Alys Robi: A diva in full bloom

The new Montreal-based Gala label, owned and operated by Jean-Pierre Sévigny, and specialized in historical recordings, is releasing a first innovative CD anthology: Alys Robi – Diva.
The anthology contains 12 previously unreleased (and remastered) tracks taken from the legendary CBC radio series Let There Be Music first aired in 1946. Famous Canadian conductor Lucio Agostini was the mastermind behind Let There Be Music, and he chose Canada’s singing sensation, Alys Robi, to star in the radio series. In the 1940s, Robi was Canada’s most popular singer; she won a number of awards both in English and French Canada.
In 1945, RCA Victor’s mogul Hugh Joseph signed the Montreal diva to a recording contract. She had a string of hits and performed in the big cabarets of New York, Paris and London. 
The anthology Alys Robi –Diva also pays homage to the legendary RCA Victor recording studio built in Montreal in the 1940s. The who’s who of Canadian music recorded there. The basic transferts were done at the Library and Archives Canada. The CD was remastered at the new Studio Victor, now owned by Mr. Pilon, right next to the famous old RCA studio where Alys Robi first recorded. Renovated, the studio is still being used today. 
The CD contains newly discovered jazz and Latin songs taken from key radio performances of Alys Robi. Three instrumentals are added to Mademoiselle  Robi’s tour de chant: we have a chance to hear Lucio Agostini conducting a big band in his own arrangements of pop standards.
Announcements and emcee introductions were not removed at the montage in order to provide a context and give the listener a more realistic radio experience. The 24-page booklet includes rare photos and an essay based on cutting-edge research.

Tracklisting

Speak Low   
I’ll Be Seeing You 
Chica Chica Boom Chic (alternative live version)
La Comparsa (instrumental)
Palabras de Mujer
You and I
Begin the Beguine (instrumental)
J’attendrai
Guadalajara 
You’ve Changed It All 
Brazil (instrumental)
Goodnight,  Wherever You Are

Editor’s note

Alys Robi (1923 - ) understood that in order to earn the respect of her compatriots, she had to seek fame and triumph abroad, in the large markets. To this day, she remains adamant about the fact that French-Canadians of the 1940s were quick to idolize American and European singers at the expense of local artists. Stars after all were fabricated in Paris, London or New York. The local pop singers were treated as second-rate artists by the elite. Alys Robi and Félix Leclerc changed all of that, each in their way. The alienation of colonials caught in a post-colonial world. Alone, she reached a level of success unheard of in French Canada, and won international recognition before her health problems got in the way. 

The purpose of this anthology was to uncover new material, and show another dimension of the singer. Little did we know beforehand that the project would yield so many surprises. We discovered a jazz diva in full bloom. She never sounded this good! Her voice had matured and she controlled it better. Alys Robi was a great song stylist who carefully chose her songs from a variety of repertoires: French, Latin and Anglo-American pop and jazz. She picked songs which had a lasting quality, songs that were on the way of becoming classics. Then, with arranger-conductor Agostini, she remodelled the songs to suit her voice and range.

She made those standards her own. Alys Robi was not an imitator: the songs in this collection are more than mere versions; they are creations, or (re) creations. Her recorded performances stood the test of time and can be compared with any of the versions recorded by the competition, whether it be Frank Sinatra, Vera Lynn, Mary Martin or the big bands of Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. Listen, compare and enjoy the art of Alys Robi. These brilliant performances are a testament to the memory of a great Canadian singer.

The nine vocal numbers on Diva and the instrumental La Comparsa are all taken from the Let There Be Music radio series. The two bonus Agostini instrumentals, Brazil and Beguine the Beguine, come from CBC’s Tenth Anniversary Party (1946). The Let ThereBe Music series began in May 1946 and lasted through the summer. Announcements and emcee introductions were not removed in order to provide a context and give the listener a more realistic radio experience.

