Keely Smith: Sings the John Lennon-Paul McCartney Songbook

Imaginative early covers of Lennon & McCartney

Keely Smith is most often remembered for the 1950s Las Vegas lounge show and recordings that came from her partnership with then-husband Louis Prima. Her deadpan comedic chops gave way to a solo career in the 1960s, signing with Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label and attracting the talents of arrangers Nelson Riddle, Ernie Freeman and Benny Carter. After two albums of standards, this 1964 release drew exclusively upon the early works of Lennon & McCartney, cannily resetting them to make the most of Smith’s jazz and pop stylings.

“If I Fell” opens the album with a dramatic string-and-vocal passage that gives way to a Latin beat, while the chart for “This Girl” tips its fedora to Sinatra’s “That’s Life.” The latter is no surprise, given that Smith and Sinatra’s tracks were both arranged by Ernie Freeman and produced by Jimmy Bowen. Smith’s voice is in superb throughout, whether skipping along breezily or holding onto dramatic notes. The walking bass and fingersnaps that open “A Hard Days Night” nod to “Fever,” but Smith’s blue-jazz vocal and the quiet horn accents give the recording its own mood.

The Beatles’ quick fame made the Lennon & McCartney catalog ripe for exploitation, and while a few of the arrangements lean to novelty, the productions are full, and Smith found real artistic resonance with many of the songs. There’s a swinging sax solo on a waltz-time version of “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” and Smith punches up “Can’t Buy Me Love” with her brassiness. The album may been a commercially-inspired lark, but the talent elevates it well above the Beatle-related cash-ins that flooded the market. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

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