“That Old Black Magic” is a delightful collection of performances by legendary African-American singers on Canadian television variety shows during the 1950s and early 1960s. As these performances have never been broadcast outside of Canada, the film is a special treat for the devoted fans of the stars presented here.
“That Old Black Magic” gets off to a bit of a clumsy start by briefly recalling the shameful Jim Crow laws of the U.S. and the birth of the modern civil rights movement. None of this is specifically related to any of the singers in the film, and strangely it is never mentioned how Canada was free of the state-sanctioned racism that disfigured the U.S. during this era or how African-American performers enjoyed a level of respect and accommodation that was conspicuously absent in their own country during that time. But once the thumbnail history lesson is over, the music begins and reigns.
Ten artists are featured here, each bringing their own distinct magic and style to the cameras. Duke Ellington and his band are up first to perform a medley of their classics with controlled elegance, followed by a raucous Cab Calloway doing “Minnie the Moocher” in such a no-holds-barred manner that at one point the camera zooms in for a ridiculously tight close-up that exposes the fillings in his melodic mouth!
Ella Fitzgerald follows with “A Tisket-A Tasket” and a sublime version of “Imagination,” with a dapper Billy Eckstine next in what may have been the definitive interpretation of “September Song.” The two funniest moments of “That Old Black Magic” follow: Sarah Vaughan offering an amusingly strange take on “Misty” (her glamourous, self-confident persona being clearly at odds with the song’s lyrics about being as helpless as a kitten) and Nat King Cole singing “Stay With Love” in an extended comic sequence at a cocktail party where actors fall in and out of love while the great man croons around them while casting wry glances.
Dinah Washington presenting renditions of the sassy “Lover Come Back to Me” and the fatalistic Bessie Smith standard “Electric Chair Blues” is served up afterwards, followed by a solemn Marian Anderson singing the German-language version of “Ave Maria.” The film is then wrapped up with two electrifying pop numbers: Sammy Davis Jr. singing and dancing to “Gypsy in My Soul” and a very young Della Reese sizzling in “Someday You’ll Want Me to Want You.”
The performances gathered for “That Old Black Magic” are presented in black-and-white kinescopes of varying degree of visual quality, although the sound quality throughout is excellent and the star power never lags during the course of this hour-long film. If this film is any indication, there is a gold mine in the vaults of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. which needs to be dug out and shared with the global audience.