On the radio the other day, I heard an old Wink Martindale interview with Ella Fitzgerald, from the Seventies. And apropos her famous songbook series - Kern, Gershwin, Porter, etc - Wink asked if there was one of those great writers with whom she felt a special affinity. And Ella demurred, and added that sometimes a great song could be written by somebody the public had never heard of - "like the boys who wrote 'Angel Eyes'." And you sort of got the impression that, if she'd been put on the spot, she herself couldn't reliably have fished their names out of the old mental filing cabinet. But she knew their song, and she loved their song. Asked by interviewers to name her all-time favorite tune, she replied more than once over the years that it was "Angel Eyes". She recorded it at least four times, and it meant more to her than any number of standards by all those Broadway blue-chips.
Sometimes that's all you need: You'll never be Rodgers & Hart or George & Ira, but just once somewhere along the way lightning struck and a moment of magic flashed through the air. For Earl Brent and Matt Dennis, it was the day they sat down to tell the story of "Angel Eyes". Order another round and pull up a chair:
Drink up, all you people
Order anything you see
Have fun, you happy people
The drink and the laugh's on me...
After Ella came Sinatra. And way after Sinatra Bruce Springsteen sang it, on TV, for Frank's 80th birthday. And Sting did it in Leaving Las Vegas, and my lower-case compatriot k d lang just a few years ago. To recap Ella's point, when I first got interested in the great standard songs as a teenager, I sort of assumed that they were all written by the big names, and it took a while to dawn that not everything from, say, the Thirties was concocted by a major writer for a big Broadway score or a Fred Astaire movie. So after a while, when I heard a song I liked, I'd say, "Hey, I wonder who wrote that." Quite often, the answer would be "Matt Dennis". Who wrote "Angel Eyes"? Matt Dennis. Who wrote "The Night We Called It A Day"? Matt Dennis. Who wrote "Let's Get Away From It All"? Matt Dennis. Who wrote "Violets For Your Furs"? Matt Dennis. Who wrote "Everything Happens To Me"? Matt Dennis.
Not everything happened to Matt Dennis, but enough did to make it an eventful life. He was born one hundred years ago this week - February 11th 1914 - in Seattle and into a showbiz family. His father was a vocalist and his mother was a violinist and they had a vaudeville act, the Five Musical Lovelands. From The Pittston Gazette of Pittston, Pennsylvania, January 25th 1911:
Much interest has been aroused by the announcement that vaudeville of a high class will be given at the Broad street theatre, commencing Monday, Jan. 30th... The Five Musical Lovelands is one of the costliest musical acts in the profession, and surprise has been evinced at the announcement that they have been secured for Pittston at any price, some persons going so far as to express a doubt as to this being the genuine 'Loveland company. We are assured by the management that there is no deception and that this and other acts will be 'the real goods.'
And so young Matt joined the Musical Lovelands because it was the family business and that's what kids did. Still in his teens, he got a job in San Francisco with as a singer, pianist and arranger with Horace Heidt and his Musical Knights. Then he moved on to accompany a sister act with a show on KHJ Los Angeles. The Stafford Sisters were Pauline, Christine and the youngest, Jo. Jo Stafford left to join a larger vocal group, and Tommy Dorsey hired them for a radio show he was doing back in New York and that's how the Pied Pipers hit the big time. Matt Dennis found another vocal group to accompany, Six Hits and a Miss, and they needed a theme song, so he wrote one, words and music. Then he met up with a fellow called Tom Adair who was working for the Los Angeles water board but had had a few poems published in The Saturday Evening Post and said to Matt that maybe they should try writing some songs together.
Jo Stafford heard some of their songs, and suggested to Tommy Dorsey that Dennis & Adair should fly to New York and let him hear them. Late on November 11th 1940, after the Dorsey band's gig at the Paramount, the two writers auditioned for the bandleader. He liked what he heard, signed them to his music publishing company to serve as the orchestra's in-house songwriters, and then gave them a room in his penthouse at the Brill Building and told them to get to it. In those first few days, they wrote three numbers: "Everything Happens To Me", which hit the charts in April 1941 and reached Number 9, and "Let's Get Away From It All", which hit the charts two weeks later and reached Number 7. The third song, "Will You Still Be Mine?", didn't chart until 1944, but like the first two it had been recorded early in 1941.
