Jonathan and Darlene Edwards Talk !
By Richard J. Pietschmann
Editor's Note: In 1957, an album was released called Jo Stafford and Paul Weston Present: The Original Piano Artistry of Jonathan Edwards, Vocals by Darlene Edwards. Careful listening revealed that both Jonathan and Darlene had an uncanny knack for just missing beats, falling a bit flat on notes-if not leaving them out entirely - and occasionally stumbling over timing. so that either the singer or the pianist periodically would have to race to catch up with the other. Rumor had it at the time that the Edwardses were, in fact, Stafford and husband Weston re-creating on wax a bit that they did as a joke at small parties-and the album became a cult classic, to be followed by the likes of Songs for Sheiks and Flappers and, most recently Darlene Remembers Duke. Jonathan Plays Fats. Except for a rare TV appearance, the Edwardses have never toured in concert. and what follows is, in fact, their very first interview.
The very first interview ever with a true cult duo !
It's hardly surprising that Jonathan and Darlene Edwards owe their special fame to the albums they so infrequently produce. There have been but five (and one single) over a quarter century. But, beginning in 1957 with the robust Original Piano Artistry', the couple have tirelessly challenged the conventions of popular music, flaunting musical taboos and surprising listeners. As a result, in 1960. they were awarded a Grammy for their second album, Jonathan and Darlene Edwards in Paris.
The Edwardses credit their special talent to having roots in Trenton, New Jersey; removed as it is from the restraining contemporary mainstream - and to Darlene's late start in show business. While Jonathan had played cocktail-lounge piano for years in their home state and was thoroughly schooled in the nuances of popular music, his wife waited until their children had grown and moved out of the family home before singing professionally. It was no simple matter, of course, for such a unique musical vision as the Edwardses' to endure until discovery, and the Edwardses freely acknowledge that their patrons, Paul Weston and Jo Stafford, share equal credit for their success. The Edwardses, in fact, still reside at the Westons' home in Century City, where we met.
A baseball game was on TV, but the sound was turned off. Jonathan, restless and perhaps a bit suspicious, paced and glared but gave full answers to every question, Darlene sat composed, hands folded in her lap, and rarely spoke unless asked a direct question. The couple began by playing me their new single, an imaginative rendering of the Bee Gees' hit from Saturday Night Fever, "Stayin' Alive". It is their first foray into "contemporary" music after a lifetime absorbed with more familiar pop and jazz "standards."
There are certainly some interesting things I can hear in there that I haven't heard in "Stayin' Alive" before.
JE: I invented this thing called the "disco rest," where halfway through the selection I can play some of my own piano stylings unencumbered by the rhythm of disco. Some carping critics have said that I invented this only so I have free rein for my remarkable artistic abilities.
Pretty insensitive of them.
JE: Definitely. But the disco rest has worked out beautifully, and the dancers get to stand around and admire my arpeggios.
Were there any special problems, Jonathan, that you as producer encountered in reworking a recent hit song?
JE: The band that played on the record did the best it could, but the boys were very frightened because they weren't accustomed to dealing with 7/4 bars and sudden changes in tempo which are part of my style . . . my actual trademark.
Well, it's probably pretty difficult for any musician to really follow you. After all, you've invented your own style.
JE: That's true, and we've had other problems in the past. We had to let Jack Sperling go, one of the top drummers in the country, because for some strange reason he found what I was doing to be funny! He laughed -actually cried! and I had to let him go. But then I found another drummer who thought it was pretty normal, although I'm not allowed to use his name.
Great artists in the vanguard do sometimes shock and surprise people.
JE: I suppose. I can remember pictures of Wagner assaulting the human ear with an icepick and hammer. I've felt like that a lot of times myself. I've felt, too, that I'm out in front of the world.
What about you, Darlene? How did you feel about recording "Stayin' Alive"?
JE: Darlene resisted doing "Stayin' Alive." She thought that the words were too fast. But I was pleased because a lot of young people now will know what the words are. Although Darlene was out of breath most of the session, she got through it okay.
DE: Well, I felt just as Jonathan has said. Some of the 7/4 bars tend to be constricting, and they weren't suited to my particular talents as a vocalist. I was just trying to get through that song. I didn't really have enough time to let my vocal talents come through because there were an awful lot of words. I think I'm pretty well pleased with the result, and if Jonathan is happy, so am I.
