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Loudon Wainwright III And Vince Giordano Play From The Great American Songbook

Wainwright and Giordano collaborated on the period music for the series Boardwalk Empire and the film The Aviator. Their latest album is I'd Rather Lead a Band. Originally broadcast Dec. 2, 2020.

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Other segments from the episode on May 28, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 28, 2021: Interview with duo Rachel Price & Vilray; Interview with Loudon Wainwright & Vince Giordano; Review of film 'Cruella.'

Transcript

SAM BRIGER, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in today for Terry Gross. We're going to get a jump on Memorial Day weekend with two recent jazz interviews and performances from our archives. Let's kick it off with a conversation and concert featuring the duo Rachael & Vilray. I spoke with them last year. Listening to their 2019 debut album, you might think that they were singing lost jazz and swing tunes from the '30s and '40s, but the songs are actually new ones composed by Vilray. The New York Times called their easy-swinging music, quote, "as cozy as it is sophisticated," unquote. Rachael Price is also the lead singer of the soul-inspired rock band Lake Street Dive. Rachael & Vilray's music is a departure from Lake Street Dive, but they've both loved the music of the '30s and '40s for a long time, as you'll hear in their music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BRIGER: Rachael & Vilray, welcome to FRESH AIR.

VILRAY: Thank you.

BRIGER: You guys are very generous. You were willing to perform a little bit for us today. So I was wondering if you could please start with "Do Friends Fall In Love?"

RACHAEL PRICE: Sure can.

VILRAY: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO FRIENDS FALL IN LOVE")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Two friends, two hearts, too many nights to count them. But tonight was something new, and I know you felt it, too, when we fell into the passion of a kiss. Around the world, we've shared these roads together. Every journey is grand when you're holding my hand. Do friends fall in love like this? A look that once was merely warm now blazes with an ardent desire. A touch that once was just a touch burns hotter than a five-alarm fire. Oh, say you're mine for all our days to follow. What was innocent before has become a grand amore. Do friends fall in love like this? (Whistling). A look that once was merely warm now blazes with an ardent desire. A touch that once was just a touch burns hotter than a five-alarm fire. Oh, say you're mine for all our days to follow. As friends we lived before and will live evermore, together two friends in love.

BRIGER: Oh, that was great. Thank you so much for doing that. That was "Do Friends Fall In Love?" by Rachael & Vilray from their debut album, which is also called "Rachael & Vilray." What was the inspiration for that song?

VILRAY: You know, it was actually a commissioned song.

BRIGER: Oh, really?

VILRAY: Yeah. A woman wanted to give a song as a present to her husband-to-be, and also, she wanted it to work as something for them to walk down the aisle to. So, yeah, that was actually the second draft. She hated the first version that we sent her.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Why? What didn't she like about the first version?

VILRAY: The first version acknowledged that unhappiness exists.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: People don't want that at a wedding.

VILRAY: And - yeah, they don't want that at a wedding. You know, but that's kind of what I like in a song. I like to acknowledge that unhappiness exists in basically every song that I write.

BRIGER: Do you remember some of the lyrics from the first version, the sort of more morose version? Or...

VILRAY: Yeah. So the theme - it wasn't morose. I mean, it was really just, like, a single line - all the sorrow and strife brought me here; now they're melting away. The concept of the song was, every step that you've taken as a human being through life, happy and sad, brought you to the moment that you met the person and fell in love with them. So, you know, I thought that was a strong concept.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Yeah, I do, too. I should remind people that the song that you just played was actually one of your songs, Vilray. At this point, when you did this concert after not playing for a while, you weren't performing your own original songs, right?

VILRAY: Yes, that's true. But there were a billion wonderful songs written in that period for movies and for musicals and, you know, just recording artists, and it seems silly to restrict yourself to the standards. So I was kind of shopping around for songs that I liked that I didn't feel like anybody did. So that's what I was doing at the time.

BRIGER: Can you give us an example of one of those more obscure songs from that period?

VILRAY: I think one of my favorites is, like, Rudy Vallee's "Deep Night" or - Fats Waller has some amazing songs, like "My Very Good Friend, The Milkman."

BRIGER: Would you mind giving us a few bars of the Fats Waller song?

VILRAY: If I can remember it. (Playing guitar, singing) My very good friend, the milkman, said that I've been losing too much sleep. He doesn't like the hours I keep. And he suggests that you should marry me.

BRIGER: (Laughter) That's great. Your voices blend so well. Was that something that happened right away, or did you have to work on that?