"Will You Still Be Mine?" is a catalogue song - one of those laundry lists whose vast accumulation of evidence all goes to demonstrate the singular point that "You're The Top" or "The Lady Is A Tramp". Tom Adair had written his lyric first:
When cabs don't drive around the park
No windows light the summer dark
When love has lost its secret spark
Will You Still Be Mine?
It's not the most original premise for a song - is this love for keeps? - but the form makes it fresh. And, when Matt Dennis got around to setting the text, he produced a tune that effervesces all the way to the end. I especially like the middle section:
When moonlight on the Hudson's not romancey
And spring no longer turns a young man's fancy...
Of course, with laundry lists, you want them to go on forever, chorus after chorus. So Adair threw in a few extra examples of far distant days: "When FDR declines to run... When Garbo gives out interviews..." But I have to say, although Connie Haines' vocal on the original Dorsey hit is one of the best records she ever made, my favorite version is Dennis himself, from a live record made at a long forgotten LA nightclub called the Tally Ho back in 1954, with its topical references updated a decade: "When Johnnie Ray won't shed a tear... When Miss Monroe grows old and fat..." Miss Monroe never got to grow old, and Dennis' performance functions as a cool, airy, swingin' time capsule of a very particular cultural moment. This quatrain is adroit and fun:
When they invent eternal youth
When used-car dealers tell the truth
When Em'ly Post is too uncouth
Will You Still Be Mine?
Having rattled off a tune for Adair's laundry list, Dennis then turned his attention to "Everything Happens To Me". The composer's bass line is "almost vaudevillian" in its predictability, notes the musicologist Ted Gioia, and yet the melody is so strong and affecting that it doesn't matter. What makes it a difficult song to sing is the lyric, which requires a skillful negotiation of the perilous waters between the Scylla of ruefulness and the Charybdis of self-pity:
I make a date for golf and you can bet your life it rains
I try to give a party but the guy upstairs complains
I guess I'll go through life just catching cold and missing planes
Everything Happens To Me...
Fortunately, the Dorsey band had a boy singer by the name of Sinatra. Frank loved the song and never stopped singing it, re-recording it with the Hollywood String Quartet in 1956, and with a somber Gordon Jenkins arrangement in 1974 and again in 1981, his readings growing darker over the years.
The third tune was another Dorsey hit that Sinatra would revive in his maturity. "Let's Get Away From It All" is a sprightly catalogue of travel destinations ("Let's go again to Niagara/This time we'll peek at the fall") whose place in the repertoire was rendered somewhat precarious by Alaska and Hawaii's accession to the union:
We'll travel roun'
From town to town
We'll visit ev'ry state
And I'll repeat
I love you, sweet
In all the forty-eight...
It doesn't hurt to have Frank Sinatra on hand to introduce your songs. On the other hand, it doesn't hurt to have Matt Dennis around when you're trying to get a handle on a new number. It fell to the composer to teach his songs to the Dorsey band, and Frank (Dennis told Will Friedwald) "would flatter even me 'cause he would listen to the way I phrase my songs. They were my songs and he would interpret them much as I did." As a singer, the composer doesn't have the lung power or the breath control of Sinatra, but he has an enviably breezy swing and a light vocal tone that sounds like he got it from Mel TormÃ©. Except if you ever suggested as much to Mel TormÃ© (not always the most generous man), TormÃ© would insist he got it from Matt Dennis.
If Jo Stafford helped get Matt Dennis started as a songwriter, Matt Dennis helped make Jo Stafford a solo singer. She loved the Pied Pipers and had no desire ever to do anything with her voice except blend it into the mix of a great vocal group. But she heard a minor Dennis tune called "Little Man With A Candy Cigar", and went to Dorsey: "Tommy, this is the first time I've ever done this, and it'll probably be the last, but I want a favor of you. I want to do the record of 'Little Man With A Candy Cigar' solo." So Dorsey did Jo Stafford a favor, and from that first one-off solo record "You Belong To Me" and everything else followed.
Dennis' last great song for the Sinatra-era Dorsey band was the greatest of all. He sang and played it for the bandleader backstage at the Paramount one night. "Tommy was seated next to Harry James and Ziggy Elman," he remembered. "As I ran the song over, I noticed Tommy looking at Harry and Ziggy and nodding their heads in approval."
