Tonight is Oscar Night in Hollywood, which I find all but unwatchable these days. It is our custom to have an Academy Award-winning Best Song on this night, but, for the first time, I'm beginning to wonder if we've exhausted the possibilities. Fifty years ago, the Oscar went to "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head", but we did that just the other day. Seventy-five years ago, it was "Swingin' on a Star", but we've done that, too. Seventy and eighty years ago, the winners were, respectively, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and "Over the Rainbow", but we've done both of them. Eighty-five years ago, they handed out the first ever Best Song statuette to "The Continental", but yeah, been there, done that.
So, while I'm brooding, enjoy a name that will surely figure in the In Memoriam sequence - the late Kirk Douglas, who left us a few days ago at the age of 103. Here he is at the 1958 Academy Awards warbling and hoofing with his old pal Burt Lancaster in a way that is almost impossible to imagine any current A-listers doing - with bonus appearances by Alec Guinness, Marlon Brando, Charles Laughton and the Tonys Franciosa and Quinn:
We'll have more Oscar Night japes before the end, but first: Who wrote that bit of material? Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen did.
Why, there's an idea! How about a Cahn & Van Heusen song? As it happens, Jimmy Van Heusen died almost exactly thirty years ago, on February 6th 1990. I recall the day very well - first, because he was (and is) one of my favorite composers, but, second, because my editor at The Independent asked if I could persuade his longtime lyricist Sammy Cahn to say a few words in appreciation. So I picked up the telephone, and Sammy answered rather dramatically with the words: "I know why you've called." He had usually a light airy voice, so I was momentarily thrown off by the weight of his delivery.
They won three Oscars together - for "All the Way", "High Hopes" and "Call Me Irresponsible - and each won another separately, Cahn for "Three Coins in the Fountain", Van Heusen for the aforementioned "Swingin' on a Star". But the very first song they wrote was an Oscar nominee that flopped out on the big night, but in the years since has far outlasted the picture it came from.
Cahn I knew well, Van Heusen less so. Frank Sinatra knew him well enough to call him "Chester", which was his original moniker - Chester Babcock - until his boss at WSYR Syracuse told him to come up with something less ridiculous and he looked out the window and saw across the street a delivery truck for Van Heusen shirts.
"Here's That Rainy Day" would be enough for any man, but "I Thought About You", "But Beautiful", "It Could Happen to You", "Moonlight Becomes You", "Darn That Dream", "Like Someone in Love" come pretty close. And they're just the ballads. "I took songwriting seriously when I discovered girls," he said. But not until he was pushing sixty did he take the girls seriously. He wrote exquisite melodies of love in all its highs and lows that Jimmy Van Heusen apparently never experienced until very late in life. He saw it in others, though: It is said that, when Ava Gardner dumped Sinatra, Frank attempted to slash his wrists and it was Jimmy who found him and took him to hospital. I never quite buy that story, and Van Heusen never spoke of it. But, if it ever occurred, "Chester" would almost certainly have been the pally to hand. Frank and Jimmy, hard-living, hard-working, hard-playing and hard-drinking, stuck together till the end - and beyond: Van Heusen is one of only two non-Sinatras to be buried in the Sinatra family plot (the other being Frank's favorite restaurateur and sometime bodyguard Jilly Rizzo).
On this thirtieth anniversary of his death, here's a Jimmy Van Heusen tune from the hinge moment of his career - from the end of his days with Johnny Burke and the very beginning of his partnership with Sammy Cahn. Cahn & Van Heusen didn't just write Sinatra's songs. In the Fifties they helped define the singer's new persona after his fall at Columbia and re-birth at Capitol. When Sinatra returned, he was no longer the shy bow-tied boy and bobbysoxers' pin-up, but a dice-rollin' finger-snappin' swingin' bachelor with a round-the-clock invitation to party: "Come Dance With Me", "Come Fly With Me", "Come Blow Your Horn..."
But careful - because sometimes no matter how confidently you're tootin' that horn, some dame'll come along and put a padlock on it:
You see a pair of laughing eyes
And suddenly you're sighing sighs
You're thinking nothing's wrong
You string along
Boy, then snap!
Back in 1955 that was the very first song by a brand new songwriting team. Songwriting partnerships are themselves a tender trap: You're thinking nothing's wrong, you string along, boy, then snap! For the first decade of his solo career, young Frank Sinatra had his own in-house writers - Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. They provided a lot of big hits for him in the Forties - "Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night in the Week)", "I Fall in Love Too Easily", "Five Minutes More", "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry", "Time After Time"... Sammy, as Jule Styne told me years ago, loved writing big-band pop songs. Jule liked writing them, too, but it wasn't all he wanted to do: He dreamed of being a Broadway composer, a musical dramatist - and that sounded too much like hard work to Cahn. "Do you think," I asked Styne, "two people who write a song, writing together, that they reach a stage where..."