PRICE: I think it was pretty immediate. Our voices blend because we understand the style of music, and I think we understand the accent really well, which is a big part of it. So that sort of fit together immediately. But just two voices harmonizing well together was really tricky. I'd say, probably, we played a lot of gigs where we sounded pretty out of tune...

VILRAY: (Laughter) Yeah.

PRICE: ...When we first started. And...

VILRAY: Also, Rachael's an incredibly strong singer, and even if you like my singing, you wouldn't call it strong. I think that's what we've maybe talked the least about but learned the most in the process of singing with each other.

BRIGER: So did you have to tell Rachael to sing quieter, or did you have to step it up? Or - you know.

PRICE: Pipe down, now.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

VILRAY: Yeah, I don't know. I think we just sort of, like - we share a single microphone on stage.

BRIGER: Right.

VILRAY: An old '30s RCA ribbon microphone. So you can do a lot with dynamics. She can continue to be very powerful but just ease off a little bit, and I can ease on.

BRIGER: And, Rachael, you said you know the accents of this music. Could you elaborate on that?

PRICE: I mean, they didn't talk the same, and they sure didn't sing the same throughout. You know, it changes from decade to decade. And my guess is a lot of that has to do with how they were self-monitoring and the type of microphone they were using. But, you know, it embodies the sound of the music, the type of accent. I don't really know. It's like - you'd have to talk to somebody who's, like, a musicologist. Maybe it had to do with, like, Mid-Atlantic or - I don't really know. But it's pretty different. And I think it would sound strange if you didn't sort of emulate the accent somewhat when you were singing this style of music.

VILRAY: I think the person who epitomizes the accent best is Johnny Mercer. I think Johnny Mercer, like, really understands how to, like, write swinging lyrics and then deliver them in a swinging way. And certainly, when I'm writing, I'm thinking a lot about Johnny Mercer. I think, like, something like "The Laundromat Swing," which is something we do that I wrote, I was thinking of Johnny Mercer a lot...

BRIGER: Oh, really?

VILRAY: ...When I was writing that song. Yeah.

BRIGER: Would you guys mind just doing a little tiny bit of that song?

VILRAY: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAUNDROMAT SWING")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Drop your lucky nickel down the money slot. Then toss your dirty drawers where it's piping hot. If you want to take your baby to the dancing spot, you've got to do the laundromat swing. Every working fella on a Friday night - about 20 after 5, they's (ph) getting right. If you're going to show the ladies you's (ph) a true delight, you've got to do the laundromat swing.

BRIGER: Yeah, that's a great song. And at the end, you sort of do that double time, too, which must be pretty hard to do.

(LAUGHTER)

VILRAY: Yeah. I don't know we would double time that tempo, but...

PRICE: Yeah. It depends on where we start.

BRIGER: Fair enough. Why don't we take a quick break here? If you're just joining us, my guests are Rachael & Vilray. They have a new album called "Rachael & Vilray," and they've been playing us some of the songs from that. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, this is FRESH AIR. My guests are Rachael & Vilray. They have an album of mostly compositions by Vilray, although there's a couple of covers on this, too.

The songs from your album - they almost sound like they're telling these little short stories about romance. When you're writing these songs, do you have particular characters in minds or scenes that you're working on?

VILRAY: Well, like, "Treat Me Better" - I think I was probably coming from a place of Gershwin's "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off," which is, you know, a duet about how we - there's no reason for us to be together, but we are. And, you know, maybe we shouldn't be. And by the end, they've kind of come to this decision that they should be. They're going to call the calling off off. So I was kind of trying to write something that would fit in that space in a musical. But because it's not a musical, I get to, at the end, kind of leave the couple in exactly the same pickle that they're in at the beginning, which is to say that they really do not speak the same language.

BRIGER: Yeah. To me, this song sounds like a mini-screwball comedy.

VILRAY: Right, exactly, but kind of without the happy ending. I mean, at the end, the only thing they can agree on is the name of the queen of Spain.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICE: Right.

VILRAY: They haven't decided that this is a functional relationship, although I'm sure it is.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Fair enough. Well, would you guys please play "Treat Me Better"?

VILRAY: Sure.

