Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Loudon Wainwright III And Vince Giordano Play From The Great American Songbook

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Over the past few months, I haven't been able to listen to as much music as I'd like because so much of my listening time has been devoted to shows and podcasts about politics, the election and COVID. But when I do listen to music, really good music, I feel especially vulnerable to the mood, whether it's joy or sadness. And that's how I felt when I listened to the new album by Loudon Wainwright and Vince Giordano of songs from the 1920s and '30s. It's the period Giordano typically draws from with the 11-piece band he leads, the Nighthawks. During normal times, the band attracts devoted followers who come to listen and dance. He plays tuba, bass and bass saxophone.

But this is not the music you'd associate with Loudon Wainwright, who's best known for writing and performing his own songs, which range from confessional songs about family dysfunction to satirical songs about politics and other issues. His children include singer-songwriters Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche, and they sometimes write songs about family, too. Loudon Wainwright and Vince Giordano previously worked together on the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," which was set during Prohibition and was about gangsters who made bootleg liquor and who served it in nightclubs in Atlantic City. Giordano and his band performed a lot of the music for the show. Loudon Wainwright sang a couple of the songs.

The title track of their new album, "I'd Rather Lead A Band," is a song from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie "Follow The Fleet." The album also features songs by Rodgers and Hart, Fats Waller, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser and others. Vince Giordano and Loudon Wainwright are joining us from the Hobo Sound Studio in New Jersey, where they're socially distanced in separate rooms. They brought their instruments and are going to perform some songs for us, but let's start with a track from the album that may help brighten your mood if you're feeling down. It's called "So The Bluebirds And The Blackbirds Got Together."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO THE BLUEBIRDS AND THE BLACKBIRDS GOT TOGETHER")

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III, VINCE GIORDANO AND THE NIGHTHAWKS: (Singing) Look at my doorstep. Look at my doorstep. Look at the blackbirds. Look at the bluebirds. Look at the bad luck. Look at the good luck there. Never saw bluebirds mingle with blackbirds, never saw bluebirds doing things backwards. Never knew good luck, never would perch with care. I overheard those birdies talking today, and now I know just why they're acting this way. First the bluebirds said, we've got to have sunny weather. So the bluebirds and the blackbirds got together. Then the blackbirds said, we're birds of a different feather. So the bluebirds and the blackbirds got together. When they talked it over, they let the blackbirds bring rain, and all the bluebirds then agreed to bring the sunshine again, for we can't have rain or sunshine that lasts forever. So the bluebirds and the blackbirds got together.

GROSS: Loudon Wainwright, Vince Giordano, welcome, both of you, back to FRESH AIR. I love this album. There's so much joy in that recording that we just heard. I know this song from the Rhythm Boys and Paul Whiteman, which had the original recording, I think in, like, 1929. How did you choose it for the album?

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: Well, one of the songs we did on "Boardwalk Empire" was something that Bing Crosby had done. And it's tough when you go up against arguably (laughter) the greatest male jazz vocalist of all times. But for some reason - I don't know why, Vince - we decided that - to take a crack at it.

VINCE GIORDANO: Well, it's just a fun, uplifting song, and it's not one of those songs that everyone has done. No one has done this since the Rhythm Boys did it back in the late '20s, early '30s.

GROSS: No one?

GIORDANO: Not that I know of.

GROSS: If anyone would know, you would know. I'm sure of that.

(LAUGHTER)

WAINWRIGHT: Definitely.

GROSS: So describe this project for us. What's the backstory of how you two got together to record this album of music from the '20s and '30s?

WAINWRIGHT: Well, the first time that Vince and I worked together was on a Martin Scorsese movie called "The Aviator," his Howard Hughes biopic. And we sang songs in that movie, and that was - and spent time in Montreal doing that in a recording studio, and that was fun. And then, as you mentioned, we worked on "Boardwalk Empire." And so we have a bit of a backstory. And then this fellow called Randy Poster or Randall Poster, as he likes to be called, and our old buddy Stuart Lerman, who - those two are guys who produced this record, but they had this idea that Vince and I should actually do a whole album together. And when that idea was floated, I kind of thought, yeah, that'll happen. But then...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAINWRIGHT: Then it happened (laughter). So it was kind of a wonderful, very happy experience that started out with those guys, Randy and Stuart, thinking that it would be a cool thing for us to make a record together.

