Comic actress Charlotte Rae had achieved a breakthrough the previous year as Mrs. Peachum in the celebrated Marc Blitzstein adaptation of The Threepenny Opera at the Theatre de Lys Off-Broadway when she was signed by Vanguard Records in 1955 to make an album of novelty songs. But she had been in New York for years by then, doing her nightclub act at the Blue Angel, the Village Vanguard, and other clubs, and Songs I Taught My Mother, subtitled "Silly, Sinful & Satiric Selections," was a collection of witty, bawdy, and sophisticated special material that she had assembled for those performances. She called on friends including Blitzstein, who provided the opening number, "Modest Maid," about a character fascinated by lechery, and, from his musical No for an Answer, the frenetic "Fraught." The biggest contributor, however, was Sheldon Harnick (later known as the lyricist for a series of Broadway musicals including Fiddler on the Roof), who was tapped for "Gus the Gopher" and "Merry Little Minuet" (from John Murray Anderson's Almanac), and collaborated with Rae on "Backer's Audition" and "Gabor the Merrier." "Merry Little Minuet" hilariously combined classical music with a caustic view of world affairs, to wit: "The whole world is festering with unhappy souls/The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles/Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch/And I don't like anybody very much." (The song anticipated Randy Newman's "Political Science" by decades.) Such a number had to be sung perfectly straight for its best effect, but "Backer's Audition" and "Gabor the Merrier" were both broadly acted satires full of winking references to contemporary figures. And when she wasn't making fun of the Gabor sisters, Rae could use a distinctly Marlene Dietrich-like voice to intone the silly lyrics to Ogden Nash's poem "The Sea-Gull and the Ea-Gull," set to music by Vernon Duke, whose "Summer Is A-Comin' In" from The Lady Comes Across was also included. (Rae would revive it again in 1956 in The Littlest Revue.) Add in a couple of Cole Porter gems and the apparently never-before-recorded Rodgers & Hart ballad "Why Can't I?" from Spring Is Here, and the album made for a wonderful set of comic material rendered by a first-class cabaret talent with a long career still ahead of her.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann