The Ethel Merman Disco Album: Off the Beaten Tracks

Broadway belter turns "Disco Diva" twenty years after her stage show past to show us she's still "got rhythm," if no rhyme or reason.
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There’s no people like show people, and there’s no one showier than Broadway force of nature Ethel Merman. Her powerhouse wallop of precise pitch and clearly enunciated mezzo-soprano voice – said to have been enhanced in part by a tonsillectomy during her early career – facilitated her stage success in the days before microphones. The brassy and irrepressible Merman, who never had a singing lesson, was her own amplification, a trait that allowed her to better emulate the performances of such idols as Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker, both of whom she had watched and revered as a girl at the vaudeville shows in Manhattan’s Palace Theatre.

Why Merman couldn’t take the clarion call down a notch or two to eleven after the anything-goes days when electricity became all the rage, is lost to the annals of music history. Yet she carried on long enough to jump on the disco bandwagon twenty years after her last big success on the Great White Way to foist on the unsuspecting public in 1979 The Ethel Merman Disco Album, a not-quite-boffo album that didn't exactly wow 'em. Though she’d still ‘got rhythm,’ there’s really no reason or rhyme for the existence of the album except perhaps (in addition to the sheer guilty pleasure of it all of it all), to help sustain her revival on the TV variety show, sitcom, and talk show circuits and promote her brave new world in such roles as Gopher’s mother in The Love Boat. Could movies, beyond the cameos she’d always done, be far behind? The promise of what might’ve been for roles or soundtrack work in, say, Can't Stop the Music or Xanadu, was to remain unfulfilled, alas, with Merman’s 1984 death at 71 from a brain tumor.

Before that sad fate, however, the notable conductor and arranger Peter Matz, instrumental in the success of earlier Barbra Streisand albums, persuaded Merman, for whatever reason, to get in on the disco inferno engulfing the pop charts with some of her best-known showstoppers, including “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Alexander's Ragtime Band,” and “I Got Rhythm.” But she doesn’t so much sing as phone it in as Matz cuts and pastes Merman’s vibrato-fortifed and detached-sounding voice over some garden-variety disco tracks – albeit with all the bells and whistles A&M could afford.

It’s hard to say who the album was supposed to appeal to – I was tempted to put it in the Humor section when it came into the record store I was working at at the time. Of course The Ethel Merman Disco Album was a delectable novelty, good for a gag gift or a joke of some kind – but no matter how much richer mankind is for its existence, I can’t see any of the record makers seriously thinking of it in terms of commercial, artistic, or even entertainment terms beyond occasional Studio 54 dance floor fare. Would Merman's old fans play it more than once? Would new ones play it all the way through? A little goes a long way, with diminishing returns and replays.

Nevertheless, the album's liner notes seem to be in earnest, with a couple of head-scratching asides. In addition to songwriter and singer Paul Jabara’s thanking the “Disco Diva” with a “Bless you for boogeying, Ethel," producer Peter Matz offers up a his own brand of enigmatic gratitude. "Thanks, Ethel, for the continuing reminders of what it's all about..."

Yeah... but what exactly is it all about?