After hearing the news that Eydie Gormé died on Saturday, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, how it is that certain female pop singers, whose singing appears not to be sexy, are sexy. Her greatest hit, featured in the obituaries as if it were truly her finest achievement, was an industrially concocted herky-jerky embarrassment of an advertising ditty called “Blame It On the Bossa Nova,” which came out it in 1963. I am old enough to remember it; I do not remember it. And yet, among her recordings and performances from those years, I do remember her rendition of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” which I heard on AM radio at the age of twelve or thereabouts, unless I watched her perform it on TV with Steve Lawrence, her husband. I have never come across her version again.
I remember the smoke in her voice, though, or maybe it was less than smoke—a wispy hint, sufficiently flavored to have left me wondering forever after about the nature of love, sex, women, and the accuracy of memory. Her great gifts were, after all, a marvelously accurate pitch, capable of making the giant upward and downward swoops that are required by a song like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—and an interpretative talent for hinting without appearing to hint, as if hinting at hinting, which is otherwise known as the art of the subdued tease.
The two songs of hers that I have at hand among my old technologically-retro CDs come from her alternative career as a Mexican pop star, singing with the Trío Los Panchos. Gormé was a Jewish girl from what used to be the Jewish Bronx, who, at William H. Taft High School in the 1940s, was voted, according to the obituaries, the “prettiest, peppiest cheerleader.” Glory was hers from the start. "The Steve Allen Show," which became "The Tonight Show," and the rest of her career were merely additional constellations in an already-conquered universe. Her Jewishness was, however, Sephardic, which was unusual in the Ashkenazic Bronx. Her parents came from Sicily and Turkey, which meant that her ancestors descended from the Spanish Jews of half a millennium ago; and, as a child, she spoke not only English but also Ladino, which is Judeo-Spanish. She spoke Spanish itself.
She knew how to deploy the letter R as a rhythm instrument. This skill put her in a position, once she had ascended into stardom, to become, in addition, a cross-over star. And she crossed. She resembled in this respect a great number of American big-band musicians from her generation, whose misfortune was to live through the decline of big-band music in the 1950s and '60s, and who then found work in later years by going south to Latin America, where big-band traditions went on thriving, in superior Latin versions. But this was rare among singers.
The two songs in my CD cabinet are “Nosotros” and “Sabor a Mí,” which the Trío Los Panchos included in a double-CD collection of their own called Todo Panchos: Las 24 Grandes Canciónes. I can see why whoever assembled the compilation would have included a couple of Gormé hits among the 24 greatest. The music of Los Panchos conforms to the traditional Mexican trio style, which is elegant, showy, and, in inspiration, European classical. Two tenor voices and a baritone pronounce stately male harmonies, or else sigh together in triadic reveries, and a classical Spanish guitar responds with fleet-fingered rhythms and high-pitched ornamental runs, like a bird flitting overhead. Los Panchos typically make use of additional guitars and studio violins and all kinds of other things; but those are optional frills. Male triads and delicate guitar-plucking define the genre.
On my recordings, the prettiest, peppiest cheerleader from William H. Taft High School fits a little oddly into these Mexican elegances, and yet not so oddly. And the mixture of fit and misfit, like the hint of smoke, offers still another tease. Her Spanish accent is a wonder in itself. There is no question about her mastery of the language. The consonants are splendid; the R’s, regal. And yet, the vowels tend to be a little flattened out, as if, like William H. Taft, they come from Ohio. Here, you say to yourself as you listen, might possibly be a gringa. The contrast of her own sounds and those of the Panchos reminds you that she has, in fact, crossed over, and a lively bright-eyed American girl is right now enjoying the attentions of three formal and elegant Mexican gentlemen—whose own accents, sometimes classically correct, are sometimes marvelously humble in the Mexican style, as if to demonstrate that democratic sensibilities belong to either side of the cross-over border.
But the contrast in accents, hers and theirs, points mostly to a contrast in musical concepts. The warbling harmonies of the three Panchos conform so strictly to the customs of trio music as to suggest that no one among those three gentlemen would possibly commit the vulgarity of singing in any other style, nor would any of them dress in anything but a suitable Panchos uniform, nor even entertain a wayward thought; and this, the rigid nature of their performance, is moving to observe. Trio music is a courtly art, and it is sung by troubadours who are palpitating with the emotions of courtly love, delicate, refined, intense, but are also bending to the discipline of ancient tradition, as if their music had descended, as it probably does, from the troubadours of the Middle Ages with their guitars and their poems.
The recordings of Eydie Gormé with Los Panchos show her happily going along, one more courtly singer along with the rest. And yet, something in that accent of hers reminds you that La Gormé does hail from the United States, where, during her high school years, big-band swing was enjoying its golden age—a style chiefly African-American in origin, with an occasional contribution from big talents like Tommy Dorsey, the trombonist, whose relaxed phrasing proved to be inspirational for more than one singer. The big-band background winks at us from behind La Gormé’s Spanish consonants and her seeming simplicity.
Her versions of “Nosotros” and “Sabor a Mí” are no different from anything a Mexican female pop singer of her era would have produced, except for the flat gringo vowels. And yet, now and then she lingers over a note a little too languidly, as if she had decided to allow the rhythms of the song to glide ahead of her. Or she allows her voice to swell a little more intensely than a courtly troubadour from the twelfth century would have advised. And the combination of rhythmic freedom (although only in a phrase or two, so quickly pronounced as to be forgotten) and the swelling intensity (if only hinted at), contrasts still more tantalizingly with the elegant orderliness of the Panchos.
Nothing she does allows you to conclude that she is anything but the most demure of young ladies. And yet the voluptuous lingerings and swells go far enough to lead you to wonder. You could almost allow yourself to suppose, if you were in a perverse frame of mind, which no decent person listening to Los Panchos would ever be, that she is saying to the courtly Panchos: “Come on, boys! Is that all? More, more! Don’t you see, you elegant gentlemen, that I am not just a demure lady, I am also a woman, and I have emotions and desires of my own—which may even be larger than yours combined?”
Ah, but no, Eydie Gormé is invariably a perfect lady, adorably sweet, sometimes girlishly shy: a bigger voice with a wilder emotion than her male counterparts, pretending all the while to be a smaller voice with tamer emotions than her tremulous male counterparts. Or do these contrasts between La Gormé and the wonderful Panchos merely express a few differences between Taft High and the Mexican recording studios? Or are these the differences between the female and the male, regardless of national borders, revealed at last? My confusions on these points have lasted a lifetime. Smoke has gotten in my eyes.
Paul Berman is a senior editor of The New Republic.