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Spotlight: Makin’ Whoopee

Spotlight: Makin’ Whoopee

Another spotlight, another song / Perhaps it’s not right, but is it wrong? / It ain’t Jurassic, but it’s a classic–it’s “Makin Whoopee.” From my blog post I Just Wanna Make Love to You. Video of Mr. Eddie Cantor, followed by the excerpt from the post.

“Makin’ whoopee” is such an antiquated term these days that it has come back around as an innocent way to refer to sex. (Hasn’t it? Or is it just me?) There were three hit versions of the song “Makin’ Whoopee” in 1929, most notably the version by Eddie Cantor, who sang it on Broadway in the show Whoopee. I imagine it was pretty titillating for audiences to hear back then, even if sung by a funny-looking, bug-eyed comedian. I do, however, think it could make a comeback with a verse updated for the younger set. (And just using the phrase “younger set,” I know, puts me way out of it.) It’d go something like this: “He sits alone and oversexed / He grabs the phone, sends her a text / She puts her book up / She wants a hookup / They’re makin’ whoopee.”

 

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

“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.

love

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.

Spotlight: Singin’ in the Rain

Spotlight: Singin’ in the Rain

Another spotlight post, revisiting my words about Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards in my post Come Rain or Come Shine. Here’s a video of Uke Ike, followed by the excerpt from the post.

Four generations of my family have been fans of the 1952 movie Singin’ in the Rain. Gene Kelly’s exuberant, splashy song-and-dance in the street is a treat for very young and very old, and for the most jaded in-betweens. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Kelly’s performance of the song without seeing it, but there’s an older version I’m also awfully fond of. The song was actually written, by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, back in 1929, and it was a top hit that year for Cliff Edwards. (You know him as the voice of Jiminy Cricket.) Edwards, who on ballads like “When You Wish Upon a Star” sounds sweet and vulnerable, gives it his all on an up-tempo number like this one. He even throws in one of his famous wild, stratospheric vocalized horn solos, which is very entertaining but doesn’t sound much like a horn. (Unlike the impersonations of the Mills Brothers. According to Bobby Scott, as quoted in the book Reading Jazz, Lester Young once commented that the best saxophone section he ever heard was The Mills Brothers.)

Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?

Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?

I like to think that I’m open-minded, rather than wishy-washy. I see a lot of grey area in most situations. That frustrates those who see everything in black and white. A conservative friend once told me, “You know what happens to people who have an open mind? People th’ow shit in it!”

So be it. I’ll continue to see my tendency toward indecision as a virtue. Or maybe it really is more a fault. Oh, dear.

“Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” John Sebastian had a string of mid-sixties pop gems that transcended their time, including “Daydream,” “Do You Believe in Magic?” and “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” It was a #2 hit that added a little playfulness to the top ten of April ’66, with the hapless singer struggling to choose between his date and her sister. Dad gives it to him straight: “You better go home, son, and make up your mind.”

spoonful

Well, it was near enough to the Summer of Love that many young folks were not too highly motivated to make up their minds.

The lesson of “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?”: “You really must decide.”

The Byrds in happier times; Crosby on the left

The Byrds in happier times; Crosby on the left

“Triad” The summer after the Summer of Love, David Crosby came up with the menage a trois love song “Triad” for the Notorious Byrd Brothers album. The Byrds decided that the song was not appropriate—one more disagreement between the band and Crosby that drove him away. Grace Slick wound up debuting the song on The Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation album. The song expresses the idea that one doesn’t need to make up one’s mind, really. “We love each other, it’s plain to see…why can’t we go on as three?”

Earlier Airplane; Grace not yet in the picture

Earlier Airplane; Grace not yet in the picture

A variation on this idea had been touchingly addressed by Francois Truffaut in his 1962 film Jules et Jim. Jules loves Catherine and likes Jim. Jim loves Catherine and likes Jules. The three go through several permutations, but things end badly.

The lesson of “Triad”: “Decide? Why decide? Deciding’s for squares.”

A Weill tribute with two Lady in the Dark songs

Georgia sings of Jenny

“The Saga of Jenny” Kurt Weill’s American musicals certainly were inventive, and the 1941 show Lady in the Dark was no exception. It was about a woman, Liza, who turns to psychoanalysis to cure her chronic indecision. All of the musical’s songs (except the beautiful “My Ship,” which pops up throughout the show) were grouped into three sequences built around Liza’s dreams. The final song of the third sequence, the Circus Dream, tells the tale of Jenny, who “would make up her mind.” Jenny’s decisiveness is shown to be her undoing, as time after time bad decisions lead to deaths of parents, marriage scandals, and other woes. The moral of Ira Gershwin’s lyrics: “Jenny and her saga prove that you are gaga / If you don’t keep sitting on the fence.” I’ll take that as an affirmation.

Gertrude Lawrence played Liza on Broadway. Ginger Rogers did the role in the music-deprived movie version three years later. It was a bad decision to remove most of the songs; the movie’s a bore.

The lesson of “Saga of Jenny”: “You really mustn’t decide.”

A portrait of Roy's indecision

A portrait of Roy’s indecision

“Running Scared” Roy Orbison’s mini-melodramas could be over-the-top for your average pop singer—but Roy was no average pop singer. He warbles “Running Scared,” a bolero-beat whirlwind of anticipation, as he waits for his lady to make up her mind. “Running scared, afraid to lose / If he came back, which one would you choose?” The ascending lines of the final verse lead to the answer he wants (and we want, too): “My heart was breaking / Which one would it be? / You turned around and walked away with me!” A pop opera in just over two minutes, and at the end we breathe a collective sigh of relief.

The lesson of “Running Scared”: “Let someone else decide (but hope to God they go your way).” Another classic kitschy example of this approach was Dale and Grace’s #1 hit “I’m Leaving It Up to You.” I loved that one when I was a kid. But I never could decide who was better, Dale or Grace.

“Take Time to Know Her” When soul singer Percy Sledge died recently, most mentions of him focused on his massive debut #1 hit from 1966, “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Rightly so. It’s a great song, an impassioned sing-along, for lovers and barflies alike.

But I have always also very much liked his #11 hit from two years later, “Take Time to Know Her.” Like the debut, this one’s music has a churchy feel—and even has a preacher as one of its characters. He joins the singer’s mama in giving the advice not to rush into something with a woman he doesn’t know. “Take time to know her / It’s not an overnight fling / Take time to know her / Don’t go rushin’ to do your thing.” (Lyrics are by Steve Davis.)

But sure enough, our hero rushes into the marriage thing, only to come upon his wife shortly thereafter, sharing their bed with another fellow. Shoulda listened to his mama and his preacher.

Percy evidently did listen when he married a woman named Rosa in 1980. Their marriage lasted until Mr. Sledge died in April.

The lesson of “Take Time to Know Her”: “Don’t decide hastily.”

Honorable Mention: The Clash asked the indecisive musical question “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Traffic impatiently implored: either “Light Up or Leave Me Alone.”

 

Come Rain or Come Shine

Come Rain or Come Shine

Texas has been the setting for quite a few unusual weather events this year, currently the never-ending rains that have caused flooding. The Trinity River, which we in Dallas jokingly call “The Mighty Trinity,” has lived up to that nickname, overflowing its banks and submerging the running paths I usually use several times a week. It’s supposed to be hot and sunny ‘long about now, but there doesn’t seem to be any end to the storms. So, some rain songs and, optimistically, some shine songs.

st louis

“Come Rain or Come Shine” Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen wrote this song for the 1946 musical St. Louis Woman, and it is the perfect Dallas love song. One could sing it most any spring, autumn, or winter morning to impressive effect: “I’m gonna love you like nobody’s loved you, come rain or come shine.”

It’s among the many songs Ray Charles has magically made all his own—the best version, rain or shine.

lennon

“Rain” and “Good Day Sunshine” Two of the best Beatles songs, both recorded in 1966, fit the category. Lennon’s “Rain” is trippy, and at the same time pounding. Paul’s bass is right up front, and Ringo’s drums are inventive. He’s quoted in Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why: “My favorite piece of me is what I did on ‘Rain.’” Paul’s “Good Day Sunshine” is musical sunshine. Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head, notes that it was recorded the week our next selection, “Sunny Afternoon,” hit the charts.

“Sunny Afternoon” The Kinks were a “Beatles’ coattails group” because they made their splash in the wake of The Beatles, not because they sounded like the Fab Four. Ray Davies’ fab four had a hybrid rock/folk/dance hall style of their own, due to the songwriting flair of their leader. “Sunny Afternoon” is a great example: it has a strong, rhythmic descending bass/guitar line, over which Ray sings as a character, a decadent one-percenter who thinks he’s been soaked by the government (and a “big fat mama”). He’s lost his yacht and his girlfriend, who ran off to relate “tales of drunkenness and cruelty.” And now he’s left “lazing on a sunny afternoon.” Poor sot.

kink k

Another nice Kinks song is “Love Me Till the Sun Shines,” from Something Else.

“Singin’ in the Rain” Four generations of my family have been fans of the 1952 movie Singin’ in the Rain. Gene Kelly’s exuberant, splashy song-and-dance in the street is a treat for very young and very old, and for the most jaded in-betweens. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Kelly’s performance of the song without seeing it, but there’s an older version I’m also awfully fond of. The song was actually written, by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, back in 1929, and it was a top hit that year for Cliff Edwards. (You know him as the voice of Jiminy Cricket.)

uke ike

Edwards, who on ballads like “When You Wish Upon a Star” sounds sweet and vulnerable, gives it his all on an up-tempo number like this one. He even throws in one of his famous wild, stratospheric vocalized horn solos, which is very entertaining but doesn’t sound much like a horn. (Unlike the impersonations of the Mills Brothers. According to Bobby Scott, as quoted in the book Reading Jazz, Lester Young once commented that the best saxophone section he ever heard was The Mills Brothers.)

“On the Sunny Side of the Street” This 1930 song of positivity was written by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. This one has long been in my repertoire, and I’d always figured it was a Depression-era song meant to lift folks’ spirits. But after I had performed it at an assisted living center, a resident approached me. She said, “You know what that song’s about, don’t you?” I waited. “It’s about black people who pass for white.” What a provocative idea! It’s a subject I’ve read a lot about, and since the woman told me that I have seen the theory in print. It does fit the lyrics about a rover who “stepped over” to the “sunny side.”

“Let the Sun Shine” This Hair song made ubiquitous by The Fifth Dimension was a quota song for me for decades, and then I got to perform it in a show, in groovy hippie get-up with choreography and a good band, and I loved it all over again. You haven’t lived until you’ve sung “When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars” wearing a green dashiki, purple fringed vest, and headband, and doing hippie love-fest gyrations.

“Rainy Night in Georgia” Brook Benton’s sonorous baritone cast a spell on me back in 1970 when it was on the radio. I hadn’t thought much about it since, until I heard Boz Scaggs’ version of it on his 2013 album Memphis. It was only recently that I found a place for Boz in my musical world, when I heard his 2008 album of “American Songbook” standards, Speak Low. His voice suited those standards surprisingly well, and is my favorite of the many standards tributes done by fellow rock-era pop stars like Rod, Linda, and Willie. I’d never cottoned much to Scaggs back in his hit-making days, but he’s doing some interesting things now. Memphis and his latest, A Fool to Care, feature R&B and soul numbers, and not in a glossy way—more rootsy and rough.

