The late Eydie Gorme was the first female pop vocalist to understand television's subliminal seductive powers. Just as Judy Garland had played coy with the movie camera to win a nation's heart, Gorme understood that her path to success depended on the after-dinner sofa set. She was impossibly talented—swinging a big clear, brassy voice that in pre-TV years would have meant a career on Broadway. She also was beautiful, in a different sort of way. She wasn't a blond and her features weren't pert like many high-visibility singers of her day. But her ease and irrepressible smile made TV viewers forget about where her parents came from—just as Nat King Cole's wide grin and suave body language worked the same magic with viewers.
Unlike other female pop singers who wound up on television in the 1950s, Gorme was a relative newcomer. She wasn't an established solo singing star like Jo Stafford, Margaret Whiting or Rosemary Clooney. She was an unknown belter with everything on the line, so when she appeared on Steve Allen's TV shows, she gave it her all. Her dark eyes turned to crescents, her cheekbones lifted and her body begged viewers to hear her out and give her a shot. Which they did.
Gorme's parents were Sephardic Jewish immigrants who settled in the Bronx, N.Y.—her father was from Sicily and her mother was from Turkey. To many urban apartment dwellers in the mid-1950s, Gorme reminded them of the Americanized daughter of the immigrant family down the hall, or the grocer's kid who helped out at the store and or everyone's upbeat older sister or young mom. There was youth in her face, love in her eyes and respect for her elders in the songs she sang. Guys fell in love with her innocence and confidence.
But by the late '50s, Gorme was no longer available. In 1957, she married Steve Lawrence, whose voice and natural, relaxed style were a perfect match. Overnight, the couple seemed to age rapidly in an era when youth increasingly was driving the culture. Gorme was an old soul—and seemed happy to be so. Many of the songs she recorded for ABC-Paramount in the late 1950s were parent-pleasers, not the music of her peers.
As a result, there was nothing particularly hip about Gorme. She could swing a song, but she didn't have Peggy Lee's dry-ice sultriness, Sarah Vaughan's sizzle, Lena Horne's movie-star looks or Jackie Cain's street smarts. Gorme was an entity all her own and in many ways, innocent and suburban.
In retrospect, a good number of Gorme's albums for ABC-Paramount were uneven—probably the result of domineering producers. The albums featured a few winners but most were larded with odd numbers that didn't seem to fit her chrome-and-fins brand. In some cases entire albums were misfires. Eydie in Dixieland and Eydie Gorme Vamps the Roaring 20s come to mind.
Gorme's voice also didn't seem to modulate much during her ABC years or come from a deeply personal place. Her vocals were always full throttle—like someone who was doing everything to win a job and continued to do so even after being hired.
When Gorme moved to Columbia in 1963, much better work resulted. Her song choices were younger and fresher—though in some cases her voice seemed unable to comprehend the subtlety needed for the moody contemporary sound. The Look of Love (1968) is an example of this misreading.
But Gorme's work overall during this period was outstanding. For me, her best albums were Don't Go to Strangers (1966) and Softly, as I Leave You (1967), which fit her like soft leather gloves. The songs, the orchestrations and her delivery were breathtakingly perfect. The albums were arranged by Don Costa and conducted by Joe Guercio, who would go on to become Elvis Presley's orchestrator and conductor in the 1970s. Gorme aces every song on the albums, and the arrangements frame her delicously.
Monday's obit in The New York Times hinted that rock and roll changed the game for Gorme in the late '60s, but the arrival of the Beatles and the Stones really had nothing to do with it. Gorme's main vinyl nemesis was Barbra Streisand, who also was signed to Columbia at the time and took pop to more personal places. Streisand was also more hands-on when it came to choosing material and making sure the label's suits didn't get lazy or distracted.
Gorme's other cultural nemesis in the mid-'60s was Cher, who also had an exotic look but was a child of the era and had won over teens with her laid back vocal style. It also was probably no accident that, like Steve and Eydie, Sonny and Cher went by their first names (or that Steve and Eydie were preceded on ABC by Jackie and Roy). By the late '60s, Gorme found herself penned in, generationally, and stuck with an aging record-buying audience.
And yet Gorme remains perhaps the greatest of all pop singers, an artist who made you love her and root for her. She was an LP recording artist with a polished horn-like delivery, not a stage singer who screamed for the rafters. Gorme came of age when many urban parents still spoke with an accent and you had to push your way to the front to stand out. Though many of her recordings today sound a bit similar in their persistent brassiness, Gorme still lifts spirits and reminds us that talent once required gumption, grace and charm to succeed. The days of tantrums, arrests and rehab as promotional strategies by headliners would come later. For Gorme, every song was her only shot and an opportunity to make something of herself. Her albums may have been spotty but on television and on stage, no one could touch her.
JazzWax tracks: Don't Go to Strangers and Softly, as I Leave You are available on a single CD here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Gorme in all her show-stopping, big-buildup glory singing What Did I Have—one of the greatest pop songs of its era—from Don't Go to Strangers...