Dear readers, let me introduce you to Patricia Hammond. She has a gloriously beautiful mezzo-soprano voice and puts it to good use sharing renditions of popular vintage songs from the 1900s-1940. She hails from Canada but now lives and works in England. I recently had the incredible opportunity to chat with her for 40 minutes, (direct from the UK!) about her work, her love of vintage music, her inspirations and our mutual appreciation for classic movies and their stars (particularly Deanna Durbin). She’s a joy to speak with, a fountain of facts and a truly sweet lady. I’m so happy to have met her and am determined to see her perform live one day. Please read on for the interview and have a listen to one of her sensational songs while you read!
[Large headlines are my questions and comments, regular paragraphs are Patricia’s answers, comments in square brackets are pieces of additional information I looked up after the interview and have added]
How did you become interested in vintage music?
My mom sang and also my parents both collected classical (well not classical, there wasn’t actually that term in those days) 78 RPM records – there were loads of them and I had unlimited access to all the un-filed ones, so I could just take a fistful of them and as long as I promised not to scratch or break them, I could play them. It was all these old, well – for want of a better term – dead opera singers, that I grew up with. So, I grew up with these songs and recordings from anywhere from 1900-1940, something like that.
So they were classical opera singers that you were listening to?
Yeah, yeah they were. Although there was no such thing as “crossover.” I love to talk about this. There really was no such thing as crossover a long time ago. People just sang. People just performed music. And it was only when classical music entered into the academic world and you had oh – it’s that whole institutionalized thing of classical music and when jazz became arcane and specialized and then pop kinda went off into its direction and it was all about “the now,” but if you went back, it was still about “the now” but they didn’t reject everything that went before it. So, 40’s people were still really keen about Stephen Foster and I’m sure you’ve probably encountered a few films that used Stephen Foster in the background.
Oh, I bet I have!
Yes! [Laughs] Songs were songs. You went down to your local department store to see what the latest crop of sheet music was. Which was kind of like the hit single in those days – you went and you actually got sheet music. Not record shops so much as music shops. It was just single songs and I believe that in the better shops, you had these professionals who would sit down and play and sing it for you.
Yes, have you ever seen In the Good Old Summertime – that movie with Judy Garland?
Yes! And it’s so funny, when I first saw that I thought “Oh yeah. Hmm. Yes, they sure had imaginations back then.” And it was only later on after doing research that I realized, they did do that! They were professionals. And I think, oh – what’s her name – a really energetic singer, sang Annie Get Your Gun…Ethel Merman. She started as a song plugger, that was her job.
I didn’t know that!
I believe so, you can check it. [Laughs] But I think that’s how she started – retail. Like someone working in TopShop. She worked singing the latest sheet music for people who were going to buy it. But, yeah – that was it. You got your latest piece of sheet music, but you didn’t throw away what you had before.
There wasn’t any of this crossover. So, an opera singer could quite shamelessly and joyously record the latest song by Carrie Jacobs Bond or somebody like that. Just popular songs. It was just a song.
See, I think that’s wonderful. All this segmentation in the music industry is quite unfortunate. It just boxes everybody in.
It does, absolutely! And as I say, good music is good music. A song that you remember or that you love and gives you a piece of beauty or a piece of fun or evokes something that’s universal or specific to you – it’s valuable and it should be brought back. It’s really lovely, I work with two extreme ends of the spectrum. I have all my elderly people I sing for, and I do sing for a lot of elderly because they’re amazing. They can give you their perspective on what it used to be like, stories about songs. And they all remember them they’re all “Oh yeah, I haven’t heard that for years!” And then, in the evening or late night, I go to one of these retro clubs and sing them. The same songs, to people who have never heard them before and they love them just as much!
Yes, it’s extraordinary the appeal – how well written the music was, that it can be that widely regarded.
Exactly! Yeah, it’s true. And also, there were so many out there – just thousands. I’ve got a collection – I don’t know I’ve never counted – just piles and piles and boxes and boxes and they are all different songs. There are so many that you can just keep on refining them to just the best, the best, the best and what you’re left with are really the enduring ones and they are just so good.
I expect it’s the same with movies?
Yes, it is! It’s funny how you think you’re a movie historian or a movie buff and you think you’ve seen them all and then of course there’s always more and more you never knew about.
And I noticed that you like Deanna Durbin?
That is fantastic.
She is a great singer!
Oh yes, and actually looking at what she sang is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. She sang old songs, she sang opera, she sang sweet little tunes (again, Stephen Foster) and then she sang stuff that was written just for her. It was just amazing how many different styles she encompassed. And yet she doesn’t do anything, she’s not like a jazz singer – she doesn’t mess about with the music. She doesn’t go, “Right, we’re bored with that, let’s do something strange.” She just sang them really simply and beautifully. I think she’s one of my favorite singers.
