March 17, 2011
In the midst of the tragedies playing out in Japan and Libya and Bahrain, song writer Hugh Martin — an important figure in American musical history — slipped away last Thursday at the age of 96.
Martin wrote a lot of fine music for the Broadway stage and for films, but he etched his name in brass when he composed “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Trolley Song,” and “The Boy Next Door” — all classics and all written for Judy Garland in the film “Meet Me in St Louis.”
The first of those songs set Martin apart in special way, because it is relatively rare for a writer to produce a song that becomes a Christmas standard. That one became not only a standard but one of the most recorded and most popular Christmas songs of all time.
The song has an interesting history which is available in Martin’s own words at THIS LINK. This is the short version. Martin’s perennial songwriting partner, Ralph Blane, asked about a tune he had overheard Martin fooling around with, but Martin said he had given up on it. Blane had liked the melody and asked Martin to try it again. Martin wound up writing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Judy Garland’s character sang this song to her little sister (Margaret O’Brien) who was distraught because their father was moving the family from its homestead in Missouri to New York City.
In that context, the combination of Martin’s melancholy melody and his lyrics was heart-wrenching. So much so, that Judy Garland and others objected that it was too sad. Martin at first refused to change it, but actor Tom Drake talked him into it.
For instance, the song originally began: Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past. Martin changed that to Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.
That was in 1944. In 1957, at the request of Frank Sinatra, Martin changed the song again. The original lyric read, But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow / From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow. Sinatra found that a little downbeat for a Christmas album he was recording, and Martin accommodated him with, Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” which is the way it is usually performed now.
No matter, in all of its versions it’s a wonderful song from a wonderful talent.
November 6, 2010
The popular song “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” was written in 1931, and its lyricists, Ted Koehler and Billy Moll, provided a hopeful message that sounded all the more melancholy because of the reality of the times – economic depression. My favorite recording of that song was made by Kate Smith. I like the way she sings two lines — both of them in this verse:
Your castles may tumble / that’s fate, after all / Life’s really funny that way / No use to grumble / Smile as they fall / Weren’t you king for a day?
Kate Smith had a wonderful, musical laugh, which I loved to hear on her radio and television shows. And she laughs that laugh on the word “funny” in that verse without breaking the tempo of the line. I can’t hear her sing that line too often, and I’ve had the recording for about 40 years. Then, at the end of the verse, she does a little glide on the word “day,” starting on the note and then smoothly sliding down the scale. Again, I’m obsessed with that line. I play the song just to hear her treatment of that one word – “day.”
In a similar vein, for many years, whenever I learned that a TV station was going to broadcast the movie “High Society,” I would watch it so that I could hear Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra perform the duet “Well, Did You Evah,” sometimes referred to as “What a Swell Party This Is.” I even figured out about how far into the movie that song occurs, because I didn’t want to watch the whole film, which is a flawed remake of “The Philadelphia Story.”
The movie has a book by John Patrick and songs by Cole Porter. In “Well, Did You Evah” Crosby and Sinatra simultaneously sing Porter’s lyrics and exchange spoken barbs. At one point, Crosby sings, “Have you heard / about dear Blanche? / Got run down by an avalanche.” Sinatra says, “Nooooo,” and Crosby answers “Don’t you worry. She’s a game girl, you know. Got up and finished fourth.” Sinatra: “This kid’s got guts.” Crosby: “Havin’ a nice time? Grab a line.” At which point, Sinatra resumes singing. Crosby was Mister Smooth, and the way he delivers the line, “Don’t you worry. She’s a game girl, you know . . . ” has captivated me since the first time I heard it about 50 years ago. Fortunately, I now have bookmarked that song from YouTube and I can listen to Crosby say that line as often as I like, which is often, because I’m obsessed.
I don’t experience this kind of fixation only with music. It also occurs with the spoken word — for example, with Al Pacino’s speech in the climax of the movie “Scent of a Woman.” I read a review of that movie in which the critic remarked that Pacino’s dramatic choices were confined to whether to speak loud or louder. It’s fair to say that Pacino often gobbles the scenery, but the most effective line in that speech is one for which he lowers his voice and uses the words like sharp instruments. It is the last sentence of this passage: “As I came in here, I heard those words, ‘cradle of leadership.’ Well, when the bow breaks, the cradle will fall. And it has fallen here; it has fallen. Makers of men; creators of leaders; be careful what kind of leaders you’re producin’ here.” When Pacino says those last words – “Be careful what kind of leaders you’re producin’ here” – he makes them prophetic, ominous. I bookmarked the video of that scene, too – it’s at THIS LINK — and I never tire of hearing him say it. I’m obsessed.
I recently learned that this behavior doesn’t constitute a private disorder of mine – and that there is a name for it: deconstruction. The dawn broke when I was at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick talking to Seth Rudetsky, who is so versatile that he defies definition. It’s something like comedian-actor-radio host-raconteur-musician-composer. I was talking to him because he is going to appear in the George Street production of the musical play “[title of show].”
