Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The NRR Project #30: ‘Come Down Ma Evenin’ Star’

‘Come Down Ma Evenin’ Star’
Lillian Russell
Music: John Stromberg
Lyrics: Robert Smith
Recorded March 22, 1912

 This recording is the rarest of the rare – an unreleased test pressing discovered 31 years after it was recorded. It captures the presence of a lovely and talented link in the history of celebrity culture – the legendary Lillian Russell, the first American “sex symbol.”

Like her 19th century predecessors Lola Montez and Lillie Langtry, she first won praise as a performer, then as an ideal beauty and glass of fashion. Finally she was celebrated simply for being herself – set so firmly in the minds of the public that she had endorsement deals.

She was the daughter of a newspaper publisher and a writer/feminist. She studied voice with the great Leopold Damrosch, and despite her mother’s disapproval she was soon the best-known singer of operetta in the country. She was classy, charming and voluptuous, embodying the ideal Victorian female figure -- large-bosomed, corset-cinched, topped with a round, cherubic face.

Like many prominent female performers, she had a tumultuous personal life, studded with four marriages and many affairs, mostly with rich and powerful men. Newspapers tracked her incessantly. When Alexander Graham Bell initiated long-distance telephone service in 1890, Russell sang over the line.

“Come Down Ma Evenin’ Star” was written for Russell by composer John Stromberg for her starring role in the popular 1902 review Twirly Whirly. He held it back from her, saying it wasn’t ready. He committed suicide weeks before opening night, and the music for the song was found in his pocket. His lyricist put words to it, and it became Russell’s signature song.

It’s a sweet, wistful ballad of yearning, of a kind just ready to fall out of favor. Its sentimental strains were the last delicate gasp of the silk-and-lamplight niceties of the period. Russell made this recording in 1912, a decade after it became a hit, and eight years after Russell had stopped singing (but not performing) onstage.

Why did Russell record it? Significantly, she never allowed herself to be recorded live save for this disc, and a handful of film snippets. She didn’t need the income, certainly, being financially independent. Or the publicity. Perhaps she listened to the recording playback and found, like so many people, that her voice was unbearable. (She is a bit nasal and strained here.)

Interestingly, though, her performance here is technically top-notch, warm, clear, and expressive. It verifies the abilities of performer lost to popular consciousness, remembered if at all as a “sex symbol.”

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Lovey’s Trinidad String Band recordings.

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