Actor/singer/dancer Ann-Margret, who returns to cinemas this month in the senior heist comedy Going in Style, has epitomized the triple-threat entertainer for six decades. But while movie musicals such as Bye Bye Birdie, Viva Las Vegas, and Tommy have provided many of her most memorable roles, few know that she actually started her career as a recording artist.
Real Gone Music’s new two-disc compilation, Ann-Margret: The Definitive Collection, gathers highlights from her stint on the RCA Victor label from 1961 to 1966, detailing her transition from a singer who acts to an actor who sings. (Sony Legacy Recordings previously issued this tracklist last year as the digital-only The Essential Collection.)
The set opens with a version of the ’50s standard “Teach Me Tonight” from her 1962 debut album, And Here She Is: Ann-Margret. Recorded when she was only 20 years old (and still a brunette), the steamy jazz-pop record introduces the sexpot image that has defined her persona, spiked with a dash of jailbait. (Certainly, the record seems less geared to teenagers than to their fathers.)
The second track, however, shows Ann-Margret pursuing a fresher, more contemporary sound. Produced by Nashville legend Chet Atkins, the country-flavored “I Just Don’t Understand” fits squarely in RCA’s attempt to brand her as “the female Elvis.” Her reading of the song leans more theatrical than rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s gutsy and exciting in a way that the real Elvis, then in the dregs of his movie career, could only hope to be.
In addition to “I Just Don’t Understand,” her debut release and lone Top 40 hit, Ann-Margret notched two more charting singles. The first, a version of Willie Dixon’s “It Do Me So Good,” may have journeyed a million miles from its Chicago blues origins, but Ann-Margret’s sultry vocals and the distinctive fuzz guitar, still a novelty in 1961, update it as a torch song for the rock ‘n’ roll era. Her other minor hit, 1962’s “What Am I Supposed to Do,” cops Lesley Gore’s schoolgirl sorrow, but Ann-Margret’s coo is more blatantly sexy than her girl-group peers.
Two additional tracks, “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Fever,” illustrate Ann-Margret’s showtune-like interpretation of rock ‘n’ roll, as if it were just another role in her repertoire. This isn’t a bad thing — her youthfulness, enthusiasm, and sex appeal keep the records engaging rather than cheesy, and foreshadow the theatrical styles of rock that would emerge in the late ’60s and ’70s.
Sadly, Ann-Margret’s venture into rock ‘n’ roll didn’t last long. Shortly after the release of her second LP, 1962’s On the Way Up, Ann-Margret sang the Oscar-nominated “Theme from ‘Bachelor in Paradise’” at the 34th Academy Awards. Her sizzling performance and freshly dyed red hair shot her to stardom practically overnight.
It also instantly rerouted her musical career: out with the female Elvis, in with the torchy chanteuse of middle-of-the-road ballads, represented here by tracks like “Mr. Wonderful,” “Let Me Entertain You,” and “I’m in the Mood for Love.”
Shortly after her Oscars appearance, Ann-Margret filmed two of her defining movie roles. Such was her newfound popularity that the role of Kim MacAfee in 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie was expanded from its stage origins, including a brand-new title song for Ann-Margret to sing that has arguably become the musical’s best-known number.
The Definitive Collection also features her other Bye Bye Birdie solo, “How Lovely to Be a Woman.” Both songs demonstrate her knack for acting the songs she sings, transforming from her usual seductive vamp to a giddy, squealing teenager. Although her sing-acting in the role may come off as schticky or shrill, at least she’s committed to her character.
Ann-Margret’s other great musical of the era was 1964’s Viva Las Vegas, in which the would-be female Elvis meets the real deal. Viva Las Vegas is often considered one of Elvis Presley’s best movies — granted, the bar isn’t that high — largely due to Ann-Margret’s screen presence and the pair’s natural chemistry. The Definitive Collection includes two of their duets: “The Lady Loves Me” and “You’re the Boss,” the latter of which was cut from the movie.
Strangely, Ann-Margret was absent from Viva Las Vegas‘s original soundtrack EP, reputedly because Elvis’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, feared she would overshadow his client. His fears were well-founded: the onetime Elvis the Pelvis, now soft from years of Hollywood blandness, struggles to raise his game to match his charismatic co-star. Even so, his attempts to match her innate dynamism and sex appeal feel awkward and strained in comparison.
Ann-Margret had a perhaps even better-matched duet partner in trumpeter Al Hirt. Four tracks dating from the sessions for their 1964 album Beauty and the Beard make a case for Ann-Margret as a surprisingly credible jazz-pop vocalist, with a youthful sass that enlivens the familiar old tunes. The stripped-down production suits her, and Hirt’s subdued, wry persona is a nice foil for Ann-Margret’s more expressive style on tracks like “Bill Bailey” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”
Had Ann-Margret recorded more in the vein of Beauty and the Beard — or even better, “I Just Don’t Understand” — her recording career might have continued strong. Instead, however, she turned solidly middle-of-the-road, recording standards (“That Old Black Magic”), movie themes (“Man’s Favorite Sport,” “The Pleasure Seekers,” “The Swinger”), and novelty tunes (“Everything Makes Music When You’re in Love”). While Ann-Margret sells these tracks with her utmost sultriness and charm, she can’t overcome their inherent banality.
When the British Invasion hit US shores in 1964, Ann-Margret was only in her early 20s, still decidedly part of the youth culture. (In fact, the Beatles covered “I Just Don’t Understand” in live performances.) But rather than embracing a rock-inflected version of pop, her turn toward easy listening placed her in an entirely different generational context.
Then again, as a professional entertainer, there probably wouldn’t have been much room for Ann-Margret among the among the increasingly authenticity-focused folk-rock and psychedelia emerging in the mid-’60s. Perhaps it was inevitable then that when her RCA contract ran out in 1966, the singer and the label parted ways.
Afterward, Ann-Margret focused on her acting career, winning several Golden Globes and an Emmy and earning two Oscar nominations. She would continue to record off and on, including the Lee Hazlewood duet album The Cowboy and the Lady in 1969, a self-titled disco LP in 1979, and a pair of Grammy-nominated gospel collections in the 2000s. But music was no longer the primary concern that it had been when she was first starting out.
Even if it leaves out decades worth of material, then, The Definitive Collection is actually pretty true to its name — it has nearly everything Ann-Margret recorded worth having and more.