RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Rodgers and Hart

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.

Spring Is Here

Spring Is Here

It’s always titillating to hear a new wrinkle related to a Beatle song, since theirs are the most-played recordings in history. I recently ran across an online video in which Dhani Harrison, son of George, and George Martin, producer of George, rediscovered a lead guitar track George (Harrison) had recorded for “Here Comes the Sun.” It was interesting, but I preferred the song without it. Is that because I’m used to the song without it? Probably. I’ll never know, because I won’t be playing the added-track version anywhere near as many times as I’ve heard the original. In fact, I don’t imagine I’ll ever hear the “lost track” again.

The song is probably George’s greatest, and it’s particularly appropriate to celebrate this spring, in which we had so much ice to be “slowly melting.” It sho nuff has been a “long, cold, lonely winter.” Even here in Texas.

abbey rd

“Here Comes the Sun” has been covered by many. Nina Simone even gave one of her albums that title. Her version is nice, but my favorite of all is by Richie Havens. In my opinion, the most underused instrument in all pop-rock music is the conga. I hear congas on practically every song I listen to. “Big Pimpin’.” More congas. “I Fall to Pieces”—more congas! I’m like Christopher Walken with the cowbell.

richie

On Richie Havens’ recording of “Here Comes the Sun,” the congas are prominent, and it gives the song drive and immediacy, romping around Havens’ gravelly voice. I was surprised to find out that it was his only hit, reaching #16 in 1971. Havens got the opening slot at Woodstock and had to stretch his set to three hours to cover the late arrivals of other acts. So he featured prominently in the Woodstock movie, and gained far more fans than he’d have had otherwise, including me. But they didn’t buy many of his singles, which included two other Beatle numbers, “Lady Madonna” and “Rocky Raccoon,” and the song he improvised to keep his Woodstock set going, “Freedom.” So maybe he was mostly an album-format success? I own three of his LPs. People didn’t buy those either, turns out. Most Richie Havens albums barely cracked Billboard’s Top 200, or didn’t chart at all. Go figure.

jackie roy

“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is one of my favorite songs. It’s got a melancholy message: The weather’s fine, the birds are singing in the tall, verdant trees—but you, my love, have gone away, and that makes it all so grim. Fran Landesman wrote the lyrics, riffing off of the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Tommy Wolf wrote the music. They mesh perfectly, and the song has been recorded often since it was introduced by Jackie & Roy in the late fifties. I have a nice version of it on the CD Loverly by Cassandra Wilson (Blue Note, 2008). It fits right into her eclectic mix of songs by Elmore James, Juan Tizol, and Rodgers & Hart. I also have an iTunes download of a nice version by Dallas singer/songwriter Lisa Markley. She does an appropriately atmospheric, wistful rendition. Another fine version is on Rickie Lee Jones’ CD Pop Pop (Geffen, 1991), which I think is RLJ’s best album. She gives it her quirks and it works. But I have many versions. I’m a “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” junkie.

cassandra

In the same vein—”this season should be so grand, but because you split it sucks”—is the Frank Loesser song “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,” from the 1944 movie Christmas Holiday. Many have recorded it, but my preference is for the Sarah Vaughan version. She emotes it well: “You have left me and winter continues cold.”

“Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” was one of the Four Freshmen songs that inspired Brian Wilson to craft his own harmony-drenched pop tunes. Brian worked out the Freshmen harmonies of the Bobby Troup number, and the Beach Boys performed it regularly. In 1963, Mike Love wrote new lyrics to the song as a tribute to actor James Dean and his untimely death. He called it “A Young Man Is Gone.” Since Dean died in a car crash, this version became part of the Beach Boys’ car concept album Little Deuce Coupe.

frosh

The four-part-harmony group my friend Toby founded, The Gentlemen’s Club, probably enjoyed singing this one as much as anything we ever learned. We sang it a cappella, as The Beach Boys did. Alas, thirty years later, it’s one we don’t attempt with our aging ears and vocal cords.

Honorable Mentions: Rodgers and Hart’s “Spring Is Here” has been recorded many times since it appeared in the 1938 musical I Married an Angel. It’s been played by jazzers like Davis and Adderley and Evans and Coltrane, and sung by Sinatra, Fitzgerald, and others.

I’ve listened to and enjoyed the music from Duncan Sheik’s 2006 Broadway musical Spring Awakening. I have the CD somewhere, but I never think to get it out. I really would like to see a nice live production of it to get the full effect.

