The Film Music Of Ralph Rainger

The release of a new CD, The Film Music Of Ralph Rainger, is the occasion for my piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. Coupled with an article about the contemporary motion picture composer A.B. Rahman, it is headlined, Another Who Has Been Unjustly Forgotten and begins: 

For years, Jack Benny opened his CBS radio and television broadcasts with “Love in Bloom.” The comedian’s violin butchery of his theme song became a running coast-to-coast Sunday night gag. As a result, the piece became even more famous than Bing Crosby had made it with his hit record in 1934. Generations of listeners and viewers heard Bob Hope close his NBC shows with “Thanks for the Memory,” which he introduced in a movie, “The Big Broadcast of 1938.” The song was inseparable from Hope’s career. 

Ralph Rainger, the man who wrote those songs, was a pianist and recovering lawyer from Newark, N.J., who also composed such standards as “Easy Living,” “If I Should Lose You,” “Here Lies Love,” “Moanin’ Low,” “June in January,” “Please” and “Blue Hawaii,” most often with lyricist Leo Robin. Rainger and Robin turned out dozens of songs for Hollywood movies. They were frequently on the hit parade with Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter and the Gershwins. George Gershwin died at age 38, Rainger at 41. But while Gershwin’s fame increased after his death, Rainger’s name faded. With their beguiling melodies and challenging chord progressions, Rainger’s works are frequent vehicles for improvisation. Yet, in my experience, most musicians who play those songs respond with puzzled looks when asked who wrote them. That might have been the case with bassist Chuck Berghofer, pianist Jan Lundgren, drummer Joe La Barbera and the incomparable vocalist Sue Raney until producer Dick Bank recruited them to record the CD “The Film Music of Ralph Rainger” (Fresh Sound). 

To read the whole thing, run out and buy a copy of the Journal or click here for the online version. The article praises the CD, but it concentrates on Rainger’s successful, grotesquely terminated career. The album demands greater attention, and gets it here. 

The Chuck Berghofer Trio: Thanks For The Memory, The Film Music Of Ralph Rainger (Fresh Sound).

Producer Dick Bank swears that this is his last project. If that proves to be true, he is retiring a champion. He provides Berghofer with a classy repertoire, two superb sidemen and the first leader assignment in the bassist’s distinguished career. Berghofer gets the music underway by playing the melody of “Miss Brown to You.” The stentorian sound of his bass is beautifully captured by engineers Talley Sherwood and Bernie Grundman. La Barbera and Lundgren gently escort Berghofer into a chorus of improvisation. Lundgren follows with his first solo in a CD full of work that makes this the best recording so far by a remarkable pianist. In the Journal piece, I wrote:

…it is the first all-Rainger album since pianist Jack Fina managed to reduce Rainger’s tunes to dreary cocktail music in a 1950s LP. Mr. Lundgren, a brilliant Swedish pianist, plumbs the songs’ harmonic souls. He illuminates even the prosaic “Blue Hawaii,” which — to Rainger’s horror — became a huge hit in 1937. “It will disgrace us,” he told Robin. “It’s a cheap melody . . . a piece of c-.” 

(In a touch of irony that Rainger must have come to appreciate, sheet music sales of “Blue Hawaii” barely exceeded 40,000, but sales of Crosby’s recording of the song skyrocketed and it was on Your Hit Parade for six weeks.) 

It is not only Lundgren’s harmonic ear and gift for chord voicings that elevate his work here, but also his unforced swing and an easy keyboard touch that puts him in a class with Jimmy Jones, Ellis Larkins, Tommy Flanagan and his countryman Bengt Hallberg. His tag ending on “Sweet is the Word for You,” with Berghofer walking him home and La Barbera nudging every fourth beat, is exhilarating. Lundgren’s wry interpolations are a significant part of the fun. They show deep familiarity with, among other sources, Lester Young, as In two quite different uses of a phrase from Young’s 1943 recording of “Sometimes I’m Happy.” 

Throughout, La Barbera reminds listeners why, from his days with Bill Evans, he has been one of the most respected drummers in jazz. His touch with brushes equates to Lundgren’s at the piano, and he employs it to construct a full-chorus solo on “Blue Hawaii” proving that a drum set can be a melody instrument.

