Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Frederick Austerlitz, 10 May 1899, Omaha NE; d 22 June 1987, Los Angeles) Dancer, singer, actor; one of the best-loved entertainers of the century. He made his pro debut age five, starred with his sister Adele in a dance act in vaudeville until 1916, then on Broadway. Their biggest hit was George Gershwin's Lady Be Good '24, written for them; they also did his Funny Face '27, and The Band Wagon '31 by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz; Adele retired to marriage '32. Fred's solo stardom in Cole Porter's The Gay Divorce '32 led to a famous screen test ('Can't act, slightly bald ... can dance a little'). Dancing Lady '33 starred Joan Crawford; second film Flying Down To Rio '33 established the dance team with Ginger Rogers, a smash hit in films The Gay Divorcée '34, Roberta and Top Hat '35, Follow The Fleet and Swing Time '36, Shall We Dance? '37, Carefree '38, The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle '39, and a reunion in The Barkleys Of Broadway '49.

He also danced with Vera Ellen, Cyd Charisse, later Barrie Chase on TV, others; later films included You Were Never Lovelier (with Rita Hayworth) and Holiday Inn '42, Ziegfeld Follies '44, Yolanda And The Thief '45. He announced his retirement, came back to do Easter Parade '48 with Judy Garland, because Gene Kelly wasn't available. Other films: Three Little Words '50, Daddy Long Legs '55 (with Leslie Caron); another retirement was followed by Funny Face '56, Silk Stockings '57; he gave up retiring. Finian's Rainbow '68 was his last musical; straight roles included On The Beach '59, The Towering Inferno '75 (Oscar nomination as supporting actor; he had received a special honorary Oscar '49). He also wrote a few songs (e.g. 'I'm Building Up To An Awful Letdown' '35 with Johnny Mercer), had his own radio series in the 1930s, many appearances on TV included series It Takes A Thief and The Over The Hill Gang, plus highly acclaimed specials '58 and '60.

In the most charming escapist films of the Depression era his dancing was superb, but his personality won affection: he got the girl because he was a nice guy who could dance. Some of his later films were not great films, but they were better because he was in them. He was modest about his singing, but was regarded as among the finest interpreters of great songs by critics and songwriters: Irving Berlin said he would rather hear Fred Astaire sing his songs than anyone. He had to cope with his limited range, and put the accent on using the vernacular; in his own way he was as  revolutionary a pop singer as Bing Crosby or Louis Armsterong, allowing us that wonderful illusion that we could do it too. Among songs associated with him are 'Lady Be Good', 'Fascinating Rhythm', 'Dancing In The Dark', 'Night And Day', 'The Way You Look Tonight', 'I Won't Dance', 'They Can't Take That Away From Me', 'A Foggy Day', 'A Fine Romance', 'Night And Day', 'I Guess I'll Have To Change My Plan', more including Jerome Kern's beautiful 'Waltz In Swingtime' (no words). Vintage recordings, some from film soundtracks, on compilations Shall We Dance '26-37 on CDS/ABC Music and Let's Face The Music on Avid, both of these in surprisingly good phony stereo; also The Cream Of Fred Astaire '26-40 on Pearl, two-CD Starring Fred Astaire on Columbia, two volumes on ASV, others; '58 tracks from the Kapp label are on an MCA CD. In '53 he made a four-LP Mercury album The Fred Astaire Story of songs associated with him, using superb studio sidemen; he also made other Verve albums, much of this material later on Verve CDs The Irving Berlin Songbook with Oscar Peterson and others, The Astaire Story and Steppin' Out. There have also been soundtrack albums from the films. His last screen role was in Ghost Story '81.

His autobiography was Steps In Time '60. Arlene Croce's The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Dance
is indispensible, and Todd Decker's Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz (2011) makes it even more clear how hard he worked to make the dancing look easy, and how influential he was on every aspect of the films.