Yes, she had this great style that it just transcended everything. No matter what, it was her song first and then it was whatever genre.
Yes! Exactly. She’s lovely. I actually wrote to her.
Oh, you did?? Did you get a reply?
I did! Which I understand is very rare.
[laughs] I got two replies actually. Well, I wrote twice. And they were really sweet. She was mostly just- it was because I was talking about myself. Obviously, it was “I really love you, I think you’re fantastic…” and everything. And then I enclosed a picture of me backstage in an opera with a friend who also really admires her. “My friend and Iwere very inspired by you…” And then she actually hand wrote back and said “What lovely ladies and what lovely girls!” and how happy she was for us. And because I’m a mezzo, she said “the mezzo voice is one of my favorites.”
Wow, that’s amazing! You’re so lucky!
I asked her if there were any Deanna Durbin songbooks out there, which subsequently I found about five of them, but back then I hadn’t. And she said, “Yes, but I don’t have any of the DD songbooks. They didn’t have my favorite songs in them anyway!”
And then I wrote back and asked “What were your favorite songs?” And she said, “You’ll find your own!”
She was not going to be drawn out. She just was not going to. She’s just so lovely.
Aww, she is a lovely lady. Do you have other people who have inspired or influenced your style of singing?
Well there have been so many, because listening to the old 78s, a lot of times I was listening to about 15 different singers in an evening, at the age of whatever…12, 13. And I don’t remember them all, but I did have this horrible snobbery when I was that age, well – when I was, gosh, about age 12 to (it lasted awhile) to about 24. I was a terrible snob and I would not listen to modern singers. I would only listen to the old ones because I thought that there were all sorts of imperceptible subtle inflections in the old songs that I didn’t want to miss. I don’t know if you understand?
Yes, I know what you mean. That you wouldn’t be able to hear what was going on in the old music if you were listening to the new.
I wanted to be as if I lived then. So that I would only hear sounds from the singers that would be from that time. So yes, but my gosh, there’s so many of them! I like Rudy Vallee actually.
I like his style. He’s so…ahh he’s so suave! And very lyrical. And early Bing Crosby – though I get a bit sick of his- that little grace-note he has on every note.
He’s got a sense of joy which I really love. And Dick Powell!
Dick Powell is SO sweet. And I always listen to the old radio dramas and they are so great.
They are, aren’t they? It’s amazing how they all make the sounds for each sound effect.
It’s incredible to sit there and listen to it and realize that there was somebody actually making the sounds right then.
There’s a show, actually in London called the Fitzrovia Radio Hour where they do a live show. They make a big feature of actually making the sounds. Showing they’d take a balloon and scrape it with their hand to make a horrible monster noise and things like that. And people in the audience can kinda go “Wow!” But, that’s another way of being in the past. You can turn off all the lights, listen to it and think you’re actually listening to a radio back then, which is great.
But oh I love Dick Powell. “Rick Diamond, private detective…”
I really love those French Chanson singers from the 30s, like Nitta-Jo. She’s amazing. Amazing. If you’ve listened to too much Piaf and you want something different, try her.
Of course, Deanna Durbin.
I sometimes really like, and this is something you’d definitely know about, the singers who would dub the stars.
Marni Nixon, wonderful voice.
They don’t get enough appreciation.
I like the people who dub Lana Turner. [I looked it up, and that was Trudy Erwin.]
Where does she sing?
She sings in a couple. [After researching it, I discovered Patricia was talking about Mr. Imperium and The Merry Widow] There’s one called…
I don’t know if she sings in that! But I love it, that’s one of my favorites though, of hers. That walk down the staircase.
Yes, with the crazy hat and the big dress!
Ohhhhh, yes! And she’s got to die at the bottom of it! And that music that’s in the background. Love it. But yeah, a lot of opera singers. Especially from the 30s.
There’s a wonderful singer called Conchita Supervia, she’s just so wonderfully out there.
There’s a coloratura–soprano, actually she made a film, not enough films! She’s in something called The Great Waltz…
Yes! Yes I think so. Her name is Miliza Korjus. She sings so high, you think it’s got to be a machine, but she genuinely could sing that high and that agile and that fast. It is amazing.
All of that kind of fades into the distance when you are looking at a tattered old piece of sheet music and you bring it to… I now work with these wonderful musicians with whom I’ve done the album.
Yes, your new album! The one that’s coming out in October.
Yes, the new one – Our Lovely Day.
I’ve listened to some of the tracks on your website, they are really wonderful.
Oh, you like them?
Oh yes! How did you decide which songs would go on your album?
