THE IMMORTAL SONGS OF THE LAST CENTURY
A Survey by ENRIQUE RENARD
By the mid 1940s, Charles Trenet, the great French composer/chanteuse, received a call from a producer of a musical show. "Charles, we have this show now ready for the theatre, but we have a problem: we are lacking one song… The show is supposed to have eight songs, and we only have seven. Can you provide one? We need it as soon as possible… The show is being staged this week."
"My dear friend, making a song is not like making a shirt… It would take a little longer than the time you have in mind…"
"Charles, we have a real problem here… sometimes you composers have things not used yet… look, anything will do…coming from you it should be fine…"
The producer’s begging was so desperate that Trenet told him he would try to find something. He wasn’t very hopeful, but suddenly he remembered something he had written some time back, a song he disliked. Then he thought: "No, not that one…it’s just a bad one."
But then he also remembered that his friend had told him that it did not have to be something special. That "anything" would do. So he went into a drawer where he kept things to be eventually discarded and took out the score of the song. It was so bad, in his opinion, that he didn’t even give it a name. But he did have to name it before sending it, so he called it "La Mer" (The Sea). Why did he called it La Mer, he didn’t know. The title just popped up from his mind, and besides there wasn’t much time to ponder on a better title.
As it happened, the show ran its course and was quickly forgotten, but the song got to be one of the most heard and recorded hits around the world up to this very day! And Trenet, who recorded it quite nicely, made a bundle on the version with lyrics, written by him too. And it is difficult to find any of the Light Orchestral Music orchestras that did not arrange and record an instrumental version of La Mer.
Far away, in Brazil, a kid from a poor family was walking towards a neighbouring town. It was the late 1940s, summer, and a hot day at that, so Waldir Acevedo sat by the shade of a tree flanking the dirt country road in order to get some rest. Then, as he observed the blue sky, a melody started to resonate inside him. And apparently it kept resonating over and over, hence when he got back home he started to whistle it. Upon hearing, someone in his family asked him where he got that music from. He said "nowhere, I just invented it".
There are no precise indications on how Waldir managed to get his song to some musical producer in his country, but Delicado (Delicate) became a huge world hit, with the Percy Faith Orchestra selling in excess of a million records of it. Everybody recorded the nice little song. Azevedo went to write many other successful songs, of course, after he became properly trained in his art, and became a master of the Cavaquinho, a four string Brazilian guitar.
Both La Mer and Delicado represent songs rooted in popular music, and from a musicological standpoint they don’t have much to offer, neither in melody nor in lyrics.
The point is raised then by artists and producers as to something they find quite baffling: What is it that makes a song a hit? There are literally hundreds of lovely songs that get nowhere. And there are veritable horrors that become hits. And it isn’t a cultural matter either. It happens all over the world! Composers rate their own songs good or bad. To their endless surprise, they find that after a while, the songs they rated BAD become hits. And those they were proud of get nowhere. The amount of money they make on the "bad" ones keeps them quite happy though… and quite flabbergasted as well.
Then you have composers like George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers. They had several worldwide hits, magnificent songs that everyone sang and continue to sing, but that were not written to be hits, nor recorded. They were written because they were commissioned by musical show producers for their shows. Rodgers said that the fact that his songs became hits by themselves with the public, separate from the shows that featured them, never ceased to amaze him, but he considered that "a most welcome thing indeed, albeit an unexpected one".
George Gershwin said he wrote several bad songs that he put away, some of which, once discovered after his death were considered quite good. But the factors representing commercial success in a song would remain for everyone a mystery.
Still, those with a modicum of good taste will be able to discern a quality song, both in music and lyrics, from one that is not. Generally, and especially in the days we live today, the worst songs represent the biggest hits. David Rose, in my view an extraordinary musician who wrote magnificent pieces for light orchestral music, is remembered by most of the general public only for a hoochi-coochi song he recorded in the early 1960s: The Stripper. The title suffices to describe the thing, which he composed and recorded as a lark and at the insistence of one of his producers, who chided him into doing something unusual for him and his style.
Rose, whom I personally met in Epcot Center, at Florida’s Disney World in 1985, had a keen sense of humour. He got intrigued, wrote an arrangement and recorded The Stripper more for fun than for anything else, since he had no intentions of publishing the song on one of his LPs. The orchestra was there at that moment, and they had the time for another recording. So, he went ahead, with the musicians looking at each other and laughing at what they were requested to record: striptease music!
