Oscar Levant was one of a kind: a piano prodigy, Gershwin acolyte, songwriter, noted wit, radio and television personality, best-selling author, and even on occasion a screen actor. His fans are legion, and I am one of them…but even I couldn’t have envisioned that in the year 2018 Sony Classical would issue an 8-CD boxed set that’s designed to look like an old 78rpm album. A Rhapsody in Blue includes every classical recording Levant made from 1942 to 1958, when he was the highest-paid classical artist in the country. What’s more, it faithfully reproduces the eye-catching Alex Steinweiss covers that accompanied the music. Best of all, executive producer Robert Russ called on Levant devotee and musicologist Michael Feinstein to share his collection of memorabilia and write an appreciation of the one and only Oscar, as part of a 124-page booklet.
Whether or not you’re a classical music buff I urge you to purchase the CD box rather than streaming the music. It is a keepsake I will treasure for the rest of my life. The music, newly transferred and meticulously notated from original recording sessions, is beautiful to behold…especially the first disc, which focuses on Oscar’s hero, George Gershwin. But his repertoire wasn’t limited to one composer: he brings a brilliant understanding to everyone from Debussy to Tchaikowsky. He single-handedly made a hit out of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance,” which he introduced on radio’s popular Kraft Music Hall, where he played second fiddle, so to speak, to the inimitable Al Jolson. Their scripted banter was often very funny and scarcely masked a genuine affection between the two performers.
Levant came along at just the right time, when radio created stars the way YouTube does today. His caustic wit and formidable knowledge made him a perfect panelist for the cerebral weekly quiz show Information Please. RKO-Pathé made a series of one-reel shorts featuring host Clifton Fadiman, three other regulars from the series, and a guest star like Lillian Gish or Boris Karloff.
This was Levant’s first high-profile work in front of a movie camera—not counting songs he contributed to some early-talkie musicals—but far from his last. When Warner Bros. produced a Gershwin biopic called Rhapsody in Blue, in 1945 Oscar was recruited to play himself—and nobody could have done a better job. (That also goes for his exquisite interpretation of the title composition.) He later had similar wiseguy-ish roles in mainstream films like Humoresque, Romance on the High Seas, The Barkleys of Broadway, An American in Paris, and The Band Wagon, to name just a few.
As a kid, I remember seeing him on The Celebrity Game and the Jack Paar primetime TV show. I didn’t understand his twitches or neuroses but I knew he was funny. (I believe it was on the Paar show that he observed that when he first hugged Judy Garland it was a great moment in pharmaceutical history.) Unfortunately I didn’t live in Los Angeles at the time where he hosted a local talk show with his wife June (former Fox starlet June Gale). He was a lightning rod for controversy and seemed to delight in it. Only one full show survives, with guest star Fred Astaire, but it gives you an idea of what the atmosphere was like on a nightly basis.
If you want to know more about this brilliant but contradictory show business figure, I encourage you to read A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, which was published in 1994. It is now out of print but used copies are readily available online.
If you should decide to read that biography, or one of Levant’s own books, I can’t think of a better accompaniment than the music collected in the new Sony Classical release. It’s crucial to support labor-of-love endeavors like this, which have to make their way in a world that has forgotten so many great talents of the 20th century.