Jule interrupted me: "They outgrow each other," he said. "And it's a healthy thing. That's how I broke up with Sammy Cahn. And I didn't speak to Sinatra for three years – or he didn't speak to me for three years... I went to Frank. I said 'Frank, you know, I don't want to build my whole career around you. I find that now I'm writing just nothing but Sinatra songs. And if I write for Doris Day, it shouldn't be a Sinatra song. So I'll be good for you, and you should sing everybody's tunes. I've had six wonderful years with you...'"
And Styne went off to become the most successful Broadway composer of the post-war era - Bells Are Ringing, Gypsy, Funny Girl... As for his former lyricist, "Sammy Cahn stayed on in that Hollywood way, writing those clicky-clacky theme songs," said Jule dismissively, "and he didn't expand himself. He didn't broaden out."
In fact, the first of Cahn's post-Styne clicky-clacky theme songs was rather good. At the same time as Frank Sinatra's in-house writers were dissolving their partnership, so too were Bing Crosby's. Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke had written so many Crosby signature songs - "But Beautiful", "Moonlight Becomes You", "It's Always You" - but they too were outgrowing each other. Or, in Burke's case, out-drinking. Which, up against Van Heusen, is no mean accomplishment.
Jimmy Van Heusen was a close pal of Frank's: They both worked hard, and played hard. As I wrote last year:
Van Heusen played a big part in the celebrification of Palm Springs: He was one of the earliest Hollywood guys to take a pad in the California desert, liked the life, and tempted first Crosby and then Sinatra to join him. And the two preeminent interpreters of America's standard repertoire liked to have Jimmy close at hand for whatever was needed: thirty-two bars of music, eighteen holes of golf, a round apiece at eighteen bars or thirty-two watering holes... In my Sammy Cahn centenary podcast, I reprised a line Sammy used on me many years ago:
'Every man in the world wants to be Frank Sinatra. Except Frank Sinatra. He wants to be Jimmy Van Heusen.'
Sammy says on the show that Jimmy had 'a lust for life' - and not just for the things successful showbiz types usually lust over. Thus, Van Heusen isn't merely the guy who composed 'Come Fly With Me', he flew fighter jets as a test pilot for Lockheed Martin; if you were so minded, you could come fly with him. On the podcast, you'll hear Sammy tell me:
'When people said to me "Who's the most fascinating man you ever met?", that's easy: Jimmy Van Heusen.
'"Jimmy Van Heusen? What about Sinatra?"
'Sinatra thinks he's Van Heusen but he can't pass the physical.'
I laughed, and Sammy said, 'And that's not a joke.'
Sinatra, Cahn and Van Heusen were all pals, but it was Frank's idea to snaffle Jimmy away from the increasingly self-destructive Johnny Burke and pair him up with Sammy. Asked the old question - what comes first, the words or the music? - Sammy used to answer: "The phone call." As he used to put it, "Do you think I'm wandering around all day going, 'I must write a song called "Three Coins In The Fountain"' Do I look like a nut?" He was an assignment writer: He didn't wait for the muse, he waited for the phone to ring and someone to make him an offer. And one day, at a low point after the break with Jule Styne, the phone rang and it was Frank Sinatra to say, "I'd like you to do a song with Van Heusen."
And Sammy said, "No, no. He's a team with Burke." As Cahn says on the podcast, "He and Burke were joined at the hip." He kept protesting, and said he wasn't going to call Van Heusen, so Frank says no problem: "I'll have Van Heusen call you." And he did.
The assignment was a title song for a new movie: The Tender Trap, starring Sinatra, with Debbie Reynolds and Celeste Holm as the younger and older women attempting to get him to settle down, with David Wayne as the longtime married buddy envious of Frank's swingin' bachelor life. So the song took its title from the film, which took its title from the modestly successful Broadway play. If we didn't already know Sinatra's great record, I'm not sure it would strike most writers as the most promising title for a pop hit. In fact, ever after, whenever the great Jack Benny ran into Cahn at a party, he 'd put his hand to his cheek in mock amazement and marvel, "And how could anyone write a song called 'The Tender Trap'?" And then he'd persuade Sammy to sing it, which didn't take a lot of arm-twisting.
Cahn liked the title. "When I heard the word 'trap', I heard the word 'snap' and the song was practically written in my mind," he told me. That was another difference between Cahn and Johnny Burke. The latter liked to have the music first and then he'd put words to it. Cahn was happy to write the lyric first. I once watched him at his Smith-Corona in the Warner Chappell office, and I thought, wow, it's like it's a musical typewriter. If you look at the first line of "Tender Trap":
You see a pair of laughing eyes...