PRICE: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREAT ME BETTER")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Here's a tender serenade. Oh, you should treat me better. Let's hear the operetta complete. Emeralds on the promenade. Oh, you should treat me better. These hardly even glitter, my sweet. I never prize myself above nobody else, but baby thinks he's better than me. I order a la carte, buy her diamond heart. And I look on, fake a yawn. Kissing on the Caspian. Oh, you should treat me better. You didn't pack a sweater for me. I buy her caviar, but she throws out the jar 'cause it tastes a little fishy to me. We go to 21, and in front of everyone, I spit out a brussel sprout. Married by the queen of Spain. Oh, you should treat me better. I'm liable to forget her first name. L-E-T-I-Z-I-A. Do I pronounce that this way? Letizia is the queen's first name.

BRIGER: That's "Treat Me Better," which is from Rachael & Vilray's CD. That was written by Vilray. Rachael, it sounds like you've been interested in singing jazz and swing since you were 5. Like, you heard an Ella Fitzgerald record, and that really sort of set you on your way. When you were starting out, were you trying to emulate certain aspects of different singers? Like, were you studying their inflection? Was there anyone in particular that you really spent a lot of time listening to and trying to sound like?

PRICE: One hundred percent. I studied Ella Fitzgerald early, and I completely copied her. I learned the versions of her songs from top to bottom - every single thing. There's recordings when I'm, like, 10 doing that. Once I did that, I kind of went - I treated learning in that style. So I got to Sarah Vaughan, and I wanted to sound just like Sarah Vaughan. And I got to Peggy Lee and Doris Day, and I just sort of copied singers. And along the way I realized that this was actually a helpful way to learn singing - is to just copy a singer. I think one of the main reasons is that I think people can sing better initially if they're copying somebody because they're a little less concerned. They're a little less self-conscious.

BRIGER: How do you go from emulating people to then finding your own voice?

PRICE: Just a lot of work, doing it a lot and digging deep into yourself and also stripping away. It's like - I've done a lot of, like, learning of ornamentation and then sort of taking it back down to the heart of it.

BRIGER: You're talking about singing with sort of more ornament or, like, a more stripped-down version. Could you give an example of that, of each of those?

PRICE: Yeah, sure. I think probably the easiest way to just quickly demonstrate that is just sort of a talkative type of phrasing, more conversational versus, you know, longer-held notes. So I'll use "All Of Me" because it's a standard everybody knows. So, you know, more ornamentation... (Singing) All of me. Why not take all of me? Can't you see I'm no good without you? Take my lips.

Something like that. And then more conversational would be... (Singing) All of me. Why not take all of me?

BRIGER: Right, so like...

PRICE: (Singing) Can't you see I'm no good without you?

Yeah, it's a lot more space.

BRIGER: Yeah, in the first version, like, when you sing all, it's got, like, 15 syllables...

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: ...Rather than the just...

PRICE: Yeah, exactly.

BRIGER: Yeah.

PRICE: Yeah. I mean, both are fun, but you do need to do both. You can't do one all the time.

BRIGER: Do you prefer one over the other?

PRICE: I think when I was younger, I preferred the - you know, the first way, just sort of, like - I would always call it just soaking in your own sound.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

PRICE: Just ruminating, marinating in...

BRIGER: Just enjoying yourself so much (laughter).

PRICE: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. But, you know, if you do something all of the time, you do it none of the time, which I think is a really important thing to remember with singing.

BRIGER: That's interesting. I haven't had the pleasure to see you guys perform in person yet, but I've watched a bunch of stuff online, and you almost always sing with this one microphone, and you're facing each other. So you're really close to each other, and you're looking more at each other, rather than facing out towards the audience. Why did you decide that that would be the way you'd perform?

PRICE: We played a couple gigs early on. It was shortly after I asked Vilray if we could do this together, and I think that we left those gigs feeling awful. (Laughter) Like, we were just like, oh, God, this is so much harder than we thought it was going to be - to play music like this and really, like, do it well. I think we sort of thought it was going to come together a little bit easier. And I think that's what we were missing - was intimacy 'cause a duo is just - I've never really experienced anything like it. Like, the first handful of gigs - 'cause I was so used to having a band, where it's like, one person makes a mistake; you just move on. They don't - you don't notice, almost. They don't notice. You just keep going or whatever. But when it's just two people and there's one instrument, it's like...

VILRAY: Yeah, like - yeah, with every mistake, you're like...

PRICE: Yeah.

VILRAY: ...Looking at each other - you're like, oh, my God.

