Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.
Up until a few years ago, I had no idea who Radka Toneff was. I stumbled upon her only because I was doing what what all Cover Me nerds do in their spare moments: looking for cover versions of their favorite songs (in my own case it’s to add a little spice to my specific-song-themed-playlist situation because I’m a deluxe version nerd).
Okay, so I love Kenny Loggins. I don’t just love him – I “obscure deep cut” love him. And in my research I saw that an artist named Radka Toneff had covered Loggins’s “Set It Free”, my favorite song off his 1977 debut solo album Celebrate Me Home. Curiosity piqued, I immediately headed to YouTube to track it down and found a video of Toneff performing the song in 1979.
I then proceeded to have my mind blown.
This wasn’t simply a case of some random singer doing a stellar cover version. This was hearing and seeing a song sung with such conviction and passion that it had metamorphosed into something completely, wondrously new. Once the Toneff version of “Set it Free” hit my radar, the original had to grudgingly hand over its crown.
Finding out about her turned out to be a bittersweet experience, as a quick search after hearing the song revealed a extraordinarily sad twist. In October of 1982, at the age 30, Radka Toneff had died by suicide.
Toneff is often referred to as “Norway’s greatest jazz singer” but even a tentative dip into her catalog proves how limited that descriptor is. Apart from the fact that she is a brilliant singer regardless of nationality, there is a noticeable rock edge to a lot of her performances. In fact, she had spent her younger days as part of a cover band whose repertoire consisted primarily of rock songs and included tracks by Janis Joplin, Dusty Springfield, and Blind Faith, amongst others.
In her lifetime, she released three studio albums, with her last, the superb Fairytales, a collaboration with pianist Steve Dobrogosz, being her best-selling and most beloved. Each featured a mix of covers and originals, with the latter written by Toneff and her collaborators Dobrogosz and bassist Arild Andersen in various combinations. In addition, her love of poetry led to her setting the words of some of her favorites writers including Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson to music.
There is no skirting around the surface in a typical Toneff performance. She quite literally inhabits every melody put in front of her, offering up vocals of disarming power and utter believability with ridiculous ease. Her complete emotional investment in a song is never in question, as you will soon see and hear below. And while it’s not a definitive trademark necessarily, most Toneff performances noticeably build as they proceed, and involve her completely letting loose on the bridges then crushing in the codas. It’s an alternately smile-inducing and tear-jerking special effect that never gets old.
Radka Toneff – Ballad of the Sad Young Men (Roberta Flack cover)
“Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” written by Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman, made its debut as part of a 1959 Broadway musical called The Nervous Set. The epically emotional ballad spawned a number of cover versions, the most successful and handsome of which was Roberta Flack’s, whose arrangement also serves as the blueprint for Toneff’s version. The instrumentation in the Toneff version is far more subdued than in Flacks’s schmaltzier take, which ensures the listener’s attention is where it should be, on Toneff’s powerhouse vocal performance. She turns the show tune into something akin to a jazz power ballad, singing more and more assertively as the song progresses, then closing things out by blowing the roof off the damn house.
Radka Toneff – The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress (Jimmy Webb cover)
In a 2011 Norwegian newspaper poll, Fairytales, Toneff’s 1982 collaborative album with pianist Steve Dobrogosz was voted to be the best album that had ever been produced in the country. And Toneff’s version of “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” remains its undeniable centerpiece. The Jimmy Webb classic has been covered endlessly, with its most artistically successful incarnations being done by Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, and Linda Ronstadt, whose 1982 version takes the prize as the absolute best. To this day Toneff’s take remains as close as anyone has ever gotten to Ronstadt’s seminal perfection. Collaborator Dobrogosz’s delicate piano provides the ideal backdrop for a particularly fragile and emotional Toneff performance, one of her absolute finest.
Radka Toneff – Set it Free ( Kenny Loggins Cover)
This performance of the aforementioned “Set it Free” from Kenny Loggins’ Celebrate Me Home album was part of a four-song set from 1979 that also includes superb versions of the standard “Spring Can Really Hang You Up Inside” as well as Phoebe Snow’s “Keep A Watch On The Shoreline.” In her arrangement of “Set it Free,” she eschews the original’s over-the-top choral style ending and keeps it simple, just sticking with the verses and chorus. In keeping with the Toneff tradition, things get more intense and heated as the song goes forward, resulting in one heart-squeezingly desperate and beautiful performance.
Radka Toneff – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (The Hollies cover)
Love it or hate it, “He Ain’t Heavy…” is here to stay. It’s preachy and sentimental but as Donny Hathaway proved in his 1971 recording, with the right singer at the helm, even the cheesiest, most saccharine of songs can be completely transformed into something of great nobility. Toneff’s exceptional vocal range is on full display within her cover of the song, but what’s most captivating is the cleverly forensic way she approaches it, noticeably hesitating before starting each verse, then slowly stretching the notes. It’s hypnotic. And like Hathaway, she turns the bridge into something head-shakingly amazing, in her case by unpredictably approaching it in her lower register. Toneff was clearly “feeling it” on this one, as evidenced by some slightly awkward ad-libbing in the latter part of the song, but that only serves to make the whole thing more embraceable.
Radka Toneff – Lost in the Stars (Kurt Weill & Maxwell Anderson cover)
While “Lost in the Stars” from the 1949 musical of the same name by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson is a straight-up standard, it’s one of the cool ones. Which is to say, its sentimental questioning of the great spirit has resonated not only with stalwarts of Easy Listening (Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland), but with assorted Rock gods as well (Scott Walker, Elvis Costello, Martin Gore). Radka Toneff takes her cue from diva Patti Austin’s 1977 version and shows off a heretofore unseen sophisticated and subdued side of herself, singing with a full orchestra and (naturally) sounding amazing.
In addition to her three studio albums, there are several posthumous Toneff releases, in some cases featuring previously unreleased live material, that are well worth checking out. There’s also a pretty decent selection of live clips on YouTube to dig into. Lastly, for anyone interested in going beyond YouTube, there are a couple of cool things within the NRK (Norway Broadcasting Corporation) website, including a vintage short feature and a documentary. Though both are in Norwegian and feature no subtitles, they make for intriguing and often fascinating viewing.