A Marshmallow World
by Mark Steyn
Throughout December we're celebrating the composers and lyricists of the Christmas songbook. So here's the guy who wrote what I like to think of as "my" Christmas song, although that's not how he thought of it. Carl Sigman penned big hits for Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole, but he's also the author of "A Marshmallow World", my Christmas single with Jessica Martin from 2008, which we subsequently re-recorded for our full-length album, Making Spirits Bright.
You can read the story of how I came to record "A Marshmallow World" below. But, to mark Sigman's centenary in September 2009, I hosted what I called an "audio sampler" of his amazingly varied catalogue, featuring Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Aretha Franklin, Placido Domingo, the Specials, the Andrews Sisters, Frankie Laine, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, the Righteous Brothers, Louis Prima, Cilla Black, and many others performing Carl Sigman songs, including "Pennyslvania 6-5000", the theme from Love Story, "Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)", "It's All In The Game", "Arrivederci Roma", "Answer Me", "Ebb Tide", and a few curiosities from the more cobwebbed corners of my record collection, including the best song ever written about the St Lawrence river's Thousand Islands.
You can listen to the podcast by clicking the button above - it's great fun, and you'll be singing along within seconds. (By the way, Carl's son Michael Sigman offered his own centenary tribute to his dad over at the Huffington Post.) And here's the story behind my very favorite Sigman song. All together now:
I didn't plan to do a Christmas single. It was a happy accident arising out of what was really a very minor bit of administrative confusion on an entirely different project that found me in London in September with a singer, an arranger, an orchestra and a bit of spare time on our hands. And I thought it would be fun as a postscript to the other, weightier business to do a seasonal song with Jessica, just as a little promotional giveaway for some of our clients - a kind of musical Christmas card, like the ones Johnny Mercer used to send out to distributors and record store owners every December when he was the executive honcho at Capitol. Jessica is a great mainstay of the West End stage - she's starred in Me And My Girl, South Pacific, Sweeney Todd and recently premiered the new Michel Legrand musical Marguerite. If memory serves, I first met her at Paddington Station many years ago when Cameron Mackintosh, flush from his success with Cats and Les Miserables and whatnot, inaugurated a chair of contemporary theatre at Oxford University and asked me to moderate the all-star workshops. So heading down to Oxford to chair a session on acting with Patti LuPone (currently on Broadway in Gypsy) and sometime Bond villain Jonathan Pryce, I bumped into Jessica and Cameron's mum on the platform at Paddington. In the Nineties, I helped write a one-woman show for her at the Edinburgh Festival, and she appeared as a guest on a terrible BBC celebrity quiz I used to host - parlor games, songs, jokes, that kind of thing. Jessica's a tremendous trouper and has been ever since she was a teenager singing with her dad's band at a club in Mayfair when Barbra Streisand walked in one night and Jessica decided to lurch through an impromptu medley of "The Way We Were", "People", "You Don't Bring Me Flowers", etc, to an ever more stony-faced Barbra. ("I thought she'd want to hear something she knew.") She's a terrific impressionist - she has a little Yuletide medley where she starts with Eartha Kitt doing "Santa Baby" and works her way through Streisand, Julie Andrews et al - but I've always loved Jessica singing in her own voice, so I said to her, "Fancy a duet on 'Marshmallow World'?" And next thing you know, there we were at the Angel Studios on a dismal grey day in Islington rhapsodizing about meteorological joys north London rarely enjoys:
And you know, with the band behind you, fully loaded with sleigh bells and glockenspiels, it's hard not to believe that's so.
"A Marshmallow World" was written by Peter De Rose and Carl Sigman. Mr Sigman is the co-author of our Song of the Week #19 - "Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)" - and Song of the Week #105 - "It's All In The Game" - but Peter De Rose is making his debut in this slot. He's the composer of that lush ballad "Deep Purple" as well as "On A Little Street In Singapore" and (with a bit of help from Ravel) "The Lamp Is Low". The last two were among the first songs Frank Sinatra sang as a professional singer, with the Harry James band, live on stage in the summer of 1939. Digitally remastered, those early recordings of the young bow-tied boy still sound pretty good, and I wonder if they did to Peter De Rose. He was a singer himself, co-hosting with his wife one of the very first network radio shows, NBC's "Sweethearts Of The Air", broadcast every week from the early Twenties to the end of the Thirties.
