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iconCounterpoint

Jonathan & Darlene Edwards Talk!

by Richard J. Pietschmann
Editor's note: In 1957, an album was released called Jo Stafford and Paul Weston Present: The Original Piano Artistry of Jonathan Edwards; Vocals by Darlene Edwards. Careful listening revealed that both Jonathan and Darlene had an uncanny knack for just missing beats, falling a bit flat on notes -- if not leaving them out entirely -- and occasionally stumbling over timing, so that either the singer or the pianist periodically would have to race to catch up with the other. Rumor had it at the time that the Edwards were, in fact, Stafford and husband Weston, re-creating on wax a bit that they did as a joke at small parties -- and the album became a cult classic, to be followed by the likes of Songs for Sheiks and Flappers and, most recently, Darlene Remembers Duke, Jonathan Plays Fats. Except for a rare TV appearance, the Edwardses have never toured in concert, and what follows is, in fact, their very first interview.

 

The very first interview with a true cult duo!

It's hardly surprising that Jonathan and Darlene Edwards owe their special fame to the albums they so infrequently produce. There have been but five (and one single) over a quarter century. But, beginning in 1957 with the robust Original Piano Artistry, the couple have tirelessly challenged the conventions of popular music, flaunting musical taboos and surprising listeners. As a result, in 1960, they were awarded a Grammy for their second album, Jonathan and Darlene Edwards in Paris.

The Edwardses credit their special talent to having roots in Trenton, New Jersey -- removed as it is from the restraining contemporary mainstream -- and to Darlene's late start in show business. While Jonathan had played cocktail-lounge piano for years in their home state and was thoroughly schooled in the nuances of popular music, his wife waited until their children had grown and moved out of the family home before singing professionally. It was no simple matter, of course, for such a unique musical vision as the Edwardses' to endure until discovery, and the Edwardses freely acknowledge that their patrons, Paul Weston and Jo Stafford, share equal credit for their success. The Edwardses, in fact, still reside at the Westons' home in Century City, where we met.

A baseball game was on TV, but the sound was turned off. Jonathan, restless and perhaps a bit suspicious, paced and glared but gave full answers to every question. Darlene sat composed, hands folded in her lap, and rarely spoke unless asked a direct question. The couple began by playing me their new single, an imaginative rendering of the Bee Gees' hit from Saturday Night Fever, "Stayin' Alive." It is their first foray into "contemporary" music after a lifetime absorbed with more familiar pop and jazz "standards."

There are certainly some interesting things I can hear in there that I haven't heard in "Stayin' Alive" before.

J.E: I invented this thing called the "disco rest," where halfway through the selection I can play some of my own piano stylings unencumbered by the rhythm of disco. Some carping critics have said that I invented this only so I have free rein for my remarkable artistic abilities.

Pretty insensitive of them.

J.E.: Definitely. But the disco rest has worked out beautifully, and the dancers get to stand around and admire my arpeggios.

Were there any special problems, Jonathan, that you as producer encountered in reworking a recent hit song?

J.E.: The band that played on the record did the best it could, but the boys were very frightened because they weren't accustomed to dealing with 7/4 bars and sudden changes in tempo which are part of my style . . . my actual trademark.

Well, it's probably pretty difficult for any musician to really follow you. After all, you've invented your own style.

J.E.: That's true, and we've had other problems in the past. We had to let Jack Sperling go, one of the top drummers in the country, because for some strange reason, he found what I was doing to be funny! He laughed -- actually cried! -- and I had to let him go. But then I found another drummer who thought it was pretty normal, although I'm not allowed to use his name.

Great artists in the vanguard do sometimes shock and surprise people.

J.E.: I suppose. I can remember pictures of Wagner assaulting the human ear with an icepick and hammer. I've felt like that a lot of times myself. I've felt, too, that I'm out in front of the world.

What about you, Darlene? How did you feel about recording "Stayin' Alive"?

J.E.: Darlene resisted doing "Stayin' Alive." She thought that the words were too fast. But I was pleased because a lot of young people now will know what the words are. Although Darlene was out of breath most of the session, she got through it okay.
D.E.: Well, I felt just as Jonathan said. Some of the 7/4 bars tend to be constricting, and they weren't suited to my particular talents as a vocalist. I was just trying to get through that song. I didn't really have enough time to let my vocal talents come through because there were an awful lot of words. I think I'm pretty well pleased with the result, and if Jonathan is happy, so am I.

I know your fans are pleased with it. Have you gotten much reaction?

D.E.: Quite a bit.
J.E.: The D.J., what's his name, Dr. Demento. He loved it and plays it a lot. But at the same time that he plays out stuff he plays an awful lot of other stuff that sounds funny to me. I sort of resent our being in among that, rather than on a real good rock 'n' roll program where we belong. This Dr. Demento also made some rather disparaging comments. He thought we were great, but he called attention to some things he thought were mistakes that were really deliberate, imaginative outpourings on my part.

Maybe, Darlene, this is the time to ask the big question, the one many of your fans want answered. Haven't lots of people accused you and Jo Stafford of being the same person?

D.E.: Really? Well, maybe the mistake is natural because we've been houseguests of Jo and Paul for many years.
J.E.: We live with them, you see. There are times when the food isn't all that great.
D.E.: But you understand that it's all free.
J.E.: We're grateful to them, I suppose, but, of course, artists aren't supposed to be grateful. In the old days, a prince or a baron would have a court musician, and I've always felt we were the Westons' court musicians, and they owed us.
D.E.: They're our patrons.
J.E.: The only problem is, they don't allow me to practice to the extent I'd like to. He keeps wanting the piano for some of the dumb things he does. Our lights have been kind of hidden under their bushel.

Being under the Westons' bushel -- is that the real reason you haven't given an interview in all these years?

D.E.: I think so. They're not really too much for it, and what's the saying? Don't bite the hand that feeds you!
J.E.: It's kind of like a family having an uncle they don't think is rowing with both oars, and he's kept in a back room. Lots of times when media people have come to the house, we've been asked to stay in the bedroom or in the garage.

To get back to your music, Darlene, what are your favorites out of all the songs you've recorded?

D.E.: Well, I like the really, really chic songs, which is really why I resisted "Stayin' Alive." A lot of my favorites were in the first album, like "You're Blasé." Marvelous lyrics. And "Cocktails for Two."
J.E.: Songs that have rendezvous and sophisticated words like that.
D.E.: There are a lot of sophisticated words, in "You're Blasé": . . . You're deep just like a chasm . . ."

And I must say, Darlene, that your delivery, your phrasing, allows you to dwell on some of those lyrics we might otherwise miss.

D.E.: I do, I really do, dwell on them, too.
J.E.: Darlene really does handle those sophisticated words well, and in the future it might be a good idea for her to do a whole album of Noel Coward. But I personally am so pleased with all the five albums that I couldn't be restricted to any one choice. We were really bitter about the Sing Along with Jonathan and Darlene album, though, which is one of the best technically we've done, but Mitch Miller's "singalong" craze went right down the tubes right after we put the album out, and that destroyed its sales.

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