My personal journey to discovering Ava Gardner started in the autumn of 2014. On an off-chance, I found myself in North Carolina alone for a weekend. I had a car and a place to stay but no one around that I knew. Being ambitious, I decided to look up something fun to do. I have always enjoyed museums, and I found out that there was a museum dedicated to Ava Gardner less than an hour away from where I was staying. Having been raised in California and influenced by films and musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood, I decided that visiting the Ava Gardner Museum was a worthy endeavor. Once I arrived, I was thrilled by how much personal memorabilia was on display, and how simple, yet elegant and fascinating I found the museum. It was a great representation of the lady herself. That Christmas, my father gifted me with two biographies of Ava Gardner with a sweet inscription that read, “I hope these books bring you many happy hours of delicious reading.”

Tatiana Bookbinder - Plaid Dress

My mother and I designed this green dress with the red plaid. I wore it when I recorded a video of myself performing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat (1951).

It wasn’t until 2017 that I actually buckled down for some delicious reading and ended up devouring the biographies. As impressed as I was with the museum, the books were personally illuminating during a moment in my life when I needed clarity. I found solace in reading about Ava’s struggles and accomplishments, her ups and downs, her highs and lows. I also found strength in her actions, dignity in her character, and respect in her determination to live well despite tough breaks, heartaches, and hard times. 

Truth be told, I sensed a kinship with her; I felt like I knew her well. I understood the way she lived her life, and how similar it was to the way I wanted to live mine. I discovered many similarities between us: We both had lived in Spain, were family-oriented and close to our folks; we loved music, and musicians; we were tomboys and athletic, enjoyed dancing, being barefoot, and the list went on! I also felt that we both believed in love and loyalty; we trusted in people even when it was to our detriment. We also knew our exit cues. When it was time to leave a bad situation, we did. Sadness aside, toward the end of her life, Ava said that she never had any regrets, and I believe in that idea. Live well, love well, be well.

Over the next three years, I began studying Ava’s life in-depth, reading as much as I could about her childhood, career, and personal life. In December of 2020, Ava’s birth month, I decided to do a month-long project honoring her. I chose to sing and record five different songs from her films and cook five recipes from her family cookbook. Since it was a rare month where there were five Tuesdays and five Thursdays in the month, I decided to record two videos per week for the whole month. I called the project “Ava December.”

Tatiana Bookbinder - Cooking

I made the Gardner family’s coconut cake recipe for Ava’s birthday as part of my “Ava December” project. 

Once I finished my project and December ended, I still felt that my work was not done, and I wanted to continue learning. I made a plan to record a full album of all of Miss Gardner’s songs as soon as possible. Because of the pandemic, I knew it would be a long while before I could go into a studio to record, so I went into research mode instead, watching as many of her films as I could and searching for sheet music to the songs I wanted to learn. Finding sheet music from 60+ years ago can be a guessing game and a treasure hunt, but, by perusing library catalogues, songbooks, thrift stores, and online sellers, I was able to find all the music that I needed. I compiled ten songs and decided to include one piano solo as well.

One of the biggest blessings I’ve had in my life is that I have had the love and unconditional support of both of my parents for my musical and artistic pursuits. My father is a classical pianist and has accompanied me at the piano most of my life, whether it was while I was playing the saxophone, the flute, the castanets, or singing. We have developed a wonderful working relationship and have enjoyed countless hours of making music together over the years. When I decided to go into the studio to record the songs for my Ava album, I asked my father (who agreed to accompany me) if he would like to contribute a piano solo to the album, a Chopin Étude featured in the film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951). He was delighted to be featured on the album as the piano soloist. As luck would have it, the Chopin Étude featured in the film was a piece that my father had studied in-depth with the French classical pianist Jean-Marie Darré. During his university years, he was fortunate enough to spend a summer in Nice, France taking lessons with this renowned pianist. He always loved this particular Étude and played it often in the house when I was a child. 

Tatiana Bookbinder - Sheet Music

I acquired this sheet music while preparing for the music album. I included the sheet music for “The More I Know of Love” from The Killers (1946) which the Ava Gardner Museum kindly sent me a copy of when I couldn’t find it in print anywhere. Even though the song did not make it onto the album, I felt compelled to include the sheet music for that song because I did record it.

Once I had all the music together in the correct keys, I began learning the songs. I wanted to sing them as a tribute to Ava, but I also wanted my own interpretations to come shining through. I did not want to imitate her, and although I listened to her recordings, I did my best to pay my respects to her musical talent and also interpret the songs accurately and honestly.

In December of 2022, my father and I decided that we felt safe enough and were ready to go into the studio. Truthfully, recording was the easiest part. It feels like the icing on the cake once you’ve done your research and preparation. My father and I spent four days with our sound engineer recording, editing, and mixing the songs. Although most of the piano and vocal tracks were fairly simple to record, one of the trickier songs was “Moonlight was Meant for Lovers” from the film Lone Star (1952). At my insistence on including the song, I decided to accompany myself on the banjo in my own arrangement of the song. Since there was no sheet music to be found for this song, I watched Lone Star and listened intently to Ava singing to Clark Gable. I did my best to figure out the chords, write out the lyrics properly, transcribe the song accurately, and play accompaniment on my banjo. No small feat, but I completed the job successfully. I was happy to sing in Spanish and English and quite proud to have my own arrangement of this song be included on the album. 

