After Elvis and rock ’n’ roll, My Fair Lady was one of the great cultural quasars of this late 1950s. It was the most successful and longest running musical in the history of Broadway at the time. Its original cast album reached number 1 four separate times between 1956 and 1959, and in 1957 alone it sold 5 million copies, more than any previous LP. This chart success might seem almost preordained considering that Columbia Records backed the original production of the show in exchange for the rights to the cast album, but the show’s impact spread beyond just one album (or two if you count the London cast album in stereo). Not only did virtually every pop singer cover at least one song from My Fair Lady in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but dozens of artists cut entire albums of the show’s songs: Nat King Cole, Andy Williams, Shelly Manne with Andre Previn, Rosemary Clooney, Oscar Peterson. The show and its songs were everywhere.*
Tito Puente was a little late to this particular party, not releasing his version until 1964. He had been his own pop culture phenomenon during the peak MFL years, riding a wave of mambomania and cutting landmark albums for the RCA and Tico labels simultaneously. His final album for RCA appeared in 1963, leaving him exclusively with Tico—or almost. Tico had been founded by the great, if unlucky, George Goldner. Like most of the other labels he founded (Gone, Gee, Roulette) Tico ended up in the hands of Morris “Hesch” Levy as a settlement of Goldner’s gambling debts. However it may have happened—one imagines a poker hand just short of an inside straight was involved— Puente’s MFL album ended up on Roulette, which meant that Puente likely never saw a dime on the project. Perhaps that’s why it feels like a work for hire, a homework assignment. Puente and Co. go through the motions of Latinizing the score less than enthusiastically in typically crappy, compressed Roulette sound. It works better than it should given the durability of the songs, but what to do with that ultimate ode to English stuffiness, “Ascot Gavotte,” an antimambo if ever there was one? It was at this point in the project that you sense Puente said the hell with it, abandoning Frederick Loewe’s tune after a few bars for a full-on “Guantanamera”-style danzon-guajira rave up and in the process turning a silk purse into carnitas.
Tito Puente and his Orchestra, “Ascot Gavotte” (1964)
My Fair Lady Goes Latin
Roulette R 25276
* Someone ought to do a study, if one has not already been done, on My Fair Lady as a precursor to the Beatles. Aside from expanding the capacity of record pressing plants and blazing a path for media saturation, My Fair Lady moved to the center of American culture Anglophilia of a new kind: witty, cheeky, skewering class pretensions. In this light, weren’t the Fab Four inheritors of George Bernard Shaw’s brand of wit? And weren’t the boys Pygmalion figures themselves, schooled and polished by their very own Professor Higgins in Brian Epstein?