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Communique: "Great American Songbook: The Oscars" With Phil Furia | February 17 @ Kenan Auditorium

Clockwise from top left: Nina Repeta, Bob Workmon, LaRaisha Burnette Dionne, Phil Furia

Phil Furia, the host of The Great American Songbook, will host a live performance of the show at Kenan Auditorium on Saturday, February 17: WHQR's Great American Songbook Live: The Oscars. Some great voices join him onstage: George Scheibner, Bob Workmon,  Nina Repeta, LaRaisha Burnette Dionne, and Jack Krupicka. 

Showtime is 7:30 pm. The singers will perform songs that were nominated for Oscars--the winners and the losers. Phil will ask for the audience's vote on which should have won. There may be some surprises. Tickets are available at Kenan Box Office, by telephone 910-962-3500, or online.

Listen to Phil above, or read our extended conversation below to find out more about how Phil became an expert on this music. 

Gina:       Of course a lot of our listeners, myself included, know you from the Great American Songbook that I hear on 91 3. What does it mean? What is the Great American Songbook?

Phil:         Well, it's a collection of songs that did what popular songs are not supposed to do: they've stayed popular. Many of them were written in the 1920s the 1930s and 1940s and they sound as fresh today as they did when they were first written. And what keeps them alive is that performers, jazz musicians and singers, keep wanting to record them.

Sinatra was the first in the 1950s where he began singing old songs from the 20s and 30s and had very successful albums. That was the beginning of the LP album and at first they were used for classical music and then for Broadway shows and then Sinatra said, well we should record some classic songs from Broadway and Hollywood. And his recordings did very well for a couple of decades. Then other singers like Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald, they started recording those songs as well, and then a whole new generation came around with Willie Nelson and Linda Ronstadt. Most recently Paul McCartney did a collection of those songs. We sometimes call them standards because they've just been around forever. And much to my surprise Bob Dylan about a year ago brought out an album of those songs in tribute to Sinatra. So it's a group of songs that keeps appealing to singers and they keep doing them. And musicians keep forming them. And it's the closest thing I think America has to a body of classical music that gets reinterpreted generation after generation.

Gina:       Audiences still want to hear them.

Phil:         Yes they do.

Gina:       And this particular performance, this Great American Songbook Live that's happening at Kenan Auditorium, there will be performers there, and the focus of the songs-because obviously you can't do all of them in one show-so the focus is the Oscars.

Phil:         The Oscars. Both songs that won the Oscar and songs that were nominated- and in some cases probably should have. So there will be some surprises I think for the audience and hearing a couple of songs performed knowing they were both nominated in the same year. And then getting to vote with their applause for the one they thought should have won. And I think in some cases they will be surprised by the one that did.

Gina:       And I know that in some cases, in your opinion, the right one didn't necessarily win.

Phil:         In several cases, that's right. I'm not going to give away which ones you have to come to the show. But there will be some surprises.

Gina:       And can you tell me who will be performing these songs on stage at Kenan?

Phil:         Well we have a group of performers. Bob Workman from WHQR will be singing...Nina Repeta, she's done a lot of shows around town. We'll be working with a singer I've not worked with before I'm really looking forward to it-LaRaisha Burnette. And our piano player Jack Krupicka is going to sing some songs as well, he's a very good singer. So we'll have four singing performers and a couple of musicians.  So it should be a nice ensemble.

Gina:       And George Scheibner will be there as well.

Phil:         And George Scheibner will be there. Yes.

Gina:       Can you tell me a little bit about you and George-how did you start doing the Great American Songbook for WHQR?

Phil:         Well this was several years ago. He suggested that we do a benefit performance a fundraiser for WHQR at Kenan Auditorium, and he knew several local singers and musicians and got them together. And the performance went very well. Earned a good deal for WHQR. And so we did it again a year later with some different singers, and again that was successful. And then just out of the blue he said, you know those stories that you tell behind the songs are so entertaining. Why don't we do them on the radio?

And so we got together and it was agony at first because we were trying to figure out exactly what the format should be. But he finally came up with the idea that I should tell the story behind one of the great songs- like Over the Rainbow or As Time Goes By- and then we would do both a classical version of it say Nat King Cole singing Stardust or Judy Garland singing Over The Rainbow-but then, he has wonderful knowledge of contemporary pop song, he would find versions of the same song by a contemporary singer like Lady Gaga or Meatloaf. And so we would do the same program again with the same story but go to Lady Gaga or Meatloaf or Bob Dylan or a contemporary singer. And it gives you an idea of just why the songs have stayed around because these contemporary singers they want to do the same things.

Gina:       And I think that appeals to modern audiences, when they hear a singer that is their contemporary and they hear the song, it just delves right into music history in a way.

Phil:         Yeah ,I know a lot of people who love the songs as much as I do complain about the way say Rod Stewart does the classics or the way Bob Dylan sings the Sinatra songs and I keep saying-- it's keeping those songs alive, let them do in their own style for a contemporary audience and they get to hear the same songs in the way they'd like to hear them.

Gina:       Phil, would you do the intro for me that you do for the Great American Songbook on the radio?

Phil:         OK. Welcome to the Great American Songbook, a program that celebrates popular songs that remain popular, year after year generation after generation, with singers, musicians, and listeners like you and me. I'm Phil Furia and here's one of my favorites from the Great American Songbook.

