The Immortality Of Mae West

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In She Done Him Wrong she soars on two earthy blues numbers previously associated with black performers—“Frankie and Johnny,” a tale of jealousy and murder, and the sexual lament “Easy Rider”—and has fun with Robin and Rainger’s cheeky new song “I Like a Guy What Takes His Time.” In I’m No Angel she suddenly tosses off a bit of Louis Armstrong-style scat singing on “I Want You, I Need You.” Early studio recordings of her movie songs feature a stellar jazz band that includes Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and Joe Venuti.

At a time when Paramount balked at putting black musicians on the screen, she insisted on the new sensation Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Belle of the Nineties (1934). His soulful, sonorous musical background segments and interludes are the only respite from the lumbering story line. Her rendition of the spiritual “Troubled Waters” is a misfire —she’s a mighty unconvincing penitent—but the exuberant up-tempo “Memphis Blues” really swings and allows us a glimpse of the handsome, happy Ellington band in action. In Belle she also introduces the beautiful Coslow-Johnston torch song “My Old Flame,” written specially for her. She later admitted she didn’t like torch songs—not surprising for a woman notorious for her many lovers—but she puts the number over anyway, conveying sexual rather than romantic longing.

She toughs it out with the Saint Saëns aria “Mon Cœur S’Ouvre à Ta Voix” in a Samson and Delilah parody in Goin’ to Town (1935), eking out the high notes and emitting guttural and nasal sounds and rolled r ’s in her own incomprehensible version of French. When she pouts through “I’m an Occidental Woman in an Oriental Mood for Love” in Klondike Annie (1936), she strums a sort of mandolin that produces the soulful blues guitar sounds of Gene Austin, whose sagging career she revived with that film. Xavier Cugat and his band supply sensual Latin rhythms for “On a Typical Tropical Night” in Go West, Young Man (1936). Louis Armstrong shows up in Every Day’s a Holiday (1938) to lead a parade and perform the best song in the movie, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Jubilee.” Even The Heat’s On (1943), her worst film, featured some of the best song-writers in Hollywood: Jay Gorney, Edward Eliscu, JuIe Styne, and Sammy Cahn.

 
 

I came to think of her as a hip music-lover bent on bringing jazz to a wider audience, but reading about her killed that illusion. She used jazz the way she did everything and everybody else: to make herself shine. Still, she had the ears to discern superb players, the clout to get them hired, and the nerve to chime in with them. She sought and won international recognition as a “sex pioneer” (she said of Havelock Ellis, Freud, Adler, Jung, and Kinsey, “They may have been the generals, but I was in the front lines”), but I’ve never seen her cited as the music pioneer she unquestionably was. I asked some jazz writers about her.

MORE BOOKS THAN EVER WERE WRITTEN ABOUT HER IN THE LAST 10 YEARS, INCLUDING A FLOOD OF FEMINIST STUDIES.

“Her reputation as a sex symbol and icon has completely obscured her musical side, but she far outswings every moviestar and vaudeville sex symbol on record,” the musician and musicologist Brad Kay told me. Scott Yanow, the author of Swing , describes her as “an underrated singer who had a real feeling for the blues and swinging jazz. If she hadn’t become famous in other areas, she could have made a living as a singer in the 19305.” James Gavin, an authority on classic pop vocalists, is impressed by “how hip she was and how musical she was, for a nonsinger. She had a great understanding of jazz and blues and how they worked for her to get herself across.” He admires “the blues and jazz in her singing, the slides and the slurs and the wailing quality, so much like a hot muted trumpet” and describes her style as “an offshoot of Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox—strong, sexually assertive women who took control. She had to have been aware of that music and attracted to those take-charee women.”

 
 

She performed until the end. Her late films, Myra Breckin (1970) and Sextette (1978), are unwatchable, but her rock ‘n’ roll records are worth a listen. Her strident, shouting style works amazingly well on rock classics like “Great Balls of Fire,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Coin’ On.” She rides over the charging rhythm-and-blues band with remarkable vocal power, her ability to put over a lyric undiminished and her suggestive moans and off-color asides summoning up memories of her best movie moments. “She saw the lascivious content in rock ‘n’ roll just as she did in jazz,” Gavin says.