As well they might. "The Night We Called It A Day" has a perfect title, and a spare bare-bones tune that somehow conjures all the vast emptiness of night. I don't want to go too far down that path, because the late Gene Lees, lyricist of our Song of the Week #167 ("Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars"), liked to wax rhapsodic about how "the octave leap on the opening phrase, "There was a moon out in space" sort of makes you look up, lending a visual dimension to the song." Which is true. But I don't think Dennis set Adair's word that way consciously or, alternatively, Adair put that word to Dennis' note consciously. You just write that good when you're very sure of what you're doing, as Dennis and Adair were by this point. Unfortunately, Sinatra and Dorsey were fast approaching the night when they'd be calling it a day, and so it fell to Frank to record the song as a solo singer - in January 1942 with Axel Stordahl conducting his first ever session as a post-big band vocalist.
And then Matt Dennis disappeared into the military for three-and-a-half years, and, although he and Tom Adair never fell out or split up, by the time the war was over they too had called it a day. If you're wondering what fitful songwriters do when they're not writing songs, Adair went on to write "The Munsters" and "My Three Sons". And one day in 1946 Matt Dennis found himself composing what would be his greatest song of all with a jobbing lyricist/musician/arranger/man-about-Hollywood called Earl K Brent.
There are no and-then-I-wrote stories about "Angel Eyes". Two professional craftsmen simply got to it, and stuck with it until they were satisfied. But it's a remarkable piece. For a pop song, the tune is consciously bluesy in the way of "Harlem Nocturne" or "You Don't Know What Love Is", but the words go beyond, and the vocabulary and phrasing are very unusual:
Try to think
That love's not around
Still it's uncomf'tably near
My old heart
Ain't gainin' no ground
Because my Angel Eyes ain't here...
Dennis' music is memorable because of the arresting flat nine in Bar Three, and big leaps when the tune's going up, followed by small slips back down. It's a tune that's made for saloons - those up-leaps of anger and passion, and the slip-downs into dejection and despair. But that third bar could easily trip up a lyricist or at least put a speed-bump in his text. Instead, Earl Brent gets around it with a four-syllable word that, on those notes, is rendered onomatopoeic: When the singer sings "uncomf'tably near", you hear his discomfort. Even more remarkably, Dennis and Brent match it when the moment recurs in the next eight bars and again at the end:
That ol' devil sent
They glow unbearably bright...
And again in that word on that interval - "unbearably" - the singer sounds as if he truly can't bear it, not much longer. In theory, the melody sounds as if it ought to be an instrumental - one of those things like "Sophisticated Lady" or "Prelude To A Kiss" that sounds less like a song than a tune that someone's stuck words on - but Brent not only finds words that fit perfectly, but four-syllable ones at that:
But I gotta run
The fact's uncommonly clear...
The tune is so bluesy that, in Ted Gioia's words, it "invites a soloist to pull out every stale minor blues cliche". Which happens rather a lot on instrumental versions. But the lyric makes it dark and strange and raw: a great ache of a melody with an oddly self-aware tale to tell. Dennis wrote his composition in D minor, which suits it perfectly, but the middle section is major in character and almost an inversion of the main theme: now the music leaps down and then climbs small steps back up. Lyric-wise, if the main section is like eavesdropping on someone's private pain, the release is an invitation to gather round and listen to him tell his story:
So drink up, all you people
Order anything you see...
In 1958, Sinatra, on his Only The Lonely album, famously started with the middle section. It's a good call: its declamatory quality is a way of inviting you into the tale. It's not a verse in the formal sense but it functions as one - and better than the actual verse Dennis and Brent belatedly wrote for "Angel Eyes" in the 1970s.
It's so skillfully done that it's hard to believe the authors came perilously close to killing the song stone dead. Having completed the piece, Matt Dennis played it through one last time and then turned to his lyricist: "The title," he said. "I don't like the title." Brent had called the song "Have Another Beer On Me":
My old heart
Ain't gainin' no ground
Have Another Beer On Me...
Even for a saloon song, that's too on the nose - like when Bono in the Nineties tried to write Sinatra a new "Angel Eyes" or "One For My Baby" and called it "One Shot Of Happy, Two Shots Of Sad". You can't spell it out that directly. So Brent agreed and a new title was found: "Angel Eyes".
