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Jazz singer Susannah McCorkle performs a holiday concert for 'Fresh Air'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're celebrating Christmas Eve with excerpts of shows from our archive. Next, we go all the way back to 1988 for a great concert of Christmas songs performed by the late Susannah McCorkle. 1988 was also the year she was described as the outstanding female jazz singer of her generation by jazz critic Francis Davis. Full disclosure - he's my husband. Susannah was also a writer and translator, and her love of language was apparent in her interpretation of lyrics. Joining Susannah for this concert in our studio was pianist Lee Musiker and bass player Dean Johnson. They opened with one of my favorite Christmas songs, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine for the 1944 Judy Garland movie "Meet Me In St. Louis."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SUSANNAH MCCORKLE: (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on, our troubles will be out of sight. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the Yuletide gay. From now on, our troubles will be miles away. Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more. Through the years, we all will be together if the Fates allow. Hang on a shining star upon the highest bough. And have yourself a merry little Christmas. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

That's always such a sad song. It was actually an even sadder song I just read in one of those books of Hollywood anecdotes that you're always so ashamed of yourself for reading, but you keep on reading. When it was written by Blaine and Martin for Judy Garland, she said, this is too sad. I'm going to be - it's a sad moment. Our family's about to move to New York. We're afraid we won't be together anymore again after this Christmas. But it's - the words are so sad. This Christmas may be our last. And if I sing it sad and the song is sad, it'll be too sad. So just make it more neutral, and then I'll be sad. And then it won't be too much of one thing.

I love that idea of Judy Garland sitting down with the songwriters and talking about it, the idea that you could be there when a great song is born. And as a singer who really thinks about what you're singing, have something to do with it and to say about it. And it is really enduring, classic song that we just don't get tired of.

GROSS: I think it's one of the best Christmas songs (laughter).

MCCORKLE: It is, yes.

GROSS: I'm glad you opened with it.

MCCORKLE: Christmas is sad. There is always a longing about Christmas, longing for what we never knew, even, except from the movies.

GROSS: Susannah, the next song you're going to do is a song I've never heard, so I'm especially glad you're going to do it.

MCCORKLE: Thank you. I only know one recorded version of it by the great Fats Waller, one of my favorite musicians, made in the 1930s. I know the melody was written by Sam Coslow, who wrote "My Old Flame." I guess if any one music inspired me, it's '30s music 'cause it has that infectious swing and cheerfulness. I just love it. It doesn't sound dated or nostalgic at all to me. So this one's for Fats from us. One, two, three, four.

(Singing) There's Fourth of Julys in both your eyes, Easter Sunday, too, because every day's a holiday since the day that I found you. Each heaven on earth day feels like a birthday, May Day rendezvous because every day's a holiday since the day that I found you. They ought to hang the flags out. They ought to close the banks. Though it's not November, I feel like giving thanks. You're a happy new year, a movie premiere, a Christmas present, too, 'cause every day's a holiday since the day that I found you. They ought to hang the flags out. They ought to close the banks. Though it's not November, I feel like giving thanks. You're a happy new year, a movie premiere, a Christmas present, too, 'cause every day's a holiday since the day that I found you, since the day that I found you.

GROSS: That's a good song.

MCCORKLE: Yeah. All-purpose holiday song for any band...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCCORKLE: ...Any society (ph) band.

GROSS: And I'm sure that comes in really handy.

MCCORKLE: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: Well, the next song you're going to do is much more familiar.

MCCORKLE: Yes, this is dedicated to a great musician, Mel Torme. Gave us a Christmas song that they'll be singing into the next century, I'm sure.

(Singing) Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Yuletide carols being sung by a choir and folks dressed up like Eskimos. Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright. Tiny, little tots with their eyes all aglow will find it hard to sleep tonight. They know that Santa's on his way. He comes with lots of toys and goodies in his sleigh. And every mother's child is going to spy to see if reindeer really know how to fly. So I'm offering this simple phrase for kids from 1 to 92. Though it's been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you. Merry Christmas to you. Merry Christmas.

GROSS: We're listening to the Christmas concert recorded in 1988 by the late Susannah McCorkle, accompanied by Lee Musiker on piano and Dean Johnson on bass. We'll hear more of that concert after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WARREN WOLF'S "CHRISTMAS TIME IS HERE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the Christmas concert recorded in our studio in 1988 with the late singer Susannah McCorkle, accompanied by Lee Musiker on piano and Dean Johnson bass.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Can you sing "Winter Wonderland" for us?

MCCORKLE: "Winter Wonderland" we're going to do?

GROSS: Yeah.

MCCORKLE: OK. One, two, three four.

(Singing) Sleigh bells ring. Are you listening? In the lane, snow is glistening. A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight walking in a winter Wonderland. Gone away is the bluebird. Here to stay is the new bird. To sing a love song as we go along. Walking in a winter wonderland. In the meadow, we can build a snowman and pretend that he is Parson Brown. He'll say, are you married? We'll say, no, man. But you can do the job if you're in town. Later on, we'll conspire as we dream by the fire to face unafraid the plans that we made. Walking in a winter wonderland. Later on, we'll conspire as we dream by the fire to face unafraid the plans that we made. Walking in a winter wonderland.

GROSS: Great (laughter). Susannah, every year are you called on to sing Christmas songs?

MCCORKLE: I am, but I'm - I don't mind it. I love special occasions and holidays. I really like doing them, and there are a lot of beautiful Christmas songs. I really - I like all the carols, too. But there's also, oh, by gosh, by golly, mistletoe and holly.

GROSS: Oh, yes (laughter).

MCCORKLE: I'd say that's one that I don't want to sing.

GROSS: A good vote (laughter).

MCCORKLE: I could really hear the songwriters cranking that one out. Let's come up with a Christmas song.

GROSS: Well, you're going to do a nice one next.

MCCORKLE: Yeah, I'm going to do one that I think is the most evocative one about Christmas for all of us, because many of us won't be going home for Christmas or can't be going home for Christmas or the home that we think of as home doesn't exist anymore. So it's a very touching song to hear and to sing because it has so much meaning for everybody, especially these Christmas songs that are so familiar. Everybody has one particular time that he or she thinks of with a song like this.

(Singing) I'll be home for Christmas. You can count on me. Please have snow and mistletoe and presents 'neath the tree. Christmas Eve will find me where the love light gleams. I'll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams. I'll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams. I'll be home for Christmas.

GROSS: That was a beautiful version of that. You sang that beautifully.

MCCORKLE: Thank you. I love that song.

GROSS: Thank you for a very, very beautiful concert.

MCCORKLE: We've loved doing it. Thank you for inviting us.

GROSS: That was gorgeous.

That was Susannah McCorkle, recorded in 1988 in our studio, with pianist Lee Musiker and bass player Dean Johnson. Susannah died in 2001. I'm always grateful we have several of her performances in our archive.

Next week on FRESH AIR, we try to end another challenging year on an upbeat note with a series of interviews from 2021 that we enjoyed. We begin with Kieran Culkin, one of the stars of HBO's "Succession." When he was a child, he was featured in the hit movie "Home Alone," which starred his brother, Macaulay. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE MCKENNA'S "I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS")

GROSS: All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a merry and, most of all, a healthy Christmas. And if you or someone you're close to has COVID, we send our best wishes for a speedy recovery. I hope next Christmas, I don't need to say the word COVID. I'm Terry Gross.

(OUNDBITE OF DAVE MCKENNA'S "I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

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