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You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

I’m as big a reader as I am a music-listener. I have worked for a book company for thirty years, and for years before that in libraries, at the same time performing music as often as I could. Downtime has almost always involved reading or listening to music. Quite often, I’m reading about music, despite Martin Mull’s awkward but oft-quoted assertion that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Sure, it helps to have heard the music being referred to in an essay or review or blog post, but it’s nice to think that a reader may be encouraged to explore unfamiliar music further. And sharing thoughts on music with others who’ve reacted to the same music in their own way is one of the best ways I know of to waste time.

But what, then, of songs about books? That would seem to be an even worse idea than books about songs, but there have been some great songs about books, and I would like to do a little architectural dancing about a few of my favorites.

ella 2

“I Could Write a Book” This is one of the many gems in the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart catalogue. The song was written for the 1940 show Pal Joey, and was notably covered by Ella Fitzgerald on her Rodgers & Hart “songbook album.”

Richard Rodgers wrote numerous gorgeous melodies, working under deadlines with a partner who was a drunk, sidestepping the demands of imperious producers and temperamental stars. Beauty produced—voila!—on demand and under pressure, time after time. It truly is incredible that Rodgers (and, yes, his brilliant, besotted lyricist Lorenz Hart) created so many songs that have endured.

The music man and the librarian

The music man and the librarian

“Marian the Librarian”   It took Meredith Willson eight years to finish his magnum opus, The Music Man, which hit Broadway in 1957. Willson, a small-town Iowa guy, wanted to bring small-town Iowa to the stage, and his mentor, Guys and Dolls creator Frank Loesser, urged him on.

Robert Preston, as Music Man (and con man) Harold Hill, falls for the town librarian, played on Broadway in 1957 by Barbara Cook (who won a Tony for her performance) and in the hit ’62 movie by Shirley Jones, later the matriarch of The Partridge Family. Hill pitches woo by singing “Ma-a-a-arian, Madame Libra-a-a-arian,” proving once again that book people have an irresistible allure.

My 45 has a misprinted title

My 45 has a misprinted title

“You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” I remember hearing this almost overpowering song on the radio when it came out in 1962. It blew my little nine-year-old mind. I imagine I’d heard other Bo Diddley hits—“”Hey Bo Diddley,” “Who Do You Love?”—by that time, but this one hit me so hard it rattled me. All these decades later, when I spin the 45, I still get a little rattled.

It’s one of the few Bo did that he didn’t write, and one of the few without the trademark Bo Diddley beat, but it sits right up there with his best.

“Don’t Stand So Close to Me”   Sting was reflecting on his pre-rockstar days as a teacher when he wrote “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” which became a #10 US hit in 1980. He was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, referring specifically to “that book by Nabokov” in the song’s lyrics. Sting insists that, although he was attracted to some of his young students back in the day, this song of a teacher’s affair with a pupil was not autobiographical.

The single’s B-side, “Friends,” written by Police guitarist Andy Summers, was reportedly inspired by another book, Robert H. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

“Wuthering Heights” Another English pop singer wrote a song based on Emily Bronte’s only novel. “Wuthering Heights” was Kate Bush’s debut single and went all the way to #1 in England—although it didn’t do so well in the US. I prefer the version by The Puppini Sisters, a three-part close-harmony group. They’re from England, too, but they modeled themselves on The Andrews Sisters and my own favorites, The Boswell Sisters. They give Catherine and Heathcliff’s story a little swingy bounce, which, I think, is what it’s always needed.


“1984” George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has inspired many songwriters. David Bowie’s “1984” came out a decade before the year in question, while Spirit’s got in fifteen years ahead. Bowie wrote “1984” and other songs, including “Big Brother,” for a never-produced musical based on the book. Stevie Wonder had written and recorded his own “Big Brother” in 1972. Many other pop songs of that era, of course, covered themes of government surveillance and power over the masses. And the hits just keep on comin’.

“Book of Love” Last but not least is this doo-wop ditty by The Monotones. I missed it when it came out in 1957, but it became a favorite when it was included in the movie American Graffiti. Great group name, but The Monotones were not monotonous at all.


Honorable Mentions: Love’s “My Little Red Book” (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David) and Duke Ellington’s “My Little Brown Book” (written by Billy Strayhorn); “Every Day I Write the Book” by Elvis Costello; Dylan’s original or The Byrds’ cover of “My Back Pages”

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominees: There are a couple of diary songs that I got enough of quick. Bread’s “Diary,” with its twist ending, was clever, but in a Hallmark Hall of Fame way. The Moody Blues’ “Dear Diary” is one I skipped back when I was playing the album it’s on. Ray Thomas’s vocals were never up to the standard of Hayward or Lodge, and the Leslie effects are annoying.

