Is there anyone who doesn’t like George Burns?
No, there isn’t. And if you say that you don’t, I refuse to believe you.
Even if you don’t think he’s funny, it’s kind of hard to resist the guy’s bigger-than-life persona as the old man who’s only slowing down because his body can’t keep up with his mind. You could believe him when he played God because, well, that’s kind of how you’d like God to look and act. (Well, okay, maybe a cross between George Burns and the picture that Elvis Costello paints in “God’s Comic” would be my perfect deity, but the strictly Burns-ian take certainly isn’t one I’d complain about.) Of course, even before he started making with the jokes about being old, Burns had already been made a legend by his invaluable wife and partner, Gracie Allen, to whom he never failed to give credit for his career. If you’ve never read Burns’ memoir about his life with Gracie – Gracie: A Love Story – you should hunt it down immediately, but you should also have a box of tissues at the ready before you embark upon the final chapter.The two had a hilarious radio show and an equally funny television show, the latter most often remembered for George’s decision to regularly break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience; he certainly didn’t invent the technique, but he inspired a lot more people to use it on television, that’s for sure.
In his later years, Burns hosted many a variety special…so much so, in fact, that they recently released a box set of them on DVD…so it’s not exactly a secret that the guy was prone to crooning a tune once in awhile. It’s also common knowledge that he was not exactly Sinatra. So why is it, then, that his 1980 album, I Wish I Was Eighteen Again, transcends the usual actor-turned-singer effort and proves so darned charming?
Because because the man knew his limitations.
Burns loved to sing, but he knew he wasn’t a singer. He was a talker. So either he had someone write songs that he knew would match his limited range, or he selected existing compositions that he could talk his way through. Either way, if you like the guy, then as soon as you hear his familiar voice on “The Arizona Whiz,” you’re hooked.
Granted, a couple of the song selections are so unabashedly playing to Burns’ image that you don’t even need to hear them to know that they’re perfect for him, including “Old Bones,” “A Real Good Cigar,” and the title track. More surprising is the unexpected catchiness of tracks like “The Only Way To Go” and “Forgive Her A Little (And Love Her A Lot),” both of which are ear worms of the highest order. (The backing vocals on the latter are particularly easy to find trapped in your skull for the long haul.)
The musical order of the day is Country and Western, by the way, if you haven’t yet steeled yourself to take a listen. Burns dipped twice into the Tom T. Hall songbook, perhaps succeeding less on “One of the Mysteries of Life” than “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine,” but both still come off as decidedly appropriate selections. I’ve never actually heard Dolly Parton’s original version of “Nickels and Dimes,” but it works well as a closer for Burns.
If you really fall for the stuff you’re hearing here, you could do a lot worse than hunting down a 4-CD set that’s floating around from Polygram Special Markets. In addition to I Wish I Was Eighteen Again, it also includes the otherwise-unavailable George Burns in Nashville and Young at Heart, along with a bonus disc that includes an episode of the Burns & Allen radio show. And, of course, let’s not forget his version of “Fixing A Hole” from the film version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” (“George Burns IS Mr. Kite!“)
George Burns’ music may not stand the test of time for the masses the way his film and TV work will, but it always brings a smile to my face, so I hope it’s done the same for you.