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ClassicsOnline Home » KAYE, Danny: Danny Kaye! (1941-1952)
Original 1941-52 Recordings
The recordings on this CD begin in the early 1940s when
Danny Kaye was still refining his act and making his debut on Broadway. By the time the last tracks were
recorded in 1952, Kaye had become an internationally famous movie star,
performed before presidents and royalty, and was one of the world’s best-loved
showmen. His phenomenal rise to
the pinnacle of his profession was hardly an overnight success. Kaye spent years transforming himself
from that of a Borscht Belt “tummler” (one who keeps audiences enter-tained in
between acts) to that of one of the most versatile entertainers in show
Born David Daniel Kaminski in Brooklyn, NY, on 18 January
1913, Kaye began his career in 1929 as part of a duo with a friend named Lou
Eisen. The two sixteen-year-olds
were employed at the White Roe Hotel, a popular Jewish summer resort located in
the Catskill Mountains in mid-state New York. It was at this time that David decided to use “Danny” (his
middle name) for his stage name.
He also shortened his surname to Kamin, but after a brother came home
from the army and changed his name to Kaye, Danny did likewise.
The following summer, Kaye was upgraded to the role of
stooge and began developing his own zany brand of humour. Having grown up listen-ing to Yiddish
songs, Kaye became fascinated with the vocal style of cantors, who would often
improvise during synagogue services.
His use of double-talk and gibberish was partially derived from Yiddish
songs such as “Rumania, Rumania,” as performed by Aaron Lebedoff. Kaye’s mentor at White Roe, Nat
Lichtman, taught him how to use his body, his face, and his hands to augment
his comedic delivery, even teaching Kaye to comically “conduct” classical
music, a talent that he would use often in later years.
Kaye struggled through the early 1930s, appearing in
vaudeville shows and eventually winding up on tour in Asia. Unable to speak the languages, Kaye
communicated by using mime and facial expressions. He also developed a talent for dialects and improvising gibberish
during his songs, which were funny in any language. The first phrase he learned was git-gat-giddle with a
geet-ga-zay, which he then would embellish, incorporating it into one of the
first songs he used in his act, Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher. Kaye worked it into his Saturday night
repertoire, cajoling his audience into repeating every line he sang. The payoff would be when he would
deliver an extra-long string of nonsense syllables that would prove impossible
During this early period, Kaye also added the jazz standard
Dinah to his repertoire, beginning the song with a spoken introduction in
Russian dialect. Kaye would
pronounce the title “Dee-nah,” which in effect changed every other rhyming word
in the song (China became “chee-nah;” Carolina became “Caro-lee-na,” etc). Toward the end he launched into a
high-speed chorus of git-gat-giddle gibberish. The song became popular in his American stage shows but
audiences in Asia initially did not understand Kaye’s irreverence. Danny recorded Dinah, mispronunciations
and all, at his first recording session for Columbia in May 1941 (he would
later name his daughter Dena after the song).
Eventually, Kaye became so proficient at high speed
double-talking, that it threatened to type-cast him. Almost in self-defence, he strengthened the other parts of
his style. He became an excellent
singer and actor and also proved to be an elegant and graceful dancer as well.
By 1937 Kaye was appearing in two-reelers and was courting a
childhood friend named Sylvia Fine.
Sylvia was a budding songwriter who aspired to compose musical
comedies. Her speciality was
writing sharp, smart, and witty lyrics, with a penchant for political
satire. When she fell in love with
Danny Kaye, she found in him the ideal vehicle for her songs. Kaye had all the tools she needed: the
facial expressions, the gestures, and the accents. In time, Sylvia would become Danny’s Svengali, and virtually
created his on-stage persona. A
small-time director named Max Liebman, who would go on to create Your Show of
Shows with Sid Caesar, also supplied material for Kaye.
