Liza Minnelli is one of those entertainers whose magic is fully realized on a concert stage. Though she’s had success in film and on vinyl, neither of them captures her particularly strange and distinct charm and charisma. And so, Minnelli’s greatest triumphs will be her stage work. A performer since she was a young child, Minnelli has had decades of honing her craft, having toured extensively in her career, seemingly always on a stage somewhere. Her sojourns to the recording studio have been sporadic in her long career, content with having her output be primarily soundtracks to her concerts or Broadway shows.
So, her 1996 studio album, Gently, was something of an event for the entertainer. Her previous studio LP was 1989’s collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys, Results, which set Minnelli’s glittery showbiz persona into Neil Tennant’s and Chris Lowe’s synth-driven dance-pop confines. The album’s improbable success suggested that, like Dusty Springfield, Minnelli may have found a new career thanks to the Pet Shop Boys, but her tenure in dance music was brief. Gently’s sound is far more expected. A collection of pre-rock pop songs, jazz tunes, some Broadway, and songs from the Great American Songbook, Gently is a fine reminder of Minnelli’s chops as a stylist and vocalist.
Gently‘s title and theme refer to a romantic moment in Minnelli’s life, starting in adolescence when she harbored crushes on handsome boys at school. When promoting the record, Minnelli dubbed the project her “make out” album because of the hopelessly sentimental themes behind the song choices. She nicely summed up the inspiration behind the record on The Rosie O’Donnell Show when she explained, “There was no romance section [in the record store]. So, I thought, well, maybe I’ll make a record that people can neck to. Remember kissing? Wasn’t kissing great? That’s what this record is about.”
As a concept album, Gently moves away from Minnelli’s cheery, perennially jolly persona and instead looks for a sultrier, sexier sound. In the liner notes, she characterizes the record as “sentimental, romantic, and sometimes foolish”. The singing zeroes in far more on Minnelli’s gifts as a songstress and stylist than her ability to belt or hit high notes. As a result, Gently has some of her best singing. When she reins in her tendency to shout, she then relies on her other considerable gifts, mainly how she phrases a song and imbues the lyrics with her ability to create different characters.
That move from her usual bombast to subtlety makes Gently so remarkable in Minnelli’s oeuvre. As she pointed out in an interview with Kathie Lee Gifford, “It’s the first [album] that I’ve ever done that’s quiet. Usually, it’s just big and brassy.” The lack of brass on Gently elevates the material and builds the case for her as an accomplished recording artist because it’s sometimes easy for some to dismiss Liza Minnelli. Her at-times kooky stage persona and her campy gay aesthetic (not to mention her hordes of devoted gay male fans), as well as her very public personal travails, have made it difficult for some to judge her as a serious artist. Despite having a Grammy, Tony, Oscar, and Emmy, Liza Minnelli’s work is often reduced to kitsch or camp, and rarely is she included in the pantheon of great singers, particularly interpreters of the Great American Songbook.
The tracklist betrays Minnelli’s Baby Boomer tastes, starting with the swoony romantic ballad “Chances Are”. The song was a hit for Johnny Mathis in 1957. Minnelli made a point that this was the song that scored her first kiss. It’s a dreamy, slow dance of a tune that swings softly with a slightly waltzy beat. Joining her is Mathis, who was 60 when recording the song for Gently. His light, affable tenor had developed a pronounced vibrato with age, matching Minnelli’s vibrato. The track is the epitome of a teenaged love song, yet the weathered voices of the singers don’t take anything away from the fresh-faced passion.
Minnelli’s affection for 1950s pop is also represented by a pair of tunes by the legendary rock songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (most famous for penning classics for Elvis Presley). Leiber and Stoller were responsible for some of the most popular and enduring hits of the 1950s and 1960s, their lyrics an inseparable part of the popular cultural fabric in that era. For Minnelli, a teenager in the 1960s, these songs were part of her musical upbringing. It’s easy to forget that Liza Minnelli was a child of the rock era because of her natural affinity for the Great American Songbook, but she came of age during an important evolution in popular music.
