Ask most fans of American Popular Song to compile a roster of the all-time, most-influential female vocalists, and very few will put Ethel Merman on their list. Unless, of course, they are students of Broadway…in which case Ms. Merman will probably be at the top of the list. In fact, the more astute fans of Broadway might put the pen down after scribing her name.
And we wouldn’t blame them if they did.
Now this is not to slight the likes of Dinah Shore, or Patti Page, nor Patty Andrews — many women were (and are) better singers. In fact if you were to compile a roster of the all-time greatest female vocalists, you’d hardly hear a peep of protest if Ethel was near the bottom, or left off entirely. But although she lacked the qualities of a classic songstress, nobody — repeat, nobody — has ever topped Ms. Merman for her ability to launch a song into the pantheon of the Great American Songbook.
With a roster of songs including “It’s DeLovely,” “Anything Goes,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “I Get a Kick Out of You,” Merman’s knack for making a song memorable is unquestioned. Add in her original performances from Annie Get Your Gun, and you quickly realize that her overall impact was staggering. While it is true that the chart hit versions of most of her songs were recorded by other artists, including each of the female vocalists mentioned above, it was unquestionably Merman’s original performances that prompted the hit covers.
Incredibly, Merman began her career as a nightclub torch singer. While it seems obvious in hindsight that her talent was musical show-stoppers, Merman had such a commanding stage presence that even her ballads were captivating. In her early movies — as a twenty-something leading lady — she sang more ballads than any other type of tune.
Born Ethel Zimmermann in Queens, NY, she had no real voice training to speak of. There was no question that she had pipes, and quickly worked her way into the nightclub circuit where she frequently worked with established stars like Jimmy Durante. Merman was both popular and financially successful working the New York metropolitan area clubs and theaters, but she had not yet ascended to stardom. This changed when her vocals caught the attention of theater producer Vinton Freedley, who recommended Ethel to George and Ira Gershwin for a show they were creating called Girl Crazy. With just one audition, Merman was cast in the role of cafe singer Kate Fothergill, alongside another up-and-coming performer named Ginger Rogers. The show opened in October 1930 and made superstars of both.
The best known number from the show was “I Got Rhythm,” which was the ideal tune for Merman to showcase her talents. The impact of the show was such that it prompted George Gershwin to ask Merman to promise never to take singing lessons! Girl Crazy would be the Gershwins’ biggest Broadway hit, and it was certainly due in part to Ms. Merman’s performance. Her performance was unlike anything else at the time: A huge unpolished voice, matched in size only by her stage presence.
After Girl Crazy, Merman made a string of movies that were mostly minor hits. Her next vehicle that made a big impact on the Great American Songbook came from the pen of Cole Porter, the Broadway production of Anything Goes. From this show sprang the title tune, “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” and the rather ribald “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” Like Girl Crazy, Merman was portraying a singer with a checkered past. Merman’s performance of Reno Sweeney made the show an incredible smash; it serves as a benchmark for the Sweeney character. Each year countless young female performers continue to emulate Merman’s portrayal in high school musicals across the country and around the globe.
It could be argued that subsequent performances and recordings of these songs are better or have eclipsed Ethel’s originals. Sinatra’s “Kick,” for example, is obviously more identifiable among recent generations. It is important to remember that original cast recordings seldom launch “hit” versions of songs — a good contemporary analogy would be Barbra Streisand’s wildly popular recording of “Memory,” originally performed in Cats by Betty Buckley. While it stands to reason that someone would’ve made “Anything Goes” or “I Get a Kick Out of You” successful songs, there are a lot of excellent Broadway compositions that stiff because of non-memorable performances. In fact, there are plenty of Gershwin and Porter tunes that are barely remembered. Were it not for Merman’s knock-out performances, it stands to reason that quite a few of these still-popular standards would be relegated to the heap of history.
Unfortunately the power of Merman’s Reno Sweeney is mostly unknown in the modern era. The most-studied version is that which survives on film, the 1936 Hollywood production starring Bing Crosby. Crosby was the top name in almost every avenue of entertainment at the time, and the film was slanted to showcase his talents. Some of Merman’s numbers were cut, and of those that weren’t, most were re-written with more family-oriented lyrics. The end result was a stiff film that focused on Crosby’s Billy Crocker, a part that he wasn’t quite right for. The diminished role by Merman had the overall effect of stifling her performance. A truer portrayal can be found in the words of the theater critics of the day, which can more or less be summarized as recording that Merman’s performance was comedic, with perfect timing, and that she was one of a kind.
After Anything Goes, Merman appeared in a number of shows and films that could again be called minor hits. A few of these yielded songs that are most definitely classifiable as “standards,” although not to the same degree as those previously mentioned. These shows include Something for the Boys — with lyrics by Dorothy Fields — and DuBarry was a Lady. None of this “in-between” work is extraordinarily memorable, however, it did maintain her now superstar profile. It was her next big project that would launch Ethel permanently into the highest echelon of theatrical greatness.
Having worked with the Gershwins, Porter, and even Irving Berlin (on Alexander’s Ragtime Band), Merman’s resume was nearly complete. Just about the only songwriting great she hadn’t teamed up with was Jerome Kern, and Ethel got that opportunity in 1945 when Fields asked her to star in a new musical she was working on. Fields and brother Herbert were creating a raucous musical specifically for Merman, based on the life of Annie Oakley. Kern had agreed to compose the music. Merman jumped at the opportunity immediately, although it appeared to be headed for the shelf when Kern suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in November.
The show was being produced by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II; Hammerstein was at Kern’s bedside when he passed away. The duo looked around for a new composer to work with the Fields. Although it would seem obvious that Rodgers could step in, his relationship with Hammerstein was such that he did not work with other lyricists, and in any case they were already deep in numerous projects. Looking around, their choice was to recruit the legendary Irving Berlin, who had just finished a three year show tour in support of the U.S. war effort.
Berlin was worn out from the patriotic tour, and initially rejected the offer. He eventually agreed out of loyalty to his old friend Kern, and Annie Get Your Gun opened to reviews that went beyond raving…”awestruck” is probably the most accurate summary. The songs fit perfectly, despite the fact that Berlin had doubts about most of the numbers — including “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Merman, of course, was ideal for the role.
Among the pop standards that Merman launched from Annie Get Your Gun were “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” “Anything You Can Do,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
As noted above, the pop radio hit versions of these songs were cover recordings. “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” was a huge hit for both Dinah Shore and Freddy Martin. “They Say It’s Wonderful” hit for Perry Como and Frank Sinatra, while “I Got the Sun in the Morning” struck gold for bandleader Les Brown. “Anything You Can Do” has been recorded by so many artists that it is now almost surprising that the original “chart” hit was recorded by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters.
The only song from Annie Get Your Gun that hasn’t become more identifiable with other artists is “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Merman’s performance is simply incomparable; even Bernadette Peters in her fabulous revival elected to play the role differently. (Peters played the part with a girlish innocence, and while her performance was arguably the equal of Merman’s, it is an apples/oranges comparison).
Unfortunately most Americans today know Ethel Merman mostly as the crazy mother-in-law from an early 1960s comedy ensemble film, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Although it is a shame that the woman who launched so many significant pop standards is remembered this way, her role in the film is played so perfectly and convincingly that it is hard to believe she was acting. Although that is not too shabby a legacy in its own right, it is important that we give Ms. Merman the recognition she is due: For launching many of the most important songs penned by the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. The case could be made and easily supported that Ethel Merman — although not really lauded as a vocalist — is the most important female performer thus far in the brief history of American Popular Song.