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Mark Steyn

Steyn's Song of the Week

Witchcraft

In this week before Halloween, how about a Song of the Week for the witching hour? I've always loved songs that use magic as an image of romantic seduction and intoxication. Cole Porter got in on it early in "You Do Something To Me" (1928):

Let me live 'neath your spell
Do do
That voodoo
That you do
So well…

Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer extended the thought in 1944:

That Old Black Magic has me in its spell
That Old Black Magic that you weave so well
Those icy fingers up and down my spine
The same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine…

But it was Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh who wrapped up the subject once and for all a decade later:

Those fingers in my hair
That sly come-hither stare
That strips my conscience bare
It's Witchcraft...

Triple rhymes – hair/stare/bare - can be very boring: they can make a song seem as if it's treading water ("What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?/North and south and east and west of your life/I have only one request of your life…" is a wee bit problematic for me in this respect), but the combination of Leigh's words and Coleman's tune form a kind of musical seduction intensifying with every line.

Sinatra got to all the great bewitching songs: He did "You Do Something To Me" first with George Siravo on his first up-tempo album in 1950, and then a decade later in a breezy Nelson Riddle arrangement that's over in a minute and a bit. "That Old Black Magic" he performed as a dreamy Axel Stordahl ballad in the Forties, and then with a snappy Heinie Beau chart in 1961. But "Witchcraft" was the song he made his own, and in an arrangement that shows off the song so perfectly he knew never to meddle with it. Over half a century old, the number has a rare authentic sensuousness: a couple of decades back, I began noticing that when rock guys like Robert Palmer hit their mid-life crises and decided to try a little finger-snappy cool, "Witchcraft" was high up on the list. Even Bart Simpson, in an episode in which he turns mobster and gets a slick dark suit and tie, breaks in the threads while warbling "Those fingers in my hair..." Coleman wrote for Broadway and Hollywood, but he was effortlessly jazzy. A tenant at his parents' Bronx apartment house moved out and left the piano behind and, even though his carpenter dad nailed the lid down, four-year old Cy (or Seymour as he was then) managed to pry it open. At seven, he played Carnegie Hall. His favorite composer in those days was Beethoven. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. How do you get away from it? Improvise. The child prodigy heard the call of jazz and his wandering fingers told him the whole classical thing was just hemming him in too much. So he skipped Juilliard, and at 15 began playing nightclubs. While still a teenager, he wrote a fiendishly complex sonata but, between his hectic club life and social life, misplaced it.

"Surely you can play it from memory?" I suggested a few years back.

"Sit down and order dinner," he said, and turned to the keyboard. If you asked him, he'd still tinkle a little Chopin or Beethoven, but after a few bars he'd segue into a party piece about the cocktail pianist trying to play "Clair de Lune" or some such.

So the teenager got a trio and was sufficiently impressed by his dressing room at the Sherry-Netherland that he moved in. His first writing partner, Joe McCarthy, was the son of a songwriter (the lyricist of "You Made Me Love You"), and so thought hit songs were the height of achievement. But, for a jazz pianist and sonata composer, they were initially something of an afterthought. And, despite some numbers that made a bit of noise, it was only when he hooked up with Carolyn Leigh that he began to value the form. Miss Leigh was an advertising copywriter who'd had a couple of big hits with Sinatra ("Young At Heart", "How Little We Know") and written half the score for Peter Pan. But she suffered from a lyricist's worst problem: a lack of good tunes. That's where Coleman came in. He met her in the luncheonette at the Brill Building and they fell into conversation. "Why don't we write a song?" he said. So they went upstairs and wrote "A Moment Of Madness", and Sammy Davis Jr recorded it, and they were officially a team.

"Witchcraft" was one of their early hits. They were just kicking around possibilities for songs and Carolyn came up with the title "It's Witchcraft". "I thought it was great," Cy told me. "So I got to the piano and I wrote this very exotic Latin rhythmic tune. And it was all wrong. It was too on the nose." Sometimes you do do that voodoo that you do way too well.

So he started noodling around at the piano and hit on a melodic line that was closer to what Carolyn had in mind. After all, when you write a song about "witchcraft", it's not meant to evoke voodoo and zombies and whatnot, but the idea of love as a spell, an enchantment. It's an odd song structurally: not the usual A-A-B-A – main theme, reprised, middle section, back to the main theme – but a big broad legato release with two pairs of modified A sections either side of it. And Carolyn placed the title up in the first section, and then doesn't use it again until the middle section:

'Cause it's Witchcraft!
Wicked Witchcraft
And although
I know
It's strictly taboo…

(which always feels to me like an odd half-echo of Leo Robin in "Thanks For The Memory" - "strictly entre nous".)

Who to get the song to? Both Coleman and Leigh had had earlier songs recorded by Sinatra, so they sent a demo over to Voyle Gilmore, Frank's producer at Capitol Records. In 1957, Sinatra was filming Pal Joey and the label was getting itchy for a new single, so Gilmore picked out some demo discs and Frank went in to the Capitol Tower in Los Angeles to meet him. "What's that?" asked Frank, pointing to a foot-high pile of records. Gilmore explained they were the songs they were going to play to see which ones Sinatra wanted to do. "No," said Frank. "Pick one song. That's it."