PRICE: Yeah, yeah. Or if, like, one person is having a bad night and - you can feel that immediately. Like, you get off, and you're like, you had a terrible show, and they're like, yeah. And you're like, yeah, I felt that the whole time.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICE: Whereas in Lake Street Dive, like, I would get off and be like, oh, my gosh, best show ever - did you guys have so much fun? And someone would be like, that was awful for me. And I was like, well, I didn't know.

BRIGER: Right.

PRICE: So that's - you know, you can have different experiences, but you can't have a different experience in a duo.

BRIGER: Well, a different scenario for you, Vilray, was - I don't know if you still do it, but you did some busking in the New York City subway stations.

VILRAY: You know what? I stopped, and I'll tell you why - because they brought cell service in. And there was a magical thing that was happening wherein you couldn't be reached, and it was the only place you couldn't be reached when they didn't have cell service. And it happened many times that people would come up to me, having waited 15 minutes for a train and heard three songs, and they would come up to me with, like, tears in their eyes, having just been broken up with or in the midst of falling in love with somebody and just been like, I cannot believe what a touching experience I just had musically. And that was, like, such a high, obviously, for me.

BRIGER: Yeah.

VILRAY: And once they brought cellphones in, that really went away.

BRIGER: Really?

VILRAY: And so did I.

BRIGER: Was that a way to sort of just get your chops up, your speed, after not playing for a long time?

VILRAY: Absolutely, yeah. You know, the reverberation in there really make you want to, like, reach and sing strongly. And yeah, it was a great way to learn songs.

BRIGER: Did you have a favorite stop or station?

VILRAY: Yeah, the Metropolitan stop on the G train.

BRIGER: And why was that?

VILRAY: That's kind of where everyone goes. It's a good hub. So it's where the G train and the L train meet, so you get a lot of traffic of people coming from Manhattan who've traveled across town on the L and are getting on the G. And also, the G is very slow, so people...

BRIGER: So you get a lingering audience.

VILRAY: ...Are standing around for a long time. Exactly.

PRICE: Yeah.

VILRAY: People require three - two or three songs before they're like, OK, I can't not give this person money - if you've had an emotional experience with three songs. If you've had one with one, you're like, oh, God, I'm really feeling things today, you know? But if you've had one with three, you're like, that guy is making me feel things.

BRIGER: And then would people not get on their train and just hang out and listen to you?

VILRAY: Yeah, that definitely happened. And I would get gigs - you know, wedding gigs and stuff like that - and people would film me. And it was really cool.

BRIGER: We're listening to the interview I recorded last year with the music duo Rachael & Vilray. They'll be back after a break. And Loudon Wainwright and Vince Giordano will play a couple of their favorite jazz tunes from the 1920s and '30s. Plus, we'll hear what our film critic Justin Chang thinks about the new movie "Cruella," the origin story of Cruella de Vil. I'm Sam Briger, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT YOUR MOTHER'S HOUSE")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Everybody knows there's only one place I go when I want to hear the news. That's to your mother's house, where we talk about you. She shows me pictures of little you in the nude, and it would be rude of me not to let her see the ones that I have took of you. It's true you bid adieu to me, and I said a sad farewell. But I'd never agree if you asked it of me to bid goodbye to your mama as well. As all your lovers know, there's only one place to go when you want to hear the news. That's to your mother's house, where we all talk about you.

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in today for Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with the music duo Rachael & Vilray, who also performed some of their songs, songs written by Vilray and influenced by the music of the '30s and '40s. Their debut album is called "Rachael & Vilray." Rachael Price is also the lead singer of the soul-inspired rock band Lake Street Dive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BRIGER: You have a song called "Alone At Last," which is about someone who has some, I guess, social anxiety. But then when they finally find someone who they're in love with, then they finally feel that they're alone at last. Would you guys mind just doing a few lines of that?

PRICE: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALONE AT LAST")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Once was agoraphobic. Times Square would make me gasp. I let full trains go past. With you, I feel alone at last.

BRIGER: Yeah. That's wonderful. When Rachael said that she wanted to sing with you, did you start writing pieces specifically for her?

VILRAY: You know, I think I started off just sort of writing. Rachael was talking about, like, learning Ella Fitzgerald and learning Sarah Vaughan. And I think I was, like, very committed to the idea that I should be very pure and write for people of the era. So I was writing Sinatra songs and Fats Waller songs and Billie Holiday songs and Peggy Lee songs. And I think that's how I did it for a long time. And we certainly sing a lot of those songs. But I think "Alone At Last" is a song for Rachael.

