July 23, 2016
Using only one name has been an effective marketing device for a lot of entertainers, and for none more effectively than for Johnny. When I was a young boy, my mother told me that my father had been at some public event the previous night, and that had met Johnny. She didn’t have to say his last name—none of us knew his last name; I knew immediately that she meant the diminutive bellboy who pitched Phillip Morris cigarettes.
On radio, on television, in print ads, and in public appearances, Johnny was one of the most familiar figures of his time, with his snappy uniform, his tray with the written message on it, and his high pitched announcement: “Call … for … Phillip Mahr-rayss.” That’s how he pronounced it, as you can hear at the beginning of this Lucy and Desi ad.
Johnny, who was born in Brooklyn in 1910, was forty-seven inches tall as an adult and weighed about 59 pounds. He was employed in the 1930s as a bellboy at the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan in an era when hotel lobbies were elaborate gathering places. Uniformed bellboys were fixtures in these spaces, often calling out the names of persons for whom there were inquiries or telephone or written messages. The New Yorker used Johnny’s size as a promotional gimmick.
Johnny came to the attention of Milton Blow, whose advertising agency had the Phillip Morris account. Blow brought a Phillip Morris executive to the lobby to watch Johnny in action and, according to Roventini, asked Johnny to page “Phillip Morris.” If that story is true, no one answered the page, but the impromptu audition launched the young man into what turned out to be a lucrative, forty-year career as the public image of the Phillip Morris brand. He also became one of the most recognizable celebrities of his time and was welcome in the company of everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Dwight Eisenhower.
Johnny Roventini’s fame was advanced significantly when Phillip Morris agreed in 1951 to sponsor the television series I Love Lucy, a show that was shunned by advertisers who in those times were afraid of the public reaction to a marriage between a Cuban man and an American woman. Roventini became personally attached to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and he and the sponsor stood by Ball after news reports that the House Un-American Activities Committee was investigating charges that Ball had Communist connections.
I have never smoked a cigarette, but I grew up in an era in which smoking and cigarette advertising were pervasive. People of my age will remember the campaigns—”LSMFT” (“Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”), “Pall Mall (pronounced ‘pell mell’). Outstanding—and they are mild!” And the campaign that drove English teachers to distraction, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” But no tobacco campaign had Johnny’s personality.
After public awareness of the lethal effects of smoking led to a federal ban on broadcast cigarette advertising in 1970, Johnny continued to make public appearances on behalf of the brand until 1974. He died in 1988.
June 4, 2016
Mohammed Ali, who died yesterday, was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., a descendant of slaves.
The senior Clay, in turn, was named after a 19th century political and diplomatic figure. When Ali adopted Islam and changed his name, he explained that it was his “slave name,” that he didn’t choose it and didn’t want it.
I get what he meant by “slave name,” but there was a certain irony in the term inasmuch as the original Cassius Marcellus Clay was an abolitionist. In fact, although he was a Kentucky planter, the scion of a wealthy family, and a member of the state legislature, he argued for the immediate abolition of slavery.
During a political debate in 1843, a hired assassin named Sam Brown shot Clay in the chest, but Clay went after Brown with a Bowie knife and threw him off an embankment.
Two years later, Clay founded an anti-slavery newspaper in Lexington. Kentucky. This inspired so much antagonism toward him, that he carried two pistols and a knife and sealed himself behind armored doors at his office, which was equipped with two cannons. After a crowd of about sixty men broke into the office and confiscated the printing equipment, Clay moved his operation to Cincinnati, Ohio, but continued to live in Kentucky.
Clay served in the Mexican-American War as a captain with the 1st Kentucky Cavalry from 1846 to 1847. He opposed the annexation of Texas and expansion of slavery into the Southwest. While making a speech for abolition in 1849, Clay was attacked by six brothers, who beat and stabbed him and tried to shoot him. Clay fought them all off and killed one of them, Cyrus Turner, with a Bowie knife.