I know your fans are pleased with it. Have you gotten much reaction?
DE: Quite a bit.
JE: The DJ, what's his name, Dr. Demento? He loved it and plays it a lot. But at the same time that he plays our stuff he plays an awful lot of other stuff that sounds funny to me. I sort of resent our being in among that, rather than on a real good rock 'n' roll program where we belong. This Dr. Demento also made some rather disparaging comments. He thought we were great, but he called attention to some things he thought were mistakes that were really deliberate, imaginative outpourings on my part.
Maybe, Darlene, this is the time to ask the big question, the one many of your fans want answered. Haven't lots of people actually accused you and Jo Stafford of being the same person?
DE: Really? Well; maybe the mistake is natural because we've been house-guests of Jo and Paul for many years.
JE: We live with them, you see. There are times when the food isn't all that great.
DE: But you understand that it's all free.
JE: We're grateful to them, I suppose, but, of course, artists aren't supposed to be grateful. In the old days, a prince or a baron would have a court musician, and I've always felt we were the Westons' court musicians, and they owed us.
DE: They're our patrons.
JE: The only problem is, they don't allow me to practice to the extent I'd like to. He keeps wanting the piano for some of the dumb things he does. Our lights have been kind of hidden under their bushel.
Being under the Westons' bushel; Is that the real reason you haven't given an interview in all these years?
DE: I think so. They're not really too much for it, and what's the saying? Don't bite the hand that feeds you!
JE: It's kind of like a family having an uncle they don't think is rowing with both oars, and he's kept in a back room. Lots of times when media people have come to the house, we've been asked to stay in the bedroom or in the garage.
To get back to your music, Darlene, what are your favorites out of all the songs you've recorded?
DE: Well, I like the really, really chic songs, which is really why I resisted "Stayin' Alive." A lot of my favorites were in the first album, like "You're Blasï¿½." Marvelous lyrics. And "Cocktails for Two."
JE: Songs that have rendezvous and sophisticated words like that.
DE: There are a lot of sophisticated words in "You're Blasï¿½"': ..... You're deep just like a chasm ..."
And I must say, Darlene, that your delivery, your phrasing, allows you to dwell on some of those lyrics we might otherwise miss.
DE: I do, I really do, dwell on them, too.
JE: Darlene really does handle those sophisticated words well, and in the future it might be a good idea for her to do a whole album of Noel Coward. But I personally am so pleased with all the five albums that I couldn't be restricted to any one choice. We were really bitter about the Sing Along with Jonathan and Darlene album, though, which is one of the best technically we've done, but Mitch Miller's "singalong" craze went right down the tubes right after we put the album out, and that destroyed its sales.
I've read that Mitch Miller blamed your singalong album for killing the craze.
JE: Oh, he's just being vengeful and petty. It was his baby, and he blew it.
Despite all the setbacks, you've obviously gathered quite a following and you've even won a Grammy.
DE: Yes, that was in 1960 for the second album, Jonathan and Darlene in Paris.
I can see it there next to the TV.
DE: It puzzled Jonathan about the Grammy being for comedy, but nevertheless we were glad to receive it.
JE: The funny thing is-and I feel kind of nice about it-that the Westons have never won a Grammy. I do admit that they did all their recording before the Academy was started, but they don't really have a Grammy. Weston has that one he got for being the first national president and a founder, but that's not really for performance. The only Grammy in this household is ours, and they have the nerve to make us keep it in our bedroom.
Many people do seem to have a hard time pinning down your music.
JE: The new Ellington-Waller album (Darlene Remembers Duke, Jonathan Plays Fats) is easier to categorize because a lot of that is real jazz. It's swinging jazz. My stride piano is at least the equal of Fats Waller. Sometimes there are extra beats in the bar ...
DE: . . . which gives him an extra stride.
No one ever thought of that before?
JE: No, but a lot of the things we do no one has ever thought of before. And there area lot of things we do that other people have thought of and foolishly rejected. People even steal things from us.
DE: We've heard piano players in cocktail bars who we're certain have stolen our style, Jonathan's mostly.
