Steyn's Song of the Week
Bob Crewe, who died last week, is best known for his work with the Four Seasons, not least because in fictionalized form he turns up on stage each night in the Broadway blockbuster Jersey Boys. Kathy Shaidle dispensed with this aspect of Crewe's career in one line: "I don't care a rat's ass about the Four Seasons." Rat's-ass-wise, I'm with Kathy. Nothing against them, and, if you like "Big Boys Don't Cry" and "Sherry" and "Walk Like A Man", then you certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Mr Crewe. He was, as they said, "the Fifth Season", and for most people that would have been a full-time job. But he found time to do all manner of other things, and almost all of them I found more interesting than his Seasonal labors.
Crewe was born in 1931 in Newark, New Jersey, which meant he got into music just as the pop standards business was being clobbered by rock'n'roll. He had no particular desire to write rock'n'roll songs, but he quite liked the idea of being a pop star. And he should have been. He was an unusually hunky songwriter. I recall him from Songwriters' Hall of Fame events and other composer get-togethers a couple of decades back as the guy you could always spot across the room, towering over the various schnooks and misfits for whom writing hit songs was the way to get the girl. Crewe could have got the girl if he'd been a janitor. He was a strapping football jock of a fellow with blond hair and good looks. Seeing him next to Frankie Valli in the studio, you'd have assumed Crewe was the teenyboppers' heartthrob and Valli the nebbish off-stage genius.
But Crewe had a wider range of interests than was healthy for a prospective teen idol in the late Fifties. His endearingly odd album Kicks With Bob Crewe features not only his version of "Let Me Entertain You", from the 1959 Broadway smash Gypsy, but also "She's Only Wonderful", from the entirely forgotten Broadway flop Flahooley, by Sammy Fain and Yip Harburg (lyricist of our Song of the Week from a fortnight back, "Over The Rainbow"). The nearest thing to a hit was a rocking version of "The Whiffenpoof Song". Hey, why not? By the time he had a genuine bona fide smash - 1967 - it was with one of those quintessential Sixties instrumentals, "Music To Watch Girls By", composed by the great Sid Ramin, Leonard Bernstein's childhood friend and orchestrator of Gypsy and West Side Story.
So he became a producer and a writer - lyrics mainly, although he paid great attention to hooks, arrangements, instrumentation, every aspect of what it took to bring a song to life - especially rhythm, for which he conscripted everything from castanets to the studio radiators. He co-wrote the score for Jane Fonda's film Barbarella, and turned Oliver's recording of Rod McKuen's theme for The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie into a hit. He started his own record company and gave Johann Sebastian Bach his biggest smasheroo in two centuries with the Toys' "Lovers' Concerto". He had an eye for talent, and he made things happen - although sometimes it took a while. Frankie Valli was said to be depressed at how long it was taking for the Four Seasons to bust out of the Philly market and make it big. One night, after visiting his parents in Ocean Beach, New Jersey, Crewe decided to swing by some little joint in Point Pleasant where the Seasons were playing. At one point in the evening, Valli put a bandana on his head, took two maracas and shoved them under his shirt, and began singing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" in a high voice.
If it was a cry for help, Crewe decided to take it at face value. He'd begun writing songs with Bob Gaudio, the Seasons' keyboardist. And, after seeing Valli's maracas routine, he instructed Gaudio: "Go write a song for Frankie with that chi-chi voice and jump it an octave. I don't care if you call it 'Bananas', just jump it an octave, and we'll make a record of it, whatever it is." Gaudio had an idea for a song called "Jackie", as in Mrs Kennedy, but it didn't pan out, so they changed it to "Sherry", sung by Frankie "with that chi-chi voice" - and the Four Seasons were on their way. With Gaudio, Crewe wrote a zillion hits for the group, but he told me his favorite record he made with them was their version of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin".
