Tidbits: Who Really Recorded That Song?

Often music history discussions revolve around the question "who did the original?" A good example of this is Dick Dale's instrumental classic "Misirlou." Until it made it onto a movie soundtrack in the 1990s, more copies of a rather poor version by the Beach Boys actually outsold Dale, simply by being a bit of filler on an early album.

The type of misconception we're referring to in this month's Tidbits column is more of the "mistaken identity" type. In other words, songs that people assume were recorded by one artist, but were actually done by another.

It happens more often than you think...

Perhaps the most glaring example of this is the 1964 hit "Suspicion" by Terry Stafford. Wait, you thought that was Elvis? So did most of America. That's why the song was played over and over and over...enough to make people buy the record even after they found out it wasn't Mr. Presley. To this day, most people think "Suspicion" is an Elvis song.

Since we're in the era of the early 1960s, it's only right to delve into some of the classic recordings that fall squarely into this category. We'll get back to rock and roll some time in the future.

Three of the best selling and most important movie musical soundtracks in the canon of the Great American Songbook are Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, Bernstein and Sondheim's West Side Story, and Loewe and Lerner's My Fair Lady. In each case, three of the vocalists were not who they seem to be. We'll discuss them in chronological order.

In 1957 West Side Story became an overwhelming Broadway hit, and was put into film production in relatively short time. The 1961 release of the film featured Richard Beymer and Tony and Natalie Wood as Maria; director Robert Wise wanted a certain "look" for the parts. Incidentally, Wise tried to recruit Elvis Presley for the role of Tony, but legend has it that Colonel Tom Parker turned it down. A little aside here: If Colonel Parker really did turn down all the roles that he supposedly did -- from West Side Story to A Star is Born -- he had to be the worst judge of movie scripts in history. At this time, however, it's impossible to separate fact from myth concerning Elvis and his alleged movie roles.

Back to the Jets and Sharks. Beymer and Wood attempted to do their own vocals, but their voices weren't up to snuff. Another bit of trivia that can't be verified is that Natalie was assured that her voice would be used on the soundtrack, and that she supposedly lip-synched to her own tracks during filming. Eventually Jimmy Bryant was charged to do Beymer's vocals, and opera star Marni Nixon got the nod for Wood. Supposedly, Nixon's vocals were used for some of Rita Moreno's high notes; this practice was quite common and considering Moreno's range, the story is probably accurate.

Three years later, Nixon's vocals would again splash across the silver screen, this time for the part played by Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Once again the star was given a shot at the songs, but once again deemed inadequate. This was one of the most difficult over-dubs for movie fans to accept, for a couple of reasons. First, Rex Harrison sang live on camera -- something that hadn't been done before, and seldom done since. Harrison was Higgins, he had played it so many times. Harrison fit the part so perfectly that he played his part to fit his view of the part on a given day, and he often changed up his words and his phrasing. For this reason, he insisted he couldn't possibly lip-synch to a pre-recorded vocal. Considering the nature of some of the songs e.g., "Why Can't the English," Harrison was probably right. The live performances required a bit of improvising by the technical department, but the recordings came off well. And since it was obvious that Harrison wasn't lip-synching, it seemed Hepburn wasn't either.

But the main factor in creating the illusion that Hepburn was singing was the vocal work by Marni Nixon. The transition from Hepburn's cockney to Nixon's was flawless. To this day, many insist that Hepburn did her own lyrical work.

continues above, in column at right...


featured performance

Here's some released footage of Audrey Hepburn with her own vocals. She sings capably, and with modern recording techniques and studio hijinks it certainly could've been used if it were recorded today. As it is, however, we can see why Nixon's recording was used instead. Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.


Tidbits, continued from column at left

A year later The Sound of Music film hit theatres like a tidal wave. The duets between Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews were simply phenomenal; Plummer's first performance of "Edelweiss" is one of the pivotal moments in the film. Unfortunately, it wasn't him. Now, the years following 1965 revealed Plummer to be a capable singer. Unfortunately he was never capable enough to match the power of Andrews, so a vocalist was called in to dub the songs.

The voice of Captain Von Trapp was given to vocalist Bill Lee, a member of The Mellomen. The Mellomen were back up singers who supported acts like Doris Day, Frankie Laine, and occasionally, Elvis. Presley preferred working with The Jordanaires or The Imperials, but there wasn't really much difference. In any case, Lee did the vocals on The Sound of Music, although we may hear Plummer crack his way through an acted song line, but not even he knows for sure.

Oddly enough, Nixon had a small on-screen role in The Sound of Music, acting (and singing!) the part of Sister Sophia.

So there you have it, some of the most beloved performances in the history of American musical film, not what they seem. At the same time, you can consider this part of our effort to give proper credit to Marni Nixon as one of the great female vocalists in what we like to call the Great American Songbook.

* * * * *

To revisit "Tidbits" from last month, focusing on television stars who made records good and bad (mostly bad), please click here.