Heart & Soul

Crystal Gayle Pays Tribute to the Legendary Hoagy Carmichael

Their musical styles bear little resemblance to each other, but Crystal Gayle has been singing with her big sister, Loretta Lynn, since she was a kid, and now the two country music veterans are working toward making their very first album together.

“We find songs, we get together and rehearse,” says Gayle, who believes the siblings have a natural vocal blend. “But we end up just having a lot of fun each time we get together instead of getting a lot of work done. We’re hoping we’ll get it together this year. I know Loretta will be busy this year traveling with an upcoming solo album and book to promote. However, if she wants to do it, we’ll get it done.”

Gayle herself has a new solo album to tout. Her first secular collection in several years, Crystal Gayle Sings the Heart & Soul of Hoagy Carmichael, is a tribute to the songwriter who added such classic melodies as “Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “Heart and Soul” to the American pop canon.

Recording pop is nothing new for the Nashville-based singer. Gayle’s gentle, folkish sound has long been infused with sophisticated pop elements. Her signature song, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” was a bona fide pop smash in 1977, and “Talking in Your Sleep,” “Half the Way” and “You and I,” a duet with Eddie Rabbitt, also crossed over into the pop Top 20.

While no one will confuse their two sounds, Gayle cites her sister as a major influence. Lynn, 16 years her senior, encouraged Gayle in her career and opened doors for her. While growing up, Gayle traveled and sang with Lynn for a few weeks each summer. In 1970 Lynn helped her land a deal at Decca Records — the same label she was signed to — and she penned her baby sister’s first chart recording, “I’ve Cried the Blue Right Out of My Eyes.” It was Lynn who even suggested the stage name “Crystal” for Brenda Gail Webb when Decca decided they didn’t want another Brenda on the roster — they already had Brenda Lee.

But more than just the quantity of recorded twang distinguishes the country star siblings, both of whom have had turns as the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year in past decades.

“No one exemplified the new, smooth stylishness [of '70s country] more than Crystal Gayle,” observes Mary Bufwack and co-author Robert Oermann in Finding Her Voice: The Illustrated History of Women in Country Music. “Her sleek fashions, brunette elegance and soft-spoken grace bore no traces of hillbilly culture.”

Gayle’s non-traditional ways (who could forget her dark, straight hair that nearly reached the floor?) helped change the sound and look of country music, giving it glamour and mainstream appeal, paving the way for Reba, Shania and Faith.

“Artists like myself, Kenny Rogers and Olivia Newton-John opened the doors to broaden the appeal of country,” the 49-year-old singer says. “I got loads of mail from people who never listened to country before; people who thanked me for opening them up to a new kind of music. In the past, country music really wasn’t something people wanted to admit they liked. It was taboo. They might have really liked it, but they weren’t going to tell anybody.

“At that time we were weren’t considered ‘real’ country because our sounds were a little different. I mainly went that direction because my sister did ‘real’ country and I’d only be compared to her. She was the one that told me, for my sake, not to sound anything like her. She had the best advice ever, because I never would have made it if I just recorded things that sounded like her.

Her new album isn’t “real” country — or in other words hard, traditional country — by a long shot. Crystal Gayle Sings the Heart & Soul of Hoagy Carmichael consists of jazzy ballads and swing-pop tunes with arrangements that run from a small rhythm section to a 35-piece orchestra.

As much as Gayle loved singing the songs of Carmichael, what made working on Heart & Soul so rewarding was learning more about the history of the songs and the story of Carmichael’s life. Gayle’s manager and husband, Bill Gatzimos, wrote detailed historical notes for the CD booklet. The liner notes include lyrics to all 15 songs.

“I did not know that ‘Stardust’ had actually been written just as an instrumental,” Gayle points out. “‘Stardust’ is a song that has been recorded over 1,400 times, but it is not the easiest song to perform. Singing the song, I realized it definitely was written as an instrumental [lyrics were later added by Mitchell Parish]. I can tell. It’s a beautiful song, but it’s a vocal workout. Doing this album, I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about Hoagy and his songs.”

Heart & Soul was released in late 1999 near the 100th anniversary of Carmichael’s birth on Nashville-based independent Platinum Entertainment. Gayle, who also produced the album, has long had an affinity for Carmichael’s music. Although born in Kentucky, she grew up in the famed composer’s home state of Indiana. One of the few who can make such a claim, Gayle also had the pleasure of performing with him on a TV special just before he died in 1981 at the age of 82.

“The producers of Country Comes Home asked me if I would go out to California and sing a medley of Hoagy’s songs with him during a special segment of the show,” Gayle recalls. “I was very honored to work with him. I was very nervous, very much in awe. He made me feel at ease, though. That’s what a pro he was. He wasn’t feeling good at the time, but that camera came on and he lit up.”

Gayle remembers singing a medley of “Lazy River,” “Lazybones,” and “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” with Carmichael, followed by Ray Charles performing his definitive rendition of Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind.”

Gayle’s latest recording includes all these compositions, plus other classics such as “The Nearness of You,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” a song about popping the question that primarily gets recorded by male vocalists.

“There were certain songs of Hoagy’s that I wanted to make mine somehow,” Gayle says. “[Jazz legend] Billie Holliday would do that. She’d take a song, and she’d do it her way. She wouldn’t always sing the melody the way others normally did, but it was Billie Holliday, and it was great. In my case, I recorded ‘One Morning in May’ more as a ballad; most versions of that song have been done a little uptempo. Mine just has a different feel. That’s how I felt that song. It’s my interpretation. It had to be that way. I could have done it the normal way it has been done, but for me, from my heart, that’s the feeling I felt it should have.”

A highlight of the album is “Two Sleepy People,” a playful duet with Willie Nelson, who is no stranger to Carmichael’s work (Nelson’s 1978 Stardust album is a classic).

“Willie is a fan of great songs, and he loves Hoagy’s writing,” Gayle says. “I told him I was in the studio doing this project and that I would love it if he’d put his voice on ‘Two Sleepy People.’ I like it that our voices are so totally different, but they fit.”

Gayle’s right. Their voices fit even though they’re different. She pulled off a similar feat in the early 1980s when she recorded an album of lounge-style duets with sandpaper-voiced Tom Waits for the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart.

If her track record is any indication, you can bet she’ll pull it off again when she gets around to recording that album with Loretta.