-Alys Robi_lÕanthologie, 1943-1966. XXI-21 Records XXI-CD-2-150 (released 2004). Available from XXI-21 Records. (3 CDs; 3:00:05).
-Collection Qubec Info Musique - Alys Robi. Experience Records EXP-111 (released 2005). Available from Dep Distribution. (1 CD; 50:16).
-Alys Robi, Diva. Gala Records Gal-101 (released 2005). Available from Gala Records, C.P. 24512, Brossard, QC, Canada. J4W 3K9, www.galarecords.ca; firstname.lastname@example.org (1 CD; 32:34).
Alys Robi (born Alice Robitaille, in Qubec City, 1923) was QubecÕs first singing superstar of the electrical recording era to attain international pop renown. The years 2004 and 2005 were propitious ones for restoring her legendary recordings to public availability. The first digital restorations released during those two years were two CD reissues of her studio recordings, for XXI-21 Records (3 CDs, released 2004), and for Experience Records (1 CD, released 2005). Both were engineered by Robert Lafond of A8M Studio, Sainte-Adle (Qubec) under the artistic and production team of Robert Thrien, Martin Duchesne, and Michel Laverdire. Later in 2005, Gala Records released CBC broadcasts of Alys Robi at her peak postwar form in the radio series ŅLet There Be MusicÓ (March through November 1946), as engineered and digitally re-mastered by Chris Bradley (National Library and Archives of Canada, Ottawa), Gatan Pilon, and Fernand Martel (both of MontralÕs historic Victor recording studio) under Jean-Pierre SvignyÕs direction.
Alys RobiÕs tumultuous life, especially in the 1940s and early 1950s, her ongoing geriatric star turns as the Old Trooper continuing to sing publicly, and her latter day cult status (not the least as an iconic figure for her loyal following among gay men), while assuring her enduring fame, have tended to obscure her stature as a consummate artist and song stylist. Robi led a hectic and arduous life (especially after her first appearances in Montral in 1935), capped, at the summit of her career, by the misfortune of falling into the clutches of the psychiatric profession. This cut short her meteoric rise to world stardom, including a quite active recording career that had begun at RCA VictorÕs New York City studios in 1944. In 1948, the doors of the barbarous St-Michel Archange psychiatric hospital closed behind her for several years. During this time she had only one brief interlude to exercise her musical vocation before turning there for more and frequent bouts of electroshock treatments, and the ultimate indignity of undergoing a lobotomy. By the end of all this suffering and humiliation she had been cheated of the fortune that she had amassed. All of this, plus a passionate and glamorous love life (including her liaison with her chief conductor and arranger, Lucio Agostini), her disastrous marriage to a handsome nobody, the attempts after her long hospitalization to regain her career and public, and her valiant advocacy for the rights of patients (and ex-patients) combined to make her life loom so large as to easily overshadow her great talents. The need to continue singing for decades after her career had crested to compensate herself for her financial losses due to the chicanery of those who had mismanaged (pillaged) her wealth during her darkest years, when her great physical beauty succumbed to the ravages of aging, did not help, despite remarkably good vocal form until late in life. Rather, it hindered the memory of what she had accomplished during her best years. All of this has been recounted often in three books (all more or less biographical rather than musically astute) *1 and a highly successful and acclaimed film about her life, Ma vie en cinmascope, of which a fine soundtrack recording was released in 2004. *2
By the second half of the 1930s, Alys Robi had already become a celebrity. She was still very young and had not yet stepped into a record company studio. The 1940s were years in which many exceptionally fine song stylists flourished, including the best of the big band vocalists. The standard of vocal technique and of musicality was uniformly higher than in later decades. Even the players of the Broadway stage and of the Hollywood motion picture studios obtained surprisingly fine results for entertainers whose careers were not primarily music-based, thanks to many devoted and highly effective vocal coaches who worked with the actors. As for Alys Robi, she profited from long years of musical and other artistic training from early childhood onwards, including solfge, voice, diction in various languages, piano, theory and dancing. Aspiring not only to be a star in vaudeville and cabaret, she even hoped (with realistic caution, given her humble origins, times, and place) for fame on the operatic stage. The combination of sheer talent, ambition, hard and conscientious work, experience, and the high standards to which she held herself accountable, made her a supremely accomplished vocalist. RobiÕs singing never encountered an obstacle or difficulties that she did not overcome with mastery and seeming ease.
