Steyn's Song of the Week
Eighty years ago this month - March 1934 - the legendary writing team of Rodgers & Hart registered for copyright a song that was to become one of their biggest hits:
Doesn't ring any bells? Try this:
A "Blue Moon" comes along once in a blue moon: It's a standard for singers who don't sing standards. Actually, that makes it even rarer than a blue moon, which in the non-musical sense comes along more often than the colloquialism would lead one to expect. As for "Blue Moon" the song, in 1961 the Marcels made a famous record of it that went to Number One, and in the half-century since a ton of rockers have latched on to it, and not just for the usual mid-life crisis CD [Insert Name Here] Slays The Great American Songbook. To be sure, Rod Stewart's done it, but so have Elvis (very spookily) and Dylan (very jauntily), and so has Eric Clapton, in a version that includes the rarely heard verse. Tori Amos sings it, and so do Phish. Conversely, singers who sing standards for a living have mostly given up on the song: At the dawn of the LP era in the Fifties, the line on another Rodgers & Hart ballad was that it was hard to find an album that didn't include "My Funny Valentine" (our Song of the Week #88). Fifty years later, you're hard put to find a standard singer who'll include "Blue Moon" even on an all-Rodgers & Hart album.
Yet it remains the team's most successful song, even after eight decades. It burst into public consciousness 79 years ago - 1935 - when Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra took it to Number One in January, chased up the hit parade by Benny Goodman, who got to Number Two in February. And, if you're wondering why we're marking the 80th anniversary of its copyright registration rather than of the Broadway musical whence it came, well, that's because this is the only Rodgers & Hart song not to come from a show or film score. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were theatre writers - they wrote for characters and plot point, and, in doing so, they produced a lot of songs that went on to become big hits: "The Lady Is A Tramp", "Falling In Love With Love", "Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered". But "Blue Moon" is their only pure pop song.
It had a rough time getting there. After the Wall Street Crash, Broadway found itself short of investors and theatrical production slumped. So in the early Thirties Rodgers & Hart, like a lot of New York writers, found themselves fleeing the Depression by "taking the Chief" - the train to the West Coast, to Hollywood. On Broadway, the writers were the stars. In Hollywood, not so much. You got a nice house and a pool and you were chauffeured to the studio every day to write songs, but a lot of them wound up in entirely different pictures from the ones you'd written them for, and a whole bunch of them just got junked entirely. Still, it was a living, and a comfortable one. Rodgers & Hart were under contract to MGM, whose publicity honcho at the time was a man called Howard Dietz (he cooked up that roaring lion at the beginning of every movie, and then added a Latin motto - ars gratia artis - to give it class). A studio exec by day, by night Dietz was an accomplished lyricist, the co-author of "Dancing In The Dark", "By Myself", "That's Entertainment" and many more. So he certainly knew the value of a good song. One day in 1933 he came to Rodgers & Hart with a project: He wanted to do the screwball comedy to end all screwball comedies. Everyone would be in it, literally: Every comic on the MGM lot would be part of the plot, and there'd be cameos by all the big dramatic stars, too. And, as the icing on the all-star cake, the film would have a score by Rodgers & Hart.
Dick and Larry said sure, and got to work. They wrote a title song - "Hollywood Party" - and a number for Jimmy Durante about reincarnation ("Put this underneath your hatta/A man has more lives than a catta") in which he reveals that in a previous life he was Marie Antoinette: Eat your heart out, Shirley MacLaine. And they also came up with a number for Jean Harlow as a starstruck gal beseeching the Almighty to lend a hand:
Cute lyric. And "Prayer" had a fine tune, too. But Howard Dietz's nifty comedy cavalcade ran into a few problems in execution and went through a legion of directors, not one of whom had his name on it by the time it opened. In the end, Hollywood Party rounded up Durante, Jack Pearl, Lupe Velez, Charles Butterworth, Polly Moran, Laurel & Hardy, the Three Stooges and Mickey Mouse. But no Jean Harlow, and no "Prayer". Who knows why? At one point, the script called for Durante to declare that he was "the lord of the manure". Howard Dietz fretted over the word "manure" and wasn't sure he could get away with it. So he submitted it to the front office for approval. A day or two later he was advised the line could not be used, as the censors objected to the word "lord". Perhaps praying to the Lord for a glimpse of Garbo was deemed sacriligious.