Let There Be Music - Alys Robi in her prime

Most Canadians remember Alys Robi as a victim of Quebec’s psychiatric establishment of the 1950s. She was institutionalized and received electroshock treatments. But they also remember her as the famous singer of the 1940s who popularized exotic novelty songs such as Tico-Tico and Chica Chica Boum Chic. But there’s more to the Alys Robi story than tragedy or a string of hits. Few people remember how good she was as a singer of  pop ballads, jazz and Broadway standards, and Latin art songs. This is what we get on this CD: the pure, unadulterated Alys Robi accompanied by the Lucio Agostini big band in rare live radio performances that first aired 60 years ago.

In the summer of 1946,  Alys Robi was 23, and at the top of her career as the most popular female vocalist in Canada. Despite her youth, she had an impressive track record. From the early 1940s she had sung in the big cabarets of New York, Paris, and London where she developed a sensuous, vibrant singing style. She had also starred in a number of popular radio shows in America and in Europe. Through the magic of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio transcription discs, her voice travelled to Europe and to South America. She had come a long way since her burlesque days of the 1930s in Montreal’s infamous red light district. In the spring of 1946, she was chosen to star in the new CBC radio extravaganza Let There Be Music. So she went back to the Toronto CBC studio where, in 1944, she first had reached fame in the radio series, Latin American Serenade.

Reaching nearly household, radio in the 1940s was the beating heart of the music industry. Radio made stars. Prime time belonged to the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and to crooners like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Perry Como. Alys Robi belonged to that league of singers. Some even called her a torch singer, but to most people involved in this project, she was a song stylist mostly concerned with technique, diction, and tone colour. Her shows included elements of torch singing but her records and radio performances didn’t.

Alys Robi was above all a radio star, and she performed in a number of popular shows in Canada, the U.S., South America and Europe. For a period, she had a gruelling schedule of 12 radio shows a week. The series Let There Be Music however, is perhaps the show in which she reached her peak as a singer and song stylist. The music of the new CBC cycle was arranged and conducted by Lucio Agostini (1913-1996), the new star among Canadian conductors. Alys Robi had met Lucio at the Esquire Club in Montreal. Soon after, he became her arranger, conductor, mentor and lover. She became a singer in Agostini’s band. He helped her polish her style and technique. In the Let There Be Music series however, they came together as artistic collaborators. Following in the footsteps of his father conductor Giuseppe Agostini, Lucio was the rising star of the Canadian music scene. He had conducted his first radio show before he was 20. He was a prolific composer of incidental music, film scores, and a gifted arranger and conductor. In 1932, he began also to write incidental music for the Associated Screen News company, based in Montreal. By 1934, he was a conductor for the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, forerunner of the CBC. Alys joined Lucio when he moved to Toronto in 1943 to work for CBC radio.       

Alys and Lucio had much in common. They loved Latino music, and the rhythmic dances of South America. In music, their romance found a common purpose. Both felt that Latin music is best expressed in the style of the art song, with inventive introductions, theme and variations, and climactic finales. Agostini’s approach to Latin music is based on the singer capturing the tonal colours of the song. The vocalist is accompanied by a large orchestra with lush strings; the arrangements do not rest solely on the melody. Lucio’s arrangements are sophisticated and highly original, often unusual. The man branded everything he arranged or conducted with originality. There is also an element of surprise in everything he does: orchestrations, tempi, intros and finales, etc. Agostini is obviously on the same wavelength as jazz critic Whitney Balliett, who points out that “jazz is the sound of surprise”.  In Begin the Beguine, the last three notes of the usual ending are first played by the winds and then repeated in a murmur by the strings. No conductor ever arranged the Cole Porter classic in this fashion. In Goodnight, Wherever You Are, Agostini provides a slow and dramatic orchestral introduction ushered in with the harp, and punctuated by the timpani drums which are used again in the dramatic coda. This is an original, atypical arrangement for a jazz ballad. 

Agostini was a gifted musician. At 16, he was cellist for the Montreal Philharmonic. As arranger-conductor, he had the ability to write in any style: classical, jazz, broadway, pop, Latino. In the lively milieu of radio in the 1940s, a professional musician had to be versatile and efficient. Quality work had to be delivered at a furious pace. Alys Robi wasn’t the only female vocalist used by Agostini in Let There be Music, she had a rival. Norma Beth Locke (1923-1990) was the lead vocalist in Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen, Canada’s top dance band of the 40s and 50s. Locke was also a regular of  CBC Toronto, and she too starred in a number of radio shows over the years. 