Alys RobiÕs voice, embracing the soprano and mezzo-soprano range, was supple, with a flexibility that handled the melodic line with aplomb (including difficult intervals, passing melismas and vocal decoration). Impeccable intonation, graceful phrasing, phenomenal breath control at any dynamic level, as well as special effects, were all as flawless as the great lyric sopranos and mezzos of the operatic and concert stage. Her diction married the word to the vocal line with seamless assurance and always to convincing expressive effect. This was true not only in French, but also in Spanish and English, which she studied, mastered to perfection, and in which she could converse fluently. RobiÕs verbal and musical nimbleness in songs with rapid-fire words and tricky, and onomatopoeic syllables, assured amazing articulation with ease, light touch, and rhythmic verve. Examples include her great hits Tico-tico and Chica Chica Boum Chic. This, combined with all of her other vocal skills, allowed her to rival the finest pop vocal stylists of her time, singers as diverse as Mistinguett, Yvonne Printemps, dith Piaf, Carmen Miranda, or Jo Stafford.
Robi could deliver music and lyrics of humor, whimsy, sentiment or eroticism, with a range of vocal color from girlish insouciance to a smoldering sensuality that was very womanly, indeed. A mere Ņone size fits allÓ vocal styling concocted for some 1940s stars of song, such as Margaret Whiting, was not for Alys Robi. *3 The vocal proficiency that permitted Robi to accomplish such feats of musicality and expression call to mind the accomplishments not only of the other leading songstresses of her time, but also of the ladies of the operatic and concert stages. The latter include sopranos and mezzo-sopranos that most successfully bridged the gap between classical and pop idioms during the 1930s and 1940s, such as Dorothy Kirsten, Ris Stevens, Elsie Houston and others. Such singers were known to large audiences not just from live performances and recordings, but also from their work for the mass media, especially radio.
Alys Robi had much success of her own on radio during these years, appearing on numerous programs. *4 The XXI-21 Records 3-CD anthology of her work includes one selection from her appearances on the Toronto-based show Latin American Serenade, a bewitchingly lively rendition of the song Babalu with astonishing demonstrations of crescendos and file la voce diminuendos. The music and Spanish words are by Margarita Lecuona, which whets the appetite for more of Alys RobiÕs radio work, especially in Spanish. Thankfully, the Gala Records CD provides just that. RobiÕs records, most of which were recorded in Montral, were destined chiefly for a Francophone public (especially French-Canadians), and are mostly in French. Robi herself translated many of the Spanish and English language songs which she waxed in French for the RCA Victor and Quality labels. Only smatterings here and there of her superb Spanish and excellent English diction can be heard on her 78- and 45-rpm discs. However, much of RobiÕs career in radio was centered in Toronto. Thus the Gala release, derived from Toronto broadcasts, includes more of Robi singing in English than her sizeable output of commercial discs. (Her recording career was, alas, much shorter than her live performing career, which is still in progress). Of the thirteen tracks on the Gala CD, five are entirely in English, one alternates that language with French, two glorious ones are in Spanish, and three are entirely instrumental. Elwood Glover delivers the radio announcements, and even has one brief track all to himself, in the March-November 1946 broadcasts in the series Let There Be Music. His announcements are in English, for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC, Toronto).
While Alys Robi sings with her usual assurance and technical adroitness in the English and Spanish repertoire, the results are variable, albeit always satisfying. In the case of one of her greatest hits, Chica Chica Boum Chic, the bilingual shift from French to English within such a short duration seems to impede the high-spirited, headlong sprint that gives the 78-rpm record such irresistible appeal. At 2:17, itÕs only seven seconds longer than her RCA Victor 78-rpm disc recording in French alone. RobiÕs intonation in this performance of the song, though still quite ŅmusicianlyÓ, is marginally less assured than on the 78, where she invariably hit the notes with greater accuracy. She also used glissando and other pitch-bending effects on the way to, from, and between notes, to amusing outcome. Also, the accompaniment for this same song, which Lucio Agostini had devised and directed on the RCA Victor disc, was more aggressively percussive. The effect was much more exuberant than the drumming in the broadcast transcription recording, in which Agostini provided a more softly focused backup arrangement.