You're always giving the credit to Jonathan, Darlene, but you've got your own unique style. I've never heard it anywhere before.
DE: Well, thank you.
JE: Darlene's so good she could do opera if she really wanted to. lf she could do "Stayin' Alive," I'm sure she could do opera.
DE: Maybe you're right. Jonathan and Darlene Swing the Classics! We never thought of that.
JE: Possibly after the Noel Coward album we could do that.
(Jonathan leaves the room to deal with fans on the intercom who have arrived to seek out Paul Weston and Jo Stafford.)
Darlene, you didn't start singing professionally until your children were grown. How did you develop your remarkable style?
DE: We were originally from Trenton, and I performed at a lot of PTA functions. My club group used to have me sing before our bridge games. It was things like that.
How did Jonathan get his start?
DE: I'd rather you asked him because I'm not sure.
Well, then, with Jonathan gone temporarily, what can you tell me about two artistic personalities getting along?
DE: We get along fairly well. He is kind of rigid, though, and there are times when he bugs me. If it's a matter of setting the tempo, for instance, I would think that the singer would get to pick it. But with Jonathan, that's just out. All the tempos and arrangements he really dominates. Sometimes I get kind of mad, but most of the time, artistically, we see eye to eye.
That's interesting. Jonathan has such a reputation for being loose musically, yet when it comes to structure, he's inflexible.
DE: That's right. When he hits that tempo, you'd better just go along because that's the way it's going to be.
Otherwise, you might finish up at different times.
DE: Yes, you would, and there are times when we have had trouble, but of course, we almost never do retakes. If you listen, there are places where we have a difference of opinion about when I'm supposed to come in.
To me, that's part of your special artistic process. I get so tired of seamless musical perfection. Art just isn't like that. It has rough edges.
DE: That's where Jonathan really contributes, in the free flow of musical ideas. He demands complete freedom, and he sees no reason why, for example, there can't be five beats in a 4/4 bar. Who said so?
Jonathan, you're back just in time for our technical discussion. All these years of challenging the basic tenets of contemporary musicianship, all the banging on the gates of the sacred temple, all the musical touches you've pioneered- are there any that you're especially proud of, that you feel are very much your own?
JE: I think my arpeggios are my own. They're not like other people's arpeggios. They contain a great many more notes. Some people have had the nerve to point out that some of my notes don't actually belong to the chord which I'm building the arpeggio around, but I'm simply much more imaginative than the average pianist, and I put a lot more into my arpeggios.
JE: Well, I am very imaginative on all three elements of music- melody, harmony and rhythm. Rhythmically, I've added bars, or if I think a bar is too long, I'll shorten it up and get on to the next bar. Harmonically, I've never believed that the composer's original harmony needed to bind me in any way because in many ways I'm much more musically sophisticated than the average composer. If I can think of a new harmonization for his melody, he's sort of fortunate.
Sort of like getting Michelangelo to paint your bathroom?
What about you, Darlene? What do you feel your biggest contribution has been?
JE: That's easy - her sophisticated way with lyrics.
DE: I just love sophisticated types of songs, and when I find words that are really sophisticated, I just lay into them. I really give them their due. Rendezvous, for example, or nonchalant.
I've often thought, Darlene, if only someone would write a song for you with the word ointment in it, you could do a lot with it.
DE: Boy, could I. I'm surprised no one has.
JE: I'd make ointment a 7/4 bar. I'd drag that bar out . . . because it's worth it.
After 25 years, can you look back to the beginning and trace your artistic development? Or were you pretty much a finished product from the start?
JE: I was very good from the beginning, and Darlene was quite sophisticated from the very beginning.
DE: Coming from Trenton, New Jersey; some of it is going to rub off.
I know your fans would like to know why there have been so few albums from Jonathan and Darlene-only five in 25 years.
DE: We work a long time on them. We prefer not to retake songs when we're recording because we like the intimacy of the first take, even if there are differences of opinion. But we take a long time preparing to record, usually several years. We owe that to our fans, who expect our best effort.
JE: I think our fans can expect some more albums. We're not tapped yet.
Reprinted with the permission of LOS ANGELES MAGAZINE ï¿½ December 1982