on February 21, 2000
Over the last few years we've been bombarded with one unnecessary CD that remakes American standards after another. Ughh! I can only think of two artists who honor these songs while still making contemporary albums: Steve Tyrell's A NEW STANDARD and, best of all, Willie Nelson's STARDUST. Re-discovering this album, complete with two new tracks, is a joy. Of the many great albums that Willie Nelson has recorded, this one is my favorite. It sounds just as good today as it did twenty years ago, and I suspect it will sound the same in another twenty years. I am living proof that you don't have to listen to standards on a regular basis - if ever - to love this album. STARDUST is an absolute gem that gets better every time you play it. Bravo, Willie!
on May 18, 2004
On this record, Willie proved that his favorite items from "The Great American Songbook" were good enough to survive his distinctive phrasing and country/blues accompaniment organized by his buddy, Booker T., the producer. Mostly mellow, this album gives you 45 minutes of quiet pleasure. The songs were designed for pop, jazz or Broadway treatments, but Willie proved he could do them justice in his own sweet way. I had a boss who purchased this one when it came out in 1978 or so, and played it for me one day. I was barely conscious of Willie back then, but I knew the material from more traditional renditions. While I did not rush out to buy this at the time, it was because it was a tight budget year, not because I didn't like it. Now I've just acquired it, 25 years on, yet both Willie and the songs survive. If you like Nelson, this CD is one of the essentials. If you like "The Great American Songbook" this version of some of the best from that body of work is also essential. Here, Willie invented a style that melds jazz, pop, country, folk, blues and Broadway. Play "Red-Headed Stranger" and follow it with this one, and you have all the evidence one needs that Mr. Nelson is an immortal in the roster of great American music-makers.
on July 1, 2008
Country artists taking on pop standards wasn't a new idea when Willie Nelson released the ten tracks of 1978's Stardust LP. Ferlin Husky had released an entire album's worth on 1957's Boulevard of Broken Dreams, and other country stars regularly drew from the Great American Songbook. Nelson himself had recorded "That Lucky Old Sun" two years earlier for his The Sound in Your Mind LP. What made Stardust so audacious was the confluence of Nelson's iconoclastic career and the times in which the album was released. Where his outlaw compadre Waylon Jennings had directly confronted Nashville, Nelson vented his subversion by retreating to Texas, and waxing concept albums like Phases and Stages and The Red Headed Stranger.
Nelson's previous release, the 1977 tribute to Lefty Frizzell, To Lefty From Willie, didn't straightforwardly set the stage for an album of standards, but the depth of his song selections, the respect he showed the material, and his idiosyncratic phrasing revealed an interpretive stylist whose talent stretched well beyond his own words. With the outlaw country movement in full swing, Nelson's choice to drop an album of classic American pop was perhaps the most revolutionary move of his career. Recorded with his band and produced by Booker T. Jones, Nelson re-contextualized the songs to expose their common roots in the American experience, much as Ray Charles had managed with 1962's Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.
Predictably, Columbia's brass didn't have a clue, yet the album turned into the biggest success of Nelson's career, producing a pair of chart-topping singles ("Blue Skies" and "Georgia on My Mind," the latter snagging a Grammy®) and the #3 "All of Me," sold millions of copies, and stuck to the country album chart for over ten years! The album's crossover success wasn't quite as pronounced, though it did stay two years on the pop album chart. Nelson's vision brought the songs of Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill, Duke Ellington, George & Ira Gershwin, and others to a new audience and a new generation. He did this by staying true to both the songs and his own art, blending together a reverence for the compositions with his personal musical style.
The arrangements include several of Nelson's trademark sounds, including Mickey Raphael's harmonica and Nelson's gut-string guitar; Booker T's organ adds soul, jazz and gospel notes throughout. Nelson's band proves itself superb company for pop standards, able to underline the vocals and swing ever-so-lightly as needed. The results are a perfect rendering of pop standards in the Willie Nelson style. As strongly as these tracks took hold with the public, they exerted an even deeper spell on Nelson, who continued to record from the pop songbook for years to come, including 1981's Somewhere Over the Rainbow LP.