For the most part, the English-language selections are really too short in timing to permit AgostiniÕs sophistication as an arranger to register the impact that he probably sought. Robi delivers the Spanish-language songs irresistibly, with glorious brio and a combination of vocal virtuos-ity and nuance, her Spanish enunciated to perfection. In the instrumental pieces, AgostiniÕs sophisticated arrangements Š as in the songs which his vocalist sings in Spanish Š has enough time to make the impact for which he seems to be striving, rather than seeming too genteel. The overall flavor in all of the selections being that of high-grade pop rather than of swing or of jazz. Agostini was also the arranger and conductor for RobiÕs 78-rpm RCA Victor recordings made from 1944-1948. For those 10-inch discs, his arrangements were more straightforward, in the mainstream of the French pop genres of the 1930s and 1940s, whether in bal musette or other ensemble or orchestral scoring. One appreciates AgostiniÕs effort, in these Toronto broadcasts, to back up Robi with accompaniments that have more than a taste of the emerging post-World War II ŅloungeÓ idiom (as it has come to be termed). But, for the most part, the earlier stylings of the accompaniments for the record studio, however more modest their pretensions may be, are more suited to the short duration of a 10-inch 78-rpm disc side, as they would have been for the generally brief timings of the songs as broadcast from Toronto.
Jean-Pierre SvignyÕs copious and detailed notes in the Gala booklet include several little-known photos of Agostini and Robi, often with other musicians and technical staff, in the Montral Victor and Toronto CBC studios, as well as other illustrations. Much of the transfer work for Gala of the CBC broadcasts was done at the National Library and Archives CanadaÕs world-class facilities, and at the historic Studio Victor on rue Lacasse. The latter is now part of Montral proper, where Robi and Agostini together had recorded most of the singerÕs 78-rpm discs.
The Gala CDs sound quality, from varying source material, outshines the fine work that XXI-21 Productions engineered from the 78-rpm discs on its XXI-21 Records and Experience Records labels. It is not necessary to belabor these matters, for the broadcast, 78-rpm, and 45-rpm disc sources alike benefited from the transfer and restoration work of master technicians of the first rank on each of the releases under comparison. For vivid sound, and thus for the enjoyment of many listeners, the Gala disc is a clear winner, but the two releases of Robi derived from RobiÕs commercial discs pose a dilemma for the buyer. The single CD disc from XXI-21 Produc-tions on its Experience Records label, of sixteen of Alys RobiÕs best-known 78-rpm recordings, is a very well balanced choice of songs and performances for both variety and quality. It benefits from vivid sound that more than compensates for the residual surface noise still audible from the RCA Victor 78s. Alas, the same producers and engineers had opted to filter the sound more heavily for XXI-21 Records 3-CD set. It still conveys well the beauty of the 78- and 45-rpm originals (plus one electrical transcription), but, in comparison to the brighter sound and the wider dynamic range of the Experience CD, the XXI-21 Records compilation seems distant and a bit anemic. Perhaps the engineering and production team eliminated some of the layers of filtering for the Experience disc that had so dampened the sonic impact of the XXI-21 Record set. The difference in the level of filtering holds a few ironies for the listener who auditions both. For example, the extra noise reduction processing for the XXI-21 Records collection, oddly enough, reveals flaws or inequalities in the engineering of the original 78-rpm discs which the fuller, more brilliant, less filtered sound of the Experience CD masks.
Overall, GalaÕs new release of Toronto broadcast material is a welcome introduction to Alys RobiÕs art for listeners who may find the prevailing French-language content of the other releases off-putting. GalaÕs CD is a Ņmust haveÓ item for seasoned collectors who already own the discs on the XXI-21 Records and/or Experience Records labels, or prior LP or CD reissues.5 For those content to have a satisfying sampling of RobiÕs recordings and who enjoy her work in French, especially the best sellers of her prime years, the Experience Records single CD is the recommendation. The 3-CD XXI-21 Records set is an essential acquisition for in-depth collectors, with or without the Experience Records disc as a corrective to its relative sonic pallor. The Gala CD is recommended for its vivid-sounding esoterica and for Alys RobiÕs inimitable and fiery singing in Spanish, which neither of the other currently available CD releases, or previously issued LPs and CDs, can match.
