Dick Haymes: A Major Player for Whom Luck Was No Lady
“ Haymes--unlike Sinatra, who thought in terms of the eight-bar unit--tends to think in terms of the four-bar phrase. ”
Complete Capitol Collection
If you've read this far, it's either because you don't know who Dick Haymes is and wonder whether you should, or you recall some passing mention of him by a grandparent but little else. No offense intended to retros and discriminating listeners, but great popular singers tend to fade ingloriously away, out-of-sight/out-of-mind. Unlike the Bachs and Bartoks, or even the Armstrongs and Ellingtons, they don't receive the imprimatur of the academy and arts councils, ensuring they'll be required listening in college courses or benefit from ongoing institutional sponsorship. Even when it comes to the American Songbook and its two inarguably most popular exponents, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, the airwaves are remarkably free of their recordings, which inevitably does injury to the music of America's great songwriters as well.
All of which is by way of explaining the evaporation of Dick Haymes, even though like Sinatra he had torrid, widely publicized love affairs with screen sirens, became known for his battles with the bottle, and in the 1940s was considered Sinatra's primary rival, especially as an interpreter of ballads. This reviewer confesses knowing little about him, but the influence of Sinatra's ballad interpretations on saxophonists Lester Young and Dexter Gordon as well as trumpeter Miles Davis, in itself raises the question of whether Haymes' music might have approached the same artistry and seminal importance. Moreover, he continues to attract insistent defenders who, when not proclaiming him the perfect singer, place him in the company of a Nat Cole, Johnny Hartman, or even Chet Baker. This handsomely packaged, informative EMI collection36 songs on two CDsis an excellent way for the present generation to come to its own conclusions.
Like Sinatra, Haymes recorded for Columbia in the 1940s and was a bobby-soxer favorite in his own right. When Sinatra moved from the Harry James band to the far more popular Tommy Dorsey orchestra in 1940, Haymes took his place as male singer for James. Later, Haymes would serve as a vocalist for Dorsey and, like Sinatra, would begin to star in screen musicals, most notably State Fair (1945). And like Sinatra he moved from Columbia to Capitol Records in the 1950s after flaming out with the mass public, but from there the differences outnumber the similarities. Whereas Sinatra made a storied comeback, recording his most critically acclaimed work for Capitol, Haymes' personal affairs fell into disarray, and his output for the label was both comparatively meager and largely overlooked.
The present collection brings together all of Haymes' Capitol recordings, primarily the critically acclaimed Rain or Shine (1955) and Moon Dreams, the latter a 1957 previously unreissued session perhaps more prized than any other recording by Haymes aficionados. Since that LP came out the same year as Sinatra blockbusters such as Come Fly With Me, Where Are You and A Swingin' Affair (not to mention Sinatra's labor of love, the obscure but sublime Close To You), Moon Dreams is the ultimate touchstone for any assessment of Haymes' art, especially if the case is to be made that it compares favorably with Sinatra's.
These are some of the same dark torch songs and ironic ballads that were said to be the exclusive domain of Sinatra's rare combination of unflinching candor, heightened drama and deeply complex, nuanced readings. One of the arrangers on the tracks that employ strings, moreover, is Johnny Mandel, who would later be doing the same favor for Sinatra and Shirley Horn. After listening to the material from Rain Or Shine (1955) it becomes apparent on the next session, Moon Dreams (1957), that Haymes retains a full, pleasant vocal timbre and moreover has reduced, but not entirely eliminated, a tight, spinning vibrato that tends to direct attention away from the lyrics of the song to the performer's vocal apparatus. In the opening two numbers, "If I Should Lose You" and "You Don't Know What Love Is," his more flexible control of dynamics and sotte voce approach evoke a quiet, thoughtful intensity compared to Sinatra's full-throated angst. In the lower register the voice is fuller than Sinatra's, though it arguably falls short of the velvety, seasoned sound of a Johnny Hartman, whose luxuriant vocal quality seems incapable of wearing out its welcome, even apart from matters of interpretation.