And I think - we have a song called "Without A Thought For My Heart," which I definitely wrote with Peggy Lee in mind but with also knowing that Rachael doesn't sing like Peggy Lee very often and that I think she would kill it singing like Peggy Lee, kind of in a vulnerable, whispering, soft space. And it took us a while to get to that place in the recording studio where she felt comfortable doing it. But it's everything I dreamed of when I was writing that song. And it's not exactly what you would think of as a Rachael Price song. But I think it's, like, exactly what I think of as an ideal interpretation.

BRIGER: Well, it's been such a pleasure to talk with you guys. And I'm going to ask you to do one more song. And, Vilray, this is a song that you just mentioned, which was "Without A Thought For My Heart." You said this is a song that you wrote thinking about Peggy Lee?

VILRAY: Yeah. She has a very tender, very quiet way of singing that is incredibly all hers. And it's my platonic ideal of what romantic female crooning is. So yeah, that's - I wrote it with that idea.

BRIGER: Well, why don't we hear it? But before we do, I just want to thank you both so much for coming on the show. Rachael, Vilray, thank you very much for being on FRESH AIR.

VILRAY: Thank you for talking with us.

PRICE: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITHOUT A THOUGHT FOR MY HEART")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) We always knew that I was too young for anything beyond just your selfish bit of fun - right from the start, without a thought for my heart. You held me near and simply whispered that we should be so glad for the moments that we had. We knew you'd part without a thought for my heart. Now ain't the time for thinking. I should have done my thinking months ago. I may not know which man's worth keeping, but now I surely know the kind who ought to go. A parting kiss - with this, I crumble. And all my fantasies are scattered by the breeze. I played my part without a thought for my heart. It wasn't smart. It wasn't smart. I played my part without a thought for my heart.

BRIGER: That was Rachael Price singing and songwriter Vilray on guitar, from their album "Rachael & Vilray," which came out in 2019. Many thanks to Paul Ruest at Argot Studios for recording the interview and concert. Coming up, some jazz tunes from the '20s and '30s with Loudon Wainwright and Vince Giordano. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")
SAM BRIGER, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in for Terry Gross. Loudon Wainwright is best known for his confessional songs about family dysfunction and satirical songs about politics and other issues. But last year he took a slight turn, teaming up with Vince Giordano for a set of songs from the '20s and '30s, songs by Fats Waller, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser and others. Giordano plays tuba, bass and bass saxophone and leads the 11-piece jazz band The Nighthawks. Before this project, he and Wainwright collaborated on the HBO gangster series "Boardwalk Empire" about bootlegging in Atlantic City during Prohibition. Terry invited them to bring their instruments to Hobo Sound Studio in New Jersey to talk and play a few tunes - socially distanced, of course. The title of their album is "I'd Rather Lead A Band." Here's a track from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO THE BLUEBIRDS AND THE BLACKBIRDS GOT TOGETHER")

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III AND VINCE GIORDANO: (Singing) Look at my doorstep. Look at my doorstep. Look at the blackbirds. Look at the bluebirds. Look at the bad luck. Look at the good luck there. Never saw bluebirds mingle with blackbirds. Never saw bluebirds doing things backwards. Never knew good luck. Never would perch with care. I overheard those birdies talking today. And now I know just why they're acting this way. First the bluebirds said, we've got to have sunny weather. So the bluebirds and the blackbirds got together. Then the blackbirds said, we're birds of a different feather. So the bluebirds and the blackbirds got together. And when they talked it over, they let the blackbirds bring rain. And all the bluebirds then agreed to bring the sunshine again. For we can't have rain or sunshine that lasts forever. So the bluebirds and the blackbirds got together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Loudon Wainwright, Vince Giordano, welcome both of you back to FRESH AIR. There's so much joy in that recording that we just heard. How did you choose it for the album?

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: One of the songs we did on "Boardwalk Empire" was something that Bing Crosby had done. And it's tough when you go up against arguably (laughter) the greatest male jazz vocalist of all times. But for some reason - I don't know why, Vince - we decided that - to take a crack at it.

GROSS: And I like that you're not trying to, like, sing in period. You're just singing in your voice. And it sounds so great.

WAINWRIGHT: I kind of saw it as an acting job, not to do an imitation of Bing Crosby, but - or something like that, but to just sing it in my voice, but somehow emotionally inhabit the material.

GROSS: So we asked if you would be willing to perform a couple of songs for us. So I'm going to ask you to do a song that I never heard before that I really like called "How I Love You." And Loudon, is there a story behind the song?