Sue Raney is the guest artist for two of Rainger’s best-known songs, “If I Should Lose You” and “Thanks for the Memory.” They are perfectly served by the richness of her voice and interpretations. The performances are among her best on record.

With his unaccompanied “Love in Bloom,” Lundgren banishes recollections of Jack Benny’s violin clowning. He finds harmonic treasure beneath the surface of that abused melody, as he does in another solo piece, “Faithful Forever.” Hugely popular in the 1930s, those songs are less known today than many of Rainger’s others. The jaunty “Havin’ Myself a Time,” which Lundgren and Berghofer perform as a duo, is nearly forgotten, but the harmonic possibilities Lundgren finds in it show that it is worthy of revival. 

In addition to the trio music, the CD has a ten-minute final track that amounts to a little documentary. Lundgren introduces a 1937 interview with Rainger. Bank, the producer, introduces a segment of a1940 ceremony of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in which Rainger plays the piano and his partner Leo Robin sings “Love in Bloom.” The 32-page CD booklet is packed with information and photographs. If I make all of this sound like an exercise in nostalgia, do not be misled. The musical material may be standard songs from the 1930s, but Lundgren, Berghofer and La Barbera constitute one of the hippest trios of our time. This album is on my top-ten list for 2008 and will be permanently installed in my CD player for a long time.

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  1. Mel Narunsky says

    Thanks for the heads up for your brillant article on Rainger – and also the remarkable video.
    Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if some astute cameraman had been around to do a similar montage when Bill Evans recorded Conversations!

  2. says

    Talk about timing! I ordered this on the ‘net on your suggestion a couple of weeks back. It arrived yesterday, and I’ve been playing it ever since. The last day of the year, and I have to change my best-of list…
    The Film Music of R.R. is a terrific recording of great music played by great musicians (and singer)! Real liner notes with real information! Real Jazz!
    It has helped to wrap up a pretty poor 2008 with a good feeling.

  3. says

    Thanks for your article in the WSJ on Ralph Rainger – I am a Cantor at a Jewish Synagogue and also a performer and lover of tin pan alley songs – sing them for senior citizens at nursing homes and asst. living places. Also teach a course on the songs for a community college – sent my students a link to your piece.
    I wonder if there is any central book or site for info on all these forgotten & remembered composers and lyricists. I recently got a big bruiser of a book “The American Songbook” by Ken Bloom with intro by Michael Feinstein – it does have one page on Rainger & Robin – and Harry Woods and a number of others, but nothing, for instance, on Fred Alhert and Roy Turck – “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”. “I Don’t Know Why I Love you Like I do”, etc – and what an etc! Probably there are websites and/or blogs for most of these forgotten giants.
    I made my own CD of some of their songs “They Ain’t Writin Them Like They Used To” just accompanying myself on piano.
    Thanks again – hope you’ll write more on the subject – meanwhile I will stay in touch with your blog. I have my own website with much help from my friend, You are welcome to visit.

  4. RoseAnn Gasparinetti says

    Read your article in the WSJ on Ralph Rainger. I belong to the Barringer High School Alumni Assn. and Mr. Rainger’s son has been in touch with us seeking info on his dad inasmuch as Mr. Rainger went to Barringer in Newark, NJ. Our president, Pat Restaino, has been in touch with him. Pat may reach out to you to for any other info you may have as we are preparing to do a story about Mr. Rainger in our newsletter. It is a very interesting article. Thank you for it and a Happy New Year.

  5. Ken Borgers says

    Great article on Ralph Rainger in WSJ! I voice the audio edition of the Journal for Imagine my joy at finding this in the Weekend Edition–I included it in my read so maybe some Audible subscribers will hear it as well. And you’re right–the CD is gorgeous–got a copy a couple of weeks ago.

  6. says

    I would like to add a couple of pieces of information to this excellent article.
    Ralph Rainger was inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.
    There is another all-Rainger CD available, “Thanks for the Memory, The Songs of Ralph Rainger, The Centenary Album,” issued on ASV Living Era on Oct 23, 2001, 100 years after Ralph Rainger was born.
    (That album is a worthy companion to the Berghofer-Lundgren-La Barbera CD, but it is a compilation reissue project, not new interpretations of Rainger’s songs. The ASV CD is a collection of original recordings by Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Bob Hope Mae West, Ray Noble, Artie Shaw and others. It is available at this url:
    — DR)