So Rodgers & Hart forgot about the song and moved on to the next assignment. A few months later, they were asked to write a couple of numbers for a gangster movie starring Clark Gable and William Powell as two brothers (one good, one crooked) with Myrna Loy as the girl (it was the first of 14 films Powell and Loy would make together). The picture was called Manhattan Melodrama, and it needed a title song. Dick Rodgers was rather fond of the melody for the rejected "Prayer", so he dusted it off and asked Larry Hart to write new words. Hart obliged, with a valentine to the hustle and bustle of life in the big town:
Another cute lyric. And the tune for "Manhattan Melodrama" sounded just as good as when it was the tune for "Prayer". But then the studio decided Manhattan Melodrama didn't need a title song. However, they did require a smokey ballad for Shirley Ross to smolder over in a Harlem nightclub scene. So Rodgers pressganged "Prayer"/"Manhattan Melodrama" into service one more time, and Hart knuckled down to write a third lyric, this time closer to his original conception:
Another cute lyric. And the tune for "The Bad In Every Man" still sounded as swell as it did two lyrics previously. And this time it even made it into the picture. Manhattan Melodrama opened in the spring of 1934, complete with Shirley Ross, the nightclub scene, and the song. I would be interested to know what notorious gangster John Dillinger thought of "The Bad In Every Man". But unfortunately no one ever got the chance to ask him. Being as how he had an interest in the subject, he went to see Manhattan Melodrama on July 22nd accompanied by his moll and also his Romanian brothelkeeper. Unfortunately, the latter had squealed to the FBI in order to avoid deportation, and, as Dillinger left the Biograph Theater in Chicago, three G-men gunned him down. He attempted to flee down an alley, but one bullet entered the back of his head and exited through his eyeball, and that was that. Or as Lorenz Hart's second lyric for the "Bad In Every Man" tune put it:
Don't breathe - it isn't allowed.
The verse to "The Bad In Every Man" also seems pertinent:
Sitting all alone
Well, it's less disadvantageous to your life expectancy than taking along a madam who's sold out to J Edgar Hoover. John Dillinger died, and so did the song. No band leader picked up "The Bad In Every Man", no singer took a yen to it. Nobody noticed it. Except a guy called Jack Robbins, who ran MGM's music publishing operation. He loved the tune, and he told the writers he was sure he could make it a hit if only it had a "more commercial" lyric.
"Ah," said Larry Hart. "More commercial? You mean, something like 'Blue Moon'?"
And he went home and wrote a fourth lyric to "Prayer"/"Manhattan Melodrama"/"The Bad In Every Man":
It reads almost like a parody of everything Lorenz Hart loathed in a popular song. After all, as Time magazine reported in 1938:
As Rodgers and Hart see it, what was killing musicomedy was its sameness, its tameness, its eternal rhyming of June with moon...
They'd felt that way since they hit the big time with "Manhattan" in 1925. And now here was Hart putting everything he despised into one lyric - moon, dreams, arms, whispers:
And then there suddenly appeared before me
The title, at least, is quite a subtle concept: It's a "Blue Moon" because the singer's feeling blue, and also because a love such as this only comes along once in a blue moon. It's a fine example of how cliches can be revitalised when set to music. A very savvy publisher, Robbins was as good as his word. The rewritten song was registered for copyright in December 1934, and Glen Gray's recording, with a vocal by Kenny Sargent, was Number One by January of '35. Benny Goodman, with Helen Ward singing, got to Number Two, and Ray Noble, with Al Bowlly warbling, got to Number Five. It sold a million copies of sheet music, and then Jack Robbins licensed its use as the theme for the popular radio show "Hollywood Hotel". Same old tune, but fourth lyric - and suddenly the whole country's singing it.
With hindsight, it's easy to see what Robbins heard in the tune. The harmonic progression is one of the most insinuating there is, and has been at least since Mozart used it in a couple of symphonies. Like "Heart And Soul" or "These Foolish Things", "Blue Moon" is one of those deceptively simple songs in which everything falls into place utterly naturally. It was one of the first tunes I learned to pick out on the piano, in a very sing-songy way. All it needed was a good enough lyrical concept and words that don't distract from the appeal of the music. And on his fourth attempt Hart got it right, and the song never looked back. A decade and a half after its debut, Mel Torme and Billy Eckstine brought it back to the Billboard charts. In the Fifties, everybody did it. And then, in 1961, 26 years after it first hit Number One, it did so again.
