The Jane Froman Songbook: “A Song in My Heart”
Tributes to singers are tricky. This one keeps things simple in that "less is more" credo with the performer just getting the gist of her subject’s style, not attempting an out-and-out imitation. The spoken biographical information is tightly scripted, too. The accompaniment is nothing elaborate either, just piano and bass.
Next year will be Jane Froman’s centennial and that may mean more attention to the singer who worked in concerts, radio, had her own TV program and was in a few films and stage shows, including an edition of The Ziegfeld Follies. Meanwhile, we’ve had a head start, thanks to Valerie Lemon’s dedication to the star who passed away a quarter of a century ago. She’s been performing her affectionate tribute for the last couple of years and released a CD, now expanded with some new tracks. One is a second version of "With a Song in My Heart" which also provided the title for the 1952 movie biography of the singer.
To me, Froman’s recordings projected a strong sense of reserve and formality, and things could get lugubrious. Despite this, the voice had an appealing richness. Though she did her share of light tunes, humor was not her strong suit. Her stoicism despite physical problems resulting from a plane crash informed some of her work ("I Believe") and how she was viewed. Froman’s voice is deeper, Valerie’s is higher and her general demeanor is sunny. Therefore, she may come off as more Jane Powell than Jane Froman. That’s bad news for Fromaniacs who may want a clone, but Valerie states that was not her goal. Both take a formal approach to many songs, much more presentational than interpretive. The exception is "I’ll Walk Alone." It is extremely emotional and feels far more "lived in" than anything else. It’s a grand theatrical moment wherein she seems to be fighting tears. That’s a far more interesting choice than just soldiering on nobly as others have chosen to do with this World War II song. This is a live recording, and the number that follows, "Cling to Me" (Ira Brant-Hal David), benefits from residual drama and is particularly well sung.
Otherwise, there’s some pretty soprano singing, and on the higher head tones Valerie’s voice has a much more intriguing and impressive quality. The majority of the songs chosen from the Froman repertoire are by those who wrote for shows and movies, mostly well-known like the five in the Gershwin medley and the title song from Harold Rome’s musical Wish You Were Here. It’s interesting to see a couple of less-known items: the Bob Merrill ditty "I Wantcha Around" and a George Forrest-Robert Wright cutie pie, "Millionaires Don’t Whistle," which is one of the bonus tracks.
Pianist on the live tracks is Don Rebic, who is fine but because of the nature of this tribute, isn’t shown to his fullest advantage. Likewise, Christopher Denny, who did all but one of the arrangements and is pianist for the bonus tracks, has done more creative work elsewhere. However, I do love his sprightly work on the aforementioned "Millionaires" and it perfectly captures its shining silver lining philosophy.
This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but the reason I am a little disappointed in some aspects here is that I had none of the aforementioned quibbles with Valerie’s very different first album, The Way of the Heart. It has plenty of individuality, humor, and a contemporary feminist spin, with refreshing song choices. On the other hand, she shows more vocal power here. Now, if we can only get the best of both worlds on her third album, I’ll be a truly satisfied customer. Nevertheless, this CD has its assets and also motivated me to dig out and look up some old Jane Froman recordings. And I think that’s part of the plan, right?