Christmas edition of ‘The Great American Songbook’ onstage this week
The Great American Songbook: Holiday Edition
12/15, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Rainbow Room, Thalian Hall
Tickets: $25 • thalianhall.org
Philip Furia’s love affair with music began during childhood. “In the 1950’s, you led a double musical life,” he says. “You had a little tiny record player, very cheap, that played 45 rpm records. And that’s when you listened to Elvis Presley and the Platters, your rock ‘n’ roll. But you also had a very classy high fidelity record player, and there you listened to the much more sophisticated music—Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett—on big LP records.”
Furia stopped listening to rock ‘n’ roll when he went off to college. “It was music for kids,” he says. He kept his hi-fi player to listen to Sinatra and Fitzgerald. “What they were singing was not contemporary,” he says. “They were on LPs, which had 12 or 15 songs. So they went back to Broadway musicals of the 1920s and ‘30s. They were singing George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin. I had no idea who those songwriters were. I just knew that’s what Sinatra sang.”
Later, he became a college professor at the University of Minnesota, specializing in 20th century American poetry. While on a Fulbright fellowship in Austria, teaching a course on the Jazz Age, one of his students asked him what popular music was like in the 1920s. “I had to say the hardest thing for a professor to say: I don’t know,” he admits. Immediately after class, he went to the library and picked up a book on American popular song. “I started reading, and I thought, Oh geez! I know all these songs! That’s what Sinatra sang! I had never before realized that [Porter, Gershwin, and Berlin] wrote the popular music of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s.” It was the music that evolved into the Great American Songbook—what we now call the standards.
His fascination with them has manifested in many forms. He has written several books on the composers of the era, including biographies of Gershwin, Berlin and Johnny Mercer (not the one who ran the pier). He has taught college courses on the poetry inherent in their lyrics, staged concerts featuring their music, and more recently presented them as the host of popular radio program “The Great American Songbook,” on WHQR 91.3FM.
On Saturday the 15th, at both 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., Wilmington will watch him present his passion live at the Rainbow Room at Thalian Hall. WHQR’s “Great American Songbook Live: Holiday Edition” will combine live performances by musicians, including Jack Krupicka and Julie Rehder, and offer the history behind holiday favorites provided by Furia. There will be an illustrative slideshow of archival images of composers, shows, performers, and movies by Laurie Patterson, Furia’s wife. Attendees will hear the classics like “White Christmas,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Silver Bells,” among many others.
Furia has been presenting the history of these songs onstage since he was a professor in Minnesota. A colleague, who happened to be a great jazz pianist, suggested combining their talents with other jazz musicians into one show. Furia agreed.
“We would do an evening with Cole Porter or Irving Berlin, and I would get to put on a tuxedo, which I love to do,” Furia admits. “I would tell the story of their lives, stories behind the songs, and then they would perform them. The shows were really successful.”
When Furia moved to Wilmington in the late ‘90s, he began staging performances as a fund-raiser to benefit WHQR, which eventually culminated in the creation of “The Great American Songbook,” which airs at noon on weekdays. “I thought [since] they’re successful live performances, it could make a good short radio show,” Furia says.
The format for the program was inspired by Garrison Keillor’s show, “The Writer’s Almanac.” The “Songbook” generally consists of a classic version of a song, its background and genesis, and then a contemporary version by a younger artist.
“One of the things that keeps these songs alive,” Furia tells, “is that younger singers keep wanting to sing them.” Having aired now for a year and a half, Furia and producer George Scheibner have done over 200 programs so far in. “I’m still not running out of songs,” he says.
For the Christmas-themed version, Furia says the stories behind the songs will surprise people. “Most of the songwriters were Jewish,” he explains. “So you’re going to get what we call ‘holiday songs,’ because, as Jewish songwriters, they emphasized the non-religious aspects of Christmas. In fact, the word ‘Christmas’ seldom appears in these songs.”
The timeliness of record sales often played a role in the choice to eliminate “Christmas” in the lyrics. Mainly, publishers and songwriters thought it would keep their popularity high for only a couple weeks in December. They felt it wiser to write tunes that could be popular for months.
“They didn’t think it was a good investment,” Furia says. “Then, in the 1930s, they started taking a chance. What surprised them was, not only was it popular for a few weeks that year, it came back the next year. Oh my God! they thought. It comes back every year.”
Furia has had the pleasure of speaking with numerous writers of more famed tunes which everyone knows, including Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, who wrote “Silver Bells.” “That song was written in 1954,” Furia says. “They were both pretty old [during our interview in the ‘90s]; they were in their 80s. They said the royalties that came in from ‘Silver Bells’ gave them more money than any other song they wrote—off one Christmas song.”
Learn more about the holiday classics we sing along to annually at “The Great American Songbook: Holiday Edition.” Tickets are $25, and can be purchased at Thalian Hall (910-632-2285) or on their website (thalianhall.org).