New albums by David Lynch and Family Guy‘s Seth McFarlane remind us that records by non-singing “singers” are nothing new. Since Thomas Edison’s “Little Lamb,” all manner of actors and comedians have made recordings of songs; some going for comedy, some expecting to be taken seriously and some winning you over by sheer force of will. For every record by an actor that’s “a classic for all the wrong reasons” (as Barb Jungr described the recordings of William Shatner), there’s a Richard Burton, who doesn’t even need music to move you to the depths of your bones with a lyric.
Calling this a "vocal record" is a bit of a stretch: It's a highly produced, avant-garde pop album in which the singing is strictly secondary to the production elements. The famous movie director almost never lets us actually hear his voice, which is only one component in these thick, multi-layered tracks. He acts, whispers ("Noah's Ark"), speaks through a modulator ("She Rise Up"), and pretty much does everything possible to obscure the actual quality of his voice. I wonder what he'd do with "What a Wonderful World?"
The chameleonic British comic actor made an art of not-singing: His full-dress, "spoken word" treatments of Lennon & McCartney lyrics employ the production skill of George Martin himself and, especially his rendition of "A Hard Day's Night" a la Laurence Olivier, are almost as ingenious as the Fab Four's originals. Further, "Peter Sellers sings George Gershwin" is a 16-second gem, the punchline of which I will not spoil here.
As Star Trek fans know well, Mr. Spock (Nimoy) was a musical theater veteran who at least knows how to use his voice, although he was almost never given an appropriate song to sing. (ie: the civil rights anthem "Abraham, Martin, and John.") Captain Kirk (Shatner), by contrast, is probably the most famous non-singing singer since George Burns. Only Shatner could render the Beatles and Bob Dylan with the same maniacal enthusiasm that he brings to his readings of two of Shakespeare's most famous soliloquies.
Unlike Mr. Shatner, comedian George Burns always seemed to be in on his own joke, and for 60 years he made the fact that he couldn't sing one of the leitmotifs of a great comedy career. On this album, he brought his non-singing joke to the rock 'n' roll era, and showed that he was just as clever at not singing baby boom anthems like "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "Mr. Bojangles" as he was at not singing traditional Burns favorites like "Ain't Misbehaving."
The diminutive actor, who specializes in playing sadistic psychos, brings a similar perversity to his singing: You're never sure if he's approaching the material out of genuine love for the heritage of Italian-American pop stars (particularly Louis Prima and Dean Martin) or if he's trying to parody the tradition and reduce it to rubble. On "Take Your Love and Shove It (Up Your Big Fat A**)" he does both.
There's a great tradition of non-singing actors (Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone) providing the narration for this venerable children's story told in symphonic form, as well as singers whom you wouldn't expect to be found in front of a symphony (like David Bowie). James Bond's collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorti (Decca Records, 1965) on Prokofiev's classic work is perhaps the least embarrassing recording on this list.
A truly mixed bag: The great film noir tough guy apparently really loved calypso and, since Harry Belafonte was selling a zillion records at the time, Capitol Records indulged him in an album. Mitchum, who had the good sense to base his project on the few recordings of the short-lived Jamaican innovator Lord Flea, is totally sincere, and seems to have no idea how ludicrous he sounds. This is probably the best blindfold test record of all time.
Ironically, Jack Lemmon almost never appeared in any of the major movie musicals produced during his years in Hollywood, yet he was a truly musical performer who could have easily earned a living as a pianist and singer. This set includes several Lemmon vocals (the forgettable "Kiss That Rocked The World") but mostly features his jubilant piano solos, most backed by full orchestra and strings. Honorable mention: Dudley Moore, also an excellent pianist who turned actor.
In one of the most unique careers in showbiz, Colonna was an excellent jazz trombonist who turned gonzo comic (memorably as a radio foil for Bob Hope) and also made remarkably demented recordings of standard songs. During radio's heyday, Colonna was equally famous for his enormous mustache and his ability to hold notes well beyond the boundaries of sanity. His "Ebb Tide" is the track to download, but the whole album will surprise and astonish.
From Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady) to Katherine Hepburn (Coco) the greatest actors have traditionally been fearless when it comes to leading roles in Broadway musicals, never letting the fact that they have absolutely no singing voice get in their way. Burton is so convincing when talk-singing the role of King Arthur even against leading lady Julie Andrews, who was all chops that he could easily given singing lessons to actors who had a lot more voice than he did.