Di-TUM-ti-TUM-ti-TUM-ti TUM... I can hear him tapping it out. He wrote onomatopoeically - what sounds did the title suggest and what words did they form? - and hoped his composer would hear what he heard in the words and then improve on it. That first session with his new writing partner didn't go so well. It was late at night (as the composer preferred) over at Van Heusen's pad, which used to be Robert Stack's mother's home. It was built into the side of one of the Hollywood Hills and had four stories and elevators (which was unusual back then). Van Heusen lay on the couch with eyes closed and hands behind his head, and Cahn went to his typewriter and galloped ahead:
You're hand in hand beneath the trees
And soon there's music in the breeze
You're acting kinda smart
Until your heart
Just goes wap!
They're part of The Tender Trap...
As Sammy always explained it, when he wrote a very rhythmic main theme, he'd go for something broad and legato for the middle section:
Some starry night
When her kisses make you tingle
She'll hold you tight
And you'll hate yourself for being single...
It looked great on the typewriter paper. The problems started when he ripped it out and stuck it on the piano, and Jimmy Van Heusen rose from the couch to do his part. "He played me a really, really - I thought - ordinary tune, but I wasn't going to be, you know, critical at our first session." And then the evening took a further downturn: "Suddenly the doorbell rang," Sammy told me, "and who came in? Johnny Burke. And that's like being caught with somebody's wife, you know? The intruder!"
He's not kidding. A songwriting partnership is like a marriage, with all the highs and lows. Burke had accepted that he and Van Heusen were over. But it's easy to say that until you stroll down the street and see your ex- with his new trophy wife. And, while balding, bespectacled, shnookish Sammy is an unlikely trophy wife, that was the basic dynamic as he and Burke stood face to face. "We exchanged some pleasantries and finally I excused myself," he said. "I couldn't wait to get out of there because I was embarrassed by him being there - and I was also embarrassed by the melody."
One of the problems was that Burke was a slow writer who would often take weeks over a lyric, and Cahn was a fast writer who on slow days would take up to twenty minutes. There were occasions when you wish he'd taken a little more time - as in the appallingly lazy opening to one of Sinatra's best ballad albums and one of Van Heusen's most profound melodies:
Each place I go
Only The Lonely go
Some little small café...
As opposed to a large small café? Or a little big café?
But in the case of "The Tender Trap" Cahn had rushed not only the lyric but Van Heusen's music, too.
So the next day the composer called Sammy and said, "That tune wasn't very good."
"Well, I don't know," replied Cahn, in an unconvincing attempt to be tactful.
But Van Heusen insisted: "No, really, it wasn't very good..."
"Not very good?" repeated Cahn, who was beginning to find tact something of a strain. "That was one of the worst tunes I've ever..."
"Well, here's how it goes today," said Van Heusen, and played "The Tender Trap" that we all know:
And all at once it seems so nice
The folks are throwing shoes and rice
You hurry to a spot
That's just a dot
On the map
You're caught in The Tender Trap...
And so were Cahn & Van Heusen: hooked and cooked and caught, with Frank throwing shoes and rice at his new in-house songwriting team. If you asked him, Sammy could never remember Jimmy's original tune, but evidently, having slept on it, the composer had belatedly heard what Cahn's typewriter was trying to say: the tumty-tumty of "You see a pair of laughing eyes" that he turned into an ingeniously simple two-note seesaw. It plays like a simple 32-bar pop song, but it's not. The main phrase is eight bars, and then on that big staccato "snap!" "wap!" "map!" Van Heusen takes a measure to cushion Cahn's exclamation, before the lyric returns for a four-bar tag: "Those eyes, those sighs..." So that's a 12-bar main section.
Aside from writing quickly, Cahn never liked to write more than he needed. But he felt that for the out-chorus the four-bar tag to the main theme needed to be extended still further:
And then you wonder how
It all came about
It's too late now
There's no gettin' out
You fell in love
Is The Tender Trap.
So that's 50 bars in total.
I haven't seen the film in many years, but I always remember the opening - designed to cash in on the awesome unbounded plains of the then new CinemaScope. We discern a speck on the distant horizon, coming closer, walking toward us, until you can distinguish the suit and signature hat, and all the way he's singing the first song of what would prove an enduring musical partnership:
That's Jeff Alexander's arrangement for the picture, and it's perfectly adequate. But, of course, the truly great arrangement was Nelson Riddle's for Sinatra's Capitol single. Yet that, too, nearly went as horribly wrong as Cahn & Van Heusen's first writing session. At the studio, Ted Nash, the tenor sax, did his stuff in the instrumental break, and then Sinatra returned to reprise the middle section through to that tag above. At the end - "You fell in love, and love is The Tender Trap" - Sinatra sang the final "love" merely as written, and the whole thing ended very subdued.
Sammy Cahn loved to sing, and, because of that, he understood how important it was in a song to leave space for a singer's interpretation. But he was also a lethal song seller and not shy about teaching his material to Sinatra or anybody else. After hearing Frank's undersold finale, he protested, "No, no, you can't finish it like that."
