Sunday, May 31, 2009

#72: I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo

I got a gal in Kalamazoo,
Don't wanna boast,
But I know she's the toast
Of Kalamazoo-zoo-zoo-zoo.

Written in 1942 as the big production number for the film Orchestra Wives, this tune by New Yorkers Harry Warren and Mack Gordon (born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna and Morris Gittler, respectively) sings the praises of a Midwestern sweetheart, underscored by homesickness in the heart of wartime. It was perhaps the first time that many listeners ever heard of Kalamazoo, Michigan, but the four-syllable setting was distinctive enough to be memorable while folksy enough to capture the idea of an American Heartland hometown perfectly. Musically, the song just swings. Don't you love the use of the alphabet in the opening verse? It's like a wind-up to the rest of the line, which shoots up the major triad to the top of the octave.

Nominated for an Academy Award (they lost to "White Christmas," so they shouldn't feel too bad), the classic recording is The Glenn Miller Orchestra, featuring Tex Beneke and The Modernaires. The Big Band members really put on a show with their choreography of sorts; the female vocalist Marion Hutton is adorable; and you have to watch at 4:30 through the end when the Nicholas Brothers reprise the song and then do the most incredible splits in their subsequent dance. A real piperoo!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

#73: Goody Goody

So you met someone
Who set you back on your heels,
Goody goody!
So you met someone
And now you know how it feels
Goody goody!
Well, you gave her your heart too,
Just as I gave mine to you
And she broke it in little pieces
Now, how do you do?

"Goody Goody" is the Schadenfraude of the Great American Songbook. While most songs of the period are known for their earnest, romantic and wistful lyrics, this peppy tune revels in a cheating lover getting jilted. Johnny Mercer penned the oh-you-rascal patter while his sometime-collaborator, jazz violinist Matty Melnick, contributed the swingin' music.

Originally performed by Helen Ward and the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the 1930s, Frankie "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" Lymon tweaked the genders and became well-known for the song in the late 1950's after breaking up with his group, The Teenagers. I think the song's even better with live back-up vocalists, which is why I'll recommend either Marie Adams and the Three Tons of Joy (performing with the Johnny Otis Band) or the Hi-Lo's. Those two performances showcase the stylistic possibilities of the song and its wide appeal. Also, notice how the Hi-Lo's broadcast was shot; it looks like a very early "Total Request Live," with the youngsters bopping infectiously in the foreground.

One other fun note: In her memoir, Grace Lee Whitney remembers the wrap party for the film "Some Like It Hot," where Melnick (who music-directed the movie) asked her to get up and sing "Goody Goody." She did -- accompanied by a live band and Jack Lemmon on piano.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

#74: There's a Small Hotel

There’s a small hotel
With a wishing well
I wish that we were there together
There’s a bridal suite
One room bright and neat
Complete for us to share together

Written by Rodgers and Hart for the 1935 musical, Billy Rose's Jumbo, used in the musical On Your Toes and again in the film version of Pal Joey, "Here's a Small Hotel" asks to go straight to the honeymoon. While the lovely Hilary Kole recently offered a traditional, sweetly seductive take of "Hotel," I like that the Benny Goodman orchestra did an up-tempo version in 1936, featuring Helen Ward. The big question is: Where's this hotel? The Stockton Inn in New Jersey claims the title, but so does Santa Barbara's Montecito Inn. However, renovations in the 1950's replaced the California wishing well with a fountain. How rude!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

#75: Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart

Dear, when you smiled at me
I heard a melody
It haunted me from the start
Something inside of me
Started a symphony
Zing! Went the strings of my heart

When Burton Lane heard the eleven year-old Frances Gumm sing "Zing! Went The Strings of My Heart" during her sisters' act at the Paramount Theater in Hollywood, he knew he had found a star. She sang it again for the impatient MGM impresario Louis B. Mayer, who agreed. Indeed, Frances would become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history -- soon after she changed her name to Judy Garland. Garland would go on to sing the James Hanley tune in the movie, Listen, Darling, in 1938, a year before The Wizard of Oz. Advance this YouTube clip to 2:30 to hear an angelic young Judy, or try the brassier version 25 years later. For an even more contemporary take, here's Rufus Wainwright's "Zing" at the London Palladium.