Have another flop title on me. Herb Jeffries was the first to record "Angel Eyes", but his record company folded and the song sank and stayed sunk. But Matt Dennis always liked it. It turned up on screen in the film Jennifer, a 1953 Ida Lupino melodrama sold with the promotional tag: "Did Jennifer fear his fingers at her throat ...or the burning caress of his lips?" The noir-ish "Angel Eyes" fit perfectly, and Dennis sang it himself on screen.
But again nobody noticed. What saved the song was Ella Fitzgerald. One Monday night, Matt Dennis was playing a little joint in Reno, and Ella came in. So Dennis sang "Angel Eyes", and Ella told him she wanted to use it as her opening number when she began her own run at a Reno hotel two nights later. So he said, sure, and, when he went along to catch the act, she made him take a bow and told her fans, "I'm going to record this." And "Angel Eyes" was on its way.
Then came Sinatra. He called himself a "saloon singer", but he didn't really sing in saloons, and certainly not since he and Dennis had worked together for Tommy Dorsey. Rather, he was a singer who sang saloon songs on bestselling albums and in upscale concert halls. "Angel Eyes" was a companion piece to "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)". In the latter, it's quarter to three and there's no one in the place except him and the bartender; in the former, the room is still full of drinks and laughs and happy people. But both songs are conversational vignettes in which most of the specifics are left unsaid. The storytelling is all mood, and Sinatra was a master of that, able to walk out on stage in the biggest soulless cavernous rock arena on the edge of town and shrink it to the kind of decrepit joint where guys drowning their sorrows over "Angel Eyes" are to be found.
If Sinatra appropriated the "saloon singer" persona and took it to its apotheosis, Matt Dennis lived it at a humbler level, playing the Tally Ho and other long forgotten lounges, where sometimes the customers listened and a lot of times they didn't. I realized a while back that the 1950s nightclub singer in my head is Matt Dennis: He's the sound of that era and that ethos - a natural swinger, a versatile accompanist, a cool cat who knows all the obscure lyrics. But he never quite took it to world-fame level, and so he taught music, and wrote arrangements, and filled his time with this and that. Back in the Nineties, someone sent me a new book of sheet music - Porter, Coward, Rodgers & Hart, all arranged by Dennis and released under the title, The Elegant Piano Stylings of Matt Dennis. I've only ever used the phrase "elegant piano stylings" in a parodic sense, and I was rather touched to find he still meant it. A few years later, he was dead at the age of 88.
Today that small group of tunes he wrote between 1940 and 1946 are bigger than ever. But "Angel Eyes" beats them all. It's a conventional A-A-B-A song, but it has a musical tag at the end and Earl Brent wrote a great last line for it:
But I gotta run
The fact's uncommonly clear
I gotta find
Who's now Number One
And why my Angel Eyes ain't here
'Scuse me while I disappear.
"'Scuse me while I disappear"? What a great line, from a guy who never wrote anything like it again. Earl Brent had other opportunities - indeed, other opportunities with Sinatra. He wrote songs for what Frank came to regard as his worst ever picture, The Kissing Bandit, in which he was awkwardly paired with Kathryn Grayson, who regarded it as her worst picture, too.
But, unlike Ella, Frank knew who wrote "Angel Eyes", and most nights you could rely on him crediting "a marvelous song by Matt Dennis and Earl Brent" or some such. In the Sixties, he used the bridge - "Drink up, all you people" - to close out his TV specials, thanking his guests and arrangers before segueing into "Put Your Dreams Away". And on June 13th 1971, at the Los Angeles Music Center, three months after announcing what would prove to be a short-lived retirement, "Angel Eyes" was the song he chose for what he intended to be the end of his career, the last notes and words he would ever sing in public. As the number progressed, the lights dimmed until there was only one small spot and in it a man singing one of his two greatest saloon songs with his longtime pianist Bill Miller. The smoke from his cigarette wreathed the singer and danced in the shrinking spotlight, and, just before it faded to black, Sinatra sang the last line:
'Scuse me while I disappear.
And then he was gone.
~Steyn writes about "Angel Eyes"' companion saloon song, "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)", in his appreciation of Bill Miller in the book Mark Steyn's Passing Parade. And he celebrates other Sinatra songs, including the classic "I've Got You Under My Skin", in Mark Steyn's American Songbook, and "I'll Never Smile Again", "My Funny Valentine" and, of course, "It Was A Very Good Year" in A Song For The Season. Personally autographed copies of all three books can be ordered at the SteynOnline bookstore.
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