Mention the name “Howard Keel” in a discussion of important performers in the history of American popular song, and you’ll be amazed at the wide range of reactions. Doubt, surprise, curiosity, disagreement, confusion. At PopularSong.org we hope that at least a couple people among your group of armchair musicologists will offer enthusiastic agreement.
These days, Howard Keel is best remembered for his portrayal of Clayton Farlow, replacement patriarch on the 1980s hit TV program Dallas. That legacy isn’t too shabby for Mr. Keel, but unfortunately it steals the spotlight from his significance as a prophet of popular song. (This is not the case for Mr. Keel in England, which we’ll explain below.)
Broadway plays an essential — but incomplete — role in the construction of the Great American Songbook. A hit show will launch a song, but it takes a bit more to make it a standard. Since we’re on the subject of Howard Keel, we’ll borrow a song from his first important film for our example.
When Annie Get Your Gun debuted on Broadway in 1946, theater goers responded immediately to the clever repartee of “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” Performed with unforgettable one-upmanship by Ethel Merman and Ray Middleton, the song was an instant success. Note that it was unforgettable — but only to those who had seen the show. If you asked people who lived during the 1940s if they recall who sang that song, most would reply “Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.” A few will say “Howard Keel and Betty Hutton”. Because it was Crosby’s recording that made the song available to the masses, and a few years later it was the MGM movie that put it in context. The original Broadway soundtrack of Merman and Middleton, while perhaps the most significant recording, was a paltry seller alongside the Crosby recordings. A Broadway show is seen by thousands, or hundreds of thousands, and in some cases a million or so. The Crosby recordings were heard by millions of people repeatedly, and the film version has been seen through the years by hundreds of millions.
And that is why Howard Keel is firmly in the pantheon of important vocalists.
Before his performances were forever immortalized on celluloid, Keel made his mark on stage. Beginning as an understudy for John Raitt in Carousel, his first starring role came when he took over the part of Curley — replacing Alfred Drake — in the original Broadway run of Oklahoma!. He then left the Broadway production for a tour in London, where he played a key part in one of the most important moments in the history of musical theater.
During its extremely successful and critically acclaimed stint in New York, a touring version of Oklahoma! departed for London, and Howard (then known as Harold Keel, his birth name) went along. It was to be the first Broadway musical to reach West End London after the war, and opening night April 30, 1947 arrived with great expectations. The first number after the Overture in Oklahoma! is, of course, “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'”. This was a critical moment, a make-it or break-it opportunity for the show, with Keel alone in the spotlight. And he delivered, putting it all out there with his larger-than-life voice and physical presence front and center for the show-starved British audience.
The result was indescribable magic. The audience was comprised of survivors…survivors of the blitz, of Dunkirk, of D-Day, of Tobruk. Their best young men had gone away, their children had been shipped off to the countryside, their buildings had burned, and their food rationed. Two years later they were still rebuilding, still cleaning up, still stinging. Enter Howard Keel, taking command of the stage, extolling the glory of a cowboy’s morning on the prairie in his rich voice. The war-weary audience could scarcely be contained, with driving ovations that led to 14 encores that night and a love affair between Keel and Londoners that continued to his passing. Whenever Keel was asked about his favorite moment in show business, he would respond unequivocally that it was opening night in London, April 1947. He knew that he was fortunate to experience an event virtually unmatched in the history of theater.
Back in America for the 1950s, Keel became a contract artist at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was there that he starred in a string of definitive movie musical roles that will likely never be matched.
The first of these cherry roles was Frank Butler in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. The film won an Academy Award for Best Musical Score, and garnered a few popular awards for lead Betty Hutton. The film was supposed to be made with Judy Garland in the lead role, but health issues and personal demons forced her departure. Historians wax poetic about what might’ve been, but it is hard to imagine Garland doing a better job than Hutton. It’s unfortunate that the myths and legends have overshadowed the film; Hutton played the role perfectly, while Keel proved himself a capable actor. Keel’s portrayal of a smug ladies man who transforms into smitten admirer was more stage-like than big screen, but he played the role with an innocence that made it work. His singing, certainly, was never in question.
In his next major musical, Keel was cast opposite Kathryn Grayson in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Showboat released in 1951. The two starred together again in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate in 1953. Also in 1953, Keel was loaned to Warner Brothers to star alongside Doris Day in Calamity Jane. In 1954 he worked with Jane Powell and an ensemble cast in perhaps his best role, that of Adam Pontipee in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. 1955 saw Howard star in Kismet, the last of his big-budget musicals.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers worked best on film, probably because it was created as a film and became a stage musical some years later. The widescreen format resulted in fantastic dance numbers, where Howard proved his footwork was easily up to the task.
By the late 1950s the movie musical was waning. Big-budget dramas were in vogue, and musicals became B-movie fodder for the likes of Elvis Presley and Frankie Avalon. Of the few choice movie musicals made during the 1960s, none of the roles went to Howard Keel. Keel moved into a host of acting roles, ranging from sci-fi to a John Wayne western. Because his acting wasn’t nearly as capable as his singing — as if that were even possible — Keel’s star faded into obscurity in the USA. Although he remained beloved by the British, he was virtually forgotten before being cast in Dallas during the 1980s.
Reading this, you might come to the conclusion that Howard Keel was underrated, or that his career was eclipsed at the height of his popularity. Both are correct; he was underappreciated and he did fall victim to changing musical tastes. But if those conclusions led you to feel sorry for him, that would be a big mistake. Looking back on his career, Keel recognized that he was blessed as few performers seldom are. His legacy of five important movie musicals is virtually unmatched, preserved for generations to follow. Add to that his moment in the London stage spotlight on April 30, 1947 — one of the most emotional and powerful moments in musical theater — and Howard Keel’s influence and importance to the Great American Songbook is undeniable. Historians are beginning to recognize this, and we’re pleased to formally add the voice of PopularSong.org to the growing chorus of acclaim.