Clay later served as minister to Russia under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, resigning after Ulysses S. Grant took office. Clay was in Russia when Tsar Alexander II issued an edict emancipating serfs throughout the empire. Clay received a military commission from Lincoln and returned to the United States for a time during the Civil War, apparently influencing Lincoln to prepare the Emancipation Proclamation.
Clay was influential in the Tsar’s decision to threaten war against France and Britain if they were to recognize the Confederate States of America, and also in the sale of Alaska to the United States, which occurred during Andrew Johnson’s administration.
Clay and his wife, Mary Jane, had seven children, but the marriage ended after forty-five years, due to Clay’s chronic infidelity. At 84, he married Dora Richardson, who was 15 years old at the time. Not surprisingly, two of Clay’s daughters, Laura and Mary Barr, were women’s-rights activists.
May 22, 2016
We recently attended a concert by Johnny Mathis and he, of course, sang “the holy trinity.”
Those who have followed this singer’s career know that he applies this sobriquet to three songs—”Chances Are,” “The Twelfth of Never,” and “Misty”—that he sings at virtually every appearance, whether he wants to or not.
These songs are identified with Mathis, and his fans expect to hear them.
In fact, from my point of view, they are so identified with Mathis, that no one else need bother to sing them. When the psychotic fan calls Clint Eastwood’s disk-jockey character in that 1971 thriller and whispers, “Play ‘Misty’ for me,” she doesn’t have to say which version she means, although by that time the Errol Garner-Johnny Burke song had also been recorded by stars that included Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Della Reese.
And not long after Johnny Mathis first recorded “Misty” for an album released in 1959, Billy Eckstine set down his version, which you can hear by clicking HERE.
Eckstine, who died in 1993, is largely forgotten, but he was an influential jazz musician and bandleader, a pioneer in be-bop, and a very successful singer. His vocal hits included “Blue Moon,” “Everything I Have is Yours,” “Caravan,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “I Apologize.” His recordings of “Cottage for Sale” and “Prisoner of Love” were million-sellers. He released more than forty-four albums. He had a rich bass-baritone voice with both subtlety and power, and a distinctive vibrato. A lot of his work, including his recordings with Sarah Vaughan and Dizzie Gillespie, is available on CD or MP3.
In 1950, LIFE magazine published a three-page feature on Eckstine that included photographs by Martha Holmes. One of the photos showed Eckstine, who was one of the first “cross-over” black musical performers, with a group of female fans, all of them white. The whole group is laughing over something, and one of the women has her hand on Eckstine’s right shoulder and her face against the lapel of his jacket as she laughs. Because of the mores—or, I should say, prejudices—of that era, LIFE published the photo only with the approval of its publisher, Henry Luce. LIFE received many letters objecting to the picture, and many people turned against Eckstine. TIME magazine reproduced the photo to mark the centenary of Ekstine’s birth. You can see it by clicking HERE.
Eckstine, whose life included its share of personal turmoil, was a civil rights activist and a close friend of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
March 20, 2016
Bob Costas tells a story about having dinner with Mickey Mantle and thinking it odd that Mantle asked for a doggie bag when the meal was through. When they left the restaurant, Mantle asked Costas to take a walk with him. At a certain point, Mantle stopped and knocked on a big cardboard box where a homeless man was sleeping. The man emerged, appeared startled and afraid at first, but then recognized his visitor and said, “Oh, hi Mick.” Mantle gave the man the doggie bag, and Costas reasoned from the manner of the exchange that this was not the first time this had happened.
Since Bob Costas told this story, I assume it is true. And if it is, it means that whatever problems Mantle had—and he had more than his share—he had the grace to look at a homeless man rather than avert his gaze, rather than pretend not to see the evidence of neglect and indifference lying at his feet.