Those were serious classically trained musicians, some of them from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But it is reported that the orchestra got a kick out of it, because it was so removed from the usual Rose material, and everyone laughed at the end of the taping. But the producer, without telling Rose, slapped the recording on the B side of the single of another piece by Rose, and a disc jockey heard it and liked it. He liked it so much, he kept playing it, and the piece quickly soared to the top of the ratings and remained there for such a long time that later on Rose had to record two LPs with standards treated as striptease music that sold pretty well!
With stereo equipment and record players now at the financial reach of practically everyone, good taste became seriously threatened. The sad fact it that the great majority of ordinary people, who declare to like music, in fact lack musical sensitivity enough to distinguish garbage from good songs, or nice light orchestral pieces from vapid ones. If it sounds like a novelty and if it has a catchy beat, it’s enough for them, especially these days. Because, let’s face it, why would anyone with a minimal sense of musical taste like something like The Stripper! Simple: it has a sustained beat. That’s what does it.
The same people who are attracted to that beat would remain utterly indifferent to Rose’s string sound in one of his best arrangements: That of a song called And This Is My Beloved, a lyrical piece of work if there ever was one. It doesn’t touch them in the least. They may listen to it but they don’t hear it at all. I have every LP Rose ever made (a life time collecting his stuff), and of all the wondrous compositions and arrangements he did, that one tops everything. But it doesn’t have a beat, hence it won’t reach the ears of the majority, nor their sensibilities.
As everyone knows, popular tastes in music experienced a drastic change by the mid 50’s with the advent of rock-and-roll. But it wasn’t only rock-and-roll. It was also loudness. Fierce, brutal loudness, with an equally fierce beat. Young people are particularly vulnerable to music that encompasses a loud beat. Once producers and recording companies got a hold of it and saw its profit potential there was no stopping towards the complete degeneration of popular music. A survey done in the USA about 20 years back indicated than American teenagers in general had lost 30 to 40% of their hearing capabilities. The statistic becomes perfectly believable if one attends a rock concert. The potential of loud rock for awakening the worst animal tendencies in young people is enormous. It also ruins their hearing.
Speaking of rock songs, there was one the Rolling Stones played at their concerts which would start riots. One of those riots ended up with scores of seriously injured teens and some dead when a motorcycle gang went berserk during the song, took out knives and started knifing everyone in sight… The reaction of Mick Jagger, leader of the group, to the horror? "I have no idea why… but every time we play this song the same thing happens…" There was not a single word of regret or sympathy for the dead and the injured. And the Stones continued to play their song. Apparently such considerations are not a part of Mr. Jagger’s mental equipment. He is hailed as some kind of musical genius and a hero by the press and by rock-and-roll fans. To me, he is just an irresponsible goon, directly answerable for the animalistic reactions the music of his group can elicit. The name "Stones" appears particularly apt to describe the group. But, there are those making millions on this so-called music, and the show must go on.
During the 40’s and 50’s however, and with enormous jumps in technology by the phonographic industry with the eventual arrival of Hi-Fi and stereo listening equipment, Big Bands and light orchestral music dominated the market. The advent of singers such as Crosby, Sinatra, Bennett, Eddie Fischer, Perry Como, etc., displaced the Big Bands, but Percy Faith and Kostelanetz were selling millions of records worldwide, and so were David Rose, George Melachrino and Mantovani. Their material of course came from the great song writers of he 20th Century: the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, etc… Interested in getting the American public acquainted with the sound of a symphonic orchestra, Kostelanetz used New York Philhamonic personnel with brilliant arrangements of beautiful songs from the aforementioned writers, featuring 80 or more musicians. The excellence in sound did the rest. Radio stations played that music continually, American ears becoming aware of it, and sales soared. But it was, above all, the quality of the songs and the respectful, sympathetic and tasteful way in which they were treated and sung, what made people want to buy the records.
Speaking with younger members of my family, I tried to establish a parallel between those songs of the 40’s and 50’s and contemporary material. My main objection to the latter was their inherent lack of musicality, the absence of melodic variations in them. I made the kids listen to songs lasting 4 minutes wherein only two notes were used by the composer. The rest was just noise. Today, everyone writes songs. The young go crazy about these songs. A few months later you ask them about the song and its author. They cannot remember. The songs written today, with very, very few exceptions, are quickly forgotten. They don’t have a remaining impact in the musical consciousness of those who hear them, and there’s no reason why there should be one. The majority of those songs are not musical at all. They are just loud stuff with a beat, noisily celebrated by a crowd sometimes quite high on drugs. Were there any drugs indulged in by the 40’s and 50’s? Sure there were. But they had nothing to do with music. It was just the music itself that got us high. A high elicited by the beauty and the poetry of the sound and the lyrics. It was a different world, clearly with different people in it.
