Thursday, 27 July 2017

Flamingos # 10: September Song

September Song was well on the way to becoming a standard by the time the Flamingos recorded it in 1953. Written for the 1938 Broadway  musical Knickerbocker Holiday, its fame had recently been boosted by inclusion in the film September Affair (above) although many singers including Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine had already tackled the number in the forties.

It's hard to single out a version which might have served as a particular inspiration for the group. The Ravens' 1948 attempt might seem a likely suspect, given that Robert Pruter has accused them of imitating the Ravens on another occasion, but Sollie McElroy brings more passion to the lyrics than Maithe Marshall's rather dreamy caressing of them, beautiful as that is.

And the Ravens' arrangement, with its abrupt changes of tempo, is perhaps more to be admired - or gasped at - than enjoyed; the Flamingos' backing musicians, that "Al Smith aggregation" listed earlier, certainly make no attempt to emulate it.

The Flamingos had already been familiar with September Song for some time. Sollie McElroy had sung it to spectacular effect when trying out for the group, as Marv Goldberg recounts:
Zeke [Carey] had a job at Montgomery Ward, where one of his co-workers was Fletcher Weatherspoon. One night in early 1952, Weatherspoon attended a talent show at the Willard Theater. He was very impressed with a tenor on the bill named Sollie McElroy. Sollie had been born in Gulfport, Mississippi (on July 16, 1933), but his family moved to Chicago when he was 15. He occasionally sang in the church, but wasn't really into it. More than anything, he wanted to be an entertainer. While he admitted to listening to Bill Kenny and the Ink Spots, Sollie pretty much developed his own style because he wanted to "do something for himself."

Since Weatherspoon was going to attend a party to hear the Swallows [as the Flamingos were then named], he decided to bring Sollie along. The Swallows sang; Sollie started harmonizing with them; Weatherspoon decided to manage them; and the guys decided that Sollie would fit their needs better than Earl Lewis. Not a bad night's work ... Sollie was asked to come down to a rehearsal and sang "September Song." He sang it so high and with such emotion that, partway through it, he just keeled over and fainted.
Incidentally, the Ink Spots never recorded it, as far as I know. Marv Goldberg mentions it only once in his comprehensive history of the Ink Spots, More Than Words Can Say, as part of the competition they were facing in 1938.

Before examining the Flamingos' recording, some details about the song, which had a slightly different meaning in its original context. Stanley Green describes Knickerbocker Holiday, by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, as:
... probably the first musical to use an historical subject as the means through which views on contemporary matters could be expressed. Here the theme was totalitarianism versus democracy, as personified by Pieter Stuyvesant (Walter Huston), the autocratic governor of New Amsterdam in 1647, and Brom Broeck (Richard Kollmar), the freedom-loving "first American" who is is opposed to any kind of government interference ... Walter Huston, in his  only Broadway musical, made Stuyvesant such a likable chap - especially when he sang of the anxieties of growing old in "September Song" - that audience sympathies tended to be with the wrong man.

Those who recall Huston's mesmerising turn as Mr Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster will not find it hard to imagine his investing the most unlikely character with charm. September Song was apparently written at Huston's request for a solo number in the show and tailored to his vocal limitations. The original lyric concerns the governor's attempt to woo a younger woman (above), pledged to him by her father, and its tone is more urgent than the version which has supplanted it. Stuyvesant is frank about his creeping infirmity and the more substantial gifts he can offer in place of a young man whose proffered ring is made only of clover:
And I have lost one tooth and I walk a little lame,
And I haven't got time for the waiting game ...
And I have a little money, and I have a little fame ...
Here is Huston's 1938 recording in all its Knickerbocker glory:

In 1944 he recorded it again, with more generalised lyrics. It's this version which is featured to striking effect in the 1950 film September Affair. Early on, Joseph Cotten and Joan Fontaine listen to Huston's record right the way through in an unbroken silence, the glances they exchange leaving you in no doubt of their growing attraction.

A film was made of Knickerbocker Holiday in 1944 although in best Hollywood manner most of the songs from the original musical were dropped in favour of numbers by divers hands. September Song survived, however, and you can see the scene which features it here, with Charles Coburn as Stuyvesant. According to the Jazz Standards website:
The biting satire of the Broadway musical was toned down so as to offend no one, and only three songs were retained from the original score. Audiences and critics alike agreed that it was a tedious disappointment.
Even so, this scene does appear to confirm that September Song originally had the urgency of a elderly suitor's attempt to ingratiate himself, rather than someone simply reviewing their life.