The neglect and indifference with which much of society regards the homeless is the underlying truth of Time Out of Mind, a 2014 film starring Richard Gere and Ben Vereen. Gere plays a man named George who, although he denies it—claiming to be in some transitional state of life—is homeless. He has no prospects and no identification, and at times he seems disoriented. When he is able to scrape together a few bucks, say by selling his coat, he uses it to buy a six pack of beer which he quickly consumes. His wife has died, and his daughter, who tends bar in a New York tavern, wants nothing to do with him. George finally resorts to a shelter where he meets Dixon (Ben Vereen), a self-described jazz pianist, who talks almost incessantly and acts like a conscience, a kind of Jiminy Cricket, to George.
The movie is almost without a plot, except for George’s effort to re-establish a relationship with his daughter. Time Out of Mind was written and directed by Oren Moverman and provocatively filmed in Manhattan. There are many scenes in which there is no dialogue, scenes that are mostly a study of how a man who has lost all ties to the world around him can be completely alone among millions of people. There are long, brooding shots, many of them from unconventional angles. There is no background music, only the sounds that sweep over and around George as a world busy with its own affairs goes on as though he were not there. “We don’t exist,” he tells Dixon.
It is a disconcerting film in the same way that the homeless men and women in New York and other cities are disconcerting reminders of the failures of our society, our institutions, and our economy. This film, which Gere’s production company developed, has made no money, and I read on the IMDb web site that twenty people walked out when the movie was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Maybe that says as much about them as it does about the film.
March 5, 2016
In the 1936 film Prisoner of Shark Island Samuel Mudd is portrayed (by Warner Baxter) as a well-meaning country doctor who unwittingly abetted the escape of John Wilkes Booth and wound up in a federal prison on an island in the Caribbean. He is pardoned after stemming a yellow fever epidemic that swept the prison.
It’s a good story, but it isn’t entirely true. The truth, some might think, is even more interesting, and it is laid out in detail in The Assassin’s Doctor by Robert K. Summers.
Summers, a great-grandson of Dr. Mudd, has written several books on this and related subjects, but he is not an apologist for his forebear. He seems more interested—particularly in this book—in spreading the record before the reading public.
Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln just as the Civil War was ending, and the reaction of the federal government—particularly of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—was affected by the intense feelings rippling through the country, feelings that included fear, disillusionment, desperation, and paranoia.
After shooting Lincoln, Booth jumped from the presidential box to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, breaking a leg. He stumbled out of the theater, mounted a waiting horse, and galloped off to Maryland where, in the company of David Herold, one of his co-conspirators, he arrived around 4 in the morning at the home of Dr. Mudd.
Aroused from his sleep, Dr. Mudd took Booth in, put a splint on the broken leg, and provided Booth with a makeshift pair of crutches. Booth remained at Dr. Mudd’s home until the following day, and then left with Herold, heading for Virginia where Herold surrendered and Booth was shot to death by a Union soldier.
Dr. Mudd did not tell anyone about his visitors until several days later, and even then he didn’t do so directly but asked his cousin, Dr. George Mudd, to notify federal authorities in a nearby town. Military personnel visited Samuel Mudd’s home where the Mudds eventually turned over a boot that had been cut from Booth’s leg and that bore the inscription “J. Wilkes.”
Dr. Mudd was arrested, charged with conspiracy, tried by the same military commission that condemned to death three men (including Herold) and one woman (Mary Surratt); Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas islands south of Key West. He was pardoned in 1869 by President Andrew Johnson after working diligently to treat victims of yellow fever at the prison and contracting the disease himself.