“You Are My Sunshine” This standard, written by Louisiana Governor Jimmy Davis, is the most popular song at every gathering of seniors I play for. It is the oddest of songs, with verses whose sentiments clash with the mood set by the music and the song’s chorus. But I always do the verses, too, because residents know them and expect them, and the joyous expressions on their faces as they sing the chorus don’t change for the incongruous lyrics of the verses, about lost love and threats of revenge: “If you leave me for another, you will always regret that day / Oh, you are my sunshine, my only sunshine!”

akiyoshi

“Rain Check”: Billy Strayhorn’s “Rain Check” proves, along with “Take the ‘A’ Train,” that he could write up-tempo almost as well as he could ballads. I just ran across a Strayhorn tribute album by a trio led by Toshiko Akiyoshi, whom I’d only heard before with her big band (with husband Lew Tabackin). She does a nice workout on “Rain Check” and several other Strayhorn tunes, familiar and obscure.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Candidate: The opposite of “Crying in the Rain,” in every way, is “Laughter in the Rain.” The former is a work of pop art; the latter is a work of pop schlock. Neil Sedaka’s hit sounds like a rain shower’s aftermath: soggy, moldy, and dank. Alas, it went to #1, while the Everlys’ hit only made it to #6.

Honorable Mentions: The great Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” produced by the great Willie Mitchell; Jesse Colin Young’s glowing “Sunlight”; Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s rousing “Didn’t It Rain”; and, to end on a sunshiny note: The Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side”

It’s the Talk of the Town

It’s the Talk of the Town

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.

Holiday

Holiday

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.

Humes

Humes

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

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

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?”

maggart

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.

So Sad

So Sad

I wanted to love the movie The Saddest Music in the World. Great, provocative title, screenplay by my favorite living author, Kazuo Ishiguro. Isabella Rossellini starring as a legless beer baroness who drinks her brew from a glass false leg—how could you go wrong with all that? Alas, the bizarre plot’s contest to find the saddest tune is a minor element and doesn’t produce any memorable music, sad or otherwise. The film would be in the running for “The Strangest Movie in the World.” Maybe I needed some of that glass-leg beer to get into the spirit of it.

What is the saddest music in the world? We may pursue that another time. Here are songs that have to do with sadness, but most are really not sad songs.

Fran Landesman is known pretty much for just two songs, and they’re two of my all-time favorites: “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men.” Tommy Wolf wrote the music for both songs, and, although it’s Fran who’s most often lauded for them, Tommy’s contribution is just as memorable. “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” appeared in the 1959 Broadway musical The Nervous Set (book by Fran’s husband Jay). The show’s forgotten now, and didn’t do so well back in ’59 either: It was panned, and closed after 23 performances. The cast album is of moderate interest. It has dated poorly; it’s about the Beats and its cover features cast members—including Larry Hagman in his first Broadway musical—trying but failing to look hip. Steven Suskin’s 1990 book Opening Night on Broadway includes this quote about the show from theatre critic Frank Aston of The World-Telegram & Sun: “A weird experience. Something exclusively for the beat, bop and beret brigade.” The New York critics were not very hip back then either.

Young Larry Hagman at lower right

Young Larry Hagman at lower right

The song “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” has survived, though. It is a treasure, the music complementing the haunting lyrics beautifully.  This one’s a sad song that really evokes sadness. My first real awareness of it was when I got Rickie Lee Jones’ great1991 album of covers, Pop Pop. RLJ’s swirly, slurry delivery gives it a loopy pathos, and the song actually benefits from that. She is well-supported by Robben Ford on acoustic guitar, the great and recently departed Charlie Haden on bass, and Dino Saluzzo on bandoneon. Jones co-produced the album with David Was, and the sound they came up with is very intimate. The song choice is perfect, and includes both of the classic Wolf-Landesman songs.

