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What's a 'Soundie'? A new collection revisits this little known 1940s phenomenon

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Decades before there were music videos, there were soundies. In the 1940s, you could not only listen to your favorite bands and vocalists on records or the radio, but you could also watch musical numbers on a soundie. FRESH AIR's classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz guesses that unless you caught a soundie between feature films on Turner Classic Movies or one of them popped up on YouTube, you probably wouldn't know about them. But now you have a chance to see lots of them, as collected on a four-disc Blu-ray set called "Soundies: The Ultimate Collection", released by Kino Classics. Here's Lloyd's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'")

FATS WALLER: (Singing) No one to talk with - all by myself. No one to walk with, but I'm happy on the shelf. Ain't misbehavin' - savin' all my love for you, you fine rascal, you. I know for certain the one I love. I'm through with flirtin'. It's you that I'm thinkin' of. Ain't misbehavin' - savin' all my love for you, for you, just you. Like Jack Horner in a corner, don't go nowhere. What do I care? Your kisses, my dear, are worthwhile waiting for. Believe me, dear. Don't stay out late.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Fats Waller accompanied himself in his great song "Ain't Misbehavin'" on recordings, on the radio and in the movies, but the clip we just heard was actually the soundtrack of a soundie, one of the more than 1,800 three-minute musical films made in the 1940s, which you could watch in a bar or a club when you dropped a dime into a panoram, a large jukebox with a screen. These soundies were a short-lived phenomenon that bridged the chronological gap between radio and television, but they presented a surprisingly complex image of American life, including race and gender. You can now sample them on a big, new Blu-ray set called "Soundies: The Ultimate Collection", intelligently curated by film historian Susan Delson.

Many of the performers on soundies were pop music royalty - Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Gene Krupa, Anita O'Day, the Mills Brothers and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a singer equally at home in gospel and hot jazz. Most of the soundies musicians never became household names, but some of them were taking their baby steps toward future stardom. In a soundie called "A Latin From Staten Island", a handsome guitar player identified simply as Ricardo marked the very first screen appearance of leading man Ricardo Montalban. Nat King Cole, Spike Jones and '50s sitcom queen Gale Storm made Soundies early in their careers. It's a trip watching a 24-year-old pianist with wavy hair and a broad smile named Walter Liberace racing his fleet fingers double time over a mirrored keyboard in "Tiger Rag."

(SOUNDBITE OF LIBERACE'S "TIGER RAG")

SCHWARTZ: The first African American performer to appear in Soundies was a vivacious young singer and dancer named Dorothy Dandridge, whose hips, shoulders and eyes seem to move in many different directions at the same time. A decade later, she became the first Black artist to be nominated for an Oscar in a leading role. One of my favorite Soundies features Dandridge and her loose-limbed singing and dancing partner Paul White in an irresistible number called "A Zoot Suit." Soundies were a veritable encyclopedia of '40s lingo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A ZOOT SUIT")

PAUL WHITE: (Singing) I want a zoot suit with a reet pleat, with the drape shape and stuffed cuff, to look sharp enough to see my Sunday gal. I want a reef (ph) sleeve with the right stripe and a dress vest with the glad plaid. In the latest fad to see my Sunday gal. I want to look keen so my dream will say, you don't look like the same beau, so keen that she'll scream, oh, here comes my walking rainbow. So make a zoot suit with a reet pleat, with the drape shape and a stuffed cuff, to look sharp enough to see my Sunday gal.

DOROTHY DANDRIDGE: (Singing) I want a brown gown with a zop top, with a hip slip a laced waist. In the sharpest taste to see my Sunday man. I want a scat hat with a trim brim, a zag bag with a ripped zip to look plenty hip to see my Sunday Sam (ph). Yes, I want to look keen so my dream will say, ain't I the lucky fella? - so keen that he'll scream, baby, you sure look mellow.

SCHWARTZ: Curator Susan Delson arranges this collection into a variety of social activities, especially dancing and the war effort, and categories of music, including such bizarre hybrids as the "Hula Rhumba" and "Cowboy Calypso." Most Soundies were made with white performers, but Delson readjusts the balance so that almost a quarter of the Soundies here feature Black performers. Soundies were largely ignored by Hollywood's strict production code, so some of them are delightfully raunchy. One of the rare Soundies caught in the crosshairs of the censors was the 1941 "Shoeshiners And Headliners," from which 18 seconds were cut from general release but shown complete here. Two rows of dancers back to back, white women and Black men, seemed to come a little too close to touching.

In the end, Soundies were a mixed bag. Low budgets were a serious limitation, though also inspired surprising visual invention. Many Soundies were purely war propaganda, singing commercials for war bonds or boosters for women in the workplace, ominous warnings against talking to spies or racist jabs at our adversaries. But the best of them - like this one with Gene Krupa, Anita O'Day and trumpeter Roy Eldridge - are musical treasures.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME OFF UPTOWN")

ANITA O'DAY: Hey, Joe.

ROY ELDRIDGE: What do you mean, Joe? My name's Roy.

O'DAY: Well, come here, Roy, and get groovy. You been uptown?

ELDRIDGE: No, I ain't been uptown, but I've been around.

O'DAY: You mean to say you ain't been uptown?

ELDRIDGE: No, I haven't been uptown. What's uptown?

O'DAY: (Singing) Pleasure you're about, and you feel like stepping out? All you've got to shout, let me off uptown. If it's rhythm that you feel, then it's nothing to conceal.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz's most recent book is called "Who's On First?: New And Selected Poems." He reviewed "Soundies: The Ultimate Collection," released by Kino Classics. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, "The Age Of Magical Overthinking: Notes On Modern Irrationality." We talk with Amanda Montell about her new book. She's a linguist known for her sense of humor and for her books "Wordslut" and "Cultish" and her podcast "Sounds Like A Cult." I hope you'll join us. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME OFF UPTOWN")

ELDRIDGE: (Singing) Anita, oh, Anita.

Say, I feel something.

O'DAY: What you feel, Roy - the heat?

ELDRIDGE: No, it ain't the heat. It must be that uptown rhythm because I feel like blowing.

O'DAY: Well, blow, Roy, blow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lloyd Schwartz
Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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