SANDRA PILLER SINGS THE HIT PARADE MUSIC OF RUTH ROBERTS
December 15, 2015
Shady Hill Records
Also available directly from CD Baby.
Even though one of its songs, "Tempo of Love," mentions "rocking and rolling," Sandra Piller's latest recording isn't quite matriculating in the School of Rock, but more the School of Bounce and Sway. She's taken up the task of carrying on the legacy of the songwriter who was the mother of her late husband on this new project which she expanded in a live show this fall at Manhattan's Metropolitan Room and West Hollywood's Gardenia. When Sandra Piller Sings the Hit Parade Music of Ruth Roberts, she's evoking a pep-filled pop music era in its most unabashedly, unapologetically oh-so perky outlook that glows and sparkles like a shiny rainbow painted with fluorescent paint with globs of glitter added lest you not note the brightness. Simple rhymes and uncomplicated emotions reign, melodies are rollickingly accessible, if not earwormingly so, and life is a happy Hallmark Valentine card in those same bright, bright hues.
Ruth Roberts Piller (1926-2011) and her collaborators were busy folks knocking out tunes for many years, including work in the legendary Brill Building. Frequent co-writers on pop numbers, such as those on this six-song EP, included husband Gene Piller and Bill Katz. Her most widely heard creation must be one of the sports-related ones—baseball fans and anyone walking by a TV or radio for decades when the New York Mets played heard the very catchy "Meet the Mets" theme. The lively pop nugget that opens the disc, the relentlessly repetitive and frisky (but ultimately adorable) "What Time Does the Sun Go Down," feels it might be choreographed for an over-eager organ grinder and his hyperactive maniacal monkey with cymbals. -(She wrote both words and music to this one and to "Lonesome and Blue," which is nowhere as droopy as it sounds.)
And, if a quick listen to some of these light-hearted, good-hearted ditties remind you a bit of the simplified, silly songs for kiddies, it's probably because the children's market was one that Ruth Roberts spent much time in and may well be her most notable niche. Indeed, a child's introduction to musical theatre preserved on an LP record album, Curtain Going Up, with sung explanations of theatre terms, is a delight, with Julie Harris and Richard Kiley doing the honors (the latter also recording such fare as a musical history of Tall Tom Jefferson). But, unlike those and her cautionary children's musical Pinocchio, Don't Smoke that Cigarette, the pop songs here have no lessons in mind, unless you count the adult instruction lasting less than a minute and a half teaching us all the damaging results of being a "Fair Weather Sweetheart." That one, which had been recorded by chipper Teresa Brewer, has an old-time country/western feel, which matches the genre that Sandy Piller has recently been working in as a songwriter with her own partners.
The singer's voice throughout is light and smooth, unaffected, and inflected with the carefree attitudes of most of the material here. With the sweet "Sweetheart" and the cozy "If I Had You on a Desert Island," she has a duet partner, with the more understated but genial vocal contributions of pianist Charlie Harrison.
The fare of radio/then TV's "Hit Parade" of cheery chart-toppers are on display here. The point seems to be to suggest that style without aping the sounds per se. And it would seem wrongheaded to try to modernize them; it's tough to give a cushion some sharp edge. These frothy frolics would sink if more weightiness were added. Just come visit, if you are so inclined, to a musical antique store where the items are not too creaky or dusty because those bright colors I mentioned are still determinedly shining through the decades.
- Rob Lester
Sandra Piller Sings the Hit Parade Music of Ruth Roberts
Tom Rolla’s Gardenia, West Hollywood, CA, October 9, 2015
Reviewed by Elliot Zwiebach for Cabaret Scenes
Sandra Piller gave new life to a series of songs written by Ruth Roberts, her late mother-in-law, in an evening recalling some terrific music recorded by some terrific artists that nevertheless may not have gotten the exposure it should have in its time.
Perhaps its time is now. MORE
Roberts wrote music and lyrics with various partners — all of it very melodic and singable, managing to convey complex emotions in a simple, straightforward manner — and Piller was able to add her own twist to several of them with arrangements that belied a hint of the country style with which she is most comfortable.
Her take on “Blue Piano” (based on music by Duke Ellington, with lyrics by Roberts, Bill Katz and Stanley Clayton) was warm and solid, with less of a jazz sound than the version recorded by Freda Payne in 1964. There was a definite Latin beat on “Dark Eyes and Pink Champagne,” (Roberts/Katz/Clayton), recorded by Lawrence Welk in 1967.
The show also featured the Duke Ellington instrumental, “C Jam Blues,” for which Roberts, Katz and Bob Thiele wrote lyrics in 1967 to create “Duke’s Place,” a swinging, spirited number delivered enthusiastically by Piller. She was right in her comfort zone with “Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues” (Roberts/Katz/Clayton), with its strong rockabilly sound that made it a hit for Buddy Holly in 1957 and was subsequently recorded by the Beatles, who were Holly fans. She was also right on point in conveying the clear, deep emotions on two haunting ballads — “Illusion” (lyrics by Roberts, music by Roberts’ son, Mike Piller) and “Winter Snow” (Roberts/Katz), an unrecorded song given to Piller by Roberts.
Piller also demonstrated a keen ability to delight an audience on several up-tempo songs: a toe-tapping “Strike While the Iron Is Hot” (Roberts/Katz/Clayton), recorded in 1957 by Red Foley; “Fair Weather Sweetheart” (Roberts/Katz), recorded in 1959 by Teresa Brewer; a wonderful counterpoint song called “If I Had You on a Desert Isle” (Roberts, husband Gene Piller and Katz), originally sung by Jeanette Davis and Arthur Godfrey, but performed here by Piller with an adept vocal assist from pianist Charlie Harrison; and one of the best songs of the night — the bouncy, swinging “All in a Night’s Work” (Roberts/Katz), recorded in 1962 by Dean Martin — which here featured strong work by Dan Sawyer on saxophone and Henry Newmark on drums.
There was also a medley of classic sports songs that Roberts wrote — the New York Mets’ theme, “Meet the Mets” (with Katz); the Los Angeles Dodgers’ theme, “It’s a Beautiful Day for a Ball Game” (with Katz/Gene Piller/Harry Simeone); and the football classic, “Mr. Touchdown USA” (with Katz and Gene Piller).
There was also a wow moment of recognition for some older audience members when Piller performed “Just Young,” (written by Roberts under her mother’s name, Lya S. Roberts), which Paul Anka recorded in 1959; and a pleasant memory to hear Jimmy Dean’s 1965 hit, “The First Thing Ev’ry Morning” (Roberts).