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REMEMBERING ANDRĖ PREVIN—AND STANLEY DONEN

The news of André Previn’s death hit me hard. I couldn’t explain why, at first; then I realized that he has been part of my life since I was a kid. At age 13 I used my spending money to buy his album featuring jazz interpretations of My Fair Lady—with a great picture of the pianist and Audrey Hepburn on the cover. I’ve been listening to it ever since. I also love the 1962 album he recorded with Doris Day called Duet, which features one of the first-rate songs he wrote with his then-wife Dory, “Control Yourself.” When I met the ageless actress-singer she was happy that I mentioned this record, which she also cherished.

 

 

I never met Previn but I did have a lovely phone conversation with him when My Fair Lady was first released on videocassette. (It earned him one of his four Oscars as musical director.) He was unabashedly smitten with Audrey Hepburn. As he told me, “I’m just one of the legion of people who, having worked with her, fell deeply in love with her. She’s just the best. She was the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen and just about the nicest.”

Because he reinvented himself as a conductor in the world of classical music he tended to downplay his work in Hollywood in later years. Even so, he graciously accepted my compliment on his inspired use of Khatchaturian’s “Sabre Dance” in Billy Wilder’s energetic comedy One, Two, Three.

Previn had enough memorable experiences in Tinseltown to fill a book called No Minor Chords that never got the attention it deserved. I bought multiple copies to give to friends who invariably thanked me. I won’t spoil Previn’s often-hilarious anecdotes but I encourage you to find a used copy; you’ll thank me, too.

Previn packed an awful lot into one lifetime. In 1938 his family emigrated from Germany to Los Angeles, where his father’s cousin Charles was a music director at Universal Pictures. While attending high school he landed a job as an orchestrator at MGM, which required him to take several buses to get to the Culver City studio! By the late 1940s he was accompanying Frank Sinatra on his weekly radio show. Sinatra called him “Andy,” which I’m not sure anyone else ever did, and he called his boss “Mr. S.” on the air. (How could they possibly predict that years later they would both marry Mia Farrow?)

 

Previn used this shot of him with Hedda Hopper in his book but said he was embarrassed

 

In the 1950s and early 60s the still-youthful pianist turned to jazz and toured with a quartet that included a black musician whose name I’m afraid I’ve forgotten. One night on the road the group had a meal in a late-night diner and a man approached Previn, angrily demanding to know why he didn’t work with “his own kind.” The pianist answered, deadpan, “I can’t find any Jews that swing.” (I’m paraphrasing the story as told by bassist Bill Crow in his book Jazz Anecdotes.) 

Another vivid memory I have is watching an episode of his public broadcasting show Previn and the Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, when he was conductor of that city’s symphony orchestra. He chatted with fellow film composers Miklos Rozsa and John Williams and played examples of notable film music. I vividly remember him calling Bernard Herrmann “pound for pound the most eccentric human being I ever met.” I just found that segment and several others from the hour-long show on YouTube.

 

Like almost every pianist of his generation, Previn admired Nat “King” Cole, seen here with Vic Damone

 

To my chagrin, the My Fair Lady album (with bassist Red Mitchell, drummer Frank Capp, and guitarist Herb Ellis) was never released on CD in the U.S. and isn’t available on iTunes. (I had to transfer my LP—remember those?—in order to play it on my iPod.) Fortunately, Duet with Doris Day is downloadable.

The indefatigable Michael Feinstein persuaded Previn to collaborate with him on an album in 2013 called Change of Heart. He got the composer to dig through his “trunk” and revive a song written for, but not used in, Valley of the Dolls and two others he wrote with wife Dory for Goodbye Mr. Chips before Leslie Bricusse took over that assignment. (A decade earlier, Barbra Streisand obtained his permission to have Marilyn and Alan Bergman set lyrics to a love theme he wrote for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and turn it into a new song, “More in Love With You.”)

So you see, my head is filled with Previn music and Previn stories. No wonder I feel as if I “knew” him.

 

Jacques D’Amboise was one of the stars of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and surprised Stanley Donen when we screened the film in Dallas. Here I am presenting an award to the director from the USA Film Festival

 

I did get to meet and interview Stanley Donen in 1995, thanks to my friend Alonso Duralde, who was then running the USA Film Festival in Dallas. We had a good q&a following a showing of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and the next morning Alonso and I had breakfast with the director. Donen was not unfriendly but a bit aloof, so as we said goodbye I found myself fumbling to find a way to say “thank you” for all the joy his movies gave me. After all, this is the man who directed On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain (with Gene Kelly), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees (with Broadway director George Abbott), Charade, Two for the Road, and Movie Movie, to name just a few. He helped Kelly figure out how to execute the dazzling “Alter Ego” number in Cover Girl and the unforgettable dance with Jerry the mouse in Anchors Aweigh.

 

Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen on the set of Singin’ in the Rain

 

I did my best to convey my appreciation, but no version of “thank you” could possibly repay Stanley Donen, as far as I’m concerned. His movies will live forever and we will always be in his debt.

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