Lucio Agostini was really the star of what he referred to as a “music cycle.” But Alys Robi made her own contributions in terms of repertoire and her unique interpretation skills: style, tempo, vocal delivery. Both people were perfectionists, workaholics, married to their careers. They used to practice and rehearse new songs to the point of exhaustion. It was an intense, passionate collaboration that culminated in Let There Be Music. Together, they made sweet music and Canadian radio history.  

Contrary to popular belief, Alys Robi didn’t only sing or record Latin songs. In her discography, the Latin element is minor, but it eclipses the rest in terms of popularity. In this collection, only three songs out of twelve are Latin, and the influence of Carmen Miranda, the singer that Robi is always compared to, is minimal.

For the radio series, Alys and Lucio chose a repertoire of contemporary American ballads, Latin favourites, and classics of French chanson. Few contemporary singers could master three languages and the variety of musical styles. But Alys was a multi-linguist and a fervent latinophile. What comes across in these performances is her assurance and seamless delivery. At 23 years of age, she was experienced, confident and in full command of her vocal gifts. According to her biographer, Jean Beaunoyer, she stood apart from her peers; she was an atypical woman and singer for her times. She had a  trans-cultural world vision and, in retrospect, she was a pioneer of ethnic, world music. The songs she performed on Let There Be Music are all classics which are still performed today by musicians around the world. Like the great Edith Piaf, Alys Robi could find good songs and make them her own. She travelled far and wide to meet important composers like Gabriel Ruiz and Ary Barosso, and chose some of their best songs to perform, for which she then wrote the French lyric.  She carefully built her repertoire with songs that would have a lasting impact. Some artists have an instinct for great songs!   

1. Speak Low  3’43  

(Ogden Nash  / Kurt Weill)

Recorded: 17 April 1946

Fleeing Nazi Germany, Kurt Weill composed this song during his “American period” 1935-1950. Well-known poet and lyricist Ogden Nash wrote the words. Almost a beguine echoing the contagious Latin music of the day, it was introduced on Broadway by Mary Martin in One Touch of Venus (1943). Dick Haymes and Eileen Wilson sang it in the 1948 film  version. During this period, Weill also wrote the music of Knickerbocker Holiday (1938) and, arguably his best, Lady in theDark (1941).  Weill died of heart failure in 1950 in New York. Here Alys Robi is, for a rare occasion, accompanied by a vocal group, the Jack Allyson Singers. The group was hired by Agostini for the entire series. Lucio Agostini also performed on the same show an orchestral arrangement of the title song of One Touch of Venus.   

2. I’ll Be Seeing You  2’03

(Sammy Fain / Irving Kahal)

Recorded: 2 July 1946

This was written by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal in 1938, and introduced by singer Tamara in the musical Right This Way. Tommy Dorsey and a young Frank Sinatra recorded the song in 1944, and made it one of the biggest ballads of World War II. It was a number-one hit for more than 20 weeks. Subsequent recordings were made by Frances Langford, a singer of the war era like Alys Robi, and Liberace. The Agostini-Robi version is slower and more dramatic. This standard still gets around, and it is covered and recorded (there are over 500 versions) by numerous singers across all genres including  Holly Cole, Franćoise Hardy, Rickie Lee Jones, Mel Tormé, Etta James, Willie Nelson, Ben Heppner, Rod Stewart,  As the classic WW II song goes: “Moonlight and love songs are never out of date”.     

3. Chica Chica Boom Chic  2’17    

(Mack Gordon/Harry Warren)

