People will talk. Hurtful, suspicious language has overtaken not only social media, but the nightly news. What does one do when the gossipers gather? Ignore ‘em! Billie Holiday has the most widely known version of “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” a classic “follow the beat of your own drum” number. It was written by Porter Grainger, Clarence Williams, and Graham Prince, and seems made to order for Billie.
Helen Humes, though, does a masterful job with the song. You believe her when she sings, “If I give him my last nickel and I know it’ll leave me in a pickle, ‘tain’t nobody’s business if I do.” Jazz editor/writer Nat Hentoff writes, “I thought Billie Holiday had a patent on “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” but Helen stakes a penetrating, tangy claim.” Hentoff goes on to say that, after the death of Lady Day, “no other female jazz singer has the wholeness and consistency of jazz beat that Helen possesses.” Take out female: she’s right at the top of all vocalists.
Rumours was one of the most commercially successful albums of all time, and its success is likely due to the underlying emotional conflict of its creators. Fleetwood Mac gave the album that name because so many interpersonal situations had arisen following the success of their previous album, Fleetwood Mac. “The Chain, “credited to all of the group members, was the centerpiece. The McVies, John and Christine, got a divorce after eight years of marriage. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who had revolutionized Fleetwood Mac when they joined the group as a musical and romantic couple, also began squabbling. Mick Fleetwood had relationship problems of his own. Public and press also tossed around some of their own gossip, mostly imagined. Imagine if Fleetwood Mac had recorded Rumours not in 1976 but in the era of social media!
Mick & Stevie
Band-member relationship issues can make for creative explosions. Just look at The Partridge Family. (Or maybe The Beatles…)
And speaking of Shirley Jones, 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 he did it well. I was a big fan of the 1962 movie when I was a kid. I mean, there was little Opie lisping, “Oh, the Wellth Fargo wagon ith a-comin’ down the thtreet.” And then Paul McCartney warbled “Till There Was You” on Meet the Beatles. Lotsa culture cred.
Shirley & Robert
A nice bit of Music Man business was the gaggle of gossips singing “Pick a Little, Talk a Little” out in the street, with the men’s club singing “Goodnight, Ladies” as counterpoint. My friends and I used to hyperventilate seeing who could sing it the fastest: “Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little, cheep, cheep, cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more.” Cheep thrills. “Goodnight, Ladies” was much easier.
“It’s the Talk of the Town” is a work of art, but it took me quite a while to come to that conclusion. It was created in 1933 by three guys not associated with high art. The composer, Jerry Livingston, is remembered for his songs for Disney’s Cinderella, including “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” The co-lyricists, Al J. Neiburg and Marty Symes, are barely remembered at all. Neiburg’s one other hit was “Confessin’,” made popular by Louis Armstrong. Symes wrote a couple of standards, “There Is No Greater Love” and “I Have But One Heart.”
I’d heard various versions of “It’s the Talk of the Town” over the years and thought it was a nice song, but nothing special. Despite the song’s pretty melody, the many instrumental versions of it are incomplete and never made an impression on me. It’s not difficult for an accomplished singer to put across a solid, emotional song like this one. Dean Martin, Sam Cooke, Brenda Lee, and even Fats Domino have done passable versions. Connee Boswell did a nice rendition, sans Sisters, way back in ’33, the year the song was written. But they all are a bit on the jaunty side and their delivery is a bit pat; the proper tone isn’t set.
The lyrics of Neiburg and Symes, who got it just right with this one, beg for unrestrained emotion. It’s a devastating breakup song: “I can’t show my face / Can’t go anyplace / People stop and stare / It’s so hard to bear / Everybody knows you left me / It’s the talk of the town.” The singer goes on to lament the impossible situation: “We sent out invitations to friends and relations / Announcing our wedding day / Friends and our relations gave congratulations / How can you face them? What can you say?”
The song needs the lyrics, and their utter despair should not be compromised. It was Annette Hanshaw, in 1933, who came the closest to capturing the desperation of the words, but even her recording sounds a bit rushed and hopeful. It was more than seventy years later, when Maude Maggart recorded the song (on her album With Sweet Despair, appropriately enough), that the combination of Maude and her pianist—and Al & Marty & Jerry—makes art of the most wonderfully devastating kind. It took seventy-two years, but “It’s the Talk of the Town” finally became a true work of art.
Shirley Eikhard had a nice idea with her song “Something to Talk About,” and Bonnie Raitt did a nice job of it in 1991. Everyone’s going on and on about something they think is happening, so “Let’s give them something to talk about.”
I got to see Bonnie Raitt on one of her first tours, front row-center, because of the girl I was dating. She and her best friend were most likely the two biggest Bonnie Raitt fans in all of Austin, and scooped up tickets at the first possible moment. I was not a rabid Raitt fan, but liked her well enough, and she did a fine show. More memorably for me, her opener was Tom Waits, just off his first album, Closing Time. I’d never heard of him, and it took a little bit of time to accept this disheveled guy in the cheap black suit and skinny tie, cigarette in crooked-back fingers, the other hand’s fingers snapping as he did a hipster rap. He did play one number I recognized, his song “Ol’ ’55,” which The Eagles had just recorded.
During Bonnie’s set, Tom sat on the floor in the wings, just offstage, eating cold fried chicken out of a bucket. I wonder if Tom and Bonnie were…Nah, don’t want to start anything.
Honorable Mention: As a kid, I loved it whenever Joe Jones’ “You Talk Too Much” came on the radio. I still smile when I think of the song.