Columbia/Legacy's 30th anniversary edition of Stardust includes a second CD of sixteen additional standards waxed by Nelson between 1976's The Sound in Your Mind and 1990's Born For Trouble. Drawn from across fifteen years, there's more variety and less cohesion between the arrangements, which makes disc two less an album and more an opportunity to hear Nelson's evolving creativity. Few of these tracks measure up to the inspiration of the original Stardust, but there are highlights, including a gypsy-jazz country-blue version of "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)," a downbeat, pre-Stardust take of "Lucky Old Sun," and a romantically yearning cover of "Mona Lisa" that features guitar runs reminiscent of Anton Karas' zither in The Third Man. Completists should note that neither of the bonus tracks from the 1999 Stardust reissue ("Scarlet Ribbons" and "I Can See Clearly Now") are included here. New liner notes from Rich Kienzle are worth reading, but with the original album a five-star release on its own, it's really difficult to make improvements. [©2008 hyperbolium dot com]
on July 12, 2002
This is an album of covers of traditional pop songs, but the primary impression it leaves is neither country nor traditional pop. Instead, the key is the tasteful production by Booker T. Jones - swinging but understated percussion, warm bass, and bluesy keyboards. Willie's weary outlaw vocals and sublime guitar picking fit it like a glove. The result is, simply, classic American music, more Muscle Shoals than Nashville. It's just a shame that Willie and Booker T. didn't make another album. This is truly a diamond in the rough.
Surprisingly, the two outtakes on this version are a welcome addition. "Scarlet Ribbons" fits well with the rest of the album, and "I Can See Clearly Now" ends with an extended blues jam that makes for a perfect conclusion.
I originally got this album when it first came out and liked it immediately, but as sometimes happens, I lost contact with it for whatever reason. I recently became reacquainted with it when I wanted to hear a recording of Kurt Weill's "September Song," and this was one of the two versions I possess. I just let the disc keep playing when I was finished with the Weill, which led to several relistenings. What a delightful album! In a way, it reminds me somewhat of Ray Charles's MODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY AND WESTERN MUSIC, in that an artist in one musical genre takes up standards in another. What is remarkable here is how unstrained these performances are; nowhere does Willie seem to be forcing the songs into a mode of performance that they resist (in contrast, say, to a god-awful big band cover I recently heard by Paul Anka of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"-yeah, it was a horrible as it sounds like it has to be). Part of the reason Willie Nelson's covers work so well is that he has never been a typical country western singer. Virtually all other country singers tend to sing all their songs precisely on the beat, even such magnificent singers as Lefty Frizzell and George Jones. But Willie habitually sings every so slightly behind the beat and has always done so. His voice therefore has a flexibility to adapt to these songs that many other singers would lack. That he is able to do so is remarkable in itself. While he has a unique voice, it isn't a great voice. He possesses neither much power nor great range, and yet he is able to do justice to nearly every cut.
Not every cut is a thundering success. "Blue Skies" sounds a bit bland and unexciting, but he is perfectly suited to sing the aforementioned "September Song." The raw, unpolished quality of his voice actually seems to enhance the performance. For the same reason, he shines on "The Sunny Side of the Street." The somewhat rustic quality of his voice brings out aspects of songs like "Moonlight in Vermont" lacking in other versions. And his rendition of "Someone to Walk Over Me" is simply the finest I have heard. He is also outstanding on the album's title track, "Stardust," which isn't terribly surprising, since his voice shares some of the qualities of Hoagy Carmichael's voice, which was one of the least polished in American popular song. In the end, the album represents a marvelous triumph of style over songs that one might have imagines beyond Willie's competence. The best example might be "Unchained Melody." Few songs from the rock and roll era have provided a greater opportunity for a singer to show what kind of vocal chops he or she possesses than this gem, and when one thinks of the ideal singer for the song, one instantly thinks of Bill Medley and the Righteous Brothers, not Willie Nelson. I won't say that Willie makes you forget Bill Medley, but he does create a more delicate, fragile song than the one the listener is used to.