Recorded: 5 June 1946

Brazilian “bombshell” Carmen Miranda (1909-1955) popularized this samba in the movie musical That Night in Rio (1941). The song is a Hollywood take-off of the original Bahian samba, which Miranda performed in her early days in Rio de Janeiro. Chica Chica Boom Chic was penned by the song-writing team of Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, who wrote songs for Miranda in her 20th Century Fox  period (1940-1946).  Alys wrote the French lyric, and she changed the spelling of the original English title to Chica Chica Boum Chic. The tempo of this live number is faster than her recorded performance. In his introduction at the Montreal Forum, comedian Jack Benny called Alys Robi the Canadian Carmen Miranda, and the name stuck for life. Benny was referring to the two or three songs that both singers recorded. However, the comparison should stop there. The two are miles apart in terms of tessitura (register of the voice), technique and style. Robi is a mezzo-soprano trained in the French and American orchestral pop traditions. The voice is clear, lyrical. Miranda is a natural contralto who began by singing the primitive Brazilian samba, a style in which guitars and percussions are prevalent. The voice is almost another percussive instrument which adds to the pulsating dance beat. According to Jean Beaunoyer, Robi’s biographer, the two divas met at a party in L.A. in 1946 when Alys Robi was there to do a screen test.   

4. La Comparsa  3’17

(Ernesto Lecuona)

Recorded: 6 March 1946

In spite of the fact that he wrote 1000 compositions, Lecuona is mostly and sadly remembered for the often-recorded Andalucia and Malaguena, both part of the Andalucia Suite. Arranged here by Agostini as an orchestral suite, the haunting La Comparsa(Carnival Procession) is part of a cycle of six pieces for piano solo: Danzas Afro-Cubanas. It was  published in America by E.B. Marks in the 1930s. The Danzas are vivid musical impressions of the traditional music performed during the old carnival processions, and the Parade of the Nanigos (Negroes) in Havana. Lecuona (1895-1963) performed all over the Americas in the 30s and 40s, also landing a contract with all three major Hollywood studios to write film music. A combination of Spanish music and Afro-Cuban folk rhythms, his beautiful melodies had a universal appeal. Lecuona studied for a brief time with Maurice Ravel, who felt that Malaguena was more melodic and beautiful than is own Bolero. Like Ravel, Lucio Agostini was fond of the “Afro-Cubano” idiom, especially Lecuona’s music, and he arranged a number of his compositions for orchestra. This highly personal arrangement is reminiscent of his film and incidental music.   

5. Palabras de Mujer  3’41

(Augustin Lara)

Recorded: 15 May 1946

Even if considered as one of the best songs of Mexican composer Augustin Lara (1897-1970),  Palabras de Mujer trails in popularity behind his big international hits Granada, and Solamente UnaVez, which was translated and recorded by Robi in 1945 under the title Je te tiens sur moncoeur. It was recorded by Latino crooners Tito Rodriguez, Lucho Gatica and Vicente Fernandez. Placido Domingo also made a version on his Por Amor album. Here, the electrifying performance of Palabras is one of the best ever captured on record. It is another brilliant example of Robi and Agostini’s mastery of the Latino idiom.

6. You and I  1’46

(Meredith Wilson)

Recorded: 2 July 1946

This slow jazz number was a sentimental showpiece for famous big bands during the war years: Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. The ballad charted in 1941, and shot to number one. Alys Robi heard it no doubt on radio or live on stage when doing gigs in New York’s cabarets. The Robi performance is on a par with Herb Jeffries (with Ellington), Frank Sinatra (with Dorsey) and Ray Eberle (with Miller). In her version the tempo is slower towards the end, and more lyrical. The arrangement bears the Agostini trademark: a sophisticated mixture of jazz and orchestral pop. Contrary to classic big band arrangements, where the singer sings in the middle section (B) in between the orchestra choruses (A) and the solos (C), Agostini’s arrangement features the vocalist who sings throughout the song. Robi’s voice alone is showcased; there are no instrumental solos. 

7. Begin the Beguine (instrumental)  3’03

(Cole Porter)

Recorded: 3 November 1946

Another selection which reflects the leanings of Agostini. Aside from Latino music, he loved the great Broadway tunesmiths: Kern, Porter, Berlin and Rodgers. The song reflects the universal appeal of Cole Porter, and it was recorded in many languages by countless pop and jazz singers. It was inspired by the folk beguines of Martinique, where Porter spend some time as a tourist. Porter, ever a poet, immediately thought of rhyming beguine with begin and he put it away in his notebook. It first appeared in the musical Jubilee (1935). The song remained obscure until Artie Shaw propelled it to fame in 1938, with a Jerry Gray arrangement. Shaw was attracted to the song because it “moved a Latin beat to a swing time.”