When one comments the about songs now labeled as "things of yesteryear", it becomes impossible to name them all. There were so many of them, and so good! They were so good that some, composed during the 1920’s, are still being recorded today! Like classical music, they have endured, as expected from all good and classy expressions of the musical arts. And by mentioning a few, I’m afraid I’ll be accused of leaving out some which are too good to be left out. For that possibility, I submit my humble and anticipated apologies.
Few singers, with the exception of Sinatra, could deliver the feeling of a song, especially a sentimental one, as Nat King Cole did. Sinatra had serious limitations about repertoire due to a number of reasons, chief among them his personality. But Cole could sing anything better than anyone. He could sing folk, blues, Latin, jazz, romantic, swing, you name it. His appeal was universal, and so was his range of material. But if I’m made to choose, I’ll stay with his romance stuff. The owner of a voice he didn’t like, his tone touched the hearts of millions, even those who did not speak English (as was the case of my mother, for instance. She would sit and listen to Cole in a rapture, without understanding one word of the lyrics). When he sang, he invariably gave the impression that he had experienced personally that which he was singing about, and we all could identify with that. He wasn’t in the least overly sentimental or mushy. His feeling was straight and true. There was nothing phony about it. And, like Sinatra, he usually gave credit to the songs and their writers for his success. "Without them I’d be nowhere…", he used to say.
One song by him I fondly remember was Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup (Darling, I Love You Very Much) with those lyrics half in French, half in English. He had heard a Canadian singer do it at a nightclub, and fell in love with it. A nice arrangement by Nelson Riddle contributed to the charm of the piece. Cole worked also with Gordon Jenkins, doing several romantic albums with him. In one named "Where Did Everyone Go" (Capitol W1859) he sings a song called Say it Isn’t So, written by Irving Berlin. The song describes the anguish of a man who suspects his loved one has stopped loving him, and is asking her to please say this is not the case, hence the title. It was 1969, and a cousin of my wife was visiting us in New York. She was in another room when I started to play the record in the living room busy with something else, and as Cole went into the song I suddenly saw her coming into the living room with tears in her eyes! "What’s wrong?...", I asked, a bit alarmed. "Nothing…", she said, "it’s that …well, that song…it touched me so deeply… Is that Nat King Cole?..."
"Yes, he is…", I said, marveled at the way Cole could spontaneously awaken a sweet, intense emotion in a listener with his smooth, sincere delivery. Another song in the album is about unrequited love: If Love Ain’t There, from the pen of Johnny Burke,one of my favorites. Cole also did an album with George Shearing, for Capitol, regrettably the only one. The arrangement credits went to Ralph Carmichael, the last arranger Cole had before his untimely death at age 48, and a splendid one. In that album there is a little known song deleted from the original LP. Thankfully, it was restored into the CD version. It’s called Guess I’ll Go Back Home This Summer. The lyrics speak of the nostalgia of someone who hasn’t been back home in a long time, and in planning his return he anticipates what will happen when he gets there. It’s a sentimental song, with which most of us who left home decades ago can easily identify. That was Cole’s magic. Those lyrics, when sung by him, would become a part of our lives.
Sinatra was another master at that, as well. When still recording for Columbia he got romantically involved with Ava Gardner. Many affirm she was the only real love of his life, but their temperament and big egos made the relationship unsustainable, and eventually he lost her. It was then that he happened to record "I’m a Fool to Want You", written by J. Wolf, J.S. Herron and… Sinatra himself, as credited in the Columbia LP CS9372. Inevitably, the song had personal overtones for him and Gardner. As much as Sinatra detested tohave more than one take when filming, when recording it was the other way around, because he was a perfectionist. But this time he did the song in one take, turned around and left the studio in tears, according to some who witnessed the recording. Whether or not this is true, the fact is that the song has a deep emotional content. It is a veritable cry of despair, though without the hysterics. And it is profoundly touching. The arrangement was done by Axel Stordhal, his arranger at Columbia, and it employs voices added to the usual strings Axel was masterful with, although he rarely employed them. Sinatra re-recorded the song ten years later with Jenkins. A lovely arrangement too, but lacking the emotional, raw intensity of the Columbia recording prompted by his own emotional state at that time.
