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Articles / Erthyglau

Great American Songbook

(March 01, 2012)

Daniel and Laura Curtis perform, and champion, the music of the Great American Songbook. Their concert repertoire includes the works of composers such as Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter. Additionally, they sing the songs of Ivor Novello; included as an 'honorary American'. Dan and Laura explained their passion for the genre.


Dan & LauraDaniel and Laura Curtis


CC … Tell us a little about the Great American Songbook, for those of us who haven't heard of it before.

DC … If you were to Google the term The Great American Songbook the most common answer you will find is music from Broadway and Hollywood Musicals from 1920 to 1960. For me, it far outreaches this. Think of a song like Alexander’s Ragtime Band by Irving Berlin that was written back in 1911. Although most people agree that the birth of Rock and Roll ended the era of the Songbook.


CC … Are these works in any danger of becoming lost?

DC … Sadly there is a real danger of they may.

MGM Studios donated their collection of film orchestrations to be used as landfill for the 405 interstate in California. Only afterwards did they realise that these were completely irreplaceable. John Wilson is now re-scoring some of these songs note by note, to perform with his orchestra, but some will never be re-scored.

Some films have actually been lost completely, with no known copy anywhere in the world; which sounds hard to believe. One of these films is called Hearts in Exile, from 1929 and stared Dolores Costello as Vera Zuanova - Dolores is the grandmother of the actress Drew Barrymore.


CC … How do you help preserve the material?

DC … We perform a large number of concerts each year and perform as many of these concerts for free as we possibly can. We try to engage with new audiences wherever possible and also play some of the lesser known songs. We also have a large collection of sheet music that we continue to collect and catalogue. I have searched for years to find some pieces of music. I have been lucky and have located a few of them; normally from libraries in America.


March 2012 Songbook Dan West End liveDan, performing in the West End of London


CC … You hold a number of workshops with young people about the Great American Songbook. Can you tell us about the workshops and why you believe young people should be introduced this music?

DC … As well as the performance element of the works, we are undertaking two preservation projects. One is working with young people to try to inspire them to listen to the music; with the aim of ensuring it is never forgotten. We have been holding schools' workshops - teaching them songs like I Got Rhythm - which has been a great success. In a world where music has changed so vastly, it’s great to see the younger generation perform these great songs. We also tell them stories about the composers which they find really interesting. I really feel that teaching these songs to young people is, ultimately, what needs to be done to ensure these songs are never forgotten, and this is the most important work of all.


CC … You also record the memories of elderly people. Can you tell us about your experiences and what you hope to achieve doing this?

DC … The second project has involved going around the country recording the memories of elderly people (e.g. the first time they saw Singin’ in the Rain), and talking about their experiences of the music. We are putting a website together and writing a book, which will talk about our findings, so it can be preserved for generations to come. Preserving the actual music or recordings is one thing, but people’s stories go alongside the music and help to make a song great. I think life has a kind of soundtrack running through it, and it would be a shame if that were never captured.


CC … The Great American Songbook includes so many different works; mainly from Hollywood musicals, but others too. Which are your favourites, and why?

DC ... This is really one of the toughest questions to answer, there are so many great songs. Bobby Darin’s Mack the Knife is amazing. I remember hearing the song when I was little and I used to phone up local radio stations and request the song. Normally requests were made because it was somebody's birthday. I remember once saying it was grandfathers birthday but it was a good few months before the actual date. When the radio played the song they said happy birthday and a lot of his friends started calling at the house wishing him many happy returns. Oh dear!

A recording by Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong called the Five Pennies Saints, is very funny. And I also love songs like How Deep is the Ocean, written by Irving Berlin and also the Frank Sinatra version of Someone to Watch Over Me. And you can't get better that Matt Monro singing Softly As I Leave You.

I think George Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue is one of the most fantastic pieces of music ever written.


March 2012 Songbook danbandwDan - in concert


CC … Do you tend to prefer works from any particular period?

DC … I think it would be 1940s. Some amazing songs were written around the time of World War II. Certainly, no inspiration was lacking at that time - with people being away from loved ones and the way the world was changing. Those influences certainly added something different to the songs.


CC … Tell us about your background - where you are from and where you live now.