GROSS: Vince, you play this kind of music all the time. But, Loudon, and I don't associate music from the '20s and '30s with you unless it's kind of, you know, like, folk country-ish music, like your Charlie Poole project. So where does this music fit in your musical life?

WAINWRIGHT: You know, my dad had a great record collection. It was eclectic. It had folk music and jazz, a lot of Broadway musicals. But I grew up listening to that stuff, and a lot of the songs that wound up on this record - you know, "You Rascal You," "More I Cannot Wish You" - I got them directly from hearing them as an 8-year-old, you know, in Westchester, listening to my dad spin these vinyl records.

GROSS: Some people hate their fathers' music, but you liked it.

WAINWRIGHT: I did like it. I - you know, he loved music, and to watch him be enthralled by this great material was - it was thrilling for me as a little kid, you know? So I - as you mentioned, it's - a lot of it is very happy, although some of it is melancholy and sad. But it's - overall, it's very wonderful, joyful music, I'd say.

GROSS: And I like that you're not trying to, like, sing in period. You're just singing in your voice, and it sounds so great.

WAINWRIGHT: I kind of saw it as an acting job, not to do an imitation of Bing Crosby but - or something like that - but to just sing it in my voice but somehow emotionally inhabit the material.

GROSS: So we asked if you would be willing to perform a couple of songs for us. So you each brought your instruments, and you're in a recording studio right now. So would you play "Ain't Misbehavin'" for us? And, Vince, I think you'll be playing tuba. And, Loudon, you actually brought a guitarist with you, David Mansfield, so he'll be featured on guitar. So do you want to say anything about why you chose "Ain't Misbehavin'"?

GIORDANO: Well, I mean, so many people love this song. Fats Waller, you know, was, of course, a great entertainer, and his songs - it's a great little vehicle. And people really relate to it, you know? When they're settling down with one person, that's it. I mean, it - "Ain't Misbehavin'" - we're going to - I'm just going to hang with you, dear. And of course, it was revived in "Stormy Weather." And I don't know - it's just a beautiful tune to play and sing.

GROSS: And let's give credit to the lyricist, Andy Razaf, and also say that, you know, one of the things I like about the song hearing it now is that it's really about being alone, you know, because, you know, your lover is away. But we're so much of - we're spending so much time alone, or relatively alone, right now, even if we're alone with others. There's not a lot of socializing for a lot of us. So why don't you play "Ain't Misbehavin'" for us? This song is on the album, but this is Vince Giordano and Loudon doing it live for us with a guitar assist by David Mansfield (ph).

WAINWRIGHT: One, two, three.

WAINWRIGHT, GIORDANO AND THE NIGHTHAWKS: (Playing tuba).

(Singing) Though it's a fickle age, with flirting all the rage, here is one bird with self-control, happy inside my cage. I know who I love best. Thumbs-down for all the rest. My love was given heart and soul, so it can stand the test. No one to talk with, all by myself, no one to walk with, but I'm happy on the shelf. Ain't misbehavin'. I'm saving my love for you. I know for certain the one I love. I'm through with flirting. It's just you I'm thinking of. Ain't misbehavin'. I'm saving my love for you. Like Jack Horner in the corner, don't go nowhere. What do I care? Your kisses are worth waiting for. Believe me. I don't stay out late, don't care to go. I'm home about 8, just me and my radio. Ain't misbehavin'. I'm saving my love for you.

(Playing tuba).

(Singing) Like Jack Horner in the corner, don't go nowhere. What do I care? Your kisses are worth waiting for. You better believe me. I don't stay out late. Nowhere to go. I'm home about 8, me and my radio. Ain't misbehavin'. Saving my love for you.

