 12 bonus tracks to the album’s original 11 songs.  Let’s take a listen, after the jump!

Sommers, already well-versed at walking the line between pop and jazz, takes the uptown soul route on the lush “Never Throw Your Dreams Away” written by a pre-Ohio Express Joey Levine.  She gives the pure-pop treatment to Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman rouser “You’ve Got Possibilities,” introduced onstage by Linda Lavin.  She savors the clever lyrics: “Haircut?  Simply terrible!  Necktie?  The worst!  Bearing?  Just unbearable!  What to tackle first?  Still, you’ve got possibilities/Though you’re terribly square!  You’ve got possibilities/Underneath, there’s something there!”

Four songs by the team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David appear on The Complete Columbia Recordings.   Joanie’s early recording of “Alfie” hit the Adult Contemporary Top 10, and if Garson’s arrangement teeters on the grandiose, the vocal is warm and heartfelt.  A mono version recorded in Italian of the now-standard also appears here for the first time.  The other three tracks from the hitmaking team were written for their ABC Stage 67 television musical On the Flip Side.  The Promises, Promises precursor starred Sommers opposite Rick Nelson, and though Columbia consented for Sommers to appear on the Decca cast recording, she recorded “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” “Take a Broken Heart” and “Try to See It My Way” at Columbia.  Alas, only the first two titles were released as an extremely rare 45; “Try to See It My Way” has remained in the vaults until now.  The groovy “It Doesn’t Matter” and lovelorn ballad “Take a Broken Heart” were both introduced in the broadcast by Nelson, so it’s a rare treat to hear Sommers singing them.  “Try to See It My Way” was Sommers’ song from the start, and her Columbia rendition is simply delectable.  All three Flip Side tracks were credited to producer-arranger Robert Mersey but completed by surf legend Gary Usher; as prime Sommers and prime Bacharach and David, they’re worth the price of admission.

The remaining outtakes meet the album’s consistently high standard.  Gary Geld and Peter Udell (“Sealed with a Kiss,” the musical Shenandoah) supplied the dramatic “Let It Be Now.”  The catchy “Love Song, Love Song” was also recorded by the Roger Nichols Trio on A&M in 1967 and by The Johnny Mann Singers on Liberty that same year.  Though credited here to Teddy Randazzo and Victoria Pike, it was actually the work of Larry Marks and Doug Tibbles.  (Pike and Randazzo wrote “Love Song” as recorded by The Vogues on Bell in 1971.)  It’s not hard to see why Sherman Edwards and Ben Raleigh’s “Never, Never” was shelved; though enjoyable, it’s very much an early sixties throwback.  An Italian version of Come Alive’s smoky album track “You Take What Comes Along” and Joanie’s “Come Alive!” Pepsi jingle (“Come alive!  You’re in the Pepsi generation!”) round out this winning and comprehensive release.

Alan Eichler’s affectionate liner notes reflect on Joanie Sommers’ brief tenure at Columbia, while the nicely-designed booklet reprints the original front and back cover artwork as well as a photograph of the singer.  The CD label itself replicates the famous Columbia red 360 Sound design.  Come Alive!  The Complete Columbia Recordings is a transporting trip back to a captivating time for adult pop by a versatile song stylist.  It will leave you, too, all smiles.

You can order Come Alive! here at Amazon U.S. and here at Amazon U.K.!

Written by Joe Marchese

September 17, 2013 at 14:23

One Response

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  1. But you don’t answer the question . . . why did her career end so abruptly?


    September 18, 2013 at 07:38

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