DC … We are currently based in Caerphilly in south Wales, which is where I was born, but we travel all over for performances. It is not very often that we get to perform locally. I do think we will look at moving somewhere nearer London in the future, which does tend to be where a large amount of our work comes from. We do love living in the Valleys though. It’s wonderful to open your curtains and to see the mountains. What greater inspiration is there than that?


March 2012 Songbook LauraLaura Curtis


Laura was born in Sheffield but spent most of her life in Lincoln where she went to school. Laura came to Cardiff to study at Cardiff University.

The story how we met is quite a strange one. We both actually worked at Wales Millennium Centre for a time, but never met. I put out an advert in Gumtree looking for a pianist/singer to join me to perform concerts based around The Great American Songbook and Laura answered. We arranged to meet and we never looked back. Just over a year and half later we got married at Llandaff Cathedral.


CC … You are both far too young to have heard these songs when they were first published. How did you come across them? And when did you realise the songs you enjoyed came mainly from the Great American Songbook?

DC … When I was a kid, I used to go to my grandparents' house every Sunday afternoon and I spent hours watching the great Hollywood Movie Musicals and going through their endless record collection. My grandmother idolised the Italian American Tenor Mario Lanza who did record a large quantity of music from the Great American Songbook and I was first introduced to many of these songs through his recordings. My other grandparents loved Frank Sinatra, so I was always around the music. I used to go to school and listen to my walkman bobbing my head and pretending I was listening to Prodigy and the songs of the day, but I was really listening to the great crooners. This music shaped my childhood and has gone on to shape my life.

Laura was a chorister in Lincoln Cathedral and she was taught many of the songs during her singing lessons; they were always her favourites to perform. When Laura and I first met, I started introducing her to some of the more unknown songs and now, we both share the same love for them. When we came to select our material for concerts, we noticed it all either came from The Great American Songbook directly or was written by artists who where heavily influenced by it.


CC … Which 'Songbook' performers do you most admire?

DC … At the top of list would be Frank Sinatra, who for me was the master. Not far behind would Bing Crosby, Bobby Darin, Dean Martin and Gene Kelly. My favourite ever scene from a movie is Gene Kelly dancing and singing the title sequence in Singin’ in the Rain; for me, that is Hollywood at its very best. Personality wise, I loved Danny Kaye, as he breathed so much life into what we did. He reminds of Dick Van Dyke, who is another hero of mine.

Of current performers my favourite is the American artist Michael Feinstein. Michael actually worked for Ira Gershwin and has been given the title The Keeper of the Songbook. I really agree with that. He is an incredible ambassador and one of the finest pianists that I have ever seen; he also has an amazing voice.


CC … Tell us about your first public performance.

DC … Our first public concert together was a 'fundraiser' for Ty Hafan at St Martin’s Church in Caerphilly. We always love helping charities whenever we can.

My first ever full concert was on the Glanfa Stage at the Wales Millennium Centre. A few days before the concert the pianist I had been working with got the flu and there was no way that he could perform. I found someone to replace him, but we only had 30 minutes on the day of the concert to rehearse for a one hour performance. It was quite nerve racking, but we did well and there was a really good audience reaction - 'The show must go on!


March 2012 Songbook Banqueting HouseThe Banqueting House, London


CC … You have performed in some wonderful places. Which venues are the most special to you?

DC … We have been very lucky to perform at some amazing venues. Our favourites have been performing to 10,000 people at Trafalgar Square as part of West End Live. It was pouring down with rain when we came on and everybody had umbrellas up. I started singing My Way and the crowd sang it back to me. What an amazing experience, I felt like a rock star for a few minutes.

Performing at the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando was very special. The room was so elegant and just suited the music we were performing, that was a really lovely concert. The Royal Albert Hall was spectacular, what an amazing concert Hall.


CC ... Where would you like to play, that you haven't yet?

DC … In London, I would love to perform at the London Palladium and the Royal Opera House as they have such amazing histories.

Strange one, but I have always wanted to perform at the Musée du Louvre in Paris and Carnegie Hall in New York City. It may take a while to get around to all of those but I hope to one day we can do it.


CC … With such a vast body of work from which to choose, how do you decide on your set?

