Tuesday, 22 January 2013

When Barry bigged up Harry

Spare those keyboards, embittered Manilovians contemplating a pre-emptive strike, for I am happy to report that the most recent episode of Barry Manilow's BBC Radio 2 series They Write the Songs, available on iplayer until Thursday, is a wall-to-wall good 'un, and warmly recommended. This week's subject is Harry Warren, whose songs  - particularly those penned with lyricist Al Dubin - featured frequently in Benny Green's Sunday radio show.

But despite a remarkable output over several decades it's fair to say Warren's name is not generally known, for all the enduring popularity of his songs. He is, as Barry puts it, "the most non-famous songwriter I know" - a form of words which seems precisely right on this occasion, suggesting a difference of kind, not degree.

And Baz's keen sense of this composer's neglect seems to give an added impetus to this particular edition: at one point he declares himself a man on a mission, to spread the word about the "faceless" Warren, and that zeal comes across right through the programme.

The choice of recordings seems just right on this occasion too - he includes the whole of My Forgotten Man from the soundtrack of Gold Diggers of 1933, for example, complete with spoken introduction, but chooses Etta James's bluesy transformation of At Last over Glenn Miller's. And has train travel ever sounded more appealing than in Chatanooga Choo-Choo (lyrics by Mack Gordon, and it had to be Glenn Miller's recording) and The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe (a Johnny Mercer lyric and Judy Garland's recording)?

I've written earlier of how I used to analyse song lyrics almost unthinkingly when I was younger, as though they were an extension of the poetry I was officially studying at university - which, I suppose, the best of them were, of a sort, although whether the ditties on the Golden Hour of Benny Hill truly merited such attention must be left to others. And it wasn't just novelty songs but the whole spread of popular music which I idly dissected as I pursued my degree: writing sides on Marvell, I marvelled on the side at the economy of songs like Chatanooga Choo Choo:
There's gonna be
A certain party at the station
Satin and lace
I used to call funny face
Well okay, maybe "marvelling" is stretching it, but you've got to admit that's a lot of information in a a limited number of words. Reminds me of the lyric for The Last Waltz: doesn't look much written down - but - well, compact is the word:
But the love we had was goin' strong
Through the good and bad we'd get along
And then the flame of love died in your eye
My heart was broke in two when you said goodbye
This reminds me of an anecdote which calls to mind  the earlier one about Old Man River. According to the notes in a Les Reed songbook,
Lyricist Barry Mason walked into a men's toilet and standing next to him was a builder whistling "The Last Waltz." Barry, very proud, turned to the man and said "I wrote that song." The builder looked at Barry and said, "No you didn't - Les Reed did". Barry replied: "Ah, but I wrote the lyric." The man looked him up and down and grunted: "I'm not whistling the bloody lyric!"
 Returning to Chatanooga, the ease and speed of the train journey conveyed in the lyric seem ideally matched to the melody and the tempo. Barry says early on that Warren's songs are "friendly" and when you hear them you want to hear them again. Maybe that's why he's not up there with the Porters and Gershwins in terms of public awareness: you don't gasp aloud at the achievement; you are simply caught up in it. If only one's own experience on the average journey from Euston to Glasgow could be like this:
You leave the Pennsylvania Station 'bout a quarter to four
Read a magazine and then you're in Baltimore
Dinner in the diner
Nothing could be finer
Than to have your ham an' eggs in Carolina

When you hear the whistle blowin' eight to the bar
Then you know that Tennessee is not very far
Shovel all the coal in
Gotta keep it rollin'
Woo, woo, Chattanooga there you are
It's a kind of ecstacy of travel, a hymn to the modern age, where nothing goes wrong and you are never held for forty minutes just outside Crewe. Note, too, the allusion to an earlier song, Carolina in the Morning ("Nothing could be finer than to be ..."). This may have been a kind of in-joke on Mack Gordon's part, as Miller was the sideman on a recording of that song, known to me from a cassette of early Benny Goodman. He may also have arranged it; I'm not sure. (It doesn't seem to be on youtube, but if you have Sp*tify you can listen to it here.)

Here's a film clip of Chatanooga Choo Choo's appearance in Sun Valley Serenade. It's meant to be a rehearsal, and that sense of casualness gives the performance an added power, as though the singers just happened to have felt like putting down their cards and participating at that moment. And you get the Nicholas Brothers and Dorothy Dandridge at the end too, though that coda now feels oddly segregated: the camera pans to the left, and it's as though we're now witnessing an actual performance, with those nimbly treading brothers and Dandridge in full costume. The music continues to come, we must assume, from the Miller band, but at no point are they in shot.

There are also small unexpected delights which Barry picks out for the programme, such as The Shadow Waltz, in a version by the Hi-Lo's (he says that on first hearing it a producer merely remarked to Warren "Well that can't have taken you long to write!").

And I quite like the sense that this is an idiosyncratic selection. Not sure whether I would have included Carmen Miranda's Chica Chica Bum Chic with only an hour to represent Warren's songs, for example, but Barry obviously enjoyed it (and even jokily tried to claim authorship). Which reminds me that the song of his which he confused, for comedic purposes, with the Tutti-Frutti Hatted One's ditty is also rather concentrated:
She sits there so refined
And drinks herself half blind
She lost her youth and she lost her Tony
Now she's lost her mind
Incidentally, I have always thought of Copacabana and Neil Sedaka's Queen of 1964, with a lyric by his longtime Brill Building collaborator Howard Greenfield, as a pair: both are heartless accounts of faded flowers. And Greenfield's summing up of his heroine's demise is cruel and neat too:
Just an autograph book and a stereo
There was no one she was close ta
She was found with her arms around
An Elvis Presley poster
But this is straying from the point taken to unacceptable levels, so back to the radio show and the recordings chosen to illustrate Warren's composing talents. It's not Bobby Darin's version of You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby which is featured but a live version by Dino - singing flat, as Barry points out, but even that makes for a kind of arc when we hear a redemptive snatch of the studio recording of That's Amore at the end of the programme.

And just think of what was left out: September in the Rain, not to mention I Only Have Eyes for You - in any version. There's also a lesser known Warren song I like called Remember Me, with a lyric by Al Dubin from the point of view of a jokily sarcastic husband ("... And didn't I go with you on your honeymoon?"). I can recommend recordings of that by Hutch (on Sp*tify here) and Turner Layton (here); it's the latter's version which has the verse. Which provides a handy excuse to show this image again:

 Well, it amused me. If so minded, you can read the post which that illustrates here.

Which leads to think how lucky (in one sense) Warren was, that when the partnership with Al Dubin ended - Dubin, we're told, got right out of the movie business - he got to work with another good 'un, Johnny Mercer. And even if his name and face were not widely known outwith the business, Warren was not without his small moments of triumph: there's an anecdote about his getting one over on Harold Arlen, which I won't spoil for anyone who hasn't heard the show yet.

In short, if you like the great American songbook and are prepared to renounce Fr*ddie M*rcury and all his works you owe it to yourself to hear this particular show while it's still available on BBC iplayer, here (until Thursday): unlike some of the other episodes Barry has something to say which hasn't already been said countless times by other people - or if they have said it, I've missed it.

As a big finish, here's My Forgotten Man, which Barry tells us supplanted Petting in the Park for the climax to Gold Diggers of 1933. If you know the film, you will probably remember that it's introduced by someone shouting: "Okay, everybody on stage for the big Depression number!" Next week Barry turns his attention to Arthur Schwartz.

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