If your memories of Marilyn Monroe as a singer mostly consist of her breathy rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” offered up to Jack Kennedy or brassy numbers like “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” then you might be surprised to hear that there is a movement afoot to reexamine her vocalizing. According to a recent article in the New York Times, many experts are taking another listen to some of the material she left behind, and it appears that her singing — like her acting — was much better than she was given credit for during her lifetime.
One thing is certain. She took music seriously, spending a lot of time with voice coaches and also studying the greats, like Ella Fitzgerald. In fact, she helped pave the way for Ella to appear in previously restricted clubs, and the two became very good friends. In later years Ella always gave her credit for helping further her career.
Even in Marilyn’s early movies she often found opportunities to sing, and although pros like Marni Nixon occasionally dubbed a few notes here and there, most of what we heard was the star’s real voice. She continued to sing in a surprising number of movies through the years, and those performances demonstrated a voice that varied widely but had real talent behind it.
Like most singers (and non-singers too) her voice became a little huskier as she grew older, but she could carry a tune and deliver the goods. Her most noticeable characteristic to my ear is that she was often tentative, especially in the early passages of standards like “A Fine Romance” and “When I Fall In Love.” She was at her best when she set the tone early and stayed with it, as with “River Of No Return,” which was released as a single and did very well.
But she was still Marilyn Monroe, and in a quote from Collier’s Magazine in 1954, she spelled it out like this: “I won’t be satisfied until people want to hear me sing without looking at me. Of course, that doesn’t mean I want them to stop looking.”