A Lover’s Question

A Lover’s Question

What was the “lover’s question” that Clyde McPhatter asked in the 1958 song (written by Brook Benton and Jimmy Williams)? There are several questions asked in the song, actually, but they’re all concerned with the basic insecurity and paranoia we all have felt while in the throes of young (and, yes, old) love: “Should I worry when we’re apart?” “When we’re kissing, does she feel just what I feel?”

I readily admit to countless agonizing nights spent worrying over lovers’ questions that have been asked down through the ages. It was so nice to settle into a long-term relationship and finally get beyond the doubt and suspicion, but the questions still come up occasionally.

For our list of lovers’ questions, we’ll use reporters’ questions—who, what, when, where, how, and why—as our guide.

“Who Do You Love?” Ellas Otha “Bo Diddley” McDaniel Bates got to the crux of the issue with this blues-rock classic. With its voodoo lyrics and repetitive one-chord music, Bo is casting a spell, hoping for the answer “Bo Diddley!” (Actually, it’s probably a question he was on the receiving end of quite often, since he was married four times.)

Bo was famous for his rectangular guitar and the much-imitated “bomp-bomp-bomp, bomp-bomp” beat he often got out of it. But Blues Who’s Who notes that early on he studied violin and played trombone in the Baptist Congress Band. Later in life, Mr. Diddley did a stint outside music as a deputy sheriff in New Mexico.

blues whos

As influential as Bo Diddley was on rock acts that came along after him, his highest mark on the Billboard pop charts was #20, with “Say Man” in 1962. He did get into the R&B top ten four times.

“Who Do You Love?” was notably covered by Ronnie Hawkins and his band, who became The Band, and by Quicksilver Messenger Service and George Thorogood.

“What Is This Thing Called Love?” Sidney Bechet’s clarinet escapade through Cole Porter’s minor-key song “What Is This Thing Called Love?” is among the more sublime instrumental performances it’s ever been my pleasure to hear.


Ted Gioia, in The Jazz Standards, comments on how influential Cole Porter’s melody was on modern jazzers who came along after Bechet. Tadd Dameron based his song “Hot House” on the chords to “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Other take-offs, Gioia notes, include: Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee,” Fats Navarro’s “Barry’s Bop,” Bill Evans’ “These Things Called Changes,” and John Coltrane’s “Fifth House.”

The song’s questions have been asked by notable vocalists, including Billie Holiday, Nat “King” Cole, Lena Horne, and Bobby McFerrin, but Bechet’s clarinet seems to be more filled with anguished questioning than any of those voices. “Who can solve life’s mystery? And why does it make such a fool of me?”

“When Will I Be Loved?” The Everly Brothers’ hit may be a pity party lyrically, but its music isn’t at all mournful. It’s catchy and bouncy and got the Brothers to #8 in 1960, and Linda Ronstadt all the way to #2 in 1977.

“Where Did Our Love Go?” The Everlys wondered when romance would come their way, while The Supremes, four years later, wondered when it would return. This Holland/Dozier/Holland Motown classic was one of The Supremes’ incredible twelve #1 Billboard hits. (They had three number ones in 1964 alone.)

Nothing deep, just pop perfection. Dave Marsh, in The Heart of Rock and Soul, writes, “Pray you don’t hear it early in the day, because that insistent melody’s guaranteed to linger in your mind until you sleep.”

Sarah "Sassy" Vaughan

Sarah “Sassy” Vaughan

“How Long Has This Been Going On?” George and Ira Gershwin wrote this ballad for the 1927 musical Funny Face, from which it was dropped two weeks in. Fortunately, it was inserted into the 1928 show Rosalie and became a hit. A favorite version is sung by Sarah Vaughan.

Funny Face was a showcase for Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, and even without “How Long Has This Been Going On?” had classics in “My One and Only” and “’S Wonderful.” Rosalie, though it had the music power of George Gershwin and Sigmund Romberg and lyric power of Ira Gershwin and author P.G. Wodehouse, dropped all of their music for the 1936 movie version, going instead to Cole Porter.

The song’s musical question has been asked not only by Sarah, but by Ella, Carmen, and Ray, as well as many other topnotch vocalists.

hank w

“Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do?” One of my favorite songs to sing is Hank Williams’ “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do?” It has a neat little yodel in it, on the colorful line “We don’t get nearer, fur’er, closer than a country mile.” The lyrics all the way through are a hoot, with lovers’ questions one doesn’t hear put quite the same anywhere else: “How come you treat me like a wore-out shoe?” “Why don’t you spark me like you used to do, and say the sweet nothin’s that you used to coo?”

Honorable Mentions: “Who’s Sorry Now?,” as sung by Connie Francis; “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” from the musical Stop the World—I Want to Get Off; The Three Degrees’ “When Will I See You Again?”; “Where Do I Go?,” from Hair; The Young Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure?”; and, finally, another lover’s question that gets right to the point: “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”


Best Song Title: Frank Zappa, who has more wacky song titles than your average rocker, wins this one again. His album We’re Only in it for the Money includes “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?” (The answer: “your mind.”)

Zappa was also responsible for asking the musical question “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”

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