When a Julliard-trained pianist and composer teams with Martha Graham's longtime lead dancer and choreographer for an evening of song, you might not expect to hear such titles as "Monkey Doodle-Do," "Bend Down, Sister," and "Up Yours." But John Wallowitch and Bertram Ross are on no lofty perch. Long before his shiny head and droll, deadpan singing became familiar in Manhattan through his late-night public-access TV show, John's Cabaret, and longer still before Tony Bennett, Shirley Horn, and Dixie Carter started recording his songs, John collected sheet music. Scavenging in yard sales and memorabilia shows, he found songs from Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood that sounded hilarious, often unintentionally.
Who knew in 1967, when he met the partner of Martha Graham, that he had found another elegant clown to share his passion? John and Bertram's love story, both on and off stage, is told in Richard Morris and Sue Gandy's 1998 documentary, Wallowitch & Ross: This Moment. It shows the two stars performing at the former Ballroom, the cabaret where their act debuted in 1984. Just to see them is to smile. John sits at the piano looking like a naughty professor; Bertram, handsome as a statue of a Roman general, stands erect with a tongue-in-cheek hauteur. Then he'll point a finger and sing, in the voice of a Yiddish businessman on his deathbed: "Cohen owes me ninety-seven DOLLAHS/And it's up to you to see that Cohen pays!" Now all these songs that have delighted us are finally on CD. Years before he and Bertram united, John had traded the struggles of a so-called “serious” music career for work in Greenwich Village cabarets. He coached aspiring performers (notably the future TV and theater star Dixie Carter); accompanied such artists as Joanne Beretta, a bewitching singer of some very intense ballads; and wrote his own recherché songs, while hoping to get them heard. Blossom Dearie, a singer-pianist of exquisite, offbeat taste, was among the first to recognize how special they were; through the years she has recorded many.
The New York Times would eventually compare him to an English icon, Noel Coward. But only the devoted New Yorker that John is could have dreamed up such characters as Binky, a surgically enhanced East Side dowager; or Bruce, a cross-dresser guided by Diana Vreeland. If John's comic portraits are often surprisingly poignant, his ballads are poetic cries of the heart, with every defense shattered. Many of his love songs tell of the most idealistic love imaginable. It's a love he knows all about, because he found it with Bertram. Dancing in Graham's Clytemnestra, Circe, and other works he helped create, Bertram looked imperious, unattainable. At least, that's what John thought before they met.
After leaving Graham in 1973, Bertram opened his own dance company, while practicing songs, coached by John. It was Greg Dawson, the brainy, risk-taking owner of the Ballroom â one of the most adventurous cabarets ever to grace New York â who encouraged John and Bertram to put together an act. They dedicate their CD to Greg. "We want him to know how very committed and thankful we are to him," John says.
Mention must also be made of their idol Irving Berlin, who wrote several of the rarities here. For years, John, Bertram, and a gang of friends have made Christmas Eve vigils to the Berlin home at 17 Beekman Place to sing "White Christmas." But not all the tunes on this album are antiques. Murray Grand, a sardonic singer-composer who has spiced up New York's nightlife for decades, contributed "Up Yours," "You Must Remember to Forget," and the barely double-entendre "The Pussycat Song." Only one Wallowitch song is included: "Did Anyone Ever Really Know Joan?," a stark glimpse of a woman's broken dreams.
"I hope you write that Bertram Ross is the love of my life," said John by phone in January 2002. He was at the Beverly Hills home of Dixie Carter, with whom he was giving some concerts. An ill Bertram had stayed behind in the brownstone apartment he and John share near Manhattan's East River. To John, this album is one more permanent document of all Bertram means to him. For us, it's a lot of fun.
James Gavin is the author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, published by Alfred A. Knopf.