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The Stories Behind the Songs (2)

June, 2005

In my last essay, I wrote about Cole Porter’s possibly giving a secondary lead in “Kiss Me Kate” a deliberately rotten song. Something along the same lines happened when Al Jolson was preparing for his film “The Singing Fool.” He pressured the team of Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson to give him a real “heartfelt” song he could sing to his son in the film.

In his book “Jolson,” Michael Freedland tells us that DeSylva decided to make a joke of it and they dashed off the most banal and corny lyrics they could think of and set them to the most banal and corny tune. They sent it to Jolson, too ashamed to deliver it themselves, and prepared for the worst. Movie audiences broke into tears when Jolson sang it and his recording was the first ever to sell 1,000,000 copies. The song? “Sonny Boy.”

Another example of a star insisting on a new song right quick comes out of the American operetta “Robin Hood.” It opened in 1890 and nearly closed when the contralto singing the “pants” role of Alan-a-Dale, Jessie Bartlett Davis, complained about a song she was given and wanted another — or there would be no second performance. Composer Reginald De Koven remembered something he had written a few years before and gave it to her. Not only was it a success, but some say it is the only reason the operetta achieved the immense popularity it did. The song had a life of its own, being heard at more weddings than there have been performances of “Robin Hood.” Composed for the wedding of Robin and Marian, “Oh Promise Me” saw the inside of more churches than of theaters.

With a slight shift of emphasis, we have the case of singer Kate Smith asking Irving Berlin for a patriotic song for her radio show in 1938. Berlin had written something for “Yip Yip Yaphank” back in 1918, but he felt then its patriotic sentiments were a bit too much for his cast to sing as they left the theater and headed to a military transport. In 1938, when Berlin felt that the Germans could no longer conceal their true plans, he made a few revisions to the song; and that is the form in which Kate Smith received it. The song was so immensely popular, that Berlin dedicated all of its royalties to the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America. Surely by now you must have guessed that we are talking about “God Bless America.”

When “A Trip to Chinatown” opened in 1891, it did not promise to run for very long. So its creators interpolated a song about a wide-eyed hick from the sticks seeing a lively section of New York for the first time — and vowing never to return. It was sung by comic Harry Conor with words by Charles H. Hoyt and music by Percy Gaunt, and the audiences kept coming for 650 performances. Ironically, the tradesmen around that area protested! They said that the song was designed to keep people AWAY from that part of New York. The song? The section? Same answer: “The Bowery.”

This next tale is impossible to verify — but if it is not true, it is at least well made up. Harry Von Tilzer was given some highly moralistic lyrics by Arthur J. Lamb to set to music. After insisting it be made clear that the girl in the song is the man’s wife and not mistress (1900 morality), Von Tilzer went to a whorehouse (1900 morality) to piece out a tune. As he progressed, he heard sobbing from behind him. Those girls not presently engaged had been so affected by the lyrics that mascara was running freely. If these tough cookies, he concluded, could be reduced to tears by this song, the virgins up north would certainly go for it. Today we laugh at it along with bustles and “getting the vapors” when an obscene word is heard. But it is a salute to an ideal morality that has never really existed. Nevertheless, “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” is still a classic example of a terrible song that simply caught on.

Room for one more.

It is said that composer James Thornton spent so much time at the piano that his wife once exclaimed, “You don’t love me anymore.” His answer was something like; “I still love you as I loved you when you were sixteen.” A moment’s thought, and one of the great hits of 1898 was born! And barbershop quartets are eternally grateful.

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