GROSS: So that was Loudon Wainwright singing and Vince Giordano on tuba, with David Mansfield on guitar, and that song is on the new album, "I'd Rather Lead A Band," which features songs from the '20s and '30s, and it features Loudon singing and Vince Giordano's band, the Nighthawks.

That was just, like, so much fun. And, Vince, it's so great to hear tuba being so prominent. It's not an instrument that is often prominently featured anymore. And, certainly, there are very few tuba solos that you get to hear. That was just lovely.

GIORDANO: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: You have your - yes. You have your tuba with you.

GIORDANO: Yes.

GROSS: I think so few people know much about tuba. Can you just pick up your tuba again and...

GIORDANO: Sure.

GROSS: ...Just give us a sense of some of the things the instrument can do. Like, let's start with, like, what's the highest note you can get, and what's the lowest?

GIORDANO: Well, you know, I - let me get it up here. I haven't really been playing much in this non-playing time. I mean, there are tuba virtuosos who can play as high as a trumpet. You know, they have chops. They practically sleep with their tuba, which I don't anymore. So you can - you could really (playing tuba). You know, that's one of the higher notes. And one of the lower notes is like (playing tuba). So you get a big range. I like to keep it where the tuba's supposed to be in its mid-range - (playing tuba) - like that.

GROSS: That's great. What are some of the most influential recordings for you as a tuba player that made you want to play tuba and shaped, like, what you wanted to do with it?

GIORDANO: Well, most of the dance band music for the 1920s features a tuba in the rhythm section 'cause it was a great instrument to record. It was much louder than the string bass in those years, and there was thousands of recordings made. And I particularly like a fellow named Joe Tarto, who I took a few lessons with. He worked with Red Nichols and Sam Lanin and Don Voorhees, and he had a great feel. And that was something that I try to aspire to, getting that great feel and sound to drive the band or the combo.

GROSS: What were some of the typical bass lines that would be played on tuba then in the '20s?

GIORDANO: Well, very simple. You're just doing the root note, the five (ph) note - you know, like what I was just playing there, something like (playing tuba). So sometimes you get a little fill in between. Very simple. The main thing was to support the singers or the rest of the band, the brass or the saxophone section, and work within the rhythm section. So it's a very simplistic concept, but when you put it all together like a big machine, it works.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright and Vince Giordano, who leads the small big band the Nighthawks and plays tuba, bass and bass saxophone. Their new album together is called "I'd Rather Lead A Band." Vince Giordano's band was featured in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," the Martin Scorsese film "The Aviator" and Francis Ford Coppola's film "The Cotton Club." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III, VINCE GIORDANO AND THE NIGHTHAWKS' "I'D RATHER LEAD A BAND")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with bandleader and musician Vince Giordano, who specializes in music from the 1920s and '30s, and Loudon Wainwright, a singer-songwriter who's known for his very personal songs that reflect his complicated feelings about love and family. They have a new album of songs from the 1920s and '30s. It's called "I'd Rather Lead A Band."

So the music we've heard so far is music that's really just kind of upbeat and joyful. We're going to change moods here. This is such a lonely, beautiful song. It's called "A Ship Without A Sail." It's a Rodgers and Hart song. I love the song. And, Loudon, after I heard you singing it, the song went through my head nonstop for a week. And then when I went back to the album, the same thing happened - like, another week (laughter) of this song just living in my head.

WAINWRIGHT: Gee, I'm sorry about that.

GROSS: No, it's such great company. Tell me why you chose the song and what it means to you.

WAINWRIGHT: My girlfriend Susan (ph) had a Lee Wiley record in the car. And the car has a CD player in it. And I just heard this song - I don't know when - like, a year ago or something and just fell in love with the writing, you know? Lorenz Hart - I mean, the lyrics are just so, so sad and beautiful and poetic. And the - and Lee Wiley, of course, was a great, great singer and does it beautifully. So when it came time to pitch songs for one another for the record, I mentioned this one. I knew I didn't have to go - because it was a female singing the version that I loved, I felt a little more secure about taking a crack at it, but it's just such a great, great song.

