Polly226

THE HUGE, prowling blue-gray eyes, both tigerish and vulnerable; the looks and poise of a ‘50s Vogue model; the mentholated singing voice; the actress’s approach to words – all these things helped launch Polly Bergen on a career that began in the late ‘40s and still thrives today. During the ‘50s, she and Lena Horne were Las Vegas’s top female headliners. Bergen was a chatty cut-up on the panel of that era’s number-one TV game show, To Tell the Truth. Onscreen in the classic thriller Cape Fear (1962), she played the terrified wife of a lawyer (Gregory Peck) stalked by a man he helped convict. A year later, Doris Day gave her a brutal Swedish massage in Move Over, Darling. Bergen became a cosmetics mogul, a Park Avenue party-thrower, a boldface name in social columns. She wore so many hats that music seemed like just another feather in one of them.

But singing had made her famous, and it brought her back in 2000 after a long absence from the spotlight. This CD contains almost every side she cut before 1957, when she burst into prominence with a hit LP,
Bergen Sings [Helen] Morgan, and an Emmy-winning TV portrayal of the legendary torch singer. Earlier on, Bergen had recorded a scattered pile of hillbilly tunes (the byproduct of her birth in Tennessee), novelty kitsch, and a fine first album of torch songs, heard here in its entirety. Bergen had a true bedroom voice, with a sweet-and-sour tone and a purring vibrato. But she sang with true musicianship, and phrased intelligently on even the dumbest tunes. When the words held at least a flicker of substance she became a probing actress-in-song; even at twenty, she sounded like a woman of the world.

“For years I had this very elegant, best-dressed, regal Grace Kelly kind of presentation,” she said in 2007. “That’s not who I was at all, because I was not sophisticated, I never went to college, I came from a very poor family with velvet pictures of Jesus on the wall. Everything was self-taught, everything. For years I thought someone would realize I was a complete and total phony.”

The former Nellie Paulina Burgin was born on July 14, 1930 in the town of Bluegrass, to a traveling construction engineer who dragged his family all over the country. For pleasure he played banjo and sang, and Polly found she could sing, too – so well that at fourteen she got her own radio show in Richmond, Indiana. Throughout her early years, she admits, “I copied Sarah Vaughan. Everyone thought I was a twenty-five-year-old black girl.” Bergen recalls her young self as “
fanatically ambitious. All I ever wanted in the world was to be a star.” She was also fanatically self-critical and hard-working. When the Burgins settled in Southern California, Polly began singing with bands; by nineteen she had made her New York club debut and played a singer in Across the Rio Grande (1949), a Monogram B-western.

The singer was still known as Polly Burgin in 1950, when she recorded her first single, “Honky Tonkin’,” a cover of a recent Hank Williams hit. The unknown hillbilly songbird was in high cotton: her backup quintet included master violinist Joe Venuti and Matty Matlock, a Dixieland clarinet star. Bergen was just nineteen, but her experience showed, as she shifted between yodeling hick and misty-eyed temptress.

She and her agent sent the disc – along with photos of Polly in a plunging gown and rhinestones – to film studios. Several screentests resulted, one for Hal Wallis of Paramount. “They were fascinated by the incongruity of my looks and that record,” she says, “which I don’t think ever sold two.”

Wallis placed her in three Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis films:
At War With The Army (where she played Martin’s girlfriend), That’s My Boy, and The Stooge. RCA signed the new starlet in 1950, and assigned her a directionless jumble of fluff. “I was trying to be commercial in order to have a hit,” she explains. “And I ended up recording these pieces of shit, one right after the other.” A couple are worth noting: Dean Martin had sung “Tonda Wanda Hoy” in At War; Betty Hutton and Fred Astaire had performed Frank Loesser’s “Oh Them Dudes” in Let’s Dance (1950). On all these sides, Bergen sounds relaxed, good-humored, and vocally effortless.

Alas, none of them cracked the top 100. “Rosemary Clooney did all those dumb songs and they were big hits,” she says. “And I just couldn’t understand why I couldn’t do the same thing. But I couldn’t sing a song that didn’t have meaning, and so I became this straight, bland singer.” M-G-M disagreed; after seeing her at Ciro’s, the Hollywood nightclub, they signed her to appear in musicals. Instead she got dull supporting roles in westerns and war pictures. Feeling her “acting was terrible” and the films were too, she walked away from M-G-M in 1953.

Her career ambled along; she became the Pepsi-Cola Girl and acted in TV dramas. In 1954 she signed with the small Manhattan-based Jubilee label. This time she worked with Stan Kenton’s former arranger, Johnny Richards. But the songs were laughable, and Bergen couldn’t always hide her disdain. Joined by a stentorian male chorus in “Don’t Let Our Love Die on the Vine,” she adopts a tongue-in-cheek, Kate Smith-style grandeur as she intones: “In the garden of our dreams not so long ago/We planted love and I prayed that it would grow …”

At least her night job, supper-club singing, flowered. Jubilee let her make a ten-inch LP of intimate club material,
Little Girl Blue, with Jack Kelly, her pianist and conductor. “We recorded it, I think, in one session,” she says.

The small ensemble – piano, guitar, a billowy harp, and no drums – gives the album a floating, inebriated midnight feel; untied to tempo, Bergen pores over words, her heart on her sleeve. “When The World Was Young,” a then-new French chanson with English words by Johnny Mercer, typifies the three-act story-songs she favored; portraying a jaded, world-weary sophisticate, Bergen sings with tearful eyes and full-tilt drama.

In 1956 she graduated to Camden, RCA’s budget division. Her then-fiancé Morty Stevens, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s conductor, led the band. Bergen got to sing mostly good songs, notably “How Little We Know,” a nimble early effort by Carolyn Leigh, Cy Coleman’s future lyricist, and composer Philip Springer.

The sides caused “not even a ripple,” she says. But Bergen was already busy crafting a salute to a fascination of hers, Helen Morgan. In her act at the Persian Room of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, Bergen sang a Morgan medley, perching dramatically on the piano as she clutched a handkerchief. Columbia signed her to record
Bergen Sings Morgan. An unexpected hit, it paved the way for Helen Morgan, aired in May 1957 on Playhouse 90. The ninety-minute teleplay made Bergen a star.

Reminded of her early singles in 2007, she exclaimed: “Oh my God! I’ve never heard of these songs. I don’t remember ever recording them.” But the roots of the marvelous singer-actress she became, and which she remains, are here on even the silliest of these ‘50s souvenirs.

-- James Gavin, New York City, 2007

[James Gavin, the author of
Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, is writing a biography of Lena Horne.]