WAINWRIGHT: I don't - I think probably Vince knows - I mean, Vince knows about all these songs. I don't know why we - why did we choose this one, Vince?

VINCE GIORDANO: Well, I had sent you a couple of links of a great entertainer and ukulele player named Cliff Edwards. And Cliff Edwards was known for introducing "Lady Be Good" and "Singin' In The Rain." And, of course, his big hit was "When You Wish Upon A Star" from "Pinocchio." But he was a great entertainer and uke player. And there's just so much fun in that recording. And I think, Loudon, you captured that fun.

GROSS: So Loudon's going to be playing ukulele on this and Vince on tuba. You want to give it a go for us?

GIORDANO: Sure. Get the tuba out.

WAINWRIGHT: Let's do it.

GIORDANO: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW I LOVE YOU (I’M TELLIN’ THE BIRDS, TELLIN’ THE BEES)")

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III AND VINCE GIORDANO: (Singing) Through fields of golden flowers, where we spent sunny hours, I'm strolling along, thinking of you. I told the four-leaf clover my lonesome days are over. I talk about you all the day through. That's right. I'm telling the birds, telling the bees, telling the flowers, telling the trees how I love you. I'm telling the moon. I'm telling the sun, telling the stars, telling each one how I love you. I feel so happy, and I show it. I want the whole wide world to know it. Yeah, the shady old nook, the shadows that fall, the little old brook - I'm telling them all how I love you. (Scat singing) How I love you. Here's where we used to wander. I sit alone and ponder, daydreaming of you all of the time. If you don't think I love you, just ask the stars above you, for since you told me you'd be mine, hey; I'm telling the birds, telling the bees, telling the flowers, I'm telling the trees how I love you. I love you. Telling the moon, and I'm telling the sun, and I'm telling the stars - I'm telling each one how I love you, yeah. I feel so happy, and I show it. I want the whole world to know it. Oh, the shady old nook, the shadows that fall, the little old brook - I'm telling them all how I love you.

GROSS: Oh, that's wonderful.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That was Loudon Wainwright singing and playing ukulele and Vince Giordano playing tuba. And they just did that for us. They have an album of songs from the 1920s and '30s that's called "I'd Rather Lead A Band." And Loudon, I love that scat chorus, which is (laughter) not something you do on the album.

WAINWRIGHT: No, no. It's not - you know, it kind of is a stretch from the family dysfunctional material that I'm so well known for. It's very optimistic and up, which is - I love that aspect of it.

GROSS: So you play ukulele on that. I think the ukulele is an instrument that's often kind of mocked. What do you really like about the instrument?

WAINWRIGHT: (Laughter) Well, unlike the tuba, it's very light...

(LAUGHTER)

WAINWRIGHT: ...And portable. Vince mentioned Cliff Edwards, who was also known as Ukulele Ike - great, great, great ukulele player. And I'm just a fan of the instrument.

GROSS: You actually do another song that Ukulele Ike originated...

WAINWRIGHT: Yes.

GROSS: ...And it's called "I'm Going To Give It To Marry With Love." And this is a song...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: This is a song - I'm trying to think. It's a double entendre song, you know, because it's like, I'm going to give it to Mary with love, and the it is - how do we put it? There's also a line - I'm going to - she's going to hold it in her little hands. So maybe that'll give you a sense of what the it is.

WAINWRIGHT: (Laughter) Terry, you're getting kind of lewd here. I don't know.

GROSS: (Laughter) I'm getting kind of lewd. I used to play this on my show when I had a radio show in Buffalo on the college station because it was so amusing to me that the guy who did the voice on "Pinocchio" and who was famous for singing "When You Wish Upon A Star" was singing this incredibly lewd song. So...

GIORDANO: It comes from a party record, and there's no composer on the record. Cliff Edwards went in and out of good times. And I think at this point in his life - 35, 36 - he probably needed some money. So, you know, do a party record - fine, you know? And that's what happened.

GROSS: Right. And for people who don't know the expression, party records are lewd records (laughter)...

WAINWRIGHT: Yes, yes.

GROSS: ...With a lot of double entendres. Under the counter - is that what you said?

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, I think they were sold kind of on the sly.

GROSS: So it's interesting that he did that 'cause he was down on his luck. I had no idea about that.

WAINWRIGHT: Vince, didn't he die kind of destitute? And...