There are no serious disagreements about these facts, but there is a lingering discourse about certain aspects of Dr. Mudd’s behavior. The most important question is whether Dr. Mudd recognized Booth when the assassin came calling with his broken leg. Dr. Mudd had met Booth before, when the actor was in the neighborhood ostensibly looking at real estate and seeking to buy a horse. But the doctor and his wife, Sarah, maintained that Booth was wearing false whiskers when he came seeking help with his injury and that Dr. Mudd did not recognize him and had no reason to suspect him. The Mudds’ account was that Booth left their house on Saturday, April 15, while Dr. Mudd was absent, and that Mrs. Mudd noticed the false whiskers at that time. According to this version of events, when Dr. Mudd resolved to notify authorities about these now-suspicious men, Mrs. Mudd prevailed on him to stay at home inasmuch as the men might still be in the area and might pose a danger to the family. So Booth used his cousin as a surrogate messenger.
I think the consensus among historians now is that Dr. Mudd’s acquaintance with Booth was more than the incidental encounter Dr. Mudd described, and that Dr. Mudd participated in conversations with Booth and others concerning Booth’s earlier plan to kidnap Lincoln and take him to Richmond, hoping to enable the Confederate government to negotiate a release of military prisoners. Dr. Mudd was a slave holder and a Southern sympathizer living in a border state, although not an activist against the Union government. It is unlikely, however, that he knew anything about Booth’s decision to murder Lincoln, both because Booth seems to have made that decision only shortly before carrying out the murder and because Dr. Mudd’s character suggests that he would not have agreed to have any part in such a crime. If he did help facilitate Booth’s escape, his primary motive might have been to purge the Mudd household of a murderer.
All the questions about what Dr. Mudd knew and when he knew it are explored in this book. Summers also includes extensive documentation, including many letters that Dr. Mudd wrote to his wife and others while he was a prisoner at Fort Jefferson. These letters include a description of his one attempt to escape from the prison, the harsh conditions under which he and the other prisoners lived, his relationship with other men who were sentenced in connection with the conspiracies against Lincoln, and his heroic part in stemming the yellow-jack epidemic. The average reader might not want to read all of these documents—although a history wonk such as me might devour them—but they do present in a convenient collection an opportunity to hear history unfolding in the voices of those who were taking part in it.
February 15, 2016
Lucy Mangan, writing in The Guardian, had this to say about the film Esio Trot: “Just watch it. Once a week, I’d recommend, for the rest of your life.”
Some may think that suggestion is excessive, but it certainly heightened my curiosity, which had already been aroused by the fact that this BBC television movie co-stars Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman. This movie, based on a children’s novel by Roald Dahl, first appeared on British TV in 2014 and still hasn’t been released in the United States. Nor is it available in a DVD format that will play on most American devices. But I poked around on the Internet long enough to find that the movie is available at THIS LINK. You can click on “CC” at the lower right to turn off the Dutch subtitles.
Esio Trot concerns Mr. Hoppy (Hoffman), an introverted aging bachelor who has two passions in life—the lush garden he keeps on his apartment balcony and his lovely and charismatic neighbor, the widowed Mrs. Silver (Dench). Although he and Mrs. Silver often meet, particularly in the apartment building elevator, and although Mr. Hoppy often chats with her when they are on their respective balconies, Mrs. Silver seems to reserve all of her affection for her pet tortoise, Alfie. Mr. Hoppy doesn’t have the courage to tell Mrs. Silver how he feels about her—that, in fact, he would like to marry her—but he sees an opening when she expresses her concern that Alfie never grows any larger. She had dreamed of a more imposing tortoise to keep her company in her solitude. Mr. Hoppy determines to fulfill this dream for Mrs. Silver, and he devises an elaborate, somewhat devious, and ultimately hilarious means of accomplishing it.
The story line in the movie departs from that in the novel, and the differences include a character who appears only in the movie—the boorish Mr. Pringle, played by Richard Cordery—who is Mr. Hoppy’s rival for Mrs. Silver’s attention. The movie is also enlivened by the presence of James Corden, who narrates the story while rushing around London.
Judi Dench, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Cordery, and James Corden are perfect in their roles. (No one is better than Hoffman at playing woebegone figures, and Dench—well, she’s Judi Dench, for Pete’s sake.) But the texture of this movie is made richer by the fact that all the minor characters, from children to shopkeepers, are perfectly cast and utterly believable in an implausible situation.