The album was one of Willie Nelson's greatest commercial successes, so in retrospect it is easy to underestimate what a bold venture it actually was. He had steadily been gaining more and more popularity as a performer, and there was no guarantee that he was not going to alienate his base audience by performing these exceedingly non-country songs, even if it was able to inject them with a bit of his own style. But on reflection, perhaps it shouldn't be such a surprise. Willie might be country, but he never fit comfortably into the Nashville scene. Politically he was light years from your typical country performer, and just too untamed and eccentric. But for whatever reason, this remains not merely one of Willie Nelson's finest albums, but one of the most creative reinterpretations of several classic songs from the great American songbook.
Country purists may not like this album, but I love it. It introduced a whole new set of people to the songs of the thirties and forties that make up the majority of the original album. Unchained melody (from the mid-fifties) is very modern by comparison.
I knew very little about most of these songs when I first bought this album on vinyl, but I have since acquired a taste for the music from way back then. According to the liner notes, Moonlight in Vermont is Willie's favorite song. The original singer was Margaret Whiting, and while I now prefer her version, I might never have discovered her music if it wasn't for this album and its sequel, Somewhere over the rainbow.
The rest of this album includes covers of Stardust (Isham Jones, 1931), Georgia on my mind (made famous by Ray Charles, but originally a hit for Frankie Trumbauer in 1931), Blue skies (Ben Selvin, 1927), All of me (two versions both topped the American charts in 1932, one by Louis Armstrong and the other by Paul Whiteman), September song (Walter Huston, 1939), On the sunny side of the street (Ted Lewis, 1930), Don't get around much anymore (Duke Ellington, Glen Gray and the Ink spots all had top ten hits with it in 1943) and Someone to watch over me (Gertrude Lawrence (1927).
Two bonus tracks recorded at the same sessions, slightly more modern, are included here. Scarlet ribbons fits easily with the other songs. I can see clearly now does not really fit. Although it is a brilliant version, it is just a different style from the other songs here. Even so, I'm glad it was included.
Almost all these songs were included on the Australian compilation All the songs I've loved before, which has also been released in Britain. That compilation (which I've already reviewed) claims to include all the songs from this album, but September song is missing (probably by accident). In any case, I bought this before I bought that compilation.
This was a landmark album when released and was a huge seller, deservedly so.
on April 8, 2003
An album is beautifully produced when it avoids polishing and sterilizing the music. In this album the inimitable and haunting voice is left in its raw purity as he "covers" songs not usually included in a country repertoire. An outstanding example is Nelson's moving rendition of "September Song," I first heard this recorded by the strings of Mantovani and later crooned by others, it has only been since hearing the naturally rugged tones of Nelson that I have appreciated how beautiful it is. This is an album to listen to of an evening, perhaps a glass in hand, to empty the mind and enjoy the emotion.
on October 31, 1999
How could I not alert other listeners to an extraordinary album that kept me alive spiritually during 1980 and 1981 in France, and gave my kids a fast short course in some fundamental musical Americana? Willie's voice is utterly unique, his phrasing is masterful, and his choice of songs is exquisite. These songs are, largely, the best of the1940's, songs I heard as a young child. I'm buying copies for myself, my dad, and my kids - all off whom love these wonderful songs.
on May 6, 2006
Willie sings these old standards, making them complete, filling them out with a lilt that matches no other. Rich tones and and his soft voice grabs you until you are sucked into a dreamlike world. You'll love these songs listening to them while sitting with your someone special.
on July 29, 2007
last month i was down at the DMV waiting & waiting & waiting for my number to be called so that i could get my license plate tabs & get the heck out of there, when two well dressed gentlemen started arguing about what the best willie nelson album is. well, the dozens of people waiting & waiting & waiting were already in bad moods, so when the debate started by the two well dressed gentlemen spread to others, things soon turned ugly. pretty soon everybody was heatedly arguing the willie nelson album subject. i heard red headed stranger, spirit, crazy: the demo sessions, yesterday's wine, and even phases and stages being championed as spittle flew from angry lips. an old lady next to me started shouting teatro! teatro! teatro! and although i agree that teatro is a great album, there was something about her attitude that i didn't like, so i popped her one in the mouth. now it was game on. fists started flying everywhere, and ultimatley, through the repeated use of my lightning fast left jab/straight right/left-hook combo, i was able to win the day and convince everyone there that "stardust" is indeed willie nelson's greatest album. it really is.