Held within the opening few moments of Shirley Bassey's 1961 version of the Cole Porter classic ‘So in love’ is an entire universe of feeling; it’s such an abundant and excessive sound. Often in my writing on music I laud the under-stated, the subtle and nuanced (the leaving space for shadows and contrast), but you can have both, as this interpretation makes clear.
Both a monumental, theatrical excess and also gentleness, uncertainty; see how Bassey allows words to collapse as she sings them, crumble in on themselves, to fall. Her accent – not really English, but seemingly from another century, another era – especially when she stretches ‘love’ or ‘darling’ or ‘joy’ the affect/effect is extremely sweet, but the highlight of her performance comes through in these famous lines:
So taunt me, and hurt me,
Deceive me, desert me,
I'm yours, till I die.....
Her voice sounds like it is quavering here, even if there is a boldness about it. Shirley Bassey can have, on occasion, a kind of harsh belting quality to her voice, but the combination of the musical excess and her ability to conjure up a kind of weakness, amid the sentiment, is quite beautiful to me.
While this music might seem exaggerated, on first listen – sometimes people use the adjective ‘melodramatic’ when describing it, I believe that its defining quality is the mix of intensity and pure feeling; the music is contrived, but the performance appears to be exposed.
My second favourite version of this standard comes from Julie London (1965):
Sped-up, with a bossa nova vibe, it’s so quiet it’s almost as if she isn’t really singing it – the instrumentation is so light-hearted it goes against the desperate intensity of the lyrics (the ‘taunt me/hurt me’ part has a quivering sound, breathless) in a surprising way.
As you would expect the Dinah Washington take (1961) is imprinted with her distinctive style that is so extravagant. With its big band feel it sounds a little ironic; see how she emphasises words you wouldn’t expect (‘even’?), but there is no real intimacy here. Washington is stating it rather than expressing it. None of this is a criticism of Washington, I like her as an artist because she is so distinctive - and allows the timbre of her voice, her culture to come through in a way that was quite radical for her time - but she is singing it without any noticeable investment on her part.
Much the same could be said for Ella Fitzgerald's performance (small admission I have never really understood the veneration for Fitzgerald as a great, great artist; I can appreciate her virtuosity, certainly but always have the impression of distance when listening to her, as if she is keeping herself at a remove. She has been described as 'shy' perhaps this is what I'm sensing here, her desire to protect herself somehow. This version further reinforces this view, especially the unfortunate 'let's wrap it up here now boys' type music at the end).
Arguably the most famous ‘recent’ version is by KD Lang, released in 1990, which similarly has a kind of containment about it with the vocals and music kept at the same level. It’s a lovely dark performance, but once again I wonder how invested the singer is, how interested she is in mining the contradictory sentiments that sustain this song and make it so poignant.
(For those with a more obscure bent, have a listen to these two eccentric performances: Jane Morgan that maintains an almost ugly tone to her voice - one listener called it a 'schoolmarm performance', it is true it is far from erotic - but I like the solo piano part with its Latin inflections around 2’08” and then here is the original 1948 cast recording from the musical, 'Kiss me Kate by Patricia Morison, which is quite strange - to modern ears perhaps).