THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “Irving Berlin once said the greatest singer of his songs was Fred Astaire, “not necessarily because of his voice, but by his conception of projecting a song. He sang it the way you wrote it.” Listening to I’d Rather Lead A Band, the delightful new album collaboration between Loudon Wainwright III and Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks on songs from the 1920s and ’30s, one could imagine that Berlin would have equal admiration for Wainwright. And not just because the legendary composer wrote the record’s title track. As vocal interpreters of the Great American Songbook go, Wainwright shares Astaire’s nimble phrasing and unaffected approach, always letting the song lead the way like a dance partner.
“On this album, I just tried to sing the words and capture the feeling,” Wainwright says. “It occurred to me that it’s almost like an acting job. The song becomes a kind of a script. And without thinking about it too much, just using your intuition and experience, you do it. I’ve been singing for a long time — in front of people, in front of microphones, in recording studios. That’s part of it too. Although I don’t sing other people’s songs that much, it feels very natural to me.”
For the past 50 years, Wainwright has carved out a distinguished career as one of our most original singer-songwriters, a six-string diarist with material that is by turns, tongue-in-cheek, tender, sarcastic, heart-wrenching and always deeply personal. Along the way, he’s released over 20 albums, won a Grammy, acted in film and TV, and had his songs recorded by artists including Johnny Cash, Mose Allison, Bonnie Raitt, and his own son, Rufus Wainwright.
But the notion of setting aside his guitar and what he calls his “somewhat misanthropic, occasionally goofy persona” was a welcome change. “I loved the idea of just being a vocalist,” says Wainwright. “It was freeing, because I could shed my Loudon Wainwright III-ness. I will return to my foremost incarnation, but what a pleasure to settle back with this marvelous band and sing these songs.”
While his natural affinity for the standards may surprise some listeners, he says, “It reflects on my whole life, really.” His father, a well-known journalist, had a large record collection that included everything from Dixieland to Broadway to Louis Prima. In boarding school, Loudon fronted a jug band, digging deep into vaudeville tunes. And his first publishing deal in the late ’60s came via Frank Music, owned by Frank Loesser, composer of Guys and Dolls. In recent years, Loudon appeared on the soundtracks to Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator and the Emmy-winning Boardwalk Empire. The music supervisor on those projects, Randall Poster, along with producer Stewart Lerman, first hatched the idea of an album with Wainwright fronting Vince Giordano’s big band.
“My history with Loudon goes back a way,” says Poster. “I was always a fan. In The Aviator, he did the period song After You’ve Gone, which is still one of my favorites I’ve ever recorded among the thousand that I’ve created for film and TV. I think this is a repertoire that’s built for his voice and sensibility. Loudon is the most beautiful singer. He really studied and practiced these songs. Just to see the level of professionalism where he did his homework was inspiring. These are not easy songs to sing.”
Or easy to choose. With the American Songbook’s huge catalog, Wainwright, Poster and Lerman started a volley. “We listened, traded mp3s, looked on YouTube at old footage of Bunny Berigan or Louis Armstrong,” Wainwright says. “We considered a lot of material then whittled it down. It was fun to go on the journey of finding the songs. Eventually, I got together with Vince and his wonderful piano player Peter Yarin. We took our big list, then I’d sing through a song, and we all just talked about which ones worked best. That’s how we got it down to the 14 we chose.”
Like a perfectly paced supper club set list, the album kicks off with the playful deco bounce of How I Love You (I’m Tellin’ The Birds, Tellin’ The Bees), the yearning A Ship Without A Sail and a side-winking take on Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ — complete with the rarely heard verse — then winds through the innuendo-laced Give It To Mary With Love and comedically callous You Rascal You (I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead), peppy rhythm tunes I’d Rather Lead A Band and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Seas, and the elegant balladry of Berlin’s The Little Things In Life and the obscure beauty, Perfect Day. Fittingly, the set closes with More I Cannot Wish You, written by Frank Loesser.
Recorded live in the studio over three days (“Stewart Lerman has the invisible touch,” Poster enthuses of the sensitive production), the album took much careful preparation in the arrangements and instrumentation. And really, if you’re going to engage in musical time traveling, there is no better companion than Vince Giordano. The Grammy-winning bandleader / multi-instrumentalist’s recent film and TV credits include The Irishman, Cafe Society and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and his 11-piece band The Nighthawks have been a much-loved part of the New York City nightclub scene for 30 years.
“Vince is an incredible player,” says Poster. “And he has extraordinary reverence and unyielding passion for the material. He’s a missionary who keeps the flame alive.” Wainwright says, “I’m going to use a word that I hope Vince wouldn’t mind me using, but he is a freak. Talk about knowledge. In his house, which is like a museum, he has boxes and bookcases full of old sheet music, filing cabinets of original big band arrangements. 78s, films, posters. He’s so absorbed in this music, and his passion for the arrangements is amazing. He lives it.”
And because he — and everyone involved — lives it, the music on I’d Rather Lead A Band lives too, in the most spirited, contemporary way. Many artists cover the Great American Songbook, but few can find such a future in the past. “The word ‘nostalgia’ makes me think of cobwebs a little bit,” says Wainwright with a laugh. “The material is very old, but it feels very alive. I hope that the songs that we chose and the way that it’s played and sung doesn’t come across as quaint. We’re dealing with love mostly, and that’s never out of fashion.”
With the future of live performance in limbo this year, the album itself will remain the sole way to enjoy this collaboration, for now. “The songs have endured all these decades,” says Poster. “They will endure the pandemic.”
Wainwright says, “Four or five months ago, we were thinking, great, we’ll do a big show at the Cafe Carlyle, then get on the bus and go down to Philadelphia with the 11-piece band. Now, goodness knows what we’ll actually get to do in terms of performing or promoting the record. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to do a project like this again, so I’m thankful we did it. I just hope people like it, and the music gets to them one way or another.”