GIORDANO: Yeah, he - I think they were going to put him in a pauper's grave. And people - Walt Disney liked him very much, and they put an actual tombstone for him. But he really pushed the envelope in many different ways. And you could never tell it from his singing or playing, but (laughter) he was a wild man.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you both. If you're just joining us, my guests are singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright and Vince Giordano, who leads the small big-band the Nighthawks and plays tuba, bass and bass saxophone. Their new album together is called "I'd Rather Lead A Band."

Some of the songs on here - I mean, these are songs from the 1920s and '30s, so a lot of the songs are, like, from the Depression era. And there's a good deal of songs from that era that are all about, you know, the simple pleasures of life 'cause that's all people had. They didn't have money. And you do one of those songs on the new album, "The Little Things In Life." And it's also a song about, you know, forming a family and having a baby and how, like, perfect that is. So it's an interesting song for you to sing, Loudon, because your songs, your original songs, are about how imperfect (laughter) families are and how difficult fatherhood is. Singing this song is just so, like, out of character for you.

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, this is a functional family song, as opposed to a dysfunctional family song.

(LAUGHTER)

WAINWRIGHT: I mean, it's very idealistic, but - and I think Bing Crosby might have had a big hit with this one. We took a shot and did it. And yeah, as you say, you know, this material was in the Depression. People needed to be lifted. And I think as we were making this record, Randy and Vince and Stewart and I, you know, were getting the feeling that it might be a good thing for now because it is optimistic and hopeful.

GROSS: So let's hear it. Vince, is there anything you want to say about it before we play it?

GIORDANO: Well, you know, it's what I call one of Irving Berlin's sleepers because not too many people know about it. It's not from a show or a film. It's just a pop song that he penned out of many thousands that he wrote. And it was nice to get an Irving Berlin song that's not overplayed. And Loudon does a great job with it.

GROSS: So this is "The Little Things In Life," an early Irving Berlin song?

GIORDANO: 1930.

GROSS: OK, pretty early. And it's from the Loudon Wainwright-Vince Giordano album "I'd Rather Lead A Band."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LITTLE THINGS IN LIFE")

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III AND VINCE GIORDANO: (Singing) Just a little room or two can more than do a little man and wife. That's if they're contented with the little things in life. Living on a larger scale would soon entail a lot of care and strife. We could be so happy with the little things in life, dear - a little rain, a little sun, a little work, a little fun, a little time for loving when the day is done. And a little thing that cries for lullabies could make a man and wife tell the world how much they love the little things in life.

GROSS: So that's a lovely song from the new album, "I'd Rather Lead A Band," featuring Loudon Wainwright and Vince Giordano and his band the Nighthawks. Thank you both so much for your generosity in doing this for us and playing for us and going to the studio, socially distanced, in separate rooms (laughter), and for being here to talk with us. And thank you for the wonderful album.

WAINWRIGHT: Well, thanks. Great talking to you, Terry.

GIORDANO: Thanks. Keep up the great work, Terry.

BRIGER: That was Loudon Wainwright and Vince Giordano speaking last year with Terry Gross. The name of their album is "I'd Rather Lead A Band." Our thanks to James Frazee and Stewart Lerman at Hobo Sound Studio. Coming up, "Cruella," the origin story of Cruella de Vil. Our film critic Justin Chang has a review. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GIORDANO AND THE NIGHTHAWKS' "EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY")

SAM BRIGER, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new Disney live-action movie "Cruella" stars Emma Stone as a young version of Cruella de Vil, the iconic villain from "101 Dalmatians." Cruella, which also stars Emma Thompson, opens today in theaters and begins streaming on Disney+. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Chalk it up to our eternal fascination with human evil or to a movie industry that's short on original ideas, but it seems like almost every classic villain nowadays is guaranteed their own feature-length backstory. The results have been a mixed but not uninteresting bag, and they've allowed some fine actors to go entertainingly over the top. Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for his psychic meltdown as the Joker, and "Maleficent," a clever reframing of "Sleeping Beauty," remains one of only a few movies that have put Angelina Jolie's otherworldly screen presence to effective use.

The latest example of this trend is "Cruella," and it's, well, a mixed but not uninteresting bag. Like, "Maleficent," it's a Disney live-action movie inspired by an earlier Disney animated classic - in this case, "101 Dalmatians." It's set in 1970s London, and it means to show us the youthful origins of Cruella de Vil, that fascist fashionista who kidnapped a litter of Dalmatian puppies and tried to turn them into a spotted fur coat.