Great Song Title: “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is not only one of my favorite songs, it’s one of my favorite song titles, too.

 

Nature Boy

Nature Boy

The songwriter eden ahbez (he always insisted his name not be capitalized) gave the world one standard, “Nature Boy,” a song the world first heard as a Nat “King” Cole hit in 1948.  The song is haunting and strange, but its composer was even stranger.  Ted Gioia, in his book The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, notes that mr. ahbez—actually George Alexander Aberle—was a very odd bird even among the odd-bird songwriters of the time. “This pre-hippie hippie…was into mysticism, natural food, and going barefoot.”

The most well-known version of the song was Cole’s mega-hit, but many other artists have recorded it, from Bobby Darin to John Coltrane.  Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso included an eerie version on his 2004 tribute to American music, A Foreign Sound. I think eden ahbez woulda dug it.

nature

I love camping getaways—hiking, running, and just sitting in the Great Outdoors— but I am not a nature boy. I’ve sat in coffee houses, watching rapt audiences hanging on every word of singers rhapsodizing about nature—the snow-capped peaks, the sun-dappled meadows, the hypnotic flow of rivers and streams. I’ve thought that maybe I should do that: sing about nature, wear a denim jacket and a cowboy hat, get a coffee-house following. But I just can’t get inspired to do it. Nature does inspire me to write songs, but not about nature. I sit under the trees at my campsite and write about being a misfit or about life’s little ironies, the same kinds of things I write about in my bedroom.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that some of my favorite “nature songs” aren’t really nature songs. “The Things I Love,” a sentimental big-band favorite written by Harold Barlow and Lewis Harris and introduced by Jimmy Dorsey in 1941, is a “quasi-nature song.” It’s really a love song couched in observations of the natural things the singer loves: sunset’s glow, fireflies at play, nodding tulips—and, of course, a lady’s “sweet voice” and “lovely eyes.”   A version by The Fidelity’s (their apostrophe, not mine) was released in 1958. It is a soaring, gorgeous melody. The repetitive nature of most songs of the doo-wop era made songs revived from earlier eras, with their less predictable chord patterns, stand out. (Although, at a peak of only #60 on the Billboard pop chart, you couldn’t really say that this one stood out very much.)

I’ve read in a couple of places that rock drummer Buddy Miles sang lead on the song, and that’s the kind of tidbit I really want to believe, but he was born in 1946, which would have made him 12 years old at the time the song was recorded. The lead vocalist on the record don’t sound no 12! I took a look at a promo shot of The Fidelity’s, and there is a fellow who vaguely resembles a younger Buddy Miles (with a lot less ‘fro), but again, he don’t look no 12! Alas, probably a different Buddy Miles.

There were a couple of memorable pre-rock songs that celebrated the natural world. Rodgers and Hart wrote “Mountain Greenery” in 1926 for Garrick Gaieties (that would be an interesting title to promote in the modern era), and it’s been recorded by many of the great vocalists: Ella, Bing, Mel, Tony, Lee (Wiley), and even Diana Ross, on The Supremes Sing Rodgers and Hart (1967). The version I recall most fondly, however, is the one Rob and Laura sang on a neighborhood talent show episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. I believe it was on that episode that next-door neighbor Millie Helper, for the talent show, belts out, “I could just kill myself,” and then after a pause softly sings, “I’m funny that way.”

supremes

“Mountain Greenery” is typical R&H, with the oh-so-catchy melody and rhythm of Rodgers and the oh-so-clever lyrics of Hart, which somehow cleave to the adventurous melody and rhythm perfectly. And Hart not only rhymes “scenery” with “greenery,” but also “machinery” and “beanery.”

Probably the most American show, story-wise, of Kurt Weill’s American period was Love Life, on which he collaborated with All-American Alan Jay Lerner. The 1948 show’s structure was somewhat experimental, though, with a series of vignettes rather than a through-line story, a format that became common in musicals decades later. Love Life wasn’t very successful, and no original cast album was recorded, due to a strike. So the show’s song “Green-Up Time” hasn’t been covered much at all and is mostly forgotten. Its cheerful tune is a bit too bouncy and bright, maybe, to become a favorite of fans who prefer their Weill dark and German and minor-keyed. Even Lotte Lenya subdues her usual Sturm und Drang, and sounds almost chipper singing it.

Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun

Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun

City boy Randy Newman came closest to a nature song with “Cowboy,” a “What’s happened to my nature?” song from his first solo album in 1968. “Cold, grey buildings where the hills should be / Steel and concrete closing in on me.” City boy Harry Nilsson covers “Cowboy” on Nilsson Sings Newman, which came out a couple of years later.

nilssonnewman

From Pandemonium Shadow Show in 1967 through Son of Schmilsson in ’72, I prefer Harry singing Harry, with one exception, and that’s the absolute bundle of joy that is Nilsson Sings Newman. It’s short ‘n’ sweet, barely 24 minutes long—mostly Nilsson singing, harmonizing with himself, and Randy Newman playing. As great a singer/songwriter as Nilsson was, it’s on songs created by his pal that he is at his best. And Newman’s never had a better interpreter (other, maybe, than himself). In 1995, Randy Newman sang a Nilsson song, “Remember,” on the tribute album For the Love of Harry, recorded after Nilsson’s death.

Another nature song, “Mother Nature’s Son,” Paul McCartney’s laid-back country boy fantasy from The Beatles’ white album, was one of several Beatles songs Harry Nilsson covered. Nilsson put his faithful remake on his album Harry, recorded about a year after The Beatles’ record. I love Harry and Harry, but I’m not all that crazy about his Beatles covers.

Harry

Harry

Honorable Mention: The Ink Spots had a top-ten hit in 1940 with the song “Whispering Grass” by Fred and Doris Fisher. In the song, nature gossips about the singer and his love and makes him a bit paranoid: “Don’t you tell it to the breeze, ‘cause she’ll tell all the birds and bees…” Not to mention “the blabbering trees.” It begs to be sung in the melodramatic style of lead Ink Spot Bill Kenny. A marvelous performance.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: Donovan really had run dry, I guess, by the time he recorded “Earth Sign Man” in 1973. It is a lame lite-blues ditty, and the paucity of musical invention means that Donovan’s drippy lyrics are that much more obviously bad. “I like my trees and books, I like my woman to cook / I’m an earth sign, mama—take a look.”

Dream Jukebox Candidates: On the other hand, Donovan’s “There Is a Mountain” is, to me, hippie-dippie perfection. A beatnik song, complete with bongos, in the Generation of Love. As usual, the lyrics are datedly precious, but the whole cycles-of-life thing suits the repetitive and overlapping strains of the meadow-orgy music.

But Beautiful

But Beautiful

It was just the thing for a rainy Sunday morning: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman on the record player.  There are some weddings or other real-life moments that I think of as being beautiful, but I am often just as moved by beautiful music, like the voice of Johnny Hartman on a ballad, accompanied by John Coltrane.

It was such an unlikely occurrence, the meeting of these two in the studio. It was the idea of Coltrane, who never before or after that recorded with a vocalist. Hartman was reluctant to do it, because he didn’t consider himself a jazzer, but, thankfully, he was pushed into it, and the result was one of the true all-time classics of jazz—or any—recording, almost every song done in single takes.

While the song “You Are Too Beautiful” played, I started wondering about songs with the word “beautiful” in the title.  Are they all as beautiful as that one? Well, of course not. Are any as beautiful as that one? “You Are Too Beautiful” was written by Rodgers and Hart for, of all things, the 1933 movie Hallelujah, I’m a Bum—a pearl from an oyster.  It’s one of many gorgeous Rodgers melodies matched to Hart’s perfectly supportive lyrics.  Hartman’s version is my favorite, but my Song God Thelonious Monk gave it the Monk treatment (always a good thing—no, always) on The Unique Thelonious Monk, an album of covers he recorded for Riverside in 1956. Was Monk’s version beautiful? Yes, in its very Monkish way. Monk, dissonance and jagged rhythms and all, always created beauty. This song, which he hadn’t played before, was no exception.

Right after “You Are Too Beautiful” on my list of favorite beautiful “beautiful” songs is “But Beautiful,” another unlikely movie gem, from the 1947 Hope/Crosby road flick Road to Rio.  Written by Jimmy Van Heusen (who took his last name from the shirt, to give himself a little sophistication) and Johnny Burke, it was wonderfully interpreted by Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Tony Bennett, among many others.  Worth seeking out are lesser-known versions by Little Jimmy Scott, Lorez Alexandria, and Boz Scaggs.

