Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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PREVIN, André

(b André Prewin, 6 April 1929, Berlin) Jazz pianist, accompanist, jet-set conductor. Began piano lessons, showed promise, enrolled at Berlin High School for Music at six but was kicked out of the Conservatory in 1938 because he was Jewish; the family went to Paris to await visas, then to Los Angeles, where the father's cousin Charles Previn (b 1888 in Brooklyn NY; d 22 September 1973, Hollywood) was music director at Universal Studios. André thought that jazz was 'men in funny hats playing in a hotel band', then he heard an Art Tatum record. He played on the radio, wrote out some jazz piano for a film soundtrack for José Iturbi (who couldn't do it) and scored the film as well, at age 16. (The song that was jazzed was 'Three Blind Mice', the film was Holiday In Mexico; both Iturbi and his sister played Previn's music.) He accompanied violinist Joseph Szigeti at his home in contemporary music and classics, worked at MGM until '50 (first assignment a Lassie film: 'a lot of barks and a few songs'). He was drafted, stationed in San Francisco, studied conducting with Pierre Monteux, also playing jazz. He went back to Hollywood in '53, still playing all kinds of music; he once impulsively phoned Dmitri Shostakovich in the USSR with a musical question. He occasionally composed: a 40-minute sequence for the Gene Kelly ballet film Invitation To The Dance '54, music for The Subterraneans '60 (film of a Jack Kerouac book) played by an all-star big band; he scored many films through '71, including It's Always Fair Weather '55 (music by Adolph Green and Betty Comden), Oscars for Gigi '58 (Alan Jay Lerner), Porgy And Bess '59 (Gershwin), Irma La Douce '63 (themes by studio composers), My Fair Lady '64 (Lerner); later wrote Broadway play Coco with Lerner.

Meanwhile he made c.60 LPs in various combinations, many under his own name: about 20 mostly trio tracks on small labels '45-7, some later on Black Lion (Previn At Sunset); recorded for RCA '47-53; Plays Fats Waller '53 with Buddy Clarke and Shelly Manne; two LPs for Decca '55-6; trio Shelly Manne And His Friends '56 on Contemporary with Manne and ace session bassist Leroy Vinnegar (b 13 July 1928, Indianapolis IN; d 2 August 1999, Portland OR: own albums Leroy Walks! and Walks Again! '57-63 later on Fantasy OJC; Walkin' The Basses '92 on Contemporary, Integrity '95 on Jazz Focus). Then the same trio did a jazz version of My Fair Lady that year and the hit album started the fad for jazzing Broadway scores. They did Bells Are Ringing '58 with Red Mitchell on bass; under Previn's name Li'l Abner with Vinnegar; Pal Joey '57, Gigi '58, West Side Story '59 with Mitchell. Other Previn LPs on Contemporary included solo piano Plays Songs By Vernon Duke, Plays Songs By Jerome Kern, Plays Harold Arlen '58-60. He made an LP of his film music on MGM, also Secret Songs For Young Lovers '59, the first Previn album to make pop LP chart (top 20); Columbia LPs '60-64 included solo Like Love (top 25 '60); A Touch Of Elegance '61 (music of Duke Ellington), André Previn In Hollywood '63 (both with orchestra) and trio remake of My Fair Lady '64 all made top 200 LPs; other trio sets included Give My Regards To Broadway, The Light Fantastic Tribute To Fred Astaire, others with J. J. Johnson or Herb Ellis added, etc. He had a top 50 hit single with instrumental 'Like Young' '58 on MGM with the David Rose orchestra; the tune bore a strong resemblance to 'Carl's Blues', by the West Coast jazz pianist Carl Perkins.

He realized that he wanted to be a conductor, and overcame the prejudice against anyone who had worked in Hollywood, his first classical recording for CBS early '60s with the St Louis SO included Aaron Copland's film score The Red Pony and Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia de Requiem (Britten's reaction: 'Who is this fellow André Previn? That's the best performance I've ever heard'). He conducted the Houston SO '67-9, London SO '68-79, so popular he also did UK TV adverts for consumer goods, his recordings of Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich especially praised. With the LSO, Previn's first recording of Walton's First Symphony is certainly one of the best ever made; his second recording of Rachmaninov's Second (made after they had toured Russia) one of the finest. He succeeded William Steinberg as conductor of Pittsburgh SO '76 and formed a trio '79 with violinist Herbert Greenberg and cellist Anne Martindale Williams in Pittsburgh to play chamber music. He resigned '86 as music director of the London Philharmonic in protest at the 'unimportant' quality of guest soloists/conductors but was still principal conductor '87, dividing his time between the LPO and Los Angeles Philharmonic. His remakes, such as his second of the Walton, on Telarc, showed a decline from the earlier brilliance, as though he couldn't work up the earlier enthusiasm; yet his recording of Harold Shapero's Symphony For Classical Orchestra (1947), made live on tour '88 with the L.A. Phil. on New World Records, is one of the most delightful recordings of an American symphony ever made, in this writer's opinion. In any case, his fame was such that he continued to be paid astronomical fees (see Norman Lebrecht's book When The Music Stops '96).

He played a benefit '82 with Manne and bassist Monty Budwig (b 26 December 1929 Pender NE; d 8 March 1992 LA), raising $75,000 for the Rehabilitation Institute of Pittsburgh; made an LP of Scott Joplin rags with violinist Itzhak Perlman on EMI, then A Different Kind Of Blues with Perlman, Mitchell, Manne and Jim Hall (made top 200 LPs again '81 after 16 years) followed by the same cast on It's A Breeze '81, all tunes on both LPs written by Previn; also Nice Work If You Can Get It '83 on Pablo, a duo with Ella Fitzgerald, bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen added on some tracks. With guitarist Mundell Lowe and Ray Brown on bass he made Uptown '90, Old Friends '91; they added drummer Grady Tate for Show Boat '95 on DGG. He was married to jazz singer Betty Bennett and accompanied her; then lyricist Dory Langdon (see entry for Dory Previn); then actress Mia Farrow; married a fourth time after some deliberation; in the new century his fifth wife was the excellent violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Other works include music for Every Good Boy Deserves Favour with playwright Tom Stoppard about inmates in a Soviet insane asylum: remarkably successful for a one-off project, with 300 performances around the world, both authors banned from the USSR. Also a piano concerto played by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Emmanuel Ax and Andre Watts; a violin sonata, Matthew's Piano Book (for his son), Peaches For Trumpet, much else. From Ordinary Things '97 on Sony had his Sonata for Cello and Piano with Yo-Yo Ma, songs with lyrics by Toni Morrison and other vocal music with piano and cello or alto flute sung by Sylvia McNair; meanwhile there was a duo album of American songs (some his own) with Barbara Bonney. His opera on Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire is probably underrated because the music will not be avant-garde enough for the critics. His book No Minor Chords '91 was full of good Hollywood stories.