Danny and Sylvia married in 1940, after Kaye had signed to
appear on Broadway in Lady in the Dark, starring Gertrude Lawrence, with songs
written by Moss Hart, Kurt Weill, and Ira Gershwin. Recognizing Kaye’s talent and his fast tongue, Gershwin
wrote what would become Kaye’s breakthrough number and his only song in the
show. Tschaikovsky (And Other
Russians) consisted simply of Kaye rattling off the names of 49 Russian
composers in 38 seconds. Gershwin
took the names from the back covers of piano music in his brother’s
collection. He included two
ringers: Russian-born songwriter Vernon Duke, whose real name was Vladimir
Dukelsky, and Joseph Rumshinsky, a writer in the Yiddish Theatre. Kaye’s performance of Tschaikovsky
became a showstopper. He was so
sensational that Gertrude Lawrence, a notoriously competitive performer, would
try to upstage Danny at every performance. The two engaged in an ongoing battle to outdo the other,
which enabled Danny to further develop his talent for hilarious stage business
Abandoning her ambitions to become a star on her own, Sylvia
Fine devoted all of her energies to her husband. She became his coach, publicity agent, manager, and even
surrogate spokesperson when Danny didn’t feel like answering inane questions
from interviewers. One of the
early numbers that she wrote for him was Anatole of Paris, in which Kaye sang
in the voice of a fey designer of women’s hats. He added the song to his nightclub act and eventually,
Sylvia worked it into the score to his 1947 motion picture hit, The Secret Life
of Walter Mitty.
Kaye’s second Broadway show was Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It!
in which he played a larger role.
Porter’s witty and elegant lyrics for songs such as Let’s Not Talk About
Love were perfect for Kaye, and in 1944 Samuel Goldwyn hired him to star in his
first motion picture, Up in Arms. The highlight of the film was Kaye’s bravura
performance of Lobby Number, a Sylvia Fine parody of a typical Hollywood
During the next decade, Kaye starred in a series of films
capitalizing on his extraordinary likeability, including The Court Jester, The
Inspector General, and White Christmas.
Many of these movies showcased his versatility by having him play dual
roles or split personalities; usually an austere macho hero vs. a cowardly twit. In addition, his knack for connecting
with children was best displayed in the 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen, which
featured a splendid Frank Loesser score (Inchworm and the King’s New Clothes
are included herein).
Despite his success in film, Kaye still preferred performing
live, due to his innate ability to create a rapport with his audiences. During one of his shows, he was apt at
any moment to break into a conga and shimmy through the aisles, or just sit at
the edge of the stage and reminisce about his career.
In 1954 he became the spokesperson to raise money for
UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. After a run as host of his own
television variety show on CBS ended in 1967, Kaye devoted the remaining years
of his life to efforts benefiting UNICEF and other charitable endeavours. His acting was severely curtailed,
although he starred in an unsuccessful Broadway musical Two by Two, written by
Richard Rodgers. His final role
was in Skokie, a well-received television movie concerning conflict between
holocaust survivors and members of the American Nazi party. Danny Kaye died of hepatitis related
maladies on 18March 1987 at the age of 74.
The songs on this CD emphasize the variety and versatility
of Danny Kaye as a recording artist.
For every nutty song like The Fairy Pipers or Triplets, there was a
tender ballad, such as The Moon is Your Pillow or the lovely Irish-sounding
Eileen. Kaye even does a couple of
turns in a quartet featuring two other scene-stealers (Jimmy Durante and Groucho
Marx) and actress Jane Wyman (Black Strap Molasses and How D’Ye Do and Shake
George and Ira Gershwin’s The Babbitt and the Bromide was
written for their 1927 production of Funny Face, starring Fred and Adele
Astaire. The Astaires played two
bourgeois “substantial men” (“Mr.
Smythe and Mr. Jones”) who
greet each other with a barrage of clichéd pleasantries that never change over
the years (except to get faster), even when both are in Heaven. Danny Kaye’s manic 1942 recording
reduced the dialogue to a crazed lesson in schizophrenia, with the final chorus
in Heaven speeded up for comic effect.
Although biographies have depicted him as being distant,
aloof, and sometimes mean to his co-workers, Danny Kaye remains one of show
business’ best loved personalities.
His ability to effortlessly switch from broad slapstick to an elegant
dance number, from romantic lead to clown, or from a dashing hero to a
double-talking fool made him one of the most versatile entertainers of his
– Cary Ginell (folklorist, radio broadcaster, and
award-winning author of four books on American music. He lives in Thousand Oaks, California)
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KAYE, Danny: Danny Kaye! (1941-1952)