Gene and Popular Music

September 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Several people on Gene Kelly The Legacy Facebook site have asked me to comment about Gene and popular music, so I thought I would do it here.

Gene wanted to break with European tradition and create a particularly American form of dance. He studied with the modern dancers Martha Graham, Charles Weidman & Doris Humphrey in NY. He appreciated that they, too, were breaking with the past, but they were dancing to percussive beats and he wanted to dance to the music of his youth: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart. And to find the movement that fit the American male, he turned to the broad, open steps of sports, like hockey and baseball. Gene liked little more than to sit in a piano bar late at night, listening to songs like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Stardust,” “Autumn Leaves.” He revered the songwriters and the songs provided a kind of playbook for many important moments in his life. On the stereo at night, we would listen to the Nat King Cole Trio, Frank Sinatra (especially the Capital Years), Lee Wiley, and Gene would describe the phrasing, the arrangements, why the sounds were so exceptional. It was an amazing experience and I was fortunate that it was my “job” to write it all down.

Gene was very interested in all types of music and actively kept abreast of what was new and “hot.” Whenever the LA Times critic Robert Heilburn published his list of the most popular recordings, Gene cut it from the paper and sent me to Tower Records to buy copies of each album (actually cassette tapes back then!). I remember in particular picking up copies of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Prince’s Purple Rain, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Janet Jackson’s Control, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A. He would listen to them all. Gene always said that dance followed music, so he wanted to know what would be influencing the new styles of dance. He said, “Styles change, things change. When Elvis and the Beatles came in, Astaire and I went out. They had a whole new kind of music and a whole new kind of youth following. Television was in and the first mass media was not the motion pictures. It changed to television.”

Gene often wondered if succeeding generations would experience what he did with the popular songs of his youth. Would people, for example, hear “Purple Rain” and think back to a particular moment in their lives. He felt that things like Sgt. Pepper’s would resonate, as would Dylan and Presley. But he thought much would be unmemorable. “Because of the fantastic telecommunications of the present day, the mind is over crowded,” he said. Things don’t—cannot—stand up the way they did. You cannot have these isolated moments—being out on a boat on a lake late at night and hearing a song played on a ukulele—badly—way off on the shore and getting very misty-eyed.”

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§ One Response to Gene and Popular Music

  • Steve Heise says:

    The fact that Gene kept abreast of trends in music through the years is a testament to his timelessness. He moved dance forward with the music of the day in his time and kept it fresh throughout his own part of the pop culture of the day with Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter and others. No matter what time period Gene had been born, he would have been a pioneer in dance. It would have been interesting to see the collaboration between Gene and Micheal Jackson had that been allowed to take off.

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