From the 1940s well into the 1970s, it was not uncommon for recording artists to "cover" the popular hits of the day. Mantovani, The Living Strings, and even the legendary Henry Mancini recorded truly memorable takes on songs that even today are considered standards. In addition to instrumental versions of popular songs, vocal arrangements were also quite common. One of the most popular artists of the 1960s to record vocal covers was Ray Conniff.
The Ray Conniff Singers released the first of many albums in 1959 and continued to record well into the 1970s. Consisting of 12 women and 13 men, the Ray Conniff Singers had an unmistakable style. With limited instrumentation, the vocalists took center stage, often alternating between the male and female voices. Today, people are most familiar with the Conniff Singers' versions of popular secular and sacred Christmas music; listen to any of the "all-Christmas music" stations during the holidays—or visit any local mall, for that matter—and you are sure to encounter a familiar tune by this ubiquitous group.
In 1965, at the height of their popularity, the Ray Conniff Singers released an album sure to be of interest to Disney enthusiasts: Music from Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and other Great Movie Themes. With two exceptions, all of the music here has a clear connection to Julie Andrews, one of the most popular stage and film stars of the 1960s.
If Sam the Eagle were to introduce this particular collection, he would most certainly call it "A Salute to the Music from the Early Career of Miss Julie Andrews, but Mostly Mary Poppins." What follows is a brief track-by-track look at each title in the delightful collection.
"A Spoonful of Sugar" (from Mary Poppins)
The popularity of the soundtrack from Mary Poppins cannot be underestimated. It went to Number 1 on the Billboard charts and stayed there for an incredible 14 weeks in 1965. Just to put this in perspective, the other top albums of that year included an Elvis Presley soundtrack (1 week), Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass (5 weeks), the soundtrack from Goldfinger (3 weeks), the soundtrack from The Sound of Music (2 weeks), an offering from the Rolling Stones (3 weeks), and two from the Beatles (one was on top for 6 weeks, the other 7 weeks). Pretty impressive, and a testimony to the genius of Walt Disney, the originality of the Sherman Brothers who wrote the score, and the talents of the entire cast of the film.
"A Spoonful of Sugar" is one of the best track on the entire album. It also starts with something of a surprise: original lyrics set to the familiar tune. The song begins:
Oh Mary Poppins is her name,
Oh Mary Poppins is her name,
She flies through the air with her umbrella.
And if you get a chance to go,
You ought to try and see the show.
You'll hear this sing
It's one you're sure to know . . .
And then it launches into the familiar refrain of "Spoonful of Sugar." This particular song is everything a cover ought to be: original, true to its source, and memorable in its own right.
"Chim Chim Cher-ee" (from Mary Poppins)
While enjoyable, this version of the haunting Academy Award-winning song fails to capture the romance or the mystery of the original. Still, the alternating male and female voices work well here, and this version – like almost all of the Ray Conniff Singers offerings – is set in a range to fit most voices. The fact the average listener can sing along is one of the most endearing qualities of this group's output. Just try to listen to this song, for instance, and not sing merrily along.
"Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" (from Mary Poppins)
A perfect song for the blending of male and female voices, this one is almost as exuberant as its counterpart on the original soundtrack. Fun, infectious, fast, and furious, this version rambles on in a "most delightful way."
"Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)" (from Mary Poppins)
The emotional highlight of the film—thanks to the Sherman Brothers' lyrics, the arrangement by Irwin Kostal, and the transcendent voice of Julie Andrews—this Disney classic receives a lovely, understated treatment here. Again, the ability to sing along adds to the effectiveness of this particular arrangement.
"Jolly Holiday" (from Mary Poppins)
A highlight of the Mary Poppins selections, this version also begins with a slightly different lyric:
Let's spend the afternoon with Mary Poppins;
Mary Poppins is the one we love.
Male voices take Bert's part, of course, and the female voices Mary Poppins herself. The alternating voices works extremely well on this particular piece, capturing the light-hearted merriment of a holiday in the British countryside. It's especially fun that so many of the lesser-known lyrics are included. For example, the lines wherein Mary orders "raspberry ice, cakes, and tea" and the waiters' memorable responses are included here.
"Pass Me By" (from Father Goose)
This interesting song, from the film Father Goose starring Cary Grant and Leslie Caron, was written by Cy Coleman. As a child, I always thought it was from Mary Poppins, partly because of its English music hall-style bounciness, and partly because the lyrics seems suited to the irrepressible Bert. I can almost picture him singing this song in his role as one-man band. Anyway, it's a catchy little tune with pleasing lyrics, perfectly suited to the upbeat style of Ray Conniff.
"The Sound of Music" (from The Sound of Music)
Side Two of the album is far less memorable than Side One. It begins with the least successful track on the album; the classic Rogers and Hammerstein tune "The Sound of Music" falls flat for some reason. It's slow, for one thing, and lacks the crispness and the exuberance of the film's memorable title song.
"My Favorite Things" (from The Sound of Music)
Lively and bouncy, this number captures the joy of the film's original version. There is some awkward phrasing here and there, due in part to the somewhat forced tempo and the necessity of blending so many different voices. Still, a fun, happy take on this classic song.
"Climb Ev'ry Mountain" (from The Sound of Music)
Not nearly as inspirational as the soundtrack version, this version is nonetheless faithful to the reverential tone of the original.
"On the Street Where You Live" (from My Fair Lady)
A bouncy, pop-influenced take on the first selection from Lerner and Loewe's classic My Fair Lady, "On the Street Where You Live" turns a soaring Broadway tune into a trite little "I've got a crush on you" pop song.
"I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face" (from My Fair Lady)
Another standard from the Broadway stage, this song was originally sung by Professor Henry Higgins as he reflects upon the departure of Eliza Doolittle. As sung by male and female voices, it's a little awkward here. Still, the phrasing, timing, and attention to lyrics are impressive.
"Dear Heart" (from Dear Heart)
This lovely song was written by Henry Mancini with lyrics by Henry Nicola. The most popular and familiar version was recorded by vocalist Andy Williams, and without question, his version remains the definitive one. Ray Conniff and his singers offer a good, if unmemorable, take on this classic song. Their version, however, pales in comparison to the orchestral/choral version recorded by Henry Mancini himself.
In some ways, Music from Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and other Great Movie Themes is a musical curiosity. Its significance, however, lies in the fact that it highlights the success of one of Walt Disney's most memorable films. It also helps the contemporary viewer understand just how successful Mary Poppins was in its initial release, and the extent of its impact on music and on popular culture in general. Admirers of the film will certainly want to check out the first half of this Ray Conniff disc for its novelty value and for its clever take on some of the most memorable music ever created for a Disney film.