Stars Who Sang (And Some Who Shouldn’t Have)

Back in the halcyon days of the Hollywood studio system, stars were required not only to act but also to be able to sing and dance credibly if the role required. Today, some actors still retain the gift for all-around entertaining (Hugh Jackman being a primary example), but there are also those who went into the recording studio only once or a couple of times to reveal their heretofore undiscovered talents, for better or worse.

Full disclosure: I have all the albums discussed here. Well, it’s the Cult Corner after all!

MAE WEST

The legendary Mae West was a real groundbreaker. An early gay rights activist, she got thrown in jail and faced constant censorship for her racy comedy. Still, she survived. In 1966, Mae decided to get groovy with an album of the current rock hits. Of course, she’d been an established singer on film, on stage and in Las Vegas forever, so it’s not so big a leap, but what makes this album so hilarious is her take on the material. Even the Beatles weren’t safe.

The rock and roll has been slo-o-o-o-wed way down for the 73 year old, but she still sounds a bit sweaty when performing covers of “Twist and Shout” and “Shakin’ All Over.” And you really don’t want to think about the septuagenarian actress’s spasms of ecstasy when she sings “You Turn Me On.” My favorite track on the album is “Day Tripper” (which she pronounces as “trippah”). She tries to add some salaciousness to the lyrics and throws in some of her trademark “ooh-oohs.”

Of course, her real indignities still lay ahead with the films Myra Breckenridge and — oh God — Sextette, in which the 84-year-old had to drool over Speedo-clad bodybuilders. Evidently, in real life,  she was still getting busy well into her eighties, so good for her.

BETTE DAVIS

Speaking of legends, Bette Davis hit a rough patch after running away screaming from Warner Bros. to become a freelancer in 1949 and her sensational Margo Channing in All About Eve amazingly failed to restart her career. When Broadway beckoned in 1952, she responded. Unfortunately, what she responded to was a musical revue called Two’s Company.

It had a roster of A-list talent behind it — Jules Dassin, Ogden Nash, Horton Foote — but the songs are just wretched. Perhaps if you were able to see the sketches along with the numbers, it might’ve helped, but today we have no way of ascertaining that.

Bette’s certainly game, speak-singing her way through the show, but horrible lyrics like “You can find your Shangri-La without a bra” are just groanworthy and not even campy in an awful way. In “Just Turn Me Loose on Broadway,” she misses more notes than she hits as she sings:

Give me four boys to dance with
Hoofers who twist and twirl
Just turn me loose on old Broadway
To be a musical comedy…not melodramedy
Musical comedy GIRL!

(And yes, she pronounces “girl” as “gull.”) You just feel sorry for her. Reportedly she worked her ass off, too. Ticket sales were brisk thanks to curiosity seekers and New York’s entire gay community, but she kept having collapses and breakdowns, eventually shutting down the show entirely. Maybe she realized it was total crap, too, and wanted to leave with at least a modicum of dignity intact.

Yet, in 1972, she went on television and performed one of the train wrecks, “Just Like a Man.”

ANTHONY PERKINS

When Tony Perkins took the role of Norman Bates in Psycho, it was both a curse and a blessing. Before the 1960 Hitchcock classic, he’d been a matinee idol in such films as Friendly Persuasion, The Matchmaker and Tall Story, a basketball comedy with Jane Fonda.

Post-Psycho, the characters he was most frequently offered were homicidal, suicidal and otherwise screwed up. Some were good (Pretty Poison) but some were just terrible (Mahogany). His decline was marked by a terrific performance in an insane Ken Russell film (Crimes of Passion) and, regrettably, the bluntly-titled Edge of Sanity, made just three years before his death from AIDS, in which he played a diseased, kinky Mr. Hyde.

The stage gave Perkins the opportunity to retreat from Norman’s shadow. He appeared in a musical, Greenwillow, and took the role of Dr. Dysart in Equus. Strangest of all was his performance in Evening Primrose, a 1966 musical produced for television, with songs by Stephen Sondheim, with whom he’d go on to write a 1973 mystery movie, The Last of Sheila.

But back in the late ’50s, he was still in his Tab Hunter-style boy toy phase and released a few albums, including From My Heart. His voice is pleasant enough; still, it’s a novelty to hear Norman sing. He does “The More I See You,” “Too Marvelous for Words,” Swinging on a Star” and my favorite track, “Ole Buttermilk Sky.” The musical accompaniment was by Urbie Green and His Orchestra, who also accompanied Billie Holiday for her excellent Lady in Satin.

SISSY SPACEK

Sissy Spacek won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), so an album of country songs should’ve come as no surprise.

And it’s a fine album. She covers Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin’,” performs one of her own compositions and another one co-written with Lynn. Yes, this is hat-slappin’ on-thigh, yee-haw country — one song is called “This Time I’m Gonna Beat You To the Truck” — but it’s fun and she sounds great.

Spacek started out singing and playing guitar in Greenwich Village coffeehouses in the 1960s (Carrie was a little folkie?!?) and even recorded a song, “John, You’ve Gone Too Far This Time” in 1968, under the pseudonym Rainbo. It was about the outrage caused over John and Yoko’s banned frontal nude album cover for Two Virgins.

WALTER BRENNAN

The name Walter Brennan may not mean much to audiences today, but he was a beloved character actor whose career spanned nearly 50 years and garnered three Academy Awards. As I said, you may not know the name, but if you imagine someone saying “Consarn it!”, it’s his voice you’re hearing in your head.

Anyhow, he actually cut several albums, all done in the “talk-singing” style also favored by nonsingers Rex Harrison and William Shatner. One of them, Our Presidents — A Musical Biography of Our Chief Executives — must’ve been a real hoot, considering he was a hard-right conservative.

I have Mama Sang a Song, released in 1962, which will have you overdosing on homespun whimsy from the very first track. Unfortunately, the album has ten more. In one song, “Houdini,” he’s singing to a fish:

So, swim Houdini
Whilst I close my eyes
Cause you and me’s friends 


Now you ain’t no fool
And neither am I and one day
I might pull you in


No, you ain’t no fool
And neither am I and one day
I might pull you in
Heh heh heh heh heh

Now imagine these lyrics being “sung” by Yosemite Sam in a mellow mood, and you’re getting there. And give the cackle at the end just the right touch of senile dementia. Hilarious.

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