I don’t know about once week, but I certainly recommend that you watch Esio Trot.
February 13, 2016
Last summer, I wrote a post here about Scott Martelle’s book, “The Madman and the Assassin,” which was a biography of Thomas “Boston” Corbett, the eccentric soldier who shot John Wilkes Booth. What was interesting about that book, besides the fact that Martelle executed it so well, was the fact that in the 150 years that elapsed since Booth died, no one else had written a book-length account of Corbett’s life. Now, hard on Martelle’s heels, comes Caleb Jenner Stephens, with a rare and perhaps unique book-length account of the life of Henry Rathbone, one of only four people present when Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln. Rathbone, an army major at the time, and his fiancé, Clara Harris, joined Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 for a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin.
The only reason the couple accompanied the Lincolns that night was that everyone else who had been invited—notably including General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia—had declined. The advance chatter that the Grants and the Lincolns might attend together just days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia had caused some excitement in Washington, but Julia Grant was one of many people in the capital who could not abide Mary Lincoln, so the Grants avoided the appointment by repairing to New Jersey to visit their children. Rathbone, who was sitting in the rear of the presidential box when Booth entered, confronted the assassin after the murder had been committed and sustained a serious knife wound in his left arm.
Despite the injury, he tried unsuccessfully to prevent Booth from leaping from the box to the stage from whence he made his escape. Rathbone, who came from a wealthy Albany family, later married Clara Harris, who was also his stepsister, and the couple had three children, including U.S. Representative Henry Riggs Rathbone of Illinois. Rathbone recovered from the wound to his arm, but his mental health seems to have been permanently impaired by his experience at the theater and especially by the fact that he had been unable to either prevent Lincoln’s death or keep Booth from escaping. It was unreasonable for Rathbone to assume guilt for this, but the event was so sudden and shocking that reason didn’t play a part in his reaction to it. Stephens makes that argument, in some detail, that Rathbone suffered from what is now known as post traumatic stress syndrome. The author also explores an account of the murder—raised in a contemporary publication—which holds that Rathbone saw Booth enter the presidential box before the murder and rose to ask Booth what business he had there, but was brushed aside as Booth approached the president from behind and fired the fatal shot.
I am not aware that this version appears in any public record. Stephens attributes it to The Public Ledger, a daily newspaper then being published in Philadelphia. According to The Public Ledger, Clara Harris gave this alternative version during an interview with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Stephens gives weight to this account and repeatedly—and, I think, unfairly—refers to Rathbone’s “failure to protect the president.” In one instance, in fact—in a stunning exercise of hyperbole—the author accuses Rathbone of “failing the whole world.”
Rathbone remained in the army until 1879 and retired with the rank of brevet colonel. He and his family were living in Germany on December 23, 1883, when, after many years of psychic and emotional instability, he murdered Clara and tried to commit suicide. He was consigned to a reasonably comfortable asylum in Germany for the remaining twenty-seven years of his life. This book suffers from bad grammar and syntax to a degree that is very distracting. However, Stephens has made a contribution to the literature surrounding the murder of Abraham Lincoln by compiling a chronicle that has been neglected.
January 25, 2016
My recent post about Dave Somerville—among other things, lead singer with The Diamonds—reminded me that that group’s most enduring hit, “Little Darlin,’ ” was introduced, with far less success, by a different group.
The song was written by Maurice Williams, and it was first recorded in 1957 by Williams’ rhythm-and-blues group, The Gladiolas. That original version was recorded on the Louisiana-based Excello label; the song reached No. 11 on the R&B charts.
Shortly after The Gladiolas introduced the song, The Diamonds covered it, cutting a single for RCA Records that was released on July 19, 1957. That version reached No. 2 in sales in the Billboard Hot 100; Billboard ranked it the No. 3 song for 1957 after Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” and Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand.”