The Marcels were a doowop quintet from Pittsburgh named after a popular hairstyle of the time. A staff producer at Colpix Records, Stu Phillips, believed in them when no one else at the company did, and snuck them into the studio at 8pm for a clandestine four-song session. Unfortunately, the group only had three songs. Phillips asked 'em what else they sang. They offered this number and that number, and he didn't care for any of 'em, except for one little itty-bit in the middle of one tune. It had the same chord progressions as "Heart And Soul" and "Blue Moon" and so he asked the Marcels if they knew either of those numbers. "Heart And Soul"? Nah, they didn't know it. But one of the Marcels was familiar with "Blue Moon". "So I gave him an hour to teach it to the others," said Phillips.
When he returned, they had just eight minutes of studio time left on the clock. The Marcels did two full takes, and nailed it in the second. Oh, and that little itty-bit from one of the rejected songs? Phillips figured that would make a great intro for the record. So they stuck it on the front of "Blue Moon". Lorenz Hart never wrote anything like this:
Bomp ba-ba bomp
Larry Hart once walked into an audition and dismissed the struggling performer with the words "She's a 'now' singer." He was referring to the lazy habit some vocalists have of interpolating "Now" at the beginning of lines:
Now she gets too hungry for dinner at eight...
Etc. Hard to know what he'd make of fellows who stick a zillion "bomps" and "dangs" on the front of the line. But by the time the Marcels went in the studio Hart had been dead for getting on for two decades. Richard Rodgers was around, and he didn't care for it, although he didn't care for Peggy Lee's driving-whiplash version of "Lover" or most of the other big pop versions of his songs either. In this case, as it happens, the Marcel who knew "Blue Moon" and taught it to his fellow Marcels misremembered it and the middle section came out wrong. But so what? If Rodgers' tune could survive four lyrics, Hart's lyric should be able to withstand getting set to two different middles. If you were an American doowop group 50 years ago, even if you didn't know "Blue Moon", you kinda sorta did: "Earth Angel" and a bunch of other Fifties doowop staples are based pretty much on "Blue Moon" chord progressions. At any rate, two takes, a bomp-ba-ba-bomp and a reworked release, and the Marcels were out of there. A Colpix promotions man chanced to hear the song, asked Stu Phillips for a tape, and passed it on to Murray the K at WINS New York. On his next show, Murray the K played "Blue Moon" 26 times. It knocked Elvis off the Number One spot on the Billboard Hot One Hundred in April 1961, and went to Number One in Britain a few weeks later.
The real Rodgers & Hart is in the verse. Traditionally, an introductory verse is there to warm you up for the central proposition: "...and that's why I say:" It Had To Be You, or There's A Small Hotel, or Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin', or whatever. Sometimes a singer needs 'em, a lot of times they can be dispensed with. The music for this verse, like the chorus, survived through "Manhattan Melodrama" and "The Bad In Every Man". It has a descending minor progression with a gorgeous modulation that, in a purely compositional sense, represents Rodgers far better than the chorus. Likewise, in its bittersweet ruefulness, Hart's verse is far more typical of his work than what follows:
Once upon a time
Now that's a Larry Hart rhyme: "moonlight"/"noon light". You notice it, and, because you notice it, you become aware of structure, and artifice. In his contempt for the idea of a "commercial" pop hit, he avoided those kind of musical-comedy contrivances in the chorus, and "Blue Moon" is a better song because of it. Still, I can see why Rod and Clapper liked the verse enough to spotlight it in their versions. But that's the happy state of "Blue Moon" after its long and tortuous journey: There's something for everyone.It's a country song to the Mavericks, it's a doowop revival number to Showaddywaddy, it's virtually an entire film score in itself to the makers of An American Werewolf In London, who used three different versions on the soundtrack.
And, if you're snobbish enough to disdain such vulgar incarnations, well, somewhere out there, in a little bistro or piano bar somewhere on the planet, a tremulous cabaret chantoosie will be doing a Rodgers & Hart set and announcing that she's going to give you the original lyric to "Blue Moon", and then she'll sing "The Bad In Every Man" or "Manhattan Melodrama" or "Prayer". And why not? Like the song says:
The moon had turned to gold.
~You can read about Rodgers & Hart in Mark's acknowledged classic, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, and about one of the team's best-known songs ("My Funny Valentine") and one of their least-known ("April Fool") in another Steyn book, A Song For The Season. Personally autographed copies are available exclusively through the SteynOnline bookstore.
March 9, 2014
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