Carl Sigman, as I always say, wrote everything. He wrote words to other men's music, music to other men's words, English translations for foreign chaps' lyrics, and musical tweaking for light classical tunes re-tooled for the pop charts. When I used to lunch with Sammy Cahn and other songwriters' names came up, Sammy would always say, "Sing me his medley" - ie, his greatest hits. And you'd launch into the guy's catalogue, and three numbers in Cahn would stop you and say scoldingly, "That's not a hit." And you realized most songwriters have pretty short medleys - or, at any rate, shorter than Sammy's ("Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", "The Tender Trap", "Come Fly With Me", "Teach Me Tonight", etc). "Okay," I said, after a while, "you sing me a medley." And he said: "You wanna hear a medley?" And off he went: "What Now, My Love?", "Dance, Ballerina, Dance", "Where Do I Begin?" (from Love Story), "A Day In The Life Of A Fool", "Pennsylvania 6-500" for Glenn Miller, "You're My World" for Cilla Black, and on and on and on. "You know whose medley that is?" he said, triumphantly. "Carl Sigman's." He wasn't a household name but he had a ton of household songs. Sammy respected hits, and Sigman delivered them, decade in, decade out, for almost half a century. (You can find out more about his boffo catalogue here.)
"My dad wrote a number of songs with Peter De Rose," Michael Sigman tells me. "They appeared together on the cover of Cash Box playing hop scotch when 'Hop Scotch Polka' was a novelty hit. While 'Buona Sera' was by far their most successful collaboration - it's still covered by lots of Eastern European rock bands, who get their inspiration from the Louis Prima version, in which he takes a sweet love song and makes it rock - 'Marshmallow World' was our family's favorite Sigman/De Rose tune."
They wrote it in 1949. As he usually did, De Rose composed the melody first and then sent it to Sigman. Occasionally, they'd talk about it over the phone, but most of the time they worked entirely separately. De Rose's tune is a conventional 32-bar AABA pop song - main theme, repeated, middle eight, back to main theme. It's a deceptively simple thing whose main phrase seesaws cheerily between E and G. My favorite instrumental version isn't any of the big orchestral holiday arrangements with all the bells, but one by the Oscar Peterson trio which doesn't really have anything to do with Christmas but which, at least in Peterson's right hand, reminds you of what a great muscular one-finger melody it is. I found myself talking to Oscar some years ago and not wanting to drool over all the obvious stuff said nonchalantly how much I liked his "Marshmallow World". "Man, that is one cool tune," he said. And he's right. On the radio, I once observed that there were many great main strains that were let down by run-of-the-mill middle-eights, and the host said, okay, well, in that case, name a great middle eight. So I named "Marshmallow World":
It's not just the music. What a nifty lyrical conceit! "The world is your snowball" - and then that triple rhyme on "grows/goes/snows", and wrapping up the thought with that big exclamatory injunction to "roll it along".
The Forties was the decade that gave us most of the American Christmas repertoire - not just "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" and "Sleigh Ride", but also "White Christmas", "Let It Snow!" and "The Christmas Song" itself ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"). "When he received the melody from Peter, my dad was already thinking that the world could use another holiday season song," says Michael Sigman, "but he didn't want to write a Christmas song - there were enough of those. He played the melody over and over and over and over until the title - which he always claimed was half the battle - came to him as a perfect wedding with the opening notes."
What a fantastic notion. You can see what he means, of course, but I don't think, without Sigman's song, one in a billion people would look out the window on a snowy December morn and think the landscape looked like a giant marshmallow. Even the publishers didn't quite get the concept. I have the original sheet music for the Vaughn Monroe version and it shows a romantic couple positioned on a very synthetic-looking marshmallow (generic brand on special at PriceChopper) with man-in-the-moon facial features floating in space. It's not a marshmallow world, it's a marshmallow planet. And, because the marshmallow's skewered, the ends obtrude from each hemisphere like radio transmitters, as if the boy and girl are hoping some prototype Sputnik will swing by and rescue them before Marvin the Martian and Daffy Duck show up and total the joint. It's certainly a distinctive cover, but it's not how I think of the song. What makes it work so well when sung is the way that, having come up with such an unlikely title, Carl Sigman takes the idea of a winter snowscape as a sweet-toothed treat and runs with it:
Isn't that a lovely line? I'm not sure many of us could pin down what precisely a "whipped cream day" is, but it sounds awfully appealing, like a higher-calorie version of Johnny Mercer waiting round Moon River's bend for his huckleberry friend. Sigman's lyric is an accumulation of sweetly goofy images:
"My mom always told us," says Michael Sigman, "that the line 'Those are marshmallow clouds being friendly/In the arms of the evergreen trees' just floored her the first time she heard it." I don't blame her. It has a faintly psychedelic "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" quality. During a glitch in the studio in London - the tenor saxophonist had fallen off the back of the sleigh or something - Jessica turned to me and said, "They're really good words, aren't they?" And she's right. They're very memorable:
Dean Martin puts a blearily predatory spin on that line which I certainly can't match. "Marshmallow World" was a modest success for Bing Crosby and Vaughn Monroe first time round, and it proved to be the last real hit of Peter De Rose's life: He died in 1953, at a relatively young age. Since then, his tune has been recorded by a ton of singers from Brenda Lee (whose version was recently used in the film Step Brothers) to what Michael Sigman calls "the obligatory punk version" by the Jingle Punx. Still and all, it hasn't been recorded as often as, say, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" or "Winter Wonderland", and, by comparison, it's a little below the radar. I'm struck by the number of people who've said to me in the last month that they didn't know the song until Jessica and I did it, but that now they hear it everywhere. I'd wager they almost certainly had heard it before, but that for one reason or another it hadn't quite registered. Which is one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I've always loved the song but never really heard it in an arrangement that (at least to my ears) quite did it justice. When Bing Crosby recorded it in 1950, he took it too slow and the other big balladeers of the age followed suit. Then in 1963 Darlene Love sang it on the Phil Spector Christmas album at a helluva clip and, unlike, say, the Spector "Sleigh Ride", in this instance the famous "wall of sound" winds up burying the song. And, as with Bing and the ballad boys, many subsequent recordings - the Cheetah Girls, for example - have taken their cue from Darlene and done it at demolition speed.