The Diamonds’ rendering of this song has been described by some commentators as self-parody, and the group’s body language in THIS VIDEO might be admitted as evidence.
In any event, the impression The Diamonds made has kept the song popular for almost sixty years, and it has been covered or performed by a wide variety of artists, including Presley, Joan Baez, Sha Na Na, The Chevrons, The Four Seasons, and The Monkees. The song also surfaced, in a hilarious fashion, in the Columbia Pictures film Ishtar, which Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel jointly described as the worst movie of 1987. However that may be, THIS VERSION of “Little Darlin’,” performed by Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, is worth the click.
Don’t shed any tears for The Gladiolas, by the way. That group morphed into Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. Under that name, the group recorded “Stay” in 1960; Williams had written the song in 1953 when he was 15 years old, putting to words and music, according to him, an actual experience in which he unsuccessfully tried to convince a girl he was dating to stay out a little longer. The song was released on Herald Records and reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The recording–one minute and thirty-six seconds long– has the distinction of being the shortest single to reach the top of record charts in the United States. To date, an estimated ten million copies have been sold.
The Beatles performed “Stay” during their live appearances from 1960 to 1962, and the song has been covered by, among others, The Dave Clark 5, The Four Seasons, Cyndi Lauper, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
The Gladiolas’ version of “Little Darlin’ ” is HERE.
To hear The Zodiacs sing “Stay,” click HERE.
January 18, 2016
Tom Hanks’ father was not the lead singer with The Diamonds. He was not. That idea concerning Hanks’ parentage was presented the other day in one of those e-mail messages with the screaming warning sign in the subject line, namely “Fwd.” There are a couple of people, who have too much time on their hands, who circulate such nonsense to us and a long list of other addressees. We usually ignore them, but this one caught our attention because it was so far-fetched. How did such a notion originate, we wondered: was it concocted deliberately (and, if so, to what end?) or did it begin as a misunderstanding? Probably, we’ll never know; still, the false story led us to the true story, which was worth learning.
For the record, Tom Hanks’ father, Amos Mefford Hanks, was a cook. The lead singer with The Diamonds was Dave Somerville. I was familiar with The Diamonds because they became popular in the 1950s when I was in my teens. Their biggest hits, “Little Darlin'” and “The Stroll” were released in 1957. However, I didn’t know until the scurrilous e-mail piqued my curiosity what a varied and productive career Dave Somerville had.
Somerville, who was–as were all of The Diamonds–born in Canada, studied voice at the Royal Conservatory of Music at the University of Toronto. In 1953, he met Stan Fisher, Ted Kowalski, Phil Levitt, and Bill Reed, at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The four had formed a quartet, and Somerville coached them; when Fisher dropped out, Somerville became the lead singer. That group became The Diamonds.
In 1955, The Diamonds tied for first place on an installment of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a radio and television show that originated in New York. In 1956, they signed a contract with Mercury Records. The group had sixteen songs on the Billboard charts over the next eight years.
After leaving the Diamonds, Somerville worked for six years as a folk singer, using the name David Troy–Troy being his middle name. He also studied acting with Leonard Nimoy; his television acting appearances included The Fall Guy, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, Quincy ME, McCloud, Gomer Pyle USMC, and Star Trek.
Somerville and Gail Jensen wrote a song, “The (Ballad of the) Unknown Stuntman,” that prompted Glen Larson, the original baritone with the Four Preps, to conceive of the characters and format for what became the television series The Fall Guy, which ran for 112 episodes with Lee Majors in the title role. “The Unknown Stuntman,” which Larson embellished with added lyrics, was the theme.
Somerville also did voice-over for hundreds of radio, television, and cable TV ads.