Monday, May 25, 2009

#76: The House I Live In

The house I live in
A plot of earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher
Or the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That's America to me

As World War II came to a close in 1945, Frank Sinatra starred in a short film challenging anti-Semitism and racial prejudice. In the 10-minute movie, Frank intervenes upon witnessing a pack of boys bullying one child because of his religion. Frank sets them straight with some tough-talk and then sings the movie's title track, "The House I Live In," a patriotic number by the very liberal Earl Robinson and Lewis Allen. The song's second verse (referring to "my neighbors black and white") was cut from the film, enraging Allen to the point where he had to be removed from the movie theater. The film would go on to win an honorary Academy Award, and the song was covered later by everyone from Paul Robeson to Patti LaBelle.

#77: What'll I Do?

When I'm alone
With only dreams of you
That won't come true
What'll I do?

Written in 1923, this Irving Berlin gem takes a colloquial phrase of its day and uses the first three syllables as a triplet that has baffled Brits every since ("whattle eye?"). The result, a kind-of syncopated waltz, became a recurring melody in the 1974 The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow; Sam and Diane danced to the ballad in a fantasy sequence on the 1980s' television show, "Cheers," after the two broke up for good. More recently, the Coca Cola Company served up 30 seconds of Judy Garland's version for a commercial.

A simple and haunting melody with lyrics to match ("what'll I do with just a photograph to tell my troubles to?"), "What'll I Do" has a rhyme on the fourth and sixth syllable of each verse whose quickly repeated sounds enhance its wounded effect. Berlin said that this was his favorite composition; fellow songwriter Johnny Mercer listed it as one of his favorites, too. It's sadly fitting that YouTube has captured "Golden Girls" actress Bea Arthur taking the spotlight in this rendition, as she recently passed away and was mourned by audiences around the world.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

#78: Sentimental Journey

Gonna take a sentimental journey
Gonna set my heart at ease
Gonna make a sentimental journey
To renew old memories
Got my bags, got my reservations,
Spent each dime I could afford
Like a child in wild anticipation
I long to hear that, "All aboard!"

In the latter years of World War II, bandleader Les Brown coaxed Doris Day (see picture, left) to join his orchestra at the Hotel Pennsylvania's Cafe Rouge and wax nostalgic with his "Sentimental Journey," which became Day's first song to hit number-one on the charts. Born Doris Mary Anne von Kappelhoff, Day would later become America's girl-next-door as a silver-screen ingenue. Here, she takes on loping and sultry verses that skip the downbeat for a jazzy bounce, capturing the allure of a train voyage to see a lost love as the war comes to an end (see "I Thought About You" for more on railroad romance). To hear it, check out this montage tribute to Doris Day on YouTube, or take a trip back with Vikki Carr to 1961 (a year before she made it big with the girl-group classic, "He's a Rebel"). For a more recent recording, enjoy Renee Olstead on iTunes.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

#79: Ac-Cent-Tchu-ate the Positive

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium's
Liable to walk upon the scene

While trying to wrap up the music for the 1944 film Here Comes the Waves, Mercer and Arlen found themselves uninspired and depressed by their inability to finish the last song for the score. On a long drive meant to distract them from the hard work of writing, Mercer asked Arlen to hum a spiritual on which he'd been working. At that moment Mercer recalled something he had heard from a pulpit- you gotta accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative- and before the drive was over, one line was transformed into a complete song.

I love how the two most colossally unlucky guys in biblical history- Jonah in the whale and Noah in the ark- are trotted out to explain how they latched on to the affirmative, eliminated the negative, and no no no! didn't mess with Mister In-Between. They've got the cred. We need to listen. Check out Ella's version on Verve's Ella Fitzgerald sings the Harold Arlen Songbook.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

#80: Skylark

Skylark, have you anything to say to me?
Won't you tell me where my love can be?
Is there a meadow in the mist
Where someone's waiting to be kissed?

Written by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, this soaring song of unrequited love poses questions upon questions to a feathered friend. "Skylark" turns out to be one of several songs in Carmichael's "jazz aviary," along with "Baltimore Oriole" and "Mister Blackbird." Meanwhile, one biographer said Johnny Mercer wrote the words for this song as he yearned for Judy Garland. I love the marriage of composition and lyrics -- see the "crazy as a loon / sad as a gypsy serenading the moon" line in the bridge -- and musicians say that improvisation is just built right into the melody.

As for excellent renditions, the great Anita O'Day, who one critic said "is the only white woman that belongs in the same breath as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan,” tempered her typically boisterous style to coo this number with the Gene Krupa Orchestra in 1941. Here's Anita singing it, accompanying some family reunion slideshow (hey, we'll take what we can get). Aretha Franklin also does a beautiful job, and here's Bette Midler taking a lot of liberties for Carmichael's melody on Johnny Carson in 1985.