The instrumental backing on the Flamingos' version of September Song may not be quite as self-effacing as that to be found on Golden Teardrops but it does show notable restraint in comparison to what else they recorded during that session on Christmas Eve 1953: the orchestra who romped through Jump Children and hammered home Johnny Carter's lines in Blues in a Letter take a back seat for much of this performance. True, the trumpet of Hobart Dotson and saxes of Red Holloway and McKinley Easton seem to herald Sollie McElroy's entrance in a manner which can only be called overblown (could you get any more ominous?). But the intention may be, as on other occasions, to grab the radio listener by the scruff of the neck, to ensure this number doesn't slip past, and it does enable McElroy to build his performance.

Their initial task accomplished, the brass play a gentle, muted-sounding riff under McElroy's lead while Johnny Carter's falsetto, judiciously employed as ever, enhances the atmosphere of melancholy reflection which this version of the lyric invites. The rest of the group sing block chords for much of the time but the overall effect is quite beautiful: the sound may not be as jawdropping as the harmonies which bookend Golden Teardrops but they create a mood which supports McElroy's vocal and which seems characteristic of their sound, not the standard R&B vocal group backgrounds heard on a few other sides.

Pianist Horace Palm switches to celeste for this song. A more musically-minded colleague hears Palm's contribution as an overliberal scattering of notes but I am happy to accept this as more of an atmospheric effect: falling leaves, perhaps (Palm leaves?), or time trickling away; it also adds a bit of top to the sound.

Trumpet-and-saxes return to the fore occasionally to reinforce McElroy's vocal at heightened moments. I suspect the trumpet's brightness, in particular, is intended as a suggestion of late-flaring passion, or a sort of pre-emptive raging against the dying of the light, connecting the song with the frustration and impatience more explicit in the original lyrics.

I'm not sure, however, whether hearing McElroy on his own at such points might have been more effective. Were those details in the arrangement a way of ensuring this version of the song would stand out in a crowded market?  The sparer arrangement on the Parrot recording of the ballad Dream of a Lifetime makes for an interesting comparison; I suspect a similar approach could have worked equally well for September Song. And it sounds as though a celeste is being used here in a less scattershot way.

But the arrangement of September Song is generally well judged, despite these minor reservations. One small detail which may have gone unnoticed is the use of a swing lead (to use a term employed by Johhny Keyes). At around 2'30'', it sounds as though it's Johnny Carter who sings "And these - " after the second bridge before Sollie McElroy takes up the song again. Carter may have been brought in because McElroy couldn't hit the same high notes at that point, or it may have been to introduce some variety; either way it suggests care has been taken in capturing for posterity a song the group knew well. And note the minor variations between the two renditions of the bridge: that stabbing, percussive "duh-duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh" sound under the lead - not uncommon for the bridge in a doo wop song - is first essayed by instruments and then by the group.

It's surprising to think that a record of this quality wasn't released at the time. It can't have been that Art Sheridan was already losing interest in his company; the Flamingos went on to record two more sides a few months later. Was it feared that such a well-known song had too much competition, even allowing for that bright trumpet, or that perhaps it was more appropriate for an older, and perhaps more limited, market? Cross Over the Bridge, a pop song with gospelish overtones recorded during their final session, may have been thought to have a wider appeal, especially among younger record buyers.

Which prompts a short diversion on the oddness of September Song being chosen by any doo wop groups. Richard Rodgers may not have been best pleased with what the Marcels did to Blue Moon, but the crafted simplicity of Lorenz Hart's lyric makes the song equally plausible as an account of naive adolescent yearning.
I heard somebody whisper: "Please adore me"
does not exactly reverberate with lived adult experience.

Not so the lyrics of September Song - in either form. Which may explain why it seems such a good fit for the Flamingos. As on their recording of the much-covered That's My Desire, the Flamingos are adults, ruefully reflecting on life, not teenagers imagining a future whose wonders they can barely frame.

Other posts in this series here.

Doowop: the Chicago Scene by Robert Pruter
Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks page on the Flamingos
The Chance Label (website) - Robert Pruter, Armin Buttner and Robert L Campbell
Broadway Musicals Show By Show by Stanley Green - September Song
More Than Words Can Say: The Ink Spots and Their Music by Marv Goldberg

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