GROSS: And Lee Wiley was a jazz singer who recorded in the '30s, '40s and '50s. And her version is the first version I heard, too. Do you have a favorite set of lines from the song that you'd like to quote before we hear you sing it?

WAINWRIGHT: Wow. Well, the whole - I think it's in the verse in the beginning, the whole thing about my head is just a hat place. I can't remember the lines that precede and follow that, but it's just one of those...

GROSS: My breast an empty shell comes after.

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, it's just - it's great, great writing, and it just sends a chill. It's just a great, great, beautifully written thing by Hart.

GROSS: And if you're feeling a little lonely during COVID, I think this song will have a lot of resonance for you. So let's hear it. And this is from the new Loudon Wainwright, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks album. And the album is called "I'd Rather Lead A Band."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL")

WAINWRIGHT, GIORDANO AND THE NIGHTHAWKS: (Singing) I don't know what day it is or if it's dark or fair. Somehow that's just the way it is. And I don't really care. I go to this or that place. I seem alive and well. My head is just a hat place, my breast an empty shell, and I've a faded dream to sell all alone, all at sea. Why does nobody care for me? When there's no love to hold my love, why is my heart so frail, like a ship without a sail? Out on the ocean...

GROSS: That was the Rodgers and Hart song "A Ship Without A Sail," as performed on the new Loudon Wainwright, Vince Giordano collaboration of songs from the '20s and '30s, and the album is called "I'd Rather Lead A Band."

Was this album one of the last things you did before COVID shut things down?

WAINWRIGHT: It certainly is the last thing I did in a recording studio.

GIORDANO: We squeaked this one in. And who knew? We - no one really knew, you know, that this COVID scene was happening and going to happen. And so he just - hey, let's get this done. And we were supposed to do some nice gigs. You could tell them about that, Loudon.

WAINWRIGHT: We were - our hope was to do - you know, everybody in the band - in Vince's band is kind of in the tri-state, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut area. So - and I live here, too. So our hope was to do some shows in New York City and maybe, you know, getting a bus and go down to Philadelphia, even, or, you know, Boston or - but, of course, everything stopped in March, so we weren't able to get out and perform the songs.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you both. If you're just joining us, my guests are singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright and bandleader, arranger and musician Vince Giordano. Their new album together is called "I'd Rather Lead A Band." We'll be back with more conversation and music after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'")

WAINWRIGHT, GIORDANO AND THE NIGHTHAWKS: (Singing) Like Jack Horner in a corner, don't go nowhere. What do I care? Your kisses are worth waiting for. Believe me. I don't stay out late, don't care to go. I'm home about 8...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Vince Giordano and Loudon Wainwright. Giordano plays tuba, bass and bass saxophone and leads the band the Nighthawks. Wainwright is known for his songs about complicated love and family dysfunction. He's also a great singer. Loudon Wainwright and Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks have teamed up on the new album "I'd Rather Lead A Band," which features songs from the 1920s and '30s.

I'm interested in how your lives have changed. I mean, you're both musicians, which means you often keep musician hours - playing at night, probably, sleeping late and on the road sometimes. All things - you know, you can't perform in clubs now or concerts, definitely not going on the road. So what are some of the ways your life has been changed?

GIORDANO: Well, I just keep busy. I'm working on old scores. I'm working on projects that I've put off for 15 years - some really exciting musical things and then some kind of mundane things, like putting up my scaffolding and scraping and replacing and painting old cedar shingles on the side of my house. The main thing is to keep busy, because if you don't keep busy, you might get depressed. So find something to do. And have fun with it.

GROSS: So you said you were working on old scores. What does that mean?

GIORDANO: A lot of my arrangements are written in a small format on this paper that's almost 100 years old. So I take those notes. And I put them in a musical program called Sibelius, which I'm very happy to have. And it lets you expand the arrangements. You can alter the keys. You can alter the syncopation. You could add solos and make some nice edits and make them all special. And then when you print them out, they look like a million dollars. So this is the time to do it (laughter), when there's nothing else on the books.

GROSS: So a lot of the arrangements that you play are from old scores? And you have the old paper sitting in your file, so you transcribe that into this program and make the changes that you want?

GIORDANO: Yeah, that's it. And the guys are happier reading paper that's larger and notes that are larger. You know, everyone's getting up there in age. And the notes are getting smaller.

GROSS: And, Loudon, how are you spending your time?

WAINWRIGHT: I've read six Charles Dickens books.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Seriously?

WAINWRIGHT: I'm on "Little Dorrit" now.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAINWRIGHT: I'm not kidding, actually. I've been reading a lot. I live out on the end of Long Island. And when the weather was warmer, I was in my sailboat and walking around a lot. But, yeah, I'm unemployed, basically, I've - because I earn my living like Vince does or by going out and performing in front of people. So there's an absence. I don't miss the traveling much. But I do miss the actual performing.

GROSS: Well, Vince, I know you bought the house next door to you just to store, like, the tens of thousands of recordings and music scores and piano rolls and all that stuff. Are you spending more time there in that other house, going through stuff?

GIORDANO: Oh, yeah. Yes, finding things that I haven't seen in 20 or 30 years and tidying up all the loose ends - and also the garage. There were eight crates of music that someone gave me about 15, 16 years ago. And I said, someday, I'll get to that. And that day is here.

GROSS: So the arrangements are so great on this new album. And some of them are just, like, pure joy. And some of them are just really lovely and beautiful. Did you use the arrangements from the original recordings or use your interpretations of them or write them from scratch?

GIORDANO: A lot of them came from what we call stock arrangements. And we made adaptations. I listened to other recordings. Like "How I Love You," I stole a little bit of Ben Bernie's band. And "The Blackbirds And The Bluebirds" came from Lennie Hayton, who was working for Paul Whiteman back then. And the song, of course, is written by Harry Barris, who wrote "Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams."

And Lennie Hayton loved classical music. And you'll hear this extremely hard passage that he stole from Ravel, from "Daphnis And Chloe." And when I put that down for the musicians to read, (laughter) they died. They said, oh, my God. This is the hardest, hardest woodwind part that's ever been written, you know? And Ravel (laughter) wrote this out. And you want us to play it? I said, let's try it. We'll take a couple of takes.

GROSS: And did you end up using it?

GIORDANO: Yeah, yeah. It's there. And that was never recorded by the Whiteman band. But I got the arrangement from Williams College where a majority of his arrangements reside in the Whiteman Collection.

GROSS: So which part is the Ravel, because I was not aware of that, so I did not notice it.

GIORDANO: Right after Loudon sings, there's this crazy woodwind part that goes something like, doodly (ph), doodly, doodly, doodly, doodly, doodly, doodly, doodly, doodly, (vocalizing). There's this underneath trombone section - doodly, doodly, doodly, doodly. And that's from "Daphnis And Chloe."

GROSS: Let's just hear that part again.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III WITH VINCE GIORDANO AND THE NIGHTHAWKS' "SO THE BLUEBIRDS AND THE BLACKBIRDS GOT TOGETHER")

GROSS: OK. So that was the Ravel part (laughter) that you borrowed. Yeah, nice. Let me reintroduce you both. If you're just joining us, my guests are singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright and Vince Giordano, who leads the small big band the Nighthawks and plays tuba, bass and bass saxophone. Their new album together is called "I'd Rather Lead A Band." We'll be back after we take a short break. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III WITH VINCE GIORDANO AND THE NIGHTHAWKS' "SO THE BLUEBIRDS AND THE BLACKBIRDS GOT TOGETHER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with bandleader and musician Vince Giordano, who specializes in music from the 1920s and '30s, and Loudon Wainwright, a singer-songwriter who's known for his very personal songs that reflect his complicated feelings about love and family.

So you were generous enough to actually go to a studio, where you're socially distanced in separate rooms, so that you could do a couple of songs for us that you also do on the album. So I'm going to ask you to do a song that I'd never heard before that I really like called "How I Love You." And Loudon, is there a story behind the song?

WAINWRIGHT: I don't. I think probably Vince knows - I mean, Vince knows about all these songs.

GIORDANO: (Laughter).

WAINWRIGHT: I don't know why we chose - why did we choose this one, Vince?

GIORDANO: Well, I had sent you a couple of links of a great entertainer and ukulele player named Cliff Edwards. And Cliff Edwards was known for introducing "Lady Be Good" and "Singin' In The Rain." And, of course, his big hit was "When You Wish Upon A Star" from "Pinocchio." But he was a great entertainer and uke player. And there's just so much fun in that recording, and I think, Loudon, you capture that fun.

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, it's a great song.

GROSS: I agree. You captured the fun (laughter). So Loudon's going to be playing ukulele on this and Vince on tuba. So you want to give it a go for us?

GIORDANO: Sure. Get the tuba.

WAINWRIGHT: Let's do it. All right.

WAINWRIGHT, GIORDANO AND THE NIGHTHAWKS: (Singing) Through fields of golden flowers, where we spent sunny hours, I'm strolling along, thinking of you. I told the four-leaf clover, my lonesome days are over. I talk about you all the day through. That's right. I'm telling the birds, telling the bees, telling the flowers, telling the trees how I love you. I'm telling the moon. I'm telling the sun. I'm telling the stars, telling each one how I love you. I feel so happy, and I show it. I want the whole wide world to know it. Yeah, the shady old nook, the shadows that fall, the little old brook - I'm telling them all how I love you. (Scat singing) How I love you. Here's where we used to wander. I sit alone and ponder, daydreaming of you all of the time. If you don't think I love you, just ask the stars above you, for since you told me you'd be mine. I'm telling the birds, telling the bees, telling the flowers. I'm telling the trees how I love you. I love you. Telling the moon, and I'm telling the sun, and I'm telling the stars - I'm telling each one how I love you, yeah. I feel so happy, and I show it. I want the whole world to know it. Oh, the shady old nook, the shadows that fall, the little old brook - I'm telling them all how I love you.

GROSS: That was wonderful.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That was Loudon Wainwright singing and playing ukulele and Vince Giordano playing tuba. And they just did that for us. They have an album of songs from the 1920s and '30s that's called "I'd Rather Lead A Band." That song is on the album. What you just heard was - they just did just for us. And, Loudon, I love that scat chorus, which is not (laughter) something you do on the album.

WAINWRIGHT: No, no. It's not - you know, it kind of is a stretch from the family dysfunctional material that I'm so well known for. It's very optimistic and up, which is - I love that aspect of it.

GROSS: So you play ukulele on that. I think the ukulele is an instrument that's often kind of mocked. What do you really like about the instrument?

WAINWRIGHT: (Laughter) Well, unlike the tuba, it's very light...

(LAUGHTER)

WAINWRIGHT: ...And portable. It's got a great look to it, and it is light and two strings less than a guitar. It's got four strings on it. And Vince mentioned Cliff Edwards, who was also known as Ukulele Ike - great, great, great ukulele player. And I'm just a fan of the instrument.

GROSS: You actually do another song that Ukulele Ike originated.

WAINWRIGHT: Yes.

GROSS: And it's called "I'm Going To Give It To Mary With Love." And this is a song...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And this is a song - I'm trying to think. It's a double entendre song, you know, because it's like, I'm going to give it to Mary with love, and the it is - how do we put it? There's also a line - I'm going to - she's going to hold it in her little hands, so maybe that'll give you a sense of what the it is.

WAINWRIGHT: (Laughter) Terry, you're getting kind of lewd here. I don't know.

GROSS: (Laughter) I'm getting kind of lewd. I used to play this on my show when I had a radio show in Buffalo on the college station because it was so amusing to me that the guy who did the voice on "Pinocchio" and who was famous for singing "When You Wish Upon A Star" was singing this incredibly lewd song. So - yeah.

GIORDANO: It comes from a party record, and there's no composer on the record. It's - the record was - the company was called The Hollywood Hot Shots, and that was it. And Cliff Edwards went in and out of good times, and I think at this point in his life - 35, 36 - he probably needed some money. So, you know, do a party record - fine, you know. And that's what happened.

GROSS: Right. And for people who don't know the expression, party records are lewd records (laughter).

WAINWRIGHT: Yes, yes.

GROSS: With a lot of double entendres - the old ones had a lot of double entendres, yeah. Under the counter - is that what you said?

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, I think they were sold kind of on the sly.

GROSS: So it's interesting that he did that because he was down on his luck. I had no idea about that.

WAINWRIGHT: Vince, didn't he die kind of destitute and...

GIORDANO: Yeah, he - I think they were going to put him in a pauper's grave. And people - Walt Disney liked him very much and the company. And they put an actual tombstone for him. But he really pushed the envelope in many different ways. And you could never tell it from his singing or playing, but he was a wild man.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright, and Vince Giordano, who leads the small big band The Nighthawks and plays tuba, bass and bass saxophone. Their new album together featuring songs of the 1920s and '30s is called "I'd Rather Lead A Band." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with bandleader and musician Vince Giordano, who specializes in music from the 1920s and '30s, and Loudon Wainwright, a singer-songwriter who's known for his very personal songs that reflect his complicated feelings about love and family. They have a new album of songs from the '20s and '30s called "I'd Rather Lead a Band."

Some of the songs on here. I mean, these are songs from the 1920s and '30s. And so a lot of the songs are like from the Depression era. And there's a good deal of songs from that era that are all about, you know, the simple pleasures of life because that's all people had. They didn't have money. And you do one of those songs on the new album, "The Little Things In Life." And it's also a song about, you know, forming a family and having a baby and how, like, perfect that is.

So it's an interesting song for you to sing, Loudon, because your songs - your original songs are about how imperfect families are and how difficult fatherhood is. So what was the - singing this song is just so out of character for you.

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. This is a functional family song as opposed to a dysfunctional family song.

(LAUGHTER)

WAINWRIGHT: I mean, it's idealistic. But - and I think Bing Crosby might have had a big hit with this one. We took a shot and did it. It's just a great, lovely little song that's positive. So - and yeah, as you say, you know, this material was in the Depression. People needed to be lifted. And I think as we were making this record, Randy and Vince and Stewart and I, you know, we're getting the feeling that it might be a good thing for now because it is optimistic and hopeful and - but we'll see what happens.

GROSS: And it's also about the basics, which, you know, many people still have, you know. So it's about finding pleasure in the little things in life. So let's hear it. Vince, is there anything you want to say about it before we play it?

GIORDANO: Well, you know, it's - what I call one of Irving Berlin's sleepers because not too many people know about it. It's not from a show or a film. It's just a pop song that he penned out of the many thousands that he wrote. And it was nice to get an Irving Berlin song that's not overplayed. And Loudon does a great job with it.

GROSS: So this is "The Little Things In Life," an early Irving Berlin song?

GIORDANO: 1930.

GROSS: OK, pretty early. And it's from the Loudon Wainwright-Vince Giordano album "I'd Rather Lead A Band."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LITTLE THINGS IN LIFE")

WAINWRIGHT, GIORDANO AND THE NIGHTHAWKS: (Singing) (Singing) Just a little room or two can more than do a little man and wife. That's if they're contented with the little things in life. Living on a larger scale would soon entail a lot of care and strife. We could be so happy with the little things in life, dear - a little rain, a little sun, a little work, a little fun, a little time for loving when the day is done. And a little thing that cries for lullabies could make a man and wife tell the world how much they love the little things in life.