In 1967, Somerville joined The Four Preps as a replacement for Ed Cobb. In 1969, he and Bruce Belland, the original lead singer with the Four Preps formed a folk music and comedy act and appeared in concert with Henry Mancini and Johnny Mathis. They were also regulars on The Tim Conway Show. Somerville and Belland wrote “The Troublemaker,” which was the title track of two Willie Nelson albums. Somerville and Belland also sang with a later iteration of the Four Preps.
In 1972, Somerville formed a group called WW Fancy; in the 1980s he sang with the original members of The Diamonds and also returned to The Four Preps.
He made a children’s album, The Cosmic Adventures of Diamond Dave, that comprised many of his original songs.
He also appeared in a stage show, On The 1957 Rock & Roll Greyhound Bus, that was based on a tour in which The Diamonds traveled with Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Paul Anka, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and others.
Dave Somerville died in 2015 at the age of 81. He hadn’t sired Tom Hanks, but he had made his own mark on American entertainment.
January 14, 2016
Among the ads that are “trending” on Facebook lately, on my account at least, is one that is shilling a little pendant with the inscription “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” with a suggestion that this would be a good gift for one’s grandchildren. I don’t believe I’ll try it on my grandchildren, but the ad reminded me that we used to sing that song when I was in elementary school, and I used to wonder why.
I was puzzled about that because the song is about an adult theme and is rather morbid.
The chorus is a set-up; the first three lines sound cheerful enough, but the last line implies that something is going on that we are not aware of:
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. / You make me happy when skies are grey. / You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
So far, so good, but then the hammer drops:
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
“Whoa,” I used to think when we sang that song. “Where did that come from? What did the songwriter know that we don’t know?”
The combination of the plaintive melody and the sudden implication that catastrophe looms ahead seemed out of place in my Howdy Doody, Lincoln Logs world.
The verses were even more disturbing.
In the first one, we found ourselves singing in our flutey little voices about someone fantasizing about sleeping with a lover.
The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping / I dreamt I held you in my arms.
But any stimulation our young psyches derived from this image was quickly dispelled:
When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken / so I hung my head and cried.
Clearly, we were not dealing with “April Showers” or “Yankee Doodle.” We knew that before we got to the second verse, it’s dark threat:
I will always love you and make you happy / if you will only say the same. / But if you leave me to love another / you will regret it all one day.
It sounds like the last scene of I Pagliacci. The only thing missing is the knife.
The denouement comes in the third verse, and it isn’t pretty:
You told me once dear, you really loved me / and no one else dear, could come between. / But now you’ve left me and love another. / You have shattered all my dreams.
“You Are My Sunshine” was recorded on February 5, 1940 by Jimmy Davis and Charles Mitchell. It is, in fact, the most recent state song of Louisiana, so designated in 1977 by a legislature that apparently hadn’t read the lyrics. I say “the most recent state song” because Louisiana adopted two “official state songs” before this one, and it has at least three other “official songs” for specific purposes. The action in 1977 was based largely on the fact that Jimmy Davis had served as governor of Louisiana from 1960 to 1964.
But before the Davis-Mitchell recording, two other versions of the song were cut in 1939—one by the Pine Ridge Boys (Marvin Taylor and Doug Spivey) on August 22 and one by The Rice Brothers Gang on September 13.
When Davis ran for governor in 1944, he often appeared during his campaign riding on a horse named Sunshine and singing this song.
Although Davis or Davis and Mitchell together are usually given credit for writing the song, it appears that Davis actually bought the rights to it from Paul Rice (of the Rice Brothers). Davis took credit for the tune, but never claimed to have written it.
Although it was an odd choice for us kids, “You Are My Sunshine” played an important in the evolution of American popular music. The Jimmy Davis version was popular enough that it made the country sound attractive to people who normally would have ignored it. In 1940, the song was covered four times, including by cowboy singer Gene Autry, but also by Bing Crosby and Lawrence Welk, so that the crossover occurred almost immediately. Among those who have covered it since then are Nat “King ” Cole, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and Mtume.