"Songwriters Get Their Due at Clooney Benefit"

by Paul Grein, The Los Angeles Times, Apr 26, 1990

Glen Campbell came right to the point in telling the audience at the fifth annual "Singers' Salute to the Songwriter" concert why he turned out to toast Jimmy Webb, one of the event's honorees.

"If it weren't for Jimmy Webb I probably wouldn't be standing up here," he said of the writer of such Campbell signature songs as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston."

Liza Minnelli was similarly expansive in talking about John Kander and Fred Ebb, the writers of such Minnelli trademarks as "Cabaret" and "New York, New York."

The salute on Tuesday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion also toasted Marvin Hamlisch and the late Ira Gershwin. Rosemary Clooney hosted the show, which is the principal fund-raiser for the Betty Clooney Foundation for Persons with Brain Injury, a Long Beach facility named after Clooney's sister, who died in 1976 of a brain aneurysm.

In addition to giving singers a chance to publicly thank the writers who supply their material, the show provided a telling overview of each songwriter's output.

Webb, for example, is often thought of as a victim of early burnout. But the concert demonstrated that he has continued to write top-grade material since his late-'60s heyday.

Linda Ronstadt sang two of the four Webb songs featured on her latest album, including the sublime "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress." And Lucie Arnaz offered a dramatic version of the philosophical "Only One Life," which Webb wrote in the mid-'80s with the late Michael Bennett.

Kander and Ebb were also well-served by the retrospective, which proved that there's more to their success than their long association with Minnelli. Indeed, some of their songs that haven't had mass exposure are wittier and more distinctive than their best-known works.

Broadway star Dorothy Loudon's bawdy, bluesy reading of "Sara Lee," a torch song about the pleasures of German chocolate, was nothing short of delicious. She was even better teaming with Marilyn Cooper on "The Grass Is Always Greener," which contrasts the joys of making a good pot roast and seeing your name in lights.

Hamlisch, however, suffered in the retrospective. Except for the timeless ballad "The Way We Were" and selections from the landmark musical "A Chorus Line," Hamlisch's songs-mostly generic movie themes-seemed tired and pedestrian. Hollywood schlock like "Looking Through the Eyes of Love" was meant to be played over end-credits, not spotlighted in a show like this.

The closing salute to Ira Gershwin yielded the concert's most captivating moment, when a frail but spirited Ginger Rogers related how "They Can't Take That Away From Me" came to be featured in the Rogers and Astaire film "The Barkleys of Broadway." Ronstadt and Clooney then sang a lovely version of the song, showing how seamlessly two great singers from different eras can mesh.

Another highlight of the Gershwin salute: Tony Bennett singing "Liza" (with a top-hatted, Garlandesque Minnelli dancing in accompaniment) and then topping himself with a simultaneously tough and tender "The Girl I Love."

The Gershwin segment also included a few clinkers. Debby Boone's polite version of the Garland torch classic "The Man That Got Away" barely flickered, and Suzanne Somers' "A Foggy Day" was colorless.

The producers of this event favor Broadway and middle-of-the-road music but should open the doors to more contemporary pop and rock songwriters. This would broaden the show's appeal and heighten its credibility and presence in the contemporary music scene.

But it would do something even more important: It would show that a great song is a great song, whatever the era or style. And it wouldn't hurt contemporary writers to be exposed to timeless standards like the Gershwins' "Our Love Is Here to Stay" and "Someone to Watch Over Me." It might even remind them that there is life beyond next week's sales chart.

While the four-hour show-which also featured Bob Hope, Bea Arthur and Michael Feinstein, among others-could have used a sterner editor, it was a splendid night of music and memories. It would have made a superb TV special. Maybe next year.

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