The bandleader was particularly interested in Porter’s way of mixing major and minor scales, and his break from the usual ABA structure. The Artie Shaw band performed Begin the Beguine at military camps and war-bond rallies throughout the war. Sales of the recording soared to 6.5 millions copies. Sheet music sales from around the world were also very high. It was also recorded by Fred Astaire, Deanna Durbin and Carlos Ramirez, who lived in Montreal during the cabaret days of the 40s and 50s. Again, Agostini scored a personal, surprising finale. 

8. J’attendrai  1’21

(Louis Poterat / Dino Olivieri)  

Recorded: 2 July 1946

The only French balladin this selection,  J’attendrai was penned by Dino Olivieri et Louis Poterat, and first published in Italy in 1939. Rina Ketty was the first to record it.  

Here the performance is in the “realist” vein of French chanson, which portrays lonely women living in squalor in the seedy suburbs of Paris. Fréhel, Damia, and Edith Piaf are the most famous exponents of the realist tradition. It was translated in English by Anna Sosenko, and recorded on the Decca label by socialite Hildegarde. The song remains a favourite and is still recorded by contemporary singers.    

9. Guadalajara  3’30

(Pepe Guizar)

Recorded: 17 April 1946

Like Brazil, the song Guadalajara acquired the status of anthem. It was written by Pepe Guizar, born in 1912, who is affectionately remembered as El Pintor Musical de México, the musical painter of Mexico. Most of his songs vividly portray Mexican culture and landscape, and they became the staple of dozens of Mariachi bands making a living in the border towns. Guizar introduced the song in Jorge Negrete’s film Caminos de ayer (1938). Guizar also made a cameo appearance in the Fox musical Down Argentine Way (1940), along with Betty Grable, Don Ameche and Carmen Miranda. He died in 1980. American audience heard Guadalajara in the film musical Week-End at the Waldorf (1945). It also became an orchestral showpiece for bandleaders such as Xavier Cugat and Perez Prado. It appeared once again in the film Fun in Acapulco (1963) starring Elvis Presley. Today, people visit the Plaza de los Mariachis in downtown Guadalajara, and find a plaque in honour of the local hero: Pepe. Alys Robi’s performance is as good as it gets; dramatic, upbeat with a hair-raising finale.   

10. You’ve Changed It All   2’23

(Lucio Agostini)

Recorded: 5 June 1946

The mystery song of this live record. Yet another soulful performance, arguably the best of the set.  A very sophisticated jazz / pop ballad of unknown origin. We did an extensive research with all the major publishers and the U.S. Copyright Office and no writer was ever found for this song. It was discovered in the Lucio Agostini archives. Lucio wrote it and never bothered to register the copyright. He wrote so much music for radio, film and television, and most of it was never copyrighted or published. Agostini however was not one to write lyrics. Who then wrote the words of You’ve Changed It All? It could have been Alys Robi (?) , and that it became “their” song for a spell, while still in love. If true, the text is revealing; it deals with extremely intense, confusing emotions. The song may provide an insight into their relationship. “You’ve changed it all, my life in not my own to live”. A classic A-B-A-B song structure but with plenty of modulation and a sophisticated orchestration.

11. Brazil (instrumental)  2’19

(Ary Barroso)

Recorded: 3 November 1946

Timeless samba written in 1939 by Ary Barroso (1903-1964) with the original Portuguese title Aquarela do Brasil.  First heard in the Walt Disney feature Saludos Amigos (1942). In the film, the number Brasil is sung by Aloysio Oliveira, and Tico Tico No Fuba, Zequinha de Abreu’s most famous composition, is performed by Jose Oliveira.  Both songs are important in Alys Robi’s repertoire. In 1945, Spanish-American bandleader Xavier Cugat (1900-1990) recorded Brazil with his Waldorf Astoria Orchestra, and it has been flying high ever since. A perennial festive song reminiscent of the Rio Carnival. Carmen Miranda immortalized it in the MGM film The Gang’s All Here (1943). In the following decades, Brazil was recorded over a thousand times in several languages and pop styles. In the realm of jazz, Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra,  Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli recorded it. The song crossed all cultural and linguistic barriers, and through recordings, radio and movies became a universal anthem.  Brazil is in the style of the samba-exaltaćčo, literally exaltation-samba; a samba written with obvious intentions of showing passion for Brazilian music and dance. Originally, the song was arranged by Radamés Gnattali and sang by Francisco Alves. Agostini’s arrangement is obviously a takeoff from Xavier Cugat but with a showman’s twist. The orchestration is more refined and energetic than Cugat’s version which today sounds more kitschy. Cugat is today regarded as a pioneer of what is now being labelled as “lounge”.     