Tatiana Bookbinder - Gable

While leaning over a piano, I channeled Jean Ogilvie, Ava’s character in The Hucksters (1947), with my sheet music for “Don’t Tell Me.”

The most trouble I encountered was with “Song of the Barefoot Contessa” from The Barefoot Contessa (1954). I wanted it to be the final song on the album, but I also felt that singing it was somehow incorrect because although the melody was featured in the film, the actual lyrics of the song were never heard. Since this was the case, I thought that my father could play it as a piano solo but that didn’t feel right either. I decided to go back to the film to get inspiration. I saw the dance that Ava did with the musicians playing the theme for her, and I remember reading that she worked night and day on that dance for three weeks before they shot the scene. As I watched her dancing in rapture to the music, I heard a flute playing the melody, and I immediately knew how to incorporate the song into the album. Since I knew how to play the flute, I decided to brush up on my skill set and learn the tune. Taking a note out of Miss Gardner’s book, I practiced it every day for one month. I was thrilled to include “Song of the Barefoot Contessa” in a sophisticated style, concluding the album with the theme from one of Ava’s favorite films.

For the cover of the album, I wanted a photo that would show me paying tribute to Ava Gardner in a classy, elegant, sophisticated, and stylish way. I wanted to evoke the glamour of the time and era when the music was written, and portray us both in an appealing light. In the photo that became the album cover, I styled my own hair and did my own makeup. I am wearing my mother’s personal gown that she had custom-made to wear to the opera. She gladly let me borrow it for the album cover and told me she wore the gown the night that she first saw Tosca. I am also wearing my mother’s pearl necklace and matching bracelet. In my hand, I am holding a stretch piece of white lace fabric that I bought years ago at a fabric store for 25 cents. I had also worn my mother’s gown and accessories when I recorded the song “Comin’ Through the Rye” from Mogambo (1953) for my “Ava December” project. 

In December of 2023, I sent the eleven songs to be mastered. My initial release date was January 2, 2024. I chose the title Singing Ava for two reasons. One: I felt that I was singing what Ava sang, or what she should have sung in her films. Two: I wanted to highlight the singing Ava that I knew and grew to love: The actress that was heartbroken when her voice was dubbed in Show Boat (1951). The conniving Kitty who turned her back on Burt Lancaster in the middle of a party in The Killers (1946) and whispered to the piano player, “The More I Know of Love.” The femme fatale who made a grand entrance in The Bribe (1949) by singing “Situation Wanted” to a packed house while making eyes at Robert Taylor. The torch singer who sang “Don’t Tell Me” to an audience of hucksters, and one in particular, in The Hucksters (1947). The Goddess in One Touch of Venus (1948) who lovingly told Robert Walker to “Speak Low” when he spoke of love. The down-on-her-luck entertainer in Show Boat (1951) who mourned about a broken man in “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill” all while conveying the utmost sincerity and emotional vulnerability through her lyrics. The Honey Bear who, in the middle of the wilderness of Africa, felt like singing one night and took the old Scottish melody “Comin’ Through the Rye” and happily performed it as a solo, then transformed it into a trio, accompanied by a reedy tenor at an upright piano and a baritone following along. The lady who wooed Clark Gable by gazing into his eyes and serenading him with “Moonlight was Meant for Lovers” in Spanish and English. The songstress who sat at a piano in a bar in Spain late one night and posed the question, “How am I to Know?” – something we have all asked ourselves at one point or another in our lives.

Tatiana Bookbinder Album Cover

The cover of my completed tribute album Singing Ava: The Songs of Ava Gardner.

Once I uploaded the mastered songs to my distributor, it became a waiting game to make sure the album cover was acceptable and that the licenses for the songs could be secured for streaming purposes. After one week, I received an email from my distributor: They were able to secure the licenses to all the songs except one! “The More I Know of Love” proved to be unavailable for licensing. I contacted the ASCAP offices, the publishing company, and the estate of the composer to no avail. I considered waiting, hoping to hear back from someone about what was happening regarding the rights and licenses but many of my colleagues advised me to release the album without the song. Although I did everything I could, I knew my colleagues were correct. With a heavy heart, I made the decision to leave the song out. I re-uploaded the album without the song, and on February 29th, 2024, the ten-song compilation album Singing Ava was released on all of the major streaming platforms. The album had come to fruition.

I felt it appropriate to release Singing Ava on Leap Day, as, like the day itself, the album was a strange enigma to me in so many ways. It was created and developed during the pandemic, a difficult time to say the least. The album catalogues the few songs of a naturally musically-inclined actress who was not always given a chance to sing, despite her love of music, musicians, and singers. I read that Ava’s dream as a teenager was to sing with a big band and perform on stage, but, as fate would have it, she instead became a Hollywood star. Singing Ava is my tribute to her dream deferred; the unappreciated gift that was Ava Gardner…the singer.

You can listen to Tatiana Bookbinder’s album, Singing Ava, on SpotifyApple Music or YouTube