               It's been a while since I've done that so I'm a little rusty there in the middle.

Gina:       Phil just tell me a little bit about your history. I know that you are an author and you have six books.

Phil:         Nine.

Gina:       Oh my goodness. Tell me, what are your books about and how did you become so knowledgeable and interested in music?

Phil:         Well most of my books are about the Great American Songbook. I've done biographies of Irving Berlin Ira Gershwin, the brother of George Gershwin who wrote the lyrics to their songs. The Savannah songwriter Johnny Mercer, and also books on the songs of Hollywood so it's pretty much all on the same subject. And I've been interested in those songs ever since I was a kid. I mean I loved Elvis Presley and I loved rock n roll, but you could turn on the radio and hear Sinatra or Tony Bennett sing the classic songs. And those are the ones that stuck with me. I kept those, I went from records to cassette tapes and kept listening to them.

And I was a Fulbright professor in Austria and I was teaching a course that they had wanted called The Jazz Age, and I had some music in it but it was mostly pure jazz. Duke Ellington Louis Armstrong. And my Austrian students said, well what as popular music like in the 1920s and 1930s? And I said, I don't know. And you know it just kills a professor to have to say that, particularly to these wonderful students in Austria whose English was impeccable. And so right after class I went to the American Studies Library and started doing research and I was amazed that the songs that were popular in the 20s and 30s and 40s were all the ones I knew from recordings by Sinatra, by Doris Day, by Ella Fitzgerald. I just don't know who wrote what, I could've told a Gershwin song from a Cole Porter song. So I thought, well, I'm going to go back to the students and not only I'm going to tell them what pop music was like, but I'm going to play them. I had my tapes with me.

And I thought, well, their English is really good, but they're not going to get a Cole Porter line like "You're a Rose, You're inferno's Dante, You're the nose on the great Durante." So I thought, well I'll type up the lyrics-most of which I knew by heart-and photocopy them so they can follow them. And I was typing along and I think it was actually that song by Cole Porter, You're the Top, and I thought, this is really clever. This is amazingly witty. It's because my main area at the time was 20th century American poetry and I thought, this is as funny as ee cummings or William Carlos Williams or the other poets I taught and I started thinking, I wonder if anybody has ever written about the song lyrics. And they had written about the music but not about the lyrics. And so I wrote off to one of the people one of the presses that published books on popular song. Oxford University Press. And I said, hey I'd like to write a book about the song lyrics. The editor wrote back and said, You're not the first person who thought of this. The problem is the copyright, we can't get copyright permissions to quote from the lyrics. But I said you know what, I'm going to write the book anyway. And I was on sabbatical leave so I finished the book and I started tracking down the copyright holders and caught terrific series of breaks.

 They gave me permission to quote from the lyrics at a very reduced price because I was an academic. And so that book came out and the editor was so pleased at Oxford he said-- what next? And I said, well let's take one lyricist, Ira Gershwin and do all of his lyrics. Edward loved it. And then we went on to Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer and we just kept rolling along, as the song goes.

Gina:       That's wonderful. You know, sometimes you just have to do that, just do it and see what happens, right. And that's why you know so much that's why you can talk so much, say so many interesting things through the study that you had to do to write those books.

Phil:         Oh yeah, it's a tremendous amount of research, because you really have to go and dig in the Library of Congress and in the Gershwin archive, the Irving Berlin archive, where you're going through original materials, newspaper interviews from 40 years ago. But the amount of fascinating material you come up with is well worth it.

Gina:       So Phil, I know you won't tell me the winners and the ones you think should have won the Oscars, but will you tell me a couple of songs that you are really looking forward to that will be performed at Kenan on February 17th?

Phil:         Yeah, one of my favorite songs is Bob Hope's theme song, Thanks for the Memory, which he sang in an absolutely awful movie called The Big Broadcast of 1938. It's just dreadful, until you get to thanks for the memory, which he sings with Shirley Ross. And it's just delightful. It's what I call a typical Hollywood song as opposed to a Broadway song because Bob Hope kind of talks his way through the song, rather than booming it out on the Broadway stage. It's very chatty, very informal. And that's why so many of the singers we associate with Hollywood movies like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly weren't even really singers. They didn't have big booming voices, but they had that casual conversational style that I think was just perfect for the movies. And one of the best of those songs is Thanks for the Memory. Very witty lyrics.

 Now one of the songs we're going to do to close the show is probably the most famous Oscar winning and I will tell you that this one won, although you could probably guess it. It was Over the Rainbow by lyricist Yip Harburg and composer Harold Arlen. And there's a wonderful story that almost nobody liked the song, they wanted to cut it out of the movie. Not even the lyricist, when he first heard the melody, wanted to write a lyric. He said to Harold Arlen, that's not a song for little Dorothy. That's a song for Nelson Eddy. You know, to just boom out with a big concert voice. And so it was a real struggle to keep that song in, and the producers even to the last minute wanted to cut it out of the movie because they thought it slowed down the pace. And the songwriters and the associate producer, who was a songwriter himself-Arthur Freed-knew a great song when he heard it, and he laid his job on the line and said, it's simple: either the song stays or I go. And MGM said, well it's not worth losing Arthur Freed over a song, so keep in. Over the Rainbow. Then of course, it wins the Academy Award.