DC … We include some songs in every concert. Our most requested songs are My Way, Summertime, Puttin’ on the Ritz and We’ll Gather Lilacs.

The rest of the songs we select carefully, depending on where the concert is held and the type of audience the concert will have attracted. We always try and pick a good, balanced set and often select songs that have interesting stories behind them. Occasionally we offer the audience the opportunity to select the set list they would like to hear. That is always an exciting way of doing things!


CC … Dozens of contemporary artists have performed songs from this genre, some of whom have been rather … shall we say, unexpected. Which singers would you say have nailed it? And which ones surprised you by doing so?

DC … Anyone who sings these great songs gets a lot of credit from me, because they are truly helping to ensure that they are never forgotten. One thing that tends to happen though, is that people record the same songs over and over again and it could lead people to believe there are only about 30 songs in the Great American Songbook, when actually, there are thousands.

I do really like a lot of the Michael Bublé arrangements. He is certainly a throw-back to the Big Band era, and has really taken this music to a younger audience.

I was most surprised by Paul McCartney’s new album, which is very interesting. It’s great to see him record some of the more unknown songs, and using some lovely arrangements.


March 2012 Songbook One ShowOn the BBC's One Show, with Tony Bennet


CC … Some very famous people have commented on your work. Could you quote some of them for us?

DC … Last year, we were invited to go on the BBC's One Show with the legendary Tony Bennett, which was such a big honour for us. Tony was very kind and generous and gave us a quote that we can use for promotional work.

We have also received comments from the lovely Nancy Sinatra, Dame Vera Lynn, Kevin Cole - who is considered by the Gershwin family to be the foremost interpreter of George’s work - and also Grammy Award Winners Arturo O’ Farrill and Benny Golson.

We are really honoured that they so many people have taken the time to look at what we do and offer their support. We really do appreciate it.


CC … Your TV and radio appearances have been well received. Are any more planned?

DC … Our last TV appearance was in January when we appeared on S4C on the Wedi 3 programme where we performed Summertime in Welsh.

On the 13 May we will be on BBC Radio 2, being interviewed by Aled Jones on his show Good Morning Sunday. Aled will also be playing our version of George Gershwin’s Embraceable You; we are really looking forward to that one.

There will be some more radio and TV later on in the year; we are just awaiting confirmation on them at the moment. We will keep updating our website to let people know about them.


March 2012 Songbook RadioDan and Laura on the radio


CC … Do you have any concerts planned for this year?

DC ... We tour throughout the year, so lots of great performances coming up, which will take us all over Wales and England.

To mention just a few:

We are very excited about performing at St Fagan’s - the National History Museum of Wales - on 27 August. We will be at the Oakdale Workmen’s Insitute, in full costume. The Workmen’s Insitute will transformed back to the 1940s. We will be doing a series of performances throughout the day, with someone on hand from the museum explaining about the time, and the songs. Very excited about that one;

On 25 March we will be performing the closing concert of the Flintshire ArtsFest at Clwyd Theatr Cymru in the Anthony Hopkins Theatre;

I have been organising, and we will be performing at the Lord Mayor of Cardiff’s Variety Concert in aide of Cancer Research Wales. The concert will take place at BBC Hoddinott Hall at the Wales Millennium Centre on the 27 April 2012. It will feature Peter Karrie, Mark Llewelyn Evans, Jamie Pugh, Boyd Clack* and a few other great artists, whom we will be announcing shortly. Should be a really great evening and, hopefully, we will raise as much money as possible for such a great charity.


CC … We can hear (and see) some of your work on your website. Have you any plans to release any more of your work?

DC … We will be releasing a CD on my birthday - 17 March. It will contain our recordings of songs by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Ivor Novello. The CD will also include some live performances alongside the studio recordings. I really like live recordings, as I feel they give off a totally different sound and atmosphere. It will be available in person at our concerts and via our website:


CC … Dan Curtis, thank you.


Dan and Laura Curtis are on Facebook and on Twitter.


* Link here to our classic interview with the multi-talented Boyd Clack, whose new album, Labourer of Love, is available online and in store.

© 2011 Caregos Cyf. | Hawlfraint - All rights reserved


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