GROSS: So that's a lovely song from the new album, "I'd Rather Lead A Band," featuring Loudon Wainwright and Vince Giordano and his band, The Nighthawks. Well, I want to end with one more song, and I'm going to ask you to perform it for us. It's a song by Frank Loesser called "More I Cannot Wish" You that's from one of my favorite shows, "Guys And Dolls." And it was hardly my favorite song from the show, but I really love the way you do it. It just feels very, very meaningful to me. Can you talk about why you chose this and what the song means to you?

WAINWRIGHT: Well, this goes back to the thing we were talking about earlier. I was mentioning my father's record collection. "Guys And Dolls" was in the collection, and I listened to it as a kid. And interestingly enough - at least it's interesting to me - is that when I started my career in 1969, a guy called Milton Kramer saw me playing in a little folk club in Greenwich Village called The Gaslight. And he invited me up to talk to him about a publishing deal. And he was working for Frank Music, which was Frank Loesser's publishing company. So all the songs that were on my first couple of albums were published by by that company. I never got to meet Frank Loesser. At that point, he was sick and dying of lung cancer in the hospital. But Frank Loesser was one of the greats. And, you know, he wrote the music and the words. So you know, he did it all.

GROSS: And he wrote so many different kinds of shows. I mean, there's "Guys And Dolls." That's all kind of, you know, streetwise talk. And then he wrote, basically, an operetta...

WAINWRIGHT: Right, "Most Happy Fella"

GROSS: ...Like, an opera. "The Most Happy Fella," yeah, which is so different both, you know, melodically and lyrically. So I'm going to ask you to close by playing the Frank Loesser song "More I Cannot Wish You" from "Guys And Dolls." And the song is on the album. But this is a performance in the studio that they are doing just for us. And we'll hear Loudon on vocals. And he brought in David Mansfield to play guitar on this. And we'll hear Vince Giordano not on tuba this time, but on bass. Thank you both so much for your generosity in doing this for us and playing for us and going to the studio, socially distanced in separate rooms, and for being here to talk with us. And thank you for the wonderful album.

WAINWRIGHT: Well, thanks. Great talking to you, Terry.

GIORDANO: Thanks. Keep up the great work, Terry.

WAINWRIGHT: One, two, three.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORE I CANNOT WISH YOU")

WAINWRIGHT, GIORDANO AND THE NIGHTHAWKS: (Singing) Velvet I can wish you for the collar of your coat and fortune smiling all along your way. But more I cannot wish you than to wish you'll find your love, your own true love this day. Mansions I can wish you, seven footmen all in red and calling cards upon a silver tray. But more I cannot wish you than to wish you find your love, your own true love this day, standing there, gazing at you, full of the bloom of youth - standing there, gazing at you with a sheep's eye and a licorice tooth.

Music I can wish you, merry music when you're young, and wisdom when your hair has turned to gray. But more I cannot wish you than to wish you find your love, your own true love this day, with a sheep's eye and a licorice tooth and the strong arms to carry you away.

GROSS: So that was Loudon Wainwright and Vince Giordano performing in the Hobo Sound studio in Weehawken, N.J. We thank the engineer there, James Frazee, for his really great work. And also, thanks to Stewart Lerman, one of the producers of Vincent and Loudon's album, who was also there for the session to help produce that. Thank you all so much.

WAINWRIGHT: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about what President Trump has been doing in his final weeks in the White House related to American national security and defense. He's ousted his defense secretary and the head of the Pentagon's Defeat-ISIS Task Force, has considered attacking Iran and is expected to pull troops from Afghanistan and Somalia. We'll talk with New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt, who's been covering these stories, as well as the killing of Iran's top nuclear scientist, which is believed to have been carried out by Israel. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'D RATHER LEAD A BAND")

WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) You know that I haven't ambitions for lofty positions that wind up with the wealth of the land. I'll give you the throne that a king sat on for just a small baton, providing you included a band. If I could be the wealthy owner of a large industry, I would say not for me. I'd rather lead a band. If I could be a politician with a chance to dictate, I would say let it wait. I'd rather lead a band. I'm rich as... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.