‘Guess who I saw today’ (Singing as storytelling 4)

‘Guess who I saw today’, was written by Murray Grand (music) and Elisse Boyd (lyrics) for the musical revue ‘New Faces of 1952’. It is a wonderful combination of words and music to tell a story. As for my other blog posts in this ‘Singing as Storytelling’ series, I’ll share my favourite version first. This is so that the song makes maximum impact on a first hearing, when performed by a great storyteller-singer. Marilyn Maye (b.1928) is an outstanding artist, and performed many times on ‘The Tonight Show’, a flagship programme of American TV. Extraordinarily, Maye gave this performance in 2013, at the age of 85, with Billy Stritch at the piano.

Yes, Maye’s voice has aged, but the is, and Maye manages to sing the melody, and honour the musical shape of the song, whilst balancing these with speaking-singing, and embodying a totally believable character.

June Carroll, the original performer of the song (and mother of the composer Steve Reich!), presents a semi-staged version (1952). To assess the level of vocal storytelling, close your eyes and just listen. If you take away the visual impact of the acting, it becomes clear that, while this is attractive to listen to, it is a fairly ‘straight’ musical rendition, with little storytelling in the musical phrasing, or delivery of verbal phrases or individual words.

Eartha Kitt was noted for her performance of this song (though I am puzzled why …). Here is an example of her singing it in 1977. For me, it completely misses the point of this song, both in specific import of different sections, or of the song in general. Kitt barely sings any of the tune; she back-phrases almost every line, which makes it feel formulaic, and robs the song of meaning. She plays non-specific emotion, rather than the specific unfolding story of the words. As a result, this is what I call a ‘look at me’ performance, in which we notice the performer, rather than being drawn into the music, or the story of the song. Closing my eyes, I find it impossible to feel any emotional journey in Kitt’s voice. (Starts at 3:39 – Don’t feel you have to watch the whole performance!)

Loretta Holloway (c. 2011) offers a more convincing story, even when I listen with my eyes closed. She falls into the same habit as Kitt, back-phrasing almost everything. Any repeated formula for phrasing can undermine a feeling of spontaneity and realness. Songs are generally in such regular musical phrase-lengths, that it is easy, as a performer, to end up being defined by the beats and barlines, rather than finding the unique meaning and emotional content of individual phrases or words.

A more recent singer, Eric Lyn (2020) is caught between two approaches, one of excellent musicianship and musical phrasing, and one of telling the story. When he digs more deeply to tell the story, he relies on conveying the emotion of a whole phrase.

So, to return to Marilyn Maye’s performance. It is my top choice for consummate singer-storytelling, through attention to the detail of individual words, and of longer verbal ideas, as well as honouring the original melody, and taking us through a wide range of mental images and conflicting emotions.

2 thoughts on “‘Guess who I saw today’ (Singing as storytelling 4)”

  1. Hello Mr. Alexander Massey: I very much appreciate that you discovered me and your critique of my version of “Guess Who I Saw Today.” It is one of my most requested songs. As a singing actress, I use the lyrics as my dialogue. The lyrics of “Guess Who I Saw Today” are a conversation… one-sided perhaps, but a dialogue nonetheless. I’d like to think that the listener of my interpretation would HEAR the nonchalant questioning I posed, SEE the visual ambiance of a dimly lite secluded bar, and FEEL my shock seeing the love of my life sitting across the room with “lady” obvious to me that they had “known” each other as lovers for some time. My questioning of him to “Guess Who I Saw Today” is done in such a way as to NOT give away the ending, but one could hear the pain in my voice when revealed that it was HE that I saw, thus taking the audience on a journey from a matter of fact questioning to the final element of surprise. Thus making the song BELIEVABLE rather than a sing-song approach as I listened to the other vocalist you featured. I thank you again for this critique and for taking the time to listen and share with your audience. Humbly yours, Loretta Holloway

    1. Alexander Massey

      Hello Loretta – Thank you for adding your comments to this post. And thank you for posting the song on YouTube in the first place! The question I have about your performance is why you started most phrases later than the notated version. When this happens frequently in a song, I find it breaks my involvement with the story and character, because the timing of each vocal phrase becomes predictable and feels formulaic. I think we can imitate spontaneous dialogue and encounter more closely when we avoid predictable timings – sometimes back phrase, but sometimes sing on the notated version, and sometimes front phrase (i.e. start the phrase earlier than notated). Best wishes, Alexander

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