REVIEW: Pat Suzuki - Complete Album Series & Singles and Rarities 1958–1967
Had Pat Suzuki only ever appeared in Flower Drum Song, her knock-out performance of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "I Enjoy Being A Girl" would have secured her place in musical theater history. How lucky we are, though, that she also had a lengthy, if somewhat forgotten, career as a recording artist. And how lucky we are that Stage Door Records is releasing two collections of her studio work: Complete Album Series (out next week) and Singles and Rarities 1958-1967, out now.
The earliest of these recordings predate Suzuki's Broadway debut in Flower Drum Song. At the time, Suzuki was doing a club act containing (as Bing Crosby attests in the album notes) "anything from jazz to light opera." The album The Many Sides of Pat Suzuki reflects her range, including Ellington ("Solitude"), showtunes from days gone by ("Fine and Dandy"), jazzy standards ("From This Moment On"), and fairly contemporary material ("Lazy Afternoon"). The closest she gets to light opera is "Poor Butterfly," but that's not a complaint.
Suzuki's warm vocal stylings and wry humor are supported by lovely (but rarely showy) arrangements by Henri René, who also conducts. While we may best associate Suzuki with bright and brassy uptempos -- and she delivers those throughout this album and the entire collection -- in her club work she was renowned for her way with a ballad. Give "A Sunday Kind of Love" or her medley of "The Song from Moulin Rouge / Hi Lili, Hi Lo" a spin and you won't have to wonder why.
The first section of the singles collection dates from shortly after that first album, and it's an odd collection of Suzuki's takes on college songs. Apparently, "The Whiffenpoof Song" was the A-side, and any one of the four other songs included was the B-side depending on the region of the country where you might buy the disc. Hearing the fight songs of Columbia, Michigan, Texas and Washington rethought as syrupy ballads makes for a fine novelty, but I find myself skipping these songs on most subsequent listens.
Suzuki's second album followed a scant six months later, to capitalize both on the success of the first and her splashy debut in Flower Drum Song. Henri René and Herman Diaz, Jr. returned as arranger-conductor and producer-director, respectively, and the album carries a similar shine. If there's one complaint, it's that the album follows the formula of the first a little too closely, from opening with a conga-infused standard ("The Song is You") to including one recent Broadway showstopper ("I've Grown Accustomed to His Face"), an Ellington ballad ("Don't Get Around Much Anymore") etc. But I suppose if it ain't broke...
Her next album might be the most interesting to visitors to this site: Broadway '59. With a new arranger/conductor, George Siravo, and a more specific mission statement, this album offers a number of delights. Kicking off with new arrangements of three numbers from Flower Drum Song ("I Enjoy Being A Girl," "Love, Look Away," and "Sunday"), Suzuki makes a strong case for these numbers to stand aside Rodgers & Hammerstein's finest. The rest of the album is similarly grouped by show, with two numbers from Redhead, one each from West Side Story and My Fair Lady, two each from Bells Are Ringing and First Impressions, and a capper from The Music Man.
Here, the arrangements transform the showtunes just enough to make them viable pop songs. Suzuki's sensitive "The Party's Over" and ebullient "Just In Time" leave me wishing we had seen her tackle the role of Ella. Her belty, swinging "I Feel Sorry For The Boy" makes a better impression than the forgettable First Impressions cast recording does -- and I promise that's not damning with faint praise.
The Singles collection includes one number dropped from this album: "Love Eyes" from Whoop-Up, and Suzuki delivers a hot take on this tune that's probably better than the rather dopey song deserves. It's followed by a novelty song, "The Duke of Kent," which is similarly elevated beyond its station by a knock-out performance. Its b-side, "Dreamsville," will likely send you there. It's also an oddity on an otherwise great-sounding collection, in that it sounds like it was transferred from a warped source disc.
The final album in the collection is Looking At You. In the album notes, Suzuki declares "This album is the kind of singer I always wanted to be." Grammar aside, you can hear what she means on first listen. Backed by a tight combo featuring Doc Severinson, Milt Hinton, Don Lamond, and Barry Galbraith with Ralph Burns conducting his own arrangements, the album gives you a real feel for what it must have felt like to hear Suzuki's club act. Her interpretive skills at this point further developed, she offers a new maturity in her readings of songs like "Small World" and "He's My Guy."
Following this album, she changed labels to Columbia, where a promised album never materialized but a couple of delightful singles did: delightfully jazzy takes (courtesy of Henri René) of "When You Want Me" from Sail Away and "Why Go Anywhere At All" from The Gay Life.
The three final singles on the collection, from yet another label and dating from 1967, are the rather syrupy "This Is How My World Is Made," like "Dreamland," marred by a warped-sounding transfer (but that's no real loss), the somewhat embarrassing rock-and-roll tune "Look What You Done" and "Make Me Invisible," the only one of these later entries that sounds like it could have fit in on the contemporary radio of its day.
However, sticking it out through the rather dire final singles pays off with the promised rarities: five previously unreleased tracks from an abandoned album project arranged and conducted by Warren B. Meyers. Suzuki soars with a big band arrangement of "Everybody Says Don't" and an understated "Never Will I Marry." "I Know Why and So Do You" demonstrates that she still knew what to do with a ballad, and "When the Sun Comes Out" and "Hard Hearted Hannah" provide a strong ending to the collection.
As is often the case with Stage Door releases, the variety of source materials available is somewhat noticeable on the final product. The album collections sounds great, but I wish the mastering of the singles collection had done a little more to make the different entires sound like they all belonged on the same disc. The shift from the fuller sound of the early tracks to the rather tinny sound on the later entries is unfortunate.
The albums collection comes with reproductions of the original artwork and notes for all the represented albums; the singles and rarities collection has original notes providing helpful context for its tracks (and, to be honest, for the albums as well).
Despite my concerns about the sound quality on some of the singles, these sets are both truly must-haves for anyone who's a fan of midcentury Broadway, cabaret or traditional pop vocalists. The albums collection is receiving a general release, while Singles and Rarities is part of Stage Door's Collector's Series and therefore limited to a pressing of 500 copies, so don't wait too long to snap that one up.
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Singles and Rarities - Pat Suzuki Looking at You - 1960 Pat Suzuki The Many Sides of Pat Suzuki - 1957 Pat Suzuki Pat Suzuki's Broadway '59 - 1959 Pat Suzuki First Impressions - 1959 Original Broadway Cast Flower Drum Song Redhead The Gay Life Whoop-Up First Impressions Bells Are Ringing The Music Man My Fair Lady Sail Away West Side Story Ralph Burns Warren Meyers Pat Suzuki Duke Ellington Oscar Hammerstein II Milt Hinton Richard Rodgers Henri René George Siravo Herman Diaz Jr. Barry Galbraith Don Lamond Don't Get Around Much Any More (7) I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face (73) Fine and Dandy (5) A Sunday Kind of Love From This Moment On (27) Why Go Anywhere at All The Song Is You (32) Le Tango Du Moulin Rouge Everybody Says Don't (37) Love Eyes (4) Hi Lili, Hi Lo (8) Solitude (4) Poor Butterfly (5) When You Want Me (4) Small World (36) Never Will I Marry (9) Lazy Afternoon (20) Sunday (18) Love Look Away (25) I Enjoy Being a Girl (28) Just in Time (42) The Party's Over (39) Stage Door STAGE 9055 (2-CD) Toggle Additional (47)