The thing is, though, that dog killers aren't the most sympathetic protagonists, and this movie definitely wants us to sympathize. As a result, this Cruella doesn't really seem evil enough to commit puppycide by movie's end. She's presented as a rebel - impatient, perpetually misunderstood and unwilling to play by the rules of a world that casts her aside at every turn.

Cruella is already a mischief-maker when we first meet her as a young girl named Estella. Her loving mother tries to put her on the straight and narrow, but after a series of tragic events, Estella is orphaned and left to fend for herself on the streets of London. A few years later, Estella, now played by Emma Stone, is a seasoned grifter committing robberies with her buddies Horace and Jasper. They're played by Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry.

Estella has an extraordinary eye for fashion. She sews amazing disguises for herself and her partners in crime, with a bit of inspiration from a vintage store owner, Artie, played by John McCrea. Before long, Estella lucks her way into a job as a designer for the Baroness, an imperious queen of couture who runs the most exclusive fashion label in London.

As the Baroness, the great Emma Thompson gives a performance of diabolical wit. She's half wicked stepmother, half Miranda Priestly from "The Devil Wears Prada." The Baroness brings out a madly competitive streak in Estella, who soon unleashes her pent-up alter ego, Cruella, as a kind of glam-punk performance artist of the fashion world.

Determined to upstage her nemesis while still guarding her secret identity as Estella, Cruella begins crashing the Baroness' galas and parties in attention-grabbing gowns - the work of the brilliant costume designer Jenny Beavan in her biggest showcase since "Mad Max: Fury Road." In this scene, the two rivals meet for the first time. Cruella's sporting the two-toned black and white bob of hair that will become part of her signature look.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRUELLA")

EMMA THOMPSON: (As Baroness Von Hellman) Who are you? You look vaguely familiar.

EMMA STONE: (As Cruella) I look stunning. I don't know about familiar, darling.

THOMPSON: (As Baroness Von Hellman) Your hair - is it real?

STONE: (As Cruella) Like my ball, I like to make an impact.

THOMPSON: (As Baroness Von Hellman) Right. What was your name?

STONE: (As Cruella) Cruella.

THOMPSON: (As Baroness Von Hellman) Oh, that's quite fabulous. And you designed this?

STONE: (As Cruella) You did, actually - 1965 collection.

THOMPSON: (As Baroness Von Hellman) Oh, no wonder I love it. It's mine.

CHANG: The Emma versus Emma matchup is as irresistible on screen as it must have been on paper. But their rivalry also points out a conceptual weakness in the movie, and perhaps in the ongoing trend of trying to recast villains as sympathetic antiheroes. Emma Thompson's Baroness is flat-out monstrous in ways that put this Cruella to shame. In a movie that's supposed to be about the rise of a great villain, the Baroness turns out to be the actual great villain.

Nonetheless, Emma Stone gives it her all in a tricky role with echoes of the lowly young woman turned ruthless schemer she played in "The Favourite." Here, she's frankly more interesting as Estella, smartly biding her time and plotting her next move, than she is as Cruella, who is often upstaged by her own wardrobe. Is Cruella meant to come off as misguided, unhinged or genuinely unscrupulous? The script tries to suggest a complicated mix of all three and winds up feeling mostly confused.

"Cruella" was flashily directed by Craig Gillespie, who previously made the darkly comic Tonya Harding biopic "I, Tonya." His filmmaking in "Cruella" is all on the surface, but that surface is undeniably entertaining. The soaring, whooshing camerawork sometimes seems to be channeling "Goodfellas"-era Martin Scorsese, and the rebellion-themed soundtrack is crammed with '60s and '70s hits from The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Clash, Blondie and more. "Cruella" is much too long and undisciplined at two hours and 14 minutes, but in its best moments, it surges with a rude punk energy. It's not a bad movie, even if its protagonist isn't nearly bad enough.

BRIGER: Justin Chang is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times. He reviewed the new Disney film "Cruella," which opens today in theaters and is streaming on Disney+ starting today.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE O'JAYS SONG, "LOVE TRAIN")

BRIGER: On the next FRESH AIR, the sound and soul of Philadelphia. We celebrate the 50th anniversary of Philadelphia International Records by listening back to Terry's interview with the two men who formed the label, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Gamble and Huff wrote and produced tons of hit records that helped define Philly soul. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. For Terry Gross, I'm Sam Briger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE TRAIN")

THE O'JAYS: (Singing) The next stop that we make will be England. Tell all the folks in Russia...

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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