That’s a very good question. It took years, basically. Again, a refinement process. Since age 9, I’ve been collecting old music, basically going begging around the neighborhood. I grew up in a small town north of Vancouver on the west coast of British Columbia and I made friends with all the elderly people. Because I just thought they lived in a much more interesting time than I did. And next door to me was this little old lady who had been a genuine flapper.
I’d go there and I’d just be fascinated saying, “what was it like to be a flapper? How did you dress, what did you do?” And she would talk about how they disapproved of her and her friends because they were fast and they liked cars and “oh yes, we had really long necklaces! We swayed about when we danced and we danced really fast!” Wow. So I just wanted every old person’s stories and I discovered sheet music that way, because very often they had pianos and piano benches filled with the old music. And old music is a very affordable antique.
Yes, it is!
Yeah, with those covers. Do you have some?
Oh yes! I have some that are from actual movies that are my favorites, so they have movie star pictures on the fronts.
Yes, they tend to be more expensive now because people think, “ooh that’s a collector’s item.” I used to look down on those growing up, I’d think, “They’re not old, they’re movies! I want the the stuff with the ladies with the big hats!”
Oh, from the 1900s?
Yes, actually the most beautiful ones were from 1919. I don’t know why, there was an explosion of gorgeous fanciful covers. All the exoticism and soiree influenced stuff. Fringing, wild prints – absolutely beautiful. A lot of great songs, also from 1919. It was a boom year. Yeah, so I look at the actual music, I pick up a song and play it through on the piano, see what it sounds like and go Yes, Maybe or No. Or there’s a forth one: Nice Cover! Makes everything irrelevant!
It gets kept anyway. Although I never throw anything away, never. So the Yes, Maybe or No piles. And the Maybe, I’ll put it away and then I’ll play it again later, like a week later when my ears are fresh. And I’ll put them in a Yes, Maybe or No and usually there’s a lot more No. Then I’ll get this Yes pile and then I’ll try it out in front of audiences. A very good place is retirement homes, nursing homes. And in Canada, there’s something called Health Art, which is a charity that sends professional musicians into retirement homes. You get paid for your time, which is good. And also they audition people so that people who go out there can sing to a professional standard. So, they don’t get tired. Among other things, if you’re doing a tour, it can be very tiring, so you’ve got to have the endurance.
Yes, build it up.
Yeah, yeah. And performers have to be personable and be able to hold somebody’s hand and be able to sing one-on-one if need be. So I do a lot of work with that kind of an outfit. There are two that I work with in England called Music in Hospitals and Lost Chord, singing in retirement homes. Before, when I was just learning, I used to do it for free. I used to just go up to a retirement home and say, “Do you mind if I do a little bit of a performance?” And they’d say, “Oh, oh go ahead!” And that way, you could really tell which songs would go over and not go over. Because residents are quite fussy. They remember how the music should be and they didn’t ask you to come there so you’ve got to be good!
So, I gradually built up this collection of songs that really worked. They were just always good in performance and people wanted to hear them. Sometimes there would be requests, “Could you sing this? I remember my grandmother used to sing it.” “Oh, certainly!”
And then in my work as a classical singer, I’d always do them in encores. And then when concert organizers gave me enough artistic license, I’d say, “Well, I’d like to do include some of my older songs.” And they would ask “like what, Mozart?” And I’d say, “Well… no.” This album is a distillation of the most popular ones. The ones people really react to the most. Although, I have enough to do 10 albums right now.
Wow, you could? You should! They are such great songs.
Oh, I’d love to! There is just an endless array. If you go to my website, you can see a big list of them. I actually need to update it because I’ve added about 20 and I need to add them.
So many songs haven’t been recorded in years, which is really strange. Jazz musicians do them, but then they mess about with them.
Ugh yes, and they change everything.
They change everything! Yeah, like they’re bored with them. How can we be bored with them? We’ve forgotten them. Maybe back in 1950 or 1940, they were going, “Oh gosh, this is the one that’s on every organ-grinder, every street corner, every pub there’s somebody playing this in the corner. Let’s do something funny with it. But we’ve kind of lost sight of those original songs.
Yeah, I think most people have never heard any of them.
Yeah! So this is what I want to do. I want to bring them back. I want to make people sick of them again.
Aww, well, I think people are ready for some nice nostalgia.
The last half of this interview will be posted tomorrow, [read it here] because I want to give everyone a chance to read through all of it without bombarding you. In the latter part of the conversation, we discussed vintage fashion, London shops and Dana Andrews! In the meantime, be sure and have a listen to Patricia’s new CD, here!
And if you are in the US and have access to TCM, The Great Waltz is playing today (July 22) at 6pm eastern time. I’m definitely tuning in to catch the performances of Miliza Korjus!