A third song joins these two pre-rock classics.  “You Are So Beautiful” was written by Billy Preston, with assistance from Bruce Fisher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (who had also been a songwriting partner of Charlie Manson), and was a huge hit (#5 in ’75) for Joe Cocker, who went all-out, as usual, through the entire song, and then closed out with a tiny, fragile final “to me” and pulled the heartstrings further.  Al Green did his magic with the song as well.  But my favorite version is by my oldest daughter, sung like an angel into a tape recorder when she was about three.  Brings a tear to my eye just thinking about it. Beautiful.

I can think of one other favorite song with the word in its title: Melanie’s “Beautiful People,” her debut single from 1969.  Not what I’d call a beautiful song musically, but its can’t we all get along? message had a big effect on me when I first heard the song on the Dallas underground FM station KNUS in 1969, and I still think of the song now and then to draw me out when I’m being overly introverted.  It’s a quintessential New York song and hippie song.  (Although Melanie, on a talk show in the ’90s, said “I wasn’t a hippie.  I was just an oddball.”) Another nice “beautiful people” song is Jimmy Cliff’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” one of my wife’s favorites, also from 1969. I hate it when people (even beautiful people) use the term feel-good as an adjective, but if any song deserves it, it’s this one.

jimmy cliff

Of course, I should note the mega-hits “Everything is Beautiful” (1970), which was a big change of pace from “Ahab the Arab” and “Gitarzan” for Ray Stevens, and James Blunt’s 2004 “You’re Beautiful,” which I can only hear as hilarious impersonations done by my youngest daughter.  I don’t miss either of those songs.  James Blunt passed his quota very early on, after the second or third trip ferrying my daughter to school with KISS-FM on the radio.  (But I never got tired of her impersonation.)

I need to mention a record I ran across in a thrift shop, an answer-song to Randy Newman’s “Short People.”  It was called “Short People You’re Beautiful” (comma omitted by the songwriter), and it’s by Jerry McClain.  Played it once.  That was enough.  (I don’t ever play the Randy Newman song either, though, and I love Randy Newman.) Jerry McClain’s claim-to-fame was being half of the group Pratt & McClain, which scored with the theme to the TV show Happy Days. Jerry McClain you’re beautiful.

shorties
One beautiful song that is not at all a ballad is “How Beautiful Can a Being Be?” It’s a peppy Brazilian number sung by the great Caetano Veloso (on the album Livro, from 2011), and it is all about the ecstasy of repetition: it consists of two repeated chords and six repeated words (the title). Three and a half joyous minutes.

“Beautiful Dreamer” is the song its publisher claimed was the last one Stephen Foster ever wrote. Foster biographer Ken Emerson, in Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture, sets the record straight, noting that the publisher, going through some reorganization, just didn’t get around to publishing the song for two years after it was written, issuing it after Foster’s death in 1864. It’s a wonderful tune, but the dated racist lingo and sentiments of many of Foster’s other songs (“Beautiful Dreamer”’s lyrics are very dated, but not racist) will keep it from being covered by someone along the lines of Rufus Wainwright, who could squeeze out the sappiness and leave the beauty.

hartman 2

As I listened to “You Are Too Beautiful” that morning, I thought Johnny & John might inspire me to write a beautiful song, but I don’t think one can set out to write something beautiful.  I imagine it has to just emerge from inside, and can’t be forced.  And then I think of Richard Rodgers, who wrote so many gorgeous melodies, working under deadlines with a partner who was a drunk, and with asshole producers and temperamental stars making demands. Beauty produced—voila!—on demand and under pressure, time after time. Incredible.

Honorable Mention: “Beautiful Delilah” is not one of Chuck Berry’s best songs, in my opinion; however, I shall invoke a variation on my friend Paul’s “Berry vs. Barry” Rule: Even the worst Chuck Berry song is better than the best Barry Manilow song.

chuck b

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “Short People You’re Beautiful” by Jerry McClain. People of all heights should hate this song.

Quota Songs (good songs, but have reached their lifetime quota): “Everything is Beautiful” was right for its time. Let’s just leave it there.

Dream Jukebox Candidate: Alas, I know of no exceptional versions of “You Are Too Beautiful” or “But Beautiful” on 45, but I do have Jimmy Cliff’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” a perfect jukebox song. If I could find it, I’d probably also put Melanie’s “Beautiful People” in the mix, but it only charted in The Netherlands, so that’s a long shot.

%d bloggers like this: