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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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...


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...


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


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)...


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.


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?


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


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.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.