To my mind, one of Sinatra’s best torch song LPs was Point of No Return, arranged by Axel Stordahl, who at the time had developed a cancerous tumor in his brain and was terminal. Still, according to his wife, Stordhal was anxious to record the album with Sinatra, who barely spoke to him during the sessions. One ugly aspect of the Sinatra character was his rancor, stimulated by his own mother who once stated: "My son is like me. You cross him once, he never forgets…" This regrettable trait spoiled Sinatra’s relationship with many of his closest associates and personal friends. He was angry at Stordahl because the arranger stayed with Capitol arranging for other singers at the time Sinatra wanted out of the label. Stordhal was under contract with Capitol, and he couldn’t just turn around and leave to fit Sinatra’s whim. But Sinatra wouldn’t forgive him even knowing that Stordhal was dying. One tends to agree with some who knew the singer well and state that he was a great artist, but not a great human being, despite all his publicized charitable work. Still, very few could deliver a song with Sinatra’s feeling. His complexity as a man came probably from the fact that he was diagnosed as a manic-depressive, a mental condition.
I never listened much to the radio, but on one occasion I heard in WPAT New York a song sung by the great French actor Charles Boyer. Apparently, he was no singer, so he was in fact merely reciting the lyrics but with the sweet dramatic flair and the charming English with a French accent he was famous for, a gentle string sound in the background carrying the melody. The song was called "Once Upon a Time", a veritable hymn to nostalgic remembrance of one’s lost youth that goes:
Once Upon a time, a girl with moonlight in her eyes,
Put her hand in mine and said she loved me so…
But that was once upon a time, very long ago.
Once upon a hill we sat beneath a willow tree,
Counting all the stars, and waiting for the dawn…
But that was Once Upon a Time, now the tree is gone.
How the breeze ruffled through her hair,
How we always laughed as if tomorrow wasn’t there…
We were young, and didn’t have a care
Where, where did it go…
I guess I was at one of those moments in which the mind is unoccupied and hence intensely receptive. I was over 50 then, and found myself suddenly fighting back a tear or two… That song, written by Strouse and Adams, is a beautiful poem with music, and years later Sinatra recorded it with an exquisite arrangement by Gordon Jenkins in a Reprise LP Album (1014-2) issued in 1965: "September of my Years", with Sinatra singing the lyrics and the melody, of course. But I can still recall the profound emotional impact that spoken version of Charles Boyer had on me. A veritable poem it was. Listening to those words I was for a moment transported back to my 20s, when I too – as many others like me – had a girl with moonlight in her eyes telling me she loved me so… Can the reader imagine a moment like that one happening today?...
Frank Sinatra stated once that Tony Bennett was the best singer in the world. He had probably heard some of the recordings Bennett did with Robert Farnon. Something quite magical happened there with those two, and I’m told that they did several albums together which have not been transposed into CD format for issuance nobody knows why. Bennett has the copyright and refuses to release them. I managed to get from a friend a copy of two CDs, probably culled from those LPs, one of them entitled "The Good Things in Life", with a recording in it of a song with the same title. Farnon’s arrangement for it is one of the best he ever made, at least in my opinion, and that’s a lot to say about someone usually bordering on perfection. Probably because of such accompaniment, Bennett projects his voice fully, his normally throaty sound giving way to a powerfully lyrical expression which does full justice to that marvelous philosofico-nostalgic song: "The Good Things in Life".
I think it would be an impossible task to find a well known singer or orchestra that hasn’t recorded Night and Day, the Cole Porter standard. It is quite probably the most heard and recorded song of the 20th Century. Porter was an extraordinarily talented composer who, on top of everything, wrote his own lyrics. He wrote prolifically and splendidly, But Night and Day remains his anthem. The lyrics represent an insurmountable way of declaring our love to someone, and some of the recordings made of it merit comment. Kostelanetz recorded it twice, in 1942 and ten years later, in 1952, the latter pressing arranged by Carrol Huxley, a brilliant arranger who did Kostelanetz’ The Cole Porter Music album, among others. Some considered this one a model of light orchestral music arrangement that influenced many of Kostelanetz contemporary arrangers. Both versions are in my view excellent, the second one longer and favored by better sound technology. As far as singers are concerned, Sinatra recorded the song four times. Three in slow, mood arrangements, and one arranged by Nelson Riddle in a swing tempo. They are all wonderful, but as of late I came across a version that left me with my mouth opened: one by Johnny Desmond, great torch singer that came to fame under the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Orchestra. The song is included in an LP recorded in the late 50s. by Columbia, in stereo. For that project, Mitch Miller, Columbia’s chief producer, got in touch with Norman Leyden, one of Miller’s brilliant arrangers for AAF outfit, and they brought it together once again in order to re-record some of the Desmond hits with it.
Unfortunately, those were the days of Elvis Presley, and the LP, magnificently executed and impeccably sang and arranged, was not a commercial success. However, thirty years later, Columbia was persuaded to issue a CD version of the LP that included that astounding version of Night and Day, arranged in the style of the 40s and brilliantly recorded in stereo at a time when Desmond, who had a fine singing career, had reached a peak with his marvelous baritone. One of the best, if not the very best, versions of Night and Day, that I have ever heard.
