I have wanted to write something about Fred Astaire for some time now. I have watched the films he made both with Ginger Rogers and on his own for years now and watching them dance always brings a smile to my face. Watching him also puts me in mind of what was reportedly said about him almost at the start of his Hollywood career; “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” A verdict that Fred himself later amended to “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.” and the producer David O. Selznick commented “I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test.” Despite these reservations (which must be on a par with the comment that Decca Records is supposed to have made on refusing to sign The Beatles because “the day of ‘guitar bands’ were over!) Frederick Austerlitz went on from strength to strength.
Fred went on to have a long and well documented career as a singer and a dancer. The films are widely available and are always worth watching not just for the incredible technique but also for the wide smile on his face as he goes into another great routine (which Ginger Rogers had to perform “backwards and in heels”)!! When I was in my late teens and an avid buyer of books I came across a collection of the cartoons of Jules Feiffer (whom I am pleased to discover is still active in his 80’s). One of the cartoons in this collection concerned ‘The Curse of Fred Astaire’, it’s protagonist is a man who dances through life to avoid all kinds of commitment, the closing line of the panel is this; “sensational but isolated I dance on – The Curse of Fred Astaire”. The cartoon is a powerful piece of contemporary art with a powerful point to make about our (still) atomised society but Fred Astaire was different, one of the first dancers to gain virtual autonomy over choreography and an artist whose commitment to dance shone out from his joyful smile and his flashing footwork.
In later life he appeared in other films (I remember being surprised by his straight role in the 1970’s disaster film ‘The Towering Inferno’), he indulged his love of drumming, and became something of a skateboard champion. Even though he always said that he couldn’t sing many critics rate him amongst the finest singers of his generation. I think that this is borne out in a series of 4 albums he recorded for Norman Granz in the 1950’s. ‘The Astaire Story’ was recorded with a crack band led by pianist Oscar Peterson and boasted in its ranks such fine players as trumpeter Charlie Shavers and guitarist Barney Kessel amongst others. In 1999 these records were given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award, a special Grammy award to honour recordings that are at least twenty-five years old and that have “qualitative or historical significance.” Oscar Peterson spoke warmly of the sessions that produced The Astaire Story in his autobiography, noting that vocally, Astaire was naturally attuned to jazz phrasing, and that Astaire enjoyed playing the drums at home.
Watching Fred dance always gives me great pleasure, and part of me is that nine or ten year old in front of the television when there were only 2 or 3 channels in the UK and there was always a Saturday and a Sunday matinee which invariably would show Fred and Ginger dancing with such joy and grace. Singing in the company of such great musicians only magnifies the pleasure, not bad for what some would just call a ‘song and dance man’!!
(Some time ago I saw a book called ‘The Tao of Pooh’ – using A. A. Milne’s character to explain the basic principles of the philosophy of Taoism. I borrowed the word ‘tao’ – which means ‘way’ or ‘channel’ to reflect and celebrate Fred Astaire’s art. ‘The Astaire Story’ is available wherever good music is streamed from and is worth listening to. Jules Feiffer’s cartoons will brighten any day – and make you think at the same time!).