Ms. Mabel Mercer

Ms. Mabel Mercer

Mabel Mercer gives “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” a dramatic delivery on her LP Mabel Mercer Sings (1964). Mercer performed for years at the Hotels Carlyle and St. Regis, one of the top cabaret acts in a time and place where that was the thing. I think, listening to her sing this number, that I would probably have loved the opportunity to hear her sing it at the Carlyle about as much as any performance I can imagine.

Quite a few other great vocalists have recorded “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” in the half-century since it was written, including Boz Scaggs, on his unexpectedly wonderful stroll through the popular songbook, Speak Low, from 2008.

I really can’t think of another example of a pair of songwriters who came up with two of the very best songs written in my lifetime, but nothing else anyone can name. Fran Landesman did continue writing with other composers, most often Simon Wallace, up to her death in 2011. Vocalist Susannah McCorkle included three Landesman/ Wallace songs on her 2000 album Hearts and Minds. One was a skewed take on sadness, “Down.” She sings, in her clear but slightly edgy voice, of finding that “sad is so becoming.” The music is cabaret jazz-blues, not your typical sad song sound, with the instruments circling around her. She sounds defiant but also a little desperate.

mccorkle

The song’s tag: “You continue to enjoy yourself while trying to destroy yourself / There’s something irresistible in down.” Hearts and Minds was McCorkle’s final recording. A year later, aged 55, she jumped from her Manhattan apartment window to her death.

“So Sad” is one of George Harrison’s slide guitar-punctuated pop gems, released on his 1974 album Dark Horse. It doesn’t strike me as a sad song. In fact, it sounds a lot like another Harrison song, “Blow Away,” which features the line “All I got to be is, be happy.” Alvin Lee and Mylon LeFevre had actually recorded it first, in 1973. The song laments his crumbling first marriage. (And my daughter reminds me that our favorite Paul McCartney song, “Another Day,” features the line “So sad, so sad—sometimes you feel so sad”).

george

The Everly Brothers had their own “So Sad” [parenthetically entitled “(To Watch Good Love Go Bad)”] in 1960. It was written by Everly Don in 1960, and is a pretty song—but not really a sad song—made luminous by the sibling harmonies at which the Brothers excelled.

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The couple Felice and Boudleaux Bryant wrote many of the Everlys’ hits, but the Brothers wrote several of their best themselves. In addition to “So Sad,” Don wrote “Cathy’s Clown,” “Til I Kissed You,” and others. Phil came up with “When Will I Be Loved.” The Brothers worked together on “Gone, Gone, Gone.”

Some of Uncle Walt’s Band’s best songs combine the harmony sound of The Mills Brothers with the feel of the Sons of the Pioneers, especially “Sad As It Seems.” I could easily hear the Sons or the Brothers sliding right into it. But this one isn’t very sad at all. The group was only together for a few years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. They were from the Southeast, but I always thought of them as a Texas band because they performed and recorded in Austin when I lived there. They didn’t catch on. Leader Walter Hyatt, after pursuing music in other groups, died in the 1996 ValuJet crash. Bassist David Ball went on to fame as a country & western artist. I’m not sure what happened to guitarist Champ Hood.

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One of the saddest songs ever written, in my opinion, is Irving Berlin’s 1923 ballad “What’ll I Do?” Words and music combine for a devastating effect, when interpreted well. It’s been recorded by countless artists over the ninety years since it was written. Artists I’ve mentioned on Songs on a Theme who’ve done it include: Nat “King” Cole, Julie London, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Harry Nilsson, and, in the saddest version of all, Martha Wainwright and her family. “When I’m alone with only dreams of you that won’t come true, what’ll I do?”

Worst Song Title/Best Song Title: The Critters’ “Mr. Dieingly Sad” got to #17 on the Billboard pop charts, but I never could get past the title. Even if they’d correctly spelled dyingly (a made-up word, but, still, you should even spell made-up words right, right?), I wouldn’t have gone there.

Then there’s the short and simple but evocative Duke Ellington title “Awful Sad.”

 

Any sad songs you’d care to share with the group?

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