Johnny Desmond died at the ridiculously young age of 65, in Sept. 1985, after a battle with cancer, but his version of Night and Day shall remain forever with those of us lucky enough to have heard it and own it.
Back in 59’, in my country, I once caught my sister listening attentively to the radio. Neither her nor I were radio addicts, I must admit, so I was a bit surprised at seeing her close to the receptor and listening attentively. Someone was singing a song called The Careless Years, written by Joe Lubin, and the voice had a slightly nasal tone plus a charming vibrato. My sister said she had heard it a couple of times; that she liked the singer but could not find out his name. So we waited to the end of the song in the hope to get it from the announcer. When we did, we looked at each other with surprise. It was Anthony Perkins, the actor. He had a peculiar voice, indeed, but a rather pleasant one, and for a while he had quite a following, recording a few nicely done LPs. Three of them are now in CD format by the RCA label, the aforementioned song in an LP recorded in NYC in 1959, with an exquisite string arrangement by a saxophone player: Al Cohn, obviously a great arranger as well. This is one of those marvelous songs that should remain with us but regrettably don’t, buried under the valueless avalanche of truly forgettable contemporary material.
I remember the Billy May Orchestra by the mid-fifties with a sound I detested. It was a novelty developed by Billy: the "slurping" saxophones, which consisted in a way of phrasing the saxes as if they were howling rather than playing. But Billy May was a musician that rated pretty close to Robert Farnon. He became, to my mind, the best American arranger, ever. To that, he added a fun personality who got along with everyone, among other things because he didn’t take himself very seriously. The slurping saxes were a kind of joke he wanted to pull on the producers and the public, but to his surprise the thing caught on and became quite popular for a while. I mention this, because it conditioned my opinion about Billy as a musician and arranger. I thought he was that sound, you see. I really knew nothing about him. In those days info about arrangers and musicians without physical charm was non existent. But as time went by and I started to hear his stuff, my opinion started to change. And that change became drastic when I heard an album by Sinatra called "Come Fly With Me".
Sinatra was entering then a recording phase with Capitol which was termed "conceptual". The concept albums idea probably came from Voyle Gilmore, one of his main producers at the label, and the arranging department was under Nelson Riddle with a swinging style that revived Sinatra’s sagging career. But for reasons that are not quite clear to me, two of those concept albums were arranged and conducted by Billy May: "Come Dance With Me" and "Come Fly With Me". Later on Billy did other LPs with Sinatra. But it was then that I realized May’s enormous talent! "Come Dance…" was straight swing, except for one lovely mood number at the end played at a slow tempo. But "Come Fly…" was quite another animal. The "concept" in this case was a tour around the world, songs that could be identified with different countries, hence the tempos varied considerably from song to song. In that album I realized that Billy’s versatility included writing for strings, and he did it masterly in three of the songs: Moonlight in Vermont, Autumn in New York and London by Night.
The three of course represent well known, lovely standards, but under Billy’s arranging and conducting they became sheer magic. He wrapped the sound around Sinatra’s classical feeling and grace with a song, a sound that became not only descriptive of the cities involved, but almost ethereal in their beauty. London by Night, especially, has a kind of subtle, dreamy quality in the interplay between the strings and the celesta, almost an ecstatic mood. Listening to Moonlight in Vermont while watching a sunset with a girl who almost became my girl (but not quite), became an experience which neither of the two of us ever forgot. In one of my vacation trips to my country 40 years later, I saw her again, and she said to me. "You probably will not remember, but I had one unforgettable moment with you one evening watching at a sunset from my apartment’s terrace… We were listening to Sinatra’s Moonlight in Vermont as we enjoyed the multicolored shadings of that glorious sun setting, and for that brief moment I was in love with you…"
I smiled at her, and I told her the feeling was mutual, and that that beautifully shared moment remained in my heart too. We were just good friends, and wondered about the impact the song had in both of us, and she said it was because it brought to us Vermont… We had never been in the USA, and didn’t know Vermont. But that evening a magical tune written in 1943 by two guys I never heard of before, John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf, gave us an unforgettable portrait of one of the loveliest s US States, as I was able to ascertain personally years later.
This article could continue forever, and maybe in the future, in another piece, I can comment on some of the myriads of other wonderful songs 20th Century writers graced us with and which I haven’t commented upon in this occasion. Some of those songs have a charming story to them, some are beautiful but commercial failures, and some are valueless but commercially successful. And as long as money and profits are involved, this probably will continue to be the case. But there are songs with such universal value and appeal, their success will override any other consideration, and will stay alive with us forever.
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