Rudetsky hosts a web site which includes a series of videos he calls “Deconstruction.” In these, he plays clips from Broadway musicals — a subject he knows inside-out — and analyzes, in his supercharged manner, the techniques with which a singer such as Florence Henderson, Laurie Beechman, or Kristin Chenoweth handles a song – or a line, or a word, or a syllable. “I’m obsessed!” he often says when he has played a phrase over and over again, mouthing the words along with the singer.
I’m glad to finally know that I’m in good company. Rudetsky’s site is at THIS LINK.
January 30, 2010
I was listening to Jonathan Schwartz on WNYC a week ago today, and he played a recording by Frank Sinatra of one of my favorite songs from the 1930s — “When Your Lover Has Gone.” Schwartz is such an aficionado of recorded popular songs that he often dwells on minor points about such things as the arrangement or the instrumentation or even — as he did in one case that day — on the matter of which cut on a vinyl disk a song might have occupied.
I was surprised, then, that he didn’t discuss the fact that Sinatra didn’t sing my preferred introduction to Einar Swan’s song — which, by the way, was written in 1931 and featured in the film “Blonde Crazy” with James Cagney and Joan Blondell.
On my favorite recording of that song, for instance — the one from Kate Smith’s concert at Carnegie Hall — Kate Smith sings this intro: “From ages to ages, the poets and sages, of love — wond’rous love — always sing ….” But Sinatra’s recording began with the second verse: “What good is the scheming, the planning, the dreaming, that come with each new love affair ….”
Swan, who died at 37, had only one hit song, but it did it right that one time. “When Your Lover Has Gone” has always been a favorite of vocalists and instrumentalists and it has been covered by Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, and Ethel Waters, among others. It turns out that most artists prefer the introduction that Sinatra chose, and they drop the first verse altogether. I would try to make an argument for my preference, but considering the talent arrayed against me, what would be the point?
There is an interesting article about “When Your Lover Has Gone” with some samples of recording of the song at JazzStandards.com. Follow THIS LINK.
There is also an extensive article about Swan at JazzHistoryDatabase.com, and you can reach it at THIS LINK.
November 28, 2009
One of my Facebook friends — and a former newspaper colleague — remarked today that she likes to start sentences with “and” and “but,” an indulgence we share. In fact, I make a point of telling my students that while they shouldn’t use a coordinating conjunction to begin a sentence while they are in the stifling atmosphere of academia, they should have at it once they’re writing on their own.
This got me to thinking about song lyrics that begin with “and,” only because four popped into my head immediately.
The first was “My Way,” which begins: “And now the end is near, and I must face the final curtain.” Paul Anka wrote that lyric, and according to him, it was inspired by Frank Sinatra’s announcement that he was going to quit show business.
The melody was written by Claude Francois and Jacques Revaux for a French song. “Comme d’habitude,” which means something like “As is my habit.” Anka’s lyrics, I understand, have no relationship to the originals but were meant to go along with Sinatra’s mood at the time.
There have been notable covers of the song by Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious, and Dorothy Squires.
Another lyric in this category was written by Johnny Mercer for a popular version of “The Song of the Indian Guest” from the opera “Sadko” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. I mentioned this here recently in connection with Mercer’s centennial. Mercer’s version is known as “Song of India,” and it begins: “And still the snowy Himalayas rise in ancient majesty before our eyes ….”
Mario Lanza made a fine recording of that song, and Lanza also made a wonderful recording of “They’ll Never Believe Me,” which was written by Herbert Reynolds and Jerome Kern to help rescue an imported British musical, “The Girl From Utah,” in 1914. The refrain, which usually begins the song, starts: “And when I tell them how beautiful you are, they’ll never believe me ….”
The last song that occurred to me was “And I love her so,” which was written by Don McLean but is most widely associated with Perry Como.
And like that.
May 14, 2009
It’s a sure sign that the semester is over that I’m spending my time reading Hollywood bloggers. And that’s why I came across Nikki Finke’s report that Universal Studios prefers Johnny Depp to play Frank Sinatra in a Martin Scorsese biopic about the kid from Hoboken. Finke says Scorsese has his eye on Leonardo DiCaprio for the role. Pay attention – this is important stuff!
I don’t know that I’ll be patronizing this movie, because while I like a lot of his films and records, I’ve never been able to summon much interest in Sinatra as a person. If I do see this movie, it will be because I’m curious about the challenge it’s taking on. Sinatra is such a strong and pervasive personality that I wonder if it will be possible to accept DiCaprio or Depp or any other actor. As it is, Finke says the actor – whoever he is – won’t have to sing, because the songs will come from Sinatra’s recordings. No one would buy another voice as Sinatra’s. The question is, will anyone buy another mug as Sinatra’s?