As I said, that's just my opinion, and fans of Bing or the Cheetahs will no doubt disagree. But there's no point doing a song unless you feel you're doing something the other versions aren't. So tempo-wise we put it midway between Crosby and Phil Spector and roughed out an arrangement with Kevin Amos. And after a couple of choruses I suggested we segue into "In The Bleak Midwinter". I love Christina Rosetti's poem and Holst's setting of it is magnificent, but the topographical cheerlessness of the first verse - "Earth stood hard as iron" - is the diametric opposite of "A Marshmallow World", and I thought it would be kinda cute to butt 'em up side by side. We were all busy with other things and it was very last-minute, and Kevin wound up calling Steve Edis in to help on the orchestration. Steve does a lot of the music for the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and you can see him on screen as the pianist in the Iris Murdoch biopic with Judi Dench. But he's got a good sense of fun, and he added some things I hadn't expected. Kevin picked up the parts from the copy shop en route to the studio and, if they weren't exactly still wet, they were certainly hot off the press. Jessica and I had had one session with Kevin round the piano, and it sounded okay. And in the studio it sounded a bit jollier but it's hard to hear everything in those circumstances. And a week or so later, when I was back in New Hampshire, Andy Lynwood sent over the final mix and, putting the vocal to one side, I thought, "Hey, this isn't bad." As I said, we just did it for a bit of a giggle to send out with the old corporate Christmas card to a few dozen clients, but I liked the arrangement so much I figured we'd make it a bit more public. We licensed the digital distribution a wee bit late as these things go, but amazingly, even though Amazon kept selling out of the CD, the MP3 download version got to Number Seven on their Easy Listening bestsellers last weekend. I've no idea what that means - there are charts for everything nowadays, and maybe it's even higher on the Bestselling Holiday Songs By Syndicated Columnists hit parade. But then a day or two later it nudged up to Number 41 on Amazon's main Pop Vocal chart, which horrified my little girl, if only because her fave Jonas Brothers song ("Year 3000") was slumped down at Number 61. It didn't last and right now the Jonas boys are cleaning my clock, perhaps because all those furious "Marshmallow" downloaders are besieging Amazon and demanding a refund. But it's not a bad showing for an afterthought thrown together in a couple of days in London. Michael Sigman still prefers the Darlene Love version, but that's the beauty of standards: There's a zillion ways to do them, and next Christmas we may do "Marshmallow World Mambo"*. In fact, if you sample the current "Marshmallow" hit parade over at Amazon, you'll find everything from driving rockers to psychedelic trance.
As to whether I incline more to the De Rose/Sigman "Marshmallow World" view or the Holst/Rosetti "Bleak Midwinter" line, right now in New Hampshire it looks like the Sigman lyric - the fields deep in snow, the boughs laden - but it feels in your bones a bit more like the Rosetti. Such is life in the North Country - although if Jessica and I are ever going to do a music video, this is the perfect backdrop. If you and your favorite girl fancy a yum-yummy musical treat this Christmas, it's still available for download from Amazon, iTunes, or even direct from the Steyn Store - and the CD single is at Amazon and CD Baby. I generally subscribe to Chesterton's dictum that if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly - that's to say, if you want to do it, you might just as well go for it. But I've heard a couple of other "Marshmallow Worlds" in recent days and I have to say I kinda miss Jessica's and my ending. I always felt that most versions of "Marshmallow World" never quite had a big enough finish, so, when we came to the final reprise of the last eight bars, we piled up some of the most memorable phrases from the lyric and put a real button on the song:
And so it is. See you next week for another great Christmas standard, and the guy behind it.
(*in fact, we did a disco version. What else?)
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