So Gilmore shuffled through the discs, plucked out a demo and put it on the turntable. And out of the speaker came Cy Coleman's voice:

Those fingers in my hair
That sly come-hither stare…

At the end of the record, nobody said anything. Frank looked at his manager, Hank Sanicola. Hank shook his head. No. So Frank said, "Play it again." And, when it was over, he looked at Sanicola again and Sanicola again shook his head.

"This is the song I want to record," said Sinatra, getting up to leave. "You guys put whatever songs you like on the rest of the session, but this song I like."

It took him two-and-a-half hours to nail it at the recording date, but it was worth it. Did you know Coleman and Leigh wrote a verse? It was for a TV show, I believe - long after the song had become a hit. Nobody does it, unless you're doing my old "Beat The Intro" game. But, for the record, here's how it goes:

Shades of old Lucretia Borgia!
There's a devil in you tonight
An' although my heart adores ya
My head says it ain't right
Right to let you make advances
Oh no!
Under normal circumstances
I'd go
But oh…

And then:

Those fingers in my hair…

There was no such verse when Sinatra and Nelson Riddle made their landmark record, so Riddle's arrangement opens with a descending figure similar to the one he used on "Mood Indigo": it's a perfect aural evocation of intoxication, not unlike another "bewitching" arrangement, the heady swirl of "Old Devil Moon". Sinatra's 1963 remake is more aggressive and concludes with a spoken "Ooh, you're a fine witch!" – Frank's hommage a the Great One, Jackie Gleason, whose character Reginald Van Gleason III would offer the remark in tipsy appreciation to certain fine beverages. The 1993 duet with Anita Baker is one of the least worst of the Sinatra Duets: the playful sign-off – "Hey, ya little witch!" – is fun and the orchestral prelude by Patrick Williams at the front is mighty fine. But the '57 "Witchcraft" is the real Sinatra classic.

Coleman and Leigh started out as writers of pop standards just as the entire field was about to get plowed over by rock'n'roll. Coleman's ballads in that period were particularly lovely: "Why Try To Change Me Now?" was Sinatra's final record for Columbia, a flip of the finger to executive honcho Mitch Miller, who'd been trying to change Frank into Guy Mitchell or Patti Page and saddle him with every witless novelty song of the day, from "Mama Will Bark", the canine duet on which he was accompanied by the small-voiced but big-breasted Dagmar, and "Tennessee Newsboy", on which he was accompanied by a man who could make chicken noises with his guitar. "Why Try To Change Me Now?", a plangent conversational ballad, was Sinatra's way of saying no, thanks, I'll stick with the music, and in the end the music will win.

To be honest, I wasn't sure. It seemed to me the songs Coleman and Leigh wrote for Sinatra and others had come along too late to secure a hold in the repertoire. But I was wrong. These days they're everywhere. I was in a hotel room a while back and caught some dreadful Sean Young non-stop-shagging female self-empowerment movie on Channel 139 and just as I was about to flip channels Nancy Wilson came on the soundtrack singing "The Best Is Yet To Come". Back home, I got distracted by that hotel-chain commercial that uses Coleman and Leigh's "The Rules Of The Road". My friend Dorothée Berryman, who plays the much put-upon wife in the Oscar-winning Invasions Barbares and was a guest on my Frank Loesser special, sings in her cabaret act a wonderfully tender "Walk A Little Faster", a Coleman/Leigh ballad about the anticipation of love.

Carolyn liked to rhyme and when she'd tired of masculine rhymes – moon/June – and feminine rhymes – fatter/matter – she liked to put the stress on the third or even fourth syllable before the end of the line – "rules of the road", for example, rhymes with "fools of the road". Noel Coward was partial to this, forever rhyming on the ante-penult:

Why Must The Show Go On?
Why not announce the closing night of it?
The public seem to hate the sight of it?

In Coward's hands, it seems obtrusive and often points up the dreariness of the tune. But with Miss Leigh it sits so perfectly on top of Coleman's sensuous, sinuous jazzy melodies, you hardly notice it. Take the middle section of "Witchcraft":

When you arouse the need in me
My heart says yes indeed in me
Proceed with what you're leadin' me to…

It doesn't look much in print, but, set to those notes, the rhymes slyly turn up the heat, the headiness of the music. Singers love it. The Coleman/Leigh songs from the Fifties and Sixties will endure as long as Gershwin or Porter. Frank figured that out half a century ago:

It's such an ancient pitch
But one I wouldn't switch
'Cause there's no nicer witch than you.

~Mark writes about Stephen Foster, Johnny Mercer, Bob Dylan and more in his new book The [Un]documented Mark Steyn. It's available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million in America, or Indigo-Chapters, Amazon and McNally-Robinson in Canada. Or, for instant gratification, get it in eBook - in Kindle, Kobo, Nook and iBooks.

~and don't forget his appreciation of Cy Coleman in Mark Steyn's Passing Parade, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the Steyn store.

31 Oct 2011

 

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ON THE AIR

On Friday morning Mark starts the day in Baltimore on WCBM 680 with Sean & Frank at 8:30am Eastern Time and then heads to Soundoff Connecticut with Jim Vicevich at 9:45am ET on WTIC 1080. Next, Mark heads to Texas and the Lynn Wooley Show at 9am Central.

~ In the afternoon, Mark returns to The Mike Rosen Show on 850 KOA- Denver at 1pm Mountain Time and finishes up the evening in Minneapolis-St. Paul at On The Way with Ridgeway at 5:15pm Central Time.

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