When Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin’s, now universally exalted opera debuted, the critics of the day held their noses. It was unsophisticated, they said. It was too melodic. Too folksy. A mish mash of styles that ultimately failed its purpose.
Of course, as has been proven many times before, history looked more kindly on a piece of art than the experts. Undoubtedly, Porgy and Bess, sits in that very top rank of American artistic works along with perhaps a half dozen others, that is so well loved and known that they have become part of the national vocabulary. Songs like Summertime, It Ain’t Necessarily So, and I Loves You, Porgy are classics, covered by so many artists in so many styles it is hard to keep track.
Amazing to reflect though that it took nearly 40 years, until 1976, for Porgy and Bess, to achieve mainstream critical acceptance. Prior to that it struggled against charges of being ‘paternalistic’ or even ‘racist’. During the 1960s and early 1970s, Porgy and Bess mostly languished on the shelves, a victim of its perceived racism in a racially charged time. Though new productions took place in 1961 and 1964 along with a Vienna Volksoper premiere in 1965 (with William Warfield as Porgy), these did little to change many African Americans’ opinions of the work. And many music critics still had not accepted it as a true opera.
A new staging of Porgy and Bess was produced by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976; it restored the complete original score for the first time. Following its debut in Houston, the production opened on Broadway at the Uris Theatre on September 25, 1976 and was recorded complete by RCA Records. This version was very influential in turning the tide of opinion about the work. For the first time, an American opera company, not a Broadway production company, had tackled the opera. This production was based on Gershwin’s original full score and did not incorporate the cuts and other changes which Gershwin had made before the New York premiere, nor the ones made for the 1942 Cheryl Crawford revival or the 1959 film version. It allowed the public to take in the operatic whole as first envisioned by the composer. In this light, it became clear that Porgy and Bess was indeed an opera. This production won the Houston Grand Opera a Tony Award—the only opera ever to receive one—and a Grammy Award. (Wikipedia)
Tonight I share a pretty rare record. The 1976 LP version of Porgy and Bess performed by British singer Cleo Laine and R&B titan Ray Charles. This was recorded and released in the same year as the Houston Grand Opera’s production, 1976; the vinyl edition is hard to come by and even the later CD release seems not to be available any longer. So get this while you can.
The performances are fantastic. Ray and Cleo are joined by a 80 piece orchestra directed by Frank DeVol as well as some stellar stars on piano (Joe Sample), guitar (Ray Parker) and even a gospel choir (Rev. James Cleveland Singers). Producer Norman Granz wrote the following in the liner notes of the double album, which includes some wonderful photographs of Ray and Cleo.
About twenty year ago I recorded Porgy and Bess with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Although, there had been other attempts by pop and jazz singers and orchestras to do the opera, I think the definitive non-classic version was their’s. Ella was at her absolute peak, and Louis’ emotion, humanity and passion were really the Porgy the Gershwin’s envisaged, and I had as well the advantage of Louis’ great trumpet. After that, it was the end of Porgy and Bess recordings for me; however, two years ago I got the urge again: Ray Charles as Porgy. Not since Armstrong did I hear any singer with the passion for these great songs as with Charles and by the time Ray convinced to do the project, I decided Cleo Laine was the logical choice opposite him. Cleo is not primarily a jazz singer, although she works much of the time with jazz material. She has the incredible technique to cope with the opera’s demands and enough of the feeling, sense and pulse of jazz to invest in the material more than a straight reading.
In assigning the material, instead of following the original opera, I was guided by the way I felt each artist could best handle a particular song. For instance, you have Ray Charles doing the Buzzard Song, in the opera it is sung by a woman; in another example, Cleo Laine sings They Pass By Singin’, in the original its sung by Porgy, and so on. Another device was to get away from the large orchestra, overture-type instrumentals; it seemed more appropriate (analogous to Armstrong’s work on the earlier album), to have Ray Charles, alone or with the rhythm section, do them.
Bearing in mind that the original Porgy and Bess takes place in Catfish Row, the almost raffish quality that Ray Charles achieves with his group, particularly the guitar work of Ray Parker, is, I think, precisely the way it might have been played by the real people upon whom the opera was based. Obviously, some material from the original opera has been omitted, but in the main I feel that this album encompasses the spirit of Porgy and Bess.
01 Summertime (Instrumental)
03 My Man’s Gone Now
04 A Woman is a Sometime Thing
05 They Pass By Singing
06 What You Want Wid Bess
07 I Got Plenty of Nuttin (Instrumental)
08 I Got Plenty of Nuttin
09 Buzzard Song
10 Bess, You Is My Woman
11 Oh, Doctor Jesus
12 Crab Man
13 Here Come de Honey Man
14 Strawberry Womans (instrumental)
15 Strawberry Woman
16 It Ain’t Necessarily So (instrumental)
17 It Ain’t Necessarily So
18 There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York
19 There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York (instrumental)
20 I Loves You, Porgy (Instrumental)
21 I Loves You, Porgy
22 Oh Bess, Where’s My Bess (Instrumental)
23 Oh Bess, Where’s My Bess
24 Oh Lord, I’m on My Way