Being an actual Four Season rather than merely an honorary Fifth, Bob Gaudio had a different level of investment in the group, and eventually, as a writing partnership, he and Crewe went their separate ways. In the Seventies, Crewe and Kenny Nolan wrote "Lady Marmalade" and ensured every unilingual American knew at least one line of useful conversational French:
Like every other pre-disco act from the Bee Gees to Ethel Merman, Frankie Valli was anxious to get a piece of the glitterball action, and Crewe gave him one of the most distinctive Seventies disco songs, the marvelous "Swearin' To God". He also wrote "My Eyes Adored You", a sweet ballad hit for Valli in 1975 that struck a chord with any schoolboy nursing a silent crush on the girl next door:
My two favorite Crewe songs also started as Frankie Valli solos. One of them's been sung by everybody, including me. The other made a very particular hit for one particular group that no other version has ever quite matched. "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)" was first recorded at a Four Seasons session, but as a Frankie Valli solo. The single never cracked the Billboard Hot 100, but over in Britain it somehow came to the attention of the Walker Brothers. They took a fancy to "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)" and got rid of its annoying parenthesis: "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore". The three Walker Brothers were not actually brothers, nor, by birth, Walkers. But they walked this one all the way to the top of the British charts in 1966:
Which as an opening couplet would seem a tad over-ripe. But the Walker Brothers decided to out-Righteous the Righteous Brothers and, with a Phil Spectoresque Wall of Sound echo chamber, big strings and a phalanx of ooh-ing and ah-ing backing vocalists, Scott Walker's more-Righteous-than-thou baritone turned those words into a slab of authentic ache. The string figure in the fill after "coat you wear" seems inserted expressly to dare you not to believe. And then the chorus:
No other version quite matches the otherworldly angst of the Walker Brothers. In 1990, Anthony Minghella (pre-The English Patient) made a film called Truly, Madly, Deeply, with Juliet Stevenson mourning her late lover, played by Alan Rickman, who turns up in spectral form to haunt her flat. There was a lot of that about at the time: The shorthand review of Truly, Madly, Deeply was "Ghost for grown-ups". One of the things that made it "grown-up" was the music (Rickman's character played the 'cello, and Stevenson's the piano) - and in particular the use it made of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore". Anthony Minghella told me that he thought numbers in musicals tended to be "transporting", and he wanted this to be the opposite: even as Miss Stevenson is cavorting round her flat as Rickman's ghost sings and holds his cello like a guitar, the scene emphasizes just how profound the emptiness in her life is. And that, said Minghella, is why it could only be "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore".
The song's association with death pre-dates Truly, Madly, Deeply by a quarter-century. Many years ago, I used to date a nurse at the Royal London Hospital on the Whitechapel Road in the East End. We used to meet at the end of her shift in the pub next door, the Blind Beggar. I am told it is a rather bland and boring establishment now, but in those days it still had the residual seedy glamor of its old gangland associations. The Kray twins - Reggie and Ronnie - were the primo East End mobsters of their day, but they'd been having a few differences with the Richardsons' South London gang. George Cornell had called Ronnie Kray a "fat poofter". Ronnie didn't mind the "poofter" but resented the "fat". On the night of March 9th 1966, he got word that Cornell was drinking at the Blind Beggar, and went round to have it out. When he arrived, Cornell was sitting on a bar stool nursing a pale ale. "Well, look who's here," he sneered when Kray arrived. Ronnie got out his 9mm Mauser and shot Cornell just above the right eye. At the time, the jukebox was playing the Walker Brothers' new single:
George Cornell fell to the floor. But one of Kray's bullets had found the jukebox, and caused the record to jump:
And that's all George Cornell heard in the last few seconds of his life on the floor of the Blind Beggar. The following week, "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" hit Number One on the British charts.
A year later, Crewe and Gaudio wrote another solo for Frankie Valli, and this time gave him the hit they'd never managed with "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)". This song is, on paper, a strange bird. The first part is a list of monosyllabic commonplace observations:
And three-quarters of that's all one note: of the 28 syllables above, all but eight ("good", "be", "eyes", "of" , "heav-", "to",
And in between comes the best part of the song - a big brassy figure that connects up these two otherwise unconnected vocal halves: ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dada-dum... It's the bit that makes every singer - from Andy Williams to Sheena Easton to the Pet Shop Boys to Lauryn Hill - say, "Wow! I've gotta do that song!" Except none of them ever actually gets to do that bit at all. It has no lyric. It's not even clear whether it was part of the original song, or was added by the arranger on that Frankie Valli track, Artie Schroeck. But at any rate it's there on the sheet music for keeps.
Phil Ramone, not yet a legendary producer, was the engineer on the session. The studio (at A&R on 7th Avenue) had been recently renovated, and a new talkback system installed, with which Ramone and Bob Crewe were unfamiliar. So in the control room Ramone asked whether they'd need a zillion takes to get a usable Valli vocal, and Crewe started going on about how his last session with Frankie had been "torture" and they'd probably be "here all night" - all the time unaware that on the other side of the glass every word was being boomed out over the speakers and directly into Valli's headphones. He started Take One, but it had to be stopped because of a technical problem. Take Two - the first complete take - was terrific. And a stunned Ramone said could he just have one more for safety's sake. Take Three was even better, and that's the one you hear on the record. In later years, Valli explained it this way: "It's a very, very tough song to do badly."
Oh, I don't know about that. As I said above, I've recorded it myself in what I thought was a great arrangement - twice, as it happens. The first time I didn't like my vocal. So a year or so later I did it again in a lower key, and this time I didn't like the piano. Listening to the track in the studio in Montreal, I saw our engineer, Pierre, type the title into his computer as "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You". "Take out that 'of'," I said.
"Are you sure?" asked Pierre. He'd always thought the title was "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You", which sounded weird to him but he assumed, as a francophone, it was some ungainly English usage with which he was unfamiliar.
Well, he was right both times. "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" is the official title, and it is ungainly. Lord knows why Bob Crewe wrote it that way, but, as with "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)", most subsequent recorded versions have amended the title: "Can't Take My Eyes Off You". It doesn't seem to have dented the song's popularity with singers, though. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and is one of the most performed and recorded numbers of the last half-century. It's likely to prove Bob Crewe's most enduring contribution to the American songbook.
Still, one can't but wonder what might have been had George Cornell wandered into the Blind Beggar for a pale ale a year later than he did, and been shot by Ronnie Kray when Andy Williams' version of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" was high on the British charts. In which case he'd have slumped to the floor and spent his final moments listening to:
Rest in peace, Bob Crewe.
September 15, 2014
The following essay is adapted from Mark's book A Song For The Season: In the weeks after September 11th, several commentators wanted to know why everyone was singing "God Bless America" rather than the national anthem. The song was everywhere in those early days, and various musicologists were called upon to speculate learnedly on why this song had caught the public mood: Perhaps "The Star-Spangled Banner" requires too great a range, perhaps its complex use of melismas demands a professional ...
Last week we marked the 75th anniversary of The Wizard Of Oz, but without getting to the film's big song. It's about five minutes in, when we're still in drab, dusty, cheerless, broken-down black-&-white Kansas. Dorothy has tried to tell her folks about an unpleasant incident involving Miss Gulch, but Aunt Em advises her to "stop imagining things" and "find yourself a place where you won't get into any trouble". Dorothy wanders off, taking the injunction seriously. "Do you think there is such a ...
This month marks the 75th anniversary of one of the greatest and most enduring film musicals ever made, and one of the few to match the dramatic ambition of the best Broadway shows. The Wizard Of Oz gave us a standard song that won the Oscar that year and was potent enough to provide Eva Cassidy with a posthumous hit in the 21st century. We'll get to that next week, but for this week's Song of the Week here's one of my personal favorites from a truly marvelous score: Ding-Dong! The Witch Is ...
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Three hit songs from one flop Sixties musical
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As I mentioned yesterday, we're having a mini-Canadian festival on this long weekend for Simcoe Day and whatnot. This month marks the centenary of one of my favorite Canadian songwriters, albeit one who retired far too early, and we're celebrating with her two biggest hits. The section on "I'll Never Smile Again" is adapted from my book A Song For The Season: "I'll Never Smile Again/Until I smile at you..."
A few weeks back, apropos "June Is Bustin' Out All Over", I mentioned that we hadn't done a lot of "month" songs in the years we've been running this feature. Some months - mostly spring ("April Showers", "April In Paris") and fall ("September Song", "September In The Rain") - seem to lend themselves to musicalization. If "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" is about as big a hit title as the sixth month of the year has ever produced, the eighth (which looms this very week) can't even manage a title ...
What with all the Jew-hate around on the streets of Europe in recent days, I thought it would be nice to have a big Europop hit from that fleeting cultural moment when the Continentals regarded Israel not merely as a normal sovereign state but in fact a rather cool and enviable one...
