Carrying a torch

Sinatra had no monopoly on songs of love and loss. Richard Cook recalls the female singers who told

Singers aren't what they used to be. Now they are Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, aggressive multimedia stars whose singing seems incidental to their marketing and merchandising. Back then, they were tough, statuesque dames, shadowed by regal orchestrations or cool jazz combos, their singing their raison d'etre. When was back then? Singers as we know them got their proper start with Bing Crosby and the microphone, got mature with Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, then overtook the big bands they started out with and ruled the coop, until first Elvis - actually a singer in a tradition that stretches back to Al Jolson - and then the Beatles pushed them aside. Since then, we haven't really had singers, except those benighted few who've chosen to be jazz vocalists. We've had pop stars.

As with any kind of nostalgia, there's no point in regretting the change. Singers had to change, and they had to go. There are survivors, and their persistence has made them into beloved curios. When Tony Bennett apparently won over his Glastonbury audience this year, he must have seemed as strange and otherworldly to them as the most idiosyncratic garage-rock outfit.

For the most part, singers endure only through records, and thanks to the CD's recycling necessity, they are more available than ever. There was a long period of trying to blot out the postwar, pre-rock singers, as if it was some shameful demob hangover that blinded us to "real" music. What once seemed a comfy mediocrity now sounds like a genuine article. Crafted in real time, away from the thousand retakes and overdubs of today, the music can sound startlingly close and fresh.

Although the most influential singers - Sinatra, Bennett, Vic Damone, Nat Cole - were men, torch singing, a musing on love unrequited, was mostly women's work. Capitol, one of the most intelligent and valuable of record labels in the fifties, set down dozens of albums in the style, and its tempting series of two-on-one CDs has restored many forgotten LPs to circulation. Plenty of the original titles tell the story: Ballads for Night People, Coffee Cigarettes and Memories, When Your Lover Has Gone.

Blessed with arrangers such as Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins,

Lennie Hayton and Pete Rugolo, the singers are nestled in charts which cosset them without getting in their way. Capitol's producers knew that it was the voice that people wanted to hear, and voices have seldom been caught as handsomely as here. It was even more difficult since many of the performers had comparatively small voices. Jeri Southern, Peggy Lee, June Christy and even Julie London weren't belters in the Dinah Washington mould. London, though she could turn it on when she wanted, usually whispered her way through a lyric; Lee's girlish husk seldom changed. They needed to be heard, since their lyrics had such finesse.

Although most of the records are full of familiar standards from renowned writers, there are some bewitching obscurities on almost every record. Jeri Southern's Southern Breeze, for instance, yields "A Warm Kiss and a Cold Heart". June Christy, one of the finest and most neglected singers of her time, was given some exquisite miniatures that have long since faded from sight. The Song is June/Off Beat is a classic on a par with Sinatra's masterpieces, with "Saturday's Children" and "Remind Me" a haunting pair of songs that could never be replicated today. The very courtliness and propriety of this kind of singing is a lost art.

Entirely lost? Perhaps the endurance of Tony Bennett tells against that wisdom, although Bennett is more of a swinger, a vocalist who would rather we get happy than be down. His renaissance in the past ten years is perhaps less a triumph of artistic values than a tribute to the shrewdness of his son and manager Danny, who has cannily repositioned the old man as a performer with timeless qualities that anyone can appreciate. Bennett isn't really doing anything he hasn't been doing in the past 40 years: singing with his longtime accompanist Ralph Sharon, strolling through the great American songbook, he has the flavour of a man who can't retire because he loves his work so much.

The best place to hear him is in Columbia's four-disc set Forty Years: the artistry of Tony Bennett. There is a peerless legacy here, and since the label seems reluctant to reissue the albums in their original form, this is where to start. His recent albums are agreeable enough, but time takes its toll on the greatest voices, and there's a sense that he has become almost a novelty, a veteran whom we want to tell us how it was. Meanwhile, the original voices call down the years, still carrying the torch.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?