Haymesunlike Sinatra, who thought in terms of the eight-bar unit and developed the lung capacity to support it, frequently singing the last four bars of the chorus and the first four bars of the bridge as one continuous phrase tends to think in terms of the four-bar phrase. His voice will surge with throbbing emotion, only to pull back before reaching the narrative-dramatic destination of the song's organic, internal logic, leading to numerous anticlimaxes, especially for any listener who has Sinatra's readings of these same ballads in mind.
At times Haymes appears not to sustain a lyric idea or musical meaning, backing down from the high note in the ascending melodic line of Rodgers and Hart's "Where Or When and the powerful cadence of Arlen's "Come Rain Or Shine. It's as though the singer senses a limitation when it comes to such follow-throughs and chooses to "cover the notes that don't sit comfortably in his range or that require ample breath reserves he may rightfully suspect are not his. And compared to Sinatra's crystalline elocution Haymes, like most singers, has a tendency to mute his consonants and minimize the phonetic values of vowels and diphthongs.
In sum, Haymes appears to take fewer risks. Indeed, he may have possessed a greater range than Sinatra's considerable one (from an "honest second low E below middle C to a full, non-falsetto Ab above middle C), but it's not in evidence on these recordings: if he's got it, he's not willing to test it. What initially promised to be a revelatory exercise comparing the two singers' interpretations of songs shared in common"You'll Never Know, "It Might As Well Be Spring, "Laura," "The More I See You"suddenly seems gratuitous and a bit unfair, depriving the music of Haymes, an exemplary reader of many of the most deserving titles from the Great American Songbook, the exclusive focus it deserves.
Probably it's best to approach each singer as sui generis and forego the comparisons. Sinatra was "driven" to build operatic breath reserves and to take risksin the length of his phrases, the pushing of both extremes of his range, and his bold approach to phonetic elocution (no softening of consonants, vowels or diphthongs). Haymes views the ballad differently, is seeking a different effect, and employing a more conservative means to attain that effect. To his credit, he sings with intelligence, unfaltering good taste, and an undeniable fullness and warmth, especially in the lower register. Additionally, he manages to avoid placing undue strain on the voice, perhaps accounting for the remarkable consistency that was his through the years of controversy, alcoholism, depression, and illness. There was rarely if ever a time when it could be said that the voice sounded tired or rough or even aging.
Dick Haymes was a talented performer, a tasteful and nuanced interpreter, a sympathetic person no doubt more wronged against than the other way around. From his once-sensational life and widely admired recordings we might even draw some valuable lessons about popular performers, their recorded legacy and the marketplace. Haymes may not have equalled Sinatra as a musical "storyteller," but his case contains sufficient parallels to be seen as a warning not to take the art of a Francis Albert Sinatra for granted lest he too become "out- of-sight/out-of-mind.
(For a change, the inclusion of out-takes is a most welcome bonus, giving the listener an insider's glimpse of recording in the '50s as well as some sense of Haymes' congenial, good-natured, practically "laid-back" personalityyet another contrast with Sinatra.)
Tracks: CD1: It Might As Well Be Spring; The More I See You; The Very Thought Of You; You'll Never Know; If There Is Someone Lovelier Than You; How Deep Is The Ocean; The Nearness Of You; Where Or When; Little White Lies; Our Love Is Here To Stay; Love Walked In; Come Rain Or Come Shine; I Never Get Enough Of You; Listen; C'est La Vie; Love Is A Great Big Nothin'; Two Different Worlds; Now At Last (Out- Take); Now At Last; Rainbow's End (Out-Take); Rainbow's End. CD2: If I Should Lose You; You Don't Know What Love Is; Imagination; Skylark; Isn't This A Lovely Day (To Be Caught In The Rain?); What's New; The Way You Look Tonight; Then I'll Be Tired Of You; I Like The Likes Of You; Moonlight Becomes You; Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea; When I Fall In Love; Never Leave Me; New York's My Home; My Love For Carmen (Out-Take); My Love For Carmen
Personnel: Dick Haymes: vocals. Ian Bernard: music director. Ian Bernard and Johnny Mandel: arrangements.
Noted jazz critic Will Friedwald, in a review of Ruth Prigozy's biography of the singer, calls attention to the very real threat Haymes once represented to the dominance of Sinatra in "Stepping Out of Sinatra's Shadow".