Secret Love: Karen Oberlin tribute to Doris Day at The Crazy Coqs

Secret Love
A tribute to Doris Day with music & lyrics by Duke Ellington, Don George, George & Ira Gershwin, Les Brown, Len Homer, Bud Green, L. Fien, Irving Mills, E. H. Heim, Ray Evans, Jay Livingston, Matt Dennis, Tom Adair, Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, Nicholas Brodszky, Sammy Fain, Paul Francis Webster, Irving Berlin, R. Alfred, Frank Comstock, B. Petkere, André & Dory Previn, Inez James, Sidney Miller, Burton Lane, E. Y. Harburg, Gus Kahn, and Isham Jones

Karen Oberlin (singer) with Harold Sanditen (singer) & Michael Roulston (piano)

Reviewed by: Tom Vallance

Reviewed: 27 November, 2012
Venue: The Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zédel, Piccadilly Circus, London

Karen Oberlin’s homage to Doris Day delivers a tribute which in some ways is unexpected. A fervid admirer of the singer and actress, Oberlin’s way with a song is just as persuasive but there is no attempt at impersonation or a complete retrospective of Day’s career. The perky, slightly husky Day (born 1922) had a straight-on approach to melody, though she could swing with the best of them, and she was a fine purveyor of popular song – and she had that greatest of training, singing with a dance band. Oberlin has a more freewheeling style, reminiscent of Teddi King or Lee Wiley. When Oberlin sings ‘Que sera, sera’, the difference is immediately apparent, for Oberlin sings it with a jazz inflection that is totally absent from Day’s performance (admittedly it was introduced as a children’s song in the Hitchcock film, The Man Who Knew Too Much). For the final chorus, Oberlin keeps the tempo rigid as she asks us to join in with her (and we do!) and establishes a warm rapport with the audience.

Oberlin’s narration is breezy as she takes us on a swift tour of significant points in Day’s life – her driving ambition to be a dancer, thwarted when she was in a ghastly car crash as a teenager; her early band experience leading to a top spot with Les Brown’s ‘band of renown’ in the early 1940s and her major hit with Brown, which many would choose as their favourite performance, ‘Sentimental Journey’, released just before the end of the War and so perfectly timed to resonate with returning military men. She talks of Day’s movies, and her graduation from lightweight musicals to her unsparing portrayal of the tough and ambitious Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me, a role which James Cagney helped her win. Oberlin sings ‘I’ll never stop loving you’, written for that film, and she performs two Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn songs from her first film, Romance on the High Seas. They are the catchy ‘Put ’em in a box’ and the Oscar-nominated ‘It’s magic’; Oberlin includes verses not sung in the film.

This is not a chronological look at Day’s life, for Oberlin returns several times to the swing material Day performed with Brown, such as ‘Come to baby, do’, and one of the first titles she recorded for Columbia, Duke Ellington’s ‘Tulip or turnip’. She tells of Day’s unhappy marriages (the first two to band musicians) and sings ‘While the music plays on’, the first ballad she recorded with Brown at the age of 16, which informs that “I‘m not allowed to show the crowd what happens when romance has gone…” Oberlin also caresses some lyrical ballads that Day performed on her albums, including beautifully modulated renditions of Matt Dennis and Tom Adair’s ’The night we called it a day’ and André & Dory Previn’s ‘Yes’. Oberlin is joined by Harold Sanditen to have fun with another number from the Les Brown days, ‘I’d rather be with you’, a feast of name-dropping (“I could be at a table with Grable but I’d rather be with you”) which the pair sing with the original lyrics then with their updated version (“I could be unholy with Jolie…”).

The expected hits are included – Oberlin’s version of ‘Secret love’, to a seductive beguine accompaniment, is one of the best versions ever, and Oberlin has a fine pianist in Michael Roulston. ‘Secret love’ was from Calamity Jane, Day’s favourite film. From the similarly-themed Annie Get Your Gun, which Day recorded as an album with Robert Goulet, Oberlin sings Irving Berlin’s ‘I got lost in his arms’. She laments (as do we all) that Day did not play Nellie Forbush in the film of South Pacific, and she relates that Day was wanted for the role but her agent-husband (Marty Melcher) asked for too much money. Oberlin also tells that it was Melcher’s refusal to pay for top composers that resulted in many of her later songs being second-rate. Mentioning that Day now spends most of her time looking after animals, Oberlin comments, “I guess she was used to taking care of dogs.”

By the time Oberlin has completed her act with a wistful version of ‘I’ll see you in my dreams’, she has certainly achieved her goal “to honour Day’s spirit and her complexity as an artist”, and also prove herself a champion of popular song.

  • Karen Oberlin is at The Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zédel, 20 Sherwood Street, Piccadilly Circus, London W1 until Saturday 1 December 2012
  • Bookings 020 7734 4888

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