So, it’s easy to understand why Minnelli would have a certain ease with Leiber and Stoller’s work. On “Some Cats Know”, an oft-covered tune that found its way to the 1995 musical revue Smokey Joe’s Café, she finds a slinky groove in the bluesy, jazzy arrangement. Despite her thick, sometimes-gnarled voice, she finds a sly sexiness; there’s a gorgeous sandpaper rasp to her voice that adds a smoky sensualism. The other Leiber Stoller tune, “Lost in You”, is probably the most erotic work that Minnelli has recorded. Using her husky voice to significant effect, she practically growls,
You breath out, I breath in
Here’s an elbow, there’s a chin
I can feel your skin on my skin
But where do you end, and I begin?
Arms and legs intertwine
She has rarely been this sensual on vinyl, yet she slips into the role of the carnal jazz chanteuse beautifully. The stripped-down instrumentation allows Minnelli to navigate her voice in the languid arrangement, tightening the quiver in her voice and mastering the song-telling power like she never had before.
Despite the noticeable wear and tear on her voice, Minnelli has never been in more control of her instrument as she was on Gently. Freed from entertaining fans in the cheap seats meant that she wasn’t trying to wow her listeners with her stupendously strong lungs. Instead, the songs’ intimacy allowed the singer to really explore what the lyrics and tones were doing. There’s little range or color to Minnelli’s voice; even at her vocal prime, she didn’t possess the most versatile or beautiful voice. In her youth, she barrelled through her songs, barking them, wowing her audiences with her gut-busting belts.
But, on Gently, Minnelli uses her vocal limitations to tap into her impressive reserve of interpretive skills. The autumnal husk of her singing makes songs as overly familiar as “Embraceable You” and “It Had to Be You” sound fresh. In her review of Gently in the Chicago Reader, Rennie Sparks astutely commented on Minnelli’s voluptuous voice, calling it “astounding… gravelly and masculine”. She added, “It’s not always a pretty voice.” She compared Minnelli’s performances on Gently to jazz great Jimmy Scott, whose high, arch voice blurred and obfuscated gender. Though Gently isn’t ostensibly a queer record (though Sparks said Minnelli’s vocals gave her a “queer” feeling), the album does still have a place in queer pop culture, given that it’s Liza Minnelli, a queer icon, essaying songs from the Great American Songbook, a major cultural mainstay of queer culture.
If there was any doubt that Minnelli wasn’t catering to her base, she includes a duet, “Does He Love You”, which finds the singer fighting over a man with the Queen of Disco herself, Donna Summer. Summer’s voice is stronger than Minnelli’s and aged much better (it sounds remarkably similar to her peak in the 1970s). The song was originally a hit for Reba McEntire and Linda Davis in 1993. Co-written by her longtime collaborator, Billy Stritch, the song is a mini-soap opera in which the two divas duel over a man. Produced as a contemporary pop single, it’s the sole moment on Gently in which Minnelli goes for her spirited vocalizing and belting (inspired by Summer’s gospel-hued wail).
Of course, Donna Summer’s fan base overlaps with Minnelli’s, and Summer has a history with her duet partner’s fandom, given her 1979 duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”. Because Gently is a collection of pop ballads, it’s understandable that when Minnelli did hook up with Summer, it was for a slow song (and despite her success with the Pet Shop Boys, it seems as if her dance days were behind her). But it feels like a bit of a disappointment that when having these two oversized gay divas together in the studio, they chose to spar on a treacly A/C pop ballad and not go toe-to-toe on a club banger.
But Gently is, in Minnelli’s own words, a “make-out” album. It reaches for the kind of rueful, ruminative romance found in a smoky bar. It’s a strange album for Minnelli to record because it relies on the type of skill that she rarely displayed. It is her single most significant moment on vinyl and deserves to be listened to again and again.