On Thursday I joined Hugh Hewitt for the 14th anniversary edition of The Hugh Hewitt Show, which he began by playing Mr and Mrs Hewitt's favorite song, "The Way You Look Tonight", as sung by Fred Astaire. I've been a weekly guest on Hugh's show for over a decade now, so as a tip of my hat to one of America's best hosts here's my take on that great Astaire song. This essay includes material from the Dorothy Fields section of Mark Steyn's American Songbook, personally autographed copies of which ...
I wouldn't want June to recede too far into the rear mirror without noting that it marked the 50th anniversary of a great and historic recording that, before the Sixties were out, burst the bounds of the planet. In June 1964, Frank Sinatra and Count Basie were in the studio making their second album together, It Might As Well Be Swing. The arranger was Quincy Jones, and his work for the set included a chart Frank kept in the act all the way to his very last concert...
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Some musical advice from Mark's graduation season
The all-time great World Cup song
Steyn celebrates the song Ray Charles used to hum in the back of his car on the way to the gig - until one day his driver told him to record it.
Well, it's the beginning of June and that means June is bustin' out all over! Except that June doesn't really bust, does it..?
This essay is adapted from Mark's book A Song For The Season:
Memorial Day in America â€“ or, if you're a real old-timer, Decoration Day, a day for decorating the graves of the Civil War dead. The songs many of those soldiers marched to are still known today â€“ "The Yellow Rose Of Texas", "When Johnny Comes Marching Home", "Dixie". But this one belongs in a category all its own...
Ninety years ago this Thursday a baby boy was born in Paris ...well, that was the first unexpected plot twist. He was supposed to be born in America...
Four decades ago, "Waterloo" hit Number One in the British charts, and the four Swedes never looked back, except to check whether their hot pants had split...
Mark explores the art of the cigarette song
One of the biggest pop standards of the 20th century celebrates its 90th birthday this month. Exactly nine decades ago - April 21st 1924 - a new musical comedy opened in Chicago on its pre-Broadway tour. The plot was the usual fluff - three couples in Atlantic City, complications ensue, etc. It should have been a breeze, but it wasn't going well...
Six decades ago - April 12th 1954 - a chubby-faced kiss-curled man pushing 30 with a backing group named after a theory published in Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae in 1705 went into the recording studio at the Pythian Temple on West 70th Street in New York and sang a song written by a man born in the 19th century...
A musical postscript to our Marlon Brando movie night
A Rodgers & Hart classic - after three false starts...
The 50th anniversary of the Beatles' only showtune
Shirley Temple - singer, dancer, actress, and rock'n'roller
Mark celebrates a classic saloon song
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Pete Seeger and the "folk song" he stole
Number One in January 1934 ...and January 1959
Mark tells the story behind "his" Christmas song, and presents an audio special celebrating the man who wrote it...
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A special audio edition including a live performance of Mark's favorite wartime ballad
John Barry was a versatile musician of prodigious talent who in a half-century career worked in pop music, film and theatre. But, if he'd never done anything else, he'd have a claim on posterity as the man who singlehandedly created the instantly recognizable sound of big-screen spy music.
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Mark celebrates the very first entry in the Sinatra Songbook - and one that stayed with him from big bands to disco
(Audio)To mark the centenary of one of the most successful songwriters of all time, Steyn presents a brand new Song of the Week audio edition, celebrating the man who wrote "Come Fly With Me", "Teach Me Tonight", "The Tender Trap", "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", "All The Way", "Call Me Irresponsible", "My Kind Of Town (Chicago Is)", and many more.
It's over two hours of great music and stories, including special material from the SteynOnline archives.
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To mark the passing of MGM's million-dollar mermaid: "On A Slow Boat To China", and "Baby, It's Cold Outside".
How a psychedelic anthem from the summer of love became an easy-listening blockbuster
A day late for Cinco de Mayo, here's Steyn's Song of the Week: the most successful composition by Mexico's first successful female composer.
~and don't forget, if you like Mark's Song of the Week essays, some of his most requested are collected in his book A Song For The Season - including many songs for national days, from "America The Beautiful" to "Waltzing Matilda". You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore.
April 29th apparently marks the anniversary of the launch of the Islamic conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the year 711. So I thought it would be fun to have a suitably Islamo-dominant number for our Song of the Week.
~and don't forget, some of Mark's most popular Song of the Week essays are collected in his book A Song For The Season. You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore.
An audio special in which Mark traces the story of the only Easter standard in the American songbook
The SteynOnline Hit Parade
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