Reviewed by Gerald Parker
ARSC Journal (Association For Recorded Sound Collections)
Vol. 37: 1 (Spring 2006)
1. The best and most detailed of these books, all in French, is Jean BeaunoyerÕs Fleur dÕAlys (Montral: Lemeac, 1994), decently researched and drawing on several extended conversations with Alys Robi. The other two are autobiographical, Alys RobiÕs Ma carrire et ma vie (Saint ŠLaurent Qubec, Qubcor, 1980), and Un Long cri dans la nuit, (Montral: dimag, 1990).
2. Ma vie en cinmascope: la musique du film. Disques Musicor MOMCD-2342 (1 CD: c.39:00), available from Distribution Slect. The film was deservedly a great success, artistically and at the box office. Actor/singer Pascale Bussires performs songs chosen from RobiÕs repertoire in a convincing, skillful, modern approximation of the vocal style of the period. Her singing is enjoyable and rises to such a challenge with honor, albeit falling short of Alys RobiÕs sheer vocal virtuosity and technical control. The song accompaniments and the instrumentals have a pronounced jazz/swing and/or ŅsalsaÓ flavoring. These differ markedly from the more straightforward pop stylings of Lucio Agostini and the other arrangers and conductors heard on RobiÕs 78- and 45-rpm studio and broadcast recordings. Nonetheless, they are quite enjoyable and lively. A bonus is the inclusion of a 1981 live performance of the song Alys en cinemascope (composed by Germain Gauthier to lyrics by the great Luc Plamondon). Diane Dufresne, the Ņdiva of all divasÓ in Qubec pop music, sang this to honor Robi and boost yet another phase of RobiÕs comeback career. Among the printed documentation about this motion picture is the article ŅDans le peau dÕAlys Robi: sur le plateau de Ma vie en cinmascopeÓ (7 Jours, 2004;15(13):20-24). In this particularly interesting article, Franois Hamel interviews Bussire, screenwriter and producer Denise Filiatrault, plus actors Denis Bernard and Serge Prostigo.
3. Compare any of these discs of Alys RobiÕs singing with, for example, The Complete Capitol Hits of Margaret Whiting (EMI/Capitol 72435-21734-2-6-CCM-103-2, 2 CDs), released in 1999. The comments about Margaret Whiting are not meant to disparage her accomplishments (her recordings are eminently enjoyable), nor those of singers like her, whose work emphasizes the performer over the songs themselves, a legitimate goal in pop music, and even more so in jazz. While never being anyone other than herself, Robi has shown a higher loyalty to the music and the lyrics of the songs, rather than offering predictable consistency of approach in songs of divergent character. It is significant to note that Alys Robi was on intimate terms with many of the composers and lyricists of the Latin-American songs in her repertoire (Lucio Agostini, for his part, had similar friendships). Her personal loyalties to the songwriters match the musical ones that are so much in evidence in all of the compositions she has chosen to perform.
4. BeaunoyerÕs Fleur dÕAlys discusses Alys RobiÕs work for the electronic media, and includes among the publicationÕs illustrations a photograph of Robi with musicians outfitted in Latin-American costumes singing in a B.B.C. studio. Beaunoyer claims this to be Ņthe worldÕs first television broadcastÓ) in July 1947. Robert Thrien gives a nicely potted summary of much Š but by no means all Š of RobiÕs radio work in the illustrated brochure of notes included with XXI-21 Records set cited above.
5. Les Succs dÕAlys Robi, the LP reissue of her 78-rpm recordings in RCA VictorÕs ŅGalaÓ series (CGP-101) in 1954, is the earliest such compilation. It was transferred digitally on BMG Records (74321267742) for release as a CD in 1992 and has been intermittently available since then.