Correspondence (Illustrated): RIP Margaret Whiting

Rifftides reader Mark Stryker sent this reaction to the previous entry. Mr. Stryker is the music critic of The Detroit Free Press. He has good ears.

Just a coda re: “Moonlight in Vermont,” whose unusual lyrics were written by John Blackburn. The A section words are actually in the form of a haiku, with 5-7-5 syllable pattern. Nor do the lyrics rhyme. Also, a note on the interpretation: Whiting takes a big (and to my ear unfortunate) breath leading from the bridge into the final A section, separating the words “lovely” and “evening,” which breaks up the single image in the lyric that continues over the bar line: “People who meet in this romantic setting/are so hypnotized by the lovely evening summer breeze.”
Without disrespecting Whiting’s gifts, compare to how Jo Stafford sings it.
Singing a slightly alternate lyric, she doesn’t take the breath where Whiting does, making it through the bar line before grabbing some quick air after the first word (“shadows”) of the new 8 bars. But you can tell she’s trying to keep the line focused into single, unbroken thought, and her phrasing does give the impression of a more liquid, expressive legato, especially since the arrangement slipped into rubato on the bridge.

Of course, the master of using breath-control technique, the legato line and savvy phrasing to heighten the meaning of a lyric is Frank Sinatra. “Moonlight” was always a showcase for him in that way. He takes it ‘way further than Stafford, connecting the bridge to the last A with a suspended phrase that raises the tension to a peak before a wonderful release, making it all the way to the end of the sentence in the second bar before breathing; he even ornaments the word “evening” with a little downward portamento slide. The second time through the tune he ups the ante in what for me is one of the most electric moments in all of Sinatra Land. Over a rubato accompaniment, he sneaks a breath between “hypnotized” and “by” and then suspends time f-o-r-e-v-e-r. When he finally slides into the final 8 bars, the key slides up a step (thanks, Billy May) and the combination of Sinatra’s phrasing and the arrangement has the music reaching for the stars. Wow.

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  1. says

    Now that’s what I’d call a splendid close reading of the “text.” None of that depressing Derrida-Foucault-Lacan phoney-baloney Theory that wrecked graduate schools for three decades. Just big ears, a supple pen, and a love for classy Vocal Music. Bravo, Mr. Stryker… Encore!

  2. Rob D says

    Incredible analysis and comparison! I think I learned more in 10 minutes about singing than Ihave the past 19 years.
    Whiting at 19 had a voice ..Sinatra had the whole toolbox.

  3. Svetlana Ilicheva says

    I take off my hat to your highly learned discussion, gentlemen! It reminds me of a young lover kissing his lady-love and thinking of the technicalities of the process- at what angle, when to breath in, out, etc.
    Unfortunately, I’m quite an ignoramus as to intricacies of singing/breathing technique and maybe therefore I perceive music not with my untrained mind but with my soul. From this aspect, I consider Margaret Whiting’s performance of “Moonlight in Vermont” as one of the loveliest versions of the great classic. She sounds natural, warm and cordial.
    RIP Margaret Whiting.

  4. Pat Goodhope says

    While I am not quite a total ‘ignoramus as to intricacies of singing/breathing technique’ and while I do ‘perceive music not with my untrained mind but with my soul,’ I have always been keenly aware of that passage in Sinatra’s version and been annoyed by the breath that Jo and Margaret take at that moment. Thank you for the lucid,technical explanation of what Sinatra is doing. Makes perfect sense to a layman like myself and
    Bravo #2 to Mr. Stryker!
    My guess is that while we know he adored Jo Stafford’s singing, Sinatra very privately was annoyed with the interruption of breath in that passage of Jo’s version too.
    Pat Goodhope
    ‘Avenue C’
    University of Delaware Public Radio

  5. Sandi Shoemake says

    I was fascinated by the gentleman (Mr. Stryker) and his comments on the three singers that I listened so hard to as a child. One reads so much about Chet Bakers’ phrasing and sound, both singing and his trumpet work, Fats Navarro, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and so many more wonderful musicians who also play as if they were singing. You don’t hear much about singers and how they breathe and phrase. It was great to have someone interested in what a singer was trying to do.
    When I was a young band singer I used to ask the guys in the band to show me how they would execute circular breathing. We would always end up laughing when we would realize we forgot about the words. It doesn’t work with words. The warmth Mr. S. liked on Jo Stafford’s version was recorded in 1956 when she was 39 yrs old. Margaret Whiting was 19 yrs, old in 1943. Singers were trying to be a lot warmer 1956 than in 1943. Just listen to the drummer. Things had changed a great deal. The tempo was faster and more bouncy for Margaret, so of course holding notes over would have been in the way. Jo Stafford was developing with the times. She had a rich voice and a lot of experience blending in with vocal groups . She always had that personal sound that embraced you. But she was 20 yrs older than Margaret when she recorded Moonlight in Vermont. Mr. Sinatra was 50 in the middle 60s and had a wonderful orchestra with him playing a lush Nelson Riddle arrangement. This is what they were going for. I believe the Sinatra version of “Old Man River” in the movie Til The Clouds Roll By is really a killer. I never get tired of that one.
    (Ms. Shoemake’s most recent CD on the CMG label is “Sophisticated Lady.” —DR