12. Credits  0’43

CBC announcements and full credits on the Let There Be Music series and all the people who worked in it. Announcements and emcee introductions were not removed in order to provide a context and give the listener a more realistic radio experience.

 13. Goodnight,  Wherever You Are  2’14

(Robertson / Hoffman / Weldon)

Recorded: 2 July 1946

Another favourite of the war era which was performed live on radio by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra in 1944. Also recorded by famous female vocalists: Vera Lynn, Doris Day, and Mary Martin. In the 1950s,  rhythm & blues singer Big Maybelle recorded it on the Savoy label. The song was co-written by Al Hoffman (1902-1960) who co-wrote “Promises” which was recorded in the 1940s by French-Canadian crooner Fernand Robidoux, a peer of Alys Robi. Like Alys, Robidoux was also a pioneer of French-Canadian chanson, and he regarded Alys Robi as the greatest pop diva Québec has produced. Agostini’s dramatic orchestration echoes the tragic events of WWII. 

Alys Robi at the RCA Victor Recording Studio

Around 1943, RCA Victor built a recording studio at 1050 Lacasse Street in Montreal’s Saint-Henri district. The modern studio was the first in Canada to combine architectural and acoustical elements right from its inception. Both concept and design were conceived in the RCA laboratories in Camden, New Jersey.

The director of RCA Victor of Canada was Hugh Joseph (1896-1985). Coming through the ranks, Joseph went from manager to supervisor, and later was named director of the artist and repertoire division. In 1944-1945, Joseph offered a recording contract to a young and upcoming cabaret and radio singer named Alys Robi. In a few months, she became one of RCA’s biggest singing sensation.  In the post-war era, all the greats of Canadian music recorded at the RCA Victor Studio: Alys Robi, Robert L’Herbier, Jean Lalonde, Oscar Peterson, Hank Snow, Wilf Carter, Mart Kenney And His Western Gentlemen, etc.

The Lacasse Street studio was used until the late 1960s, and then it was transformed into office space. By this time, RCA had built a new recording studio in downtown Montreal and gradually began to move its operations there. Finally, in 1978, RCA closed its gigantic record factory which had been part of the Saint-Henri landscape for decades. Once a vibrant music centre, the old RCA studio was now deserted. For a while, local musicians used it for their rehearsals. Then in 1985, the Pilon Brothers (Daniel and Gaétan) purchased the studio and renamed it Le Studio Victor (no link to the RCA Victor corporation) in order to emphasize its historical value.   

Today, after a few minor modifications, the studio is still used by the cream of Montreal musicians: Ariane Moffatt, Daniel Bélanger, Suzie Arioli, Coral Egan, etc.

RCA Victor’s Studio Orchestra

In past decades,  RCA Victor not only owned and operated its own recording studios, but the corporation also employed, on a permanent basis, professional musicians who formed a regular studio orchestra. For a musician, this job was one of the best. We now possess information on those “forgotten” musicians who were part of that great RCA orchestra of the 1940s and 1950s. It came to us via the personal archives of composer and Victor Orchestra member Maurice Zbriger (1896-1981). Zbriger was a virtuoso violinist who studied at the Saint-Petersburg (Russia) conservatory of music, in the class of Leopold Auer, where Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein were among his classmates.     

Zbriger took part in many RCA recording sessions and left a great number of arrangements and compositions. His friend and collaborator, Giuseppe Agostini, was the conductor of the Victor orchestra. Zbriger, Giuseppe and Lucio Agostini, and the RCA session men defined the sound of the post-war era in Canada, both on radio and in the recording studio. Their impact on the Canadian music history is simply incalculable.

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