My Alexa has a new baby sister and in keeping with the George Foreman tradition of baby naming, she is called Alexa, too (or Alexa II). Just like her big sister, she plays songs and artists you ask her, curated playlists and music channels, Pandora, Spotify, and SiriusXM. The difference is, she is the wireless Tap model and can go anywhere our Wi-Fi will reach. She comes out on the deck with us on a sultry summer night to play cocktail hour music while we sip and nibble. Lately, she’s getting all the attention and I think her older sister is feeling jealous.
While cocktail hour topics of conversation usually cover the mundane work and family news, Alexa helps to enable our far-flung tangents. We’re listening to “Fly Me To The Moon” sung by Tony Bennett, when my drinking buddy asks, “Remember that Tony Bennett special with all the different artists singing his songs?” He’s referring to a special tribute to Tony Bennett on his 90th birthday. The all-star concert at Radio City Music Hall included such great artists as Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga, Diana Krall, and Andrea Bocelli. “I really liked the song that Bob Dylan sang,” he adds. With limited information in our memory banks, it’s time to put Alexa II with Prime Music Unlimited through her paces.
We first uncover that the song sung by Bob Dylan on the Tony Bennett special is called “Once Upon A Time.” Listening to it again, I understand why it was so memorable. Even back in the sixties, full of the vigor of youth, Dylan was never known as a technically great (or even good?) singer, but he puts a song across with honest emotion and sincerity. The straightforward arrangement of “Once Upon A Time” featuring a pedal steel guitar perfectly complements the lilting melody and nostalgic lyrics sung by Dylan. We especially loved Charlie Sexton’s exquisite guitar playing.
I found it disconcerting that in the Billboard article from Dec. 13, 2016 covering the event, Bob Dylan wasn’t even mentioned. Through the years, I’ve seen some poor performances where he seemed disoriented (stoned or over-medicated?) but Dylan’s performance on the Tony Bennett special was certainly worthy of recognition by Billboard. Regardless of whether they’re a fan, isn’t a 50-something year career in the music business something a music magazine should respect?
We ask Alexa who else sang this beautiful song, “Once Upon A Time,” written by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams? The original was sung by Ray Bolger and Eileen Herlie in the Broadway musical All American in 1962. Bolger, who effortlessly fluttered over the complexities of “If I Only Had A Brain” as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, opted to talk his way through the skillfully crafted contours of “Once Upon A Time”. Taken out of the context of the Broadway show, we weren’t huge fans of this version.
The Frank Sinatra version is pure perfection; lush orchestration, silky strings and Frank’s mellow, nuanced crooning. The rendition is so perfect that it makes me love Dylan’s imperfection even more.
And after all, we did begin this Alexa foray with the Tony Bennett 90th Birthday special so we would be remiss not to listen to the master himself. In Bennett’s arrangement, the jazz ensemble is prominently featured with an orchestral overlay. Jazz guitar comping accompanied by upright bass and snare drum played with brushes give his version a rhythmic feel. Bennett sings “Once Upon A Time” in a higher key than Sinatra, providing more urgency to the haunting nature of the melody. The highlight of this arrangement is an inspired ending featuring a signature Bennett high note followed by a dramatic pause (and omitting the ominous chant “Once upon a time never comes again”).
I you’d like to know more about our cocktail hour musings on “Once Upon A Time”, here are some links. Or, you can just ask Alexa.
Bob Dylan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Bi_B5lRsrM
Ray Bolger: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExXTH7IwtSk
Frank Sinatra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqJOE0SyWnE
Tony Bennett: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmwApZaMNe0
Billboard Magazine article: http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/7624353/tony-bennett-90th-birthday-tv-special-recap
Further down the rabbit hole, you’ll find more versions of “Once Upon A Time” by well-known artists Eddie Fisher, Robert Goulet, Bobby Darin, and Perry Como.