"So how am I supposed to finish it?"
"You have to go up, take it up an octave. 'Love' is the big climax." And as was his wont he showed Sinatra what he meant:
You fell in love
Is The Tender Trap.
"That's an F," said Frank, who didn't usually go there.
"Yeah," said Sammy. "That's an F. And you're Frank Sinatra."
Frank thought about it, and then he called back the orchestra and did one more take, doing it Sammy's way - at the very edge of his range. That high F is the highest note Sinatra sang during his entire time with Capitol Records - and it's a spectacular finish.
By coincidence, the Pundette this week is celebrating Sinatra's recording of "Be Careful, It's My Heart", from the dawn of the Reprise era. She loves everything about it except Frank's other high F - on the very last word. I agree with her on that.
Sinatra generally eschewed the big finish as cornball stuff that could wreck the dramatic integrity of the number. He and Nelson Riddle gave great thought as to where the big open-voiced climax would come, and then they liked to come down for a soft landing. The big "love" on "Tender Trap" is great because it's not the last note.
Sinatra sang it live occasionally - because audiences loved it - and then remade it in 1962 with Count Basie:
in a Neal Hefti arrangement that seems to cater to the band's needs more than Frank's. But what can you do? After Cahn had helped him improve the ending, Sinatra's original single was the first and last word on the song. Why compete with yourself?
Perhaps because there was no point going near "The Tender Trap", singers went off looking for tenderer traps. A few years later, Bobby Darin had some success with "That's The Way Love Is":
You're feeling low and oh so small
Then suddenly you're eight feet tall
She just walked in the room
And the gloomy room just glows
That's The Way Love Is
That's how it goes...
- which is basically "The Tender Trap" sideways, except for a bit of Raj nostalgia in the middle-eight:
It's the world's oldest unsolved riddle
The kind of game you just can't win
And if you come up with the answer
You're a better man, sir
Than I, Gunga Din..
By 1960, even Sinatra, Cahn & Van Heusen were getting a piece of the "Tender Trap" sideways action, with "Ring-A-Ding-Ding".
Occasionally, though, someone else actually walked into the "Trap". Sammy Davis Jr decided he wanted to sing it and Cahn provided him with some space-age lyrics:
Let's face it, lad
Love has got you in its pocket
There's no launch pad
But you'll take off like a big fat rocket
You've looked into the perfect face
And you're an astronaut in space
Without the flying suit, the flying boots and the cap!
Do astronauts wear caps? Isn't it a helmet? No matter. Coming in for the close, both Sams - Cahn and Davis - abandon the space metaphor and acknowledge the inevitable:
And then you wonder how
It all came to pass
But like Sinatra says
'Man, ain't it a gas!'
Indeed. I must confess, though, that as special material goes I tip my hat to Oscar host Billy Crystal and his writer Marc Shaiman at the Academy Awards a couple of decades back. Among the nominees that year was The Crying Game. So you'll know where we're headed:
You see a pair of laughing eyes
Your hand starts creeping up her thighs
You hurry to that spot
You're hot to trot
For this dame!
It's The Crying Game...
It crops up about eleven minutes in below:
So "The Tender Trap" finally got its moment in the sun, as it assuredly did not sixty-four years ago, when along with "Unchained Melody", "Something's Gotta Give" and "I'll Never Stop Loving You", it lost to "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing".
As special material goes, Marc Shaiman and Billy Crystal do the original proud. I appreciate the quaintly outré slang like "dame": It's that kind of attention to detail that makes a parody. Maybe the song is of its era, from a movie nobody remembers, but six decades on it still sounds great and it captures a moment, a sensibility - when Sinatra's mid-life persona emerged fully formed, when the whole package was in sync: He looked the way the orchestration sounded - and Cahn & Van Heusen distilled his personality into song form. I mentioned a while back that Michael Feinstein, who can be a bit finnicky about these things, deplored the way Sinatra would amend and Frankify a number, but he very perceptively observed that Frank tended not to do that with Cahn & Van Heusen.
Why? Because he didn't need to. Because the song was perfectly tailored to Sinatra from the get-go.
You wonder how it all came about? Because a very shrewd and insightful singer picked up the phone and called an out-of-work lyricist and said, "I'd like you to do a song with Van Heusen." And from that very smart move came "The Tender Trap" and then a succession of other glorious songs tailor-made for a very particular category: Sinatra songs.
~There's plenty more with Mark and Sammy Cahn in our two-part Sammy centenary podcast. And Cahn is a big part of the stories behind many other Sinatra songs in Mark Steyn's American Songbook. Steyn's original 1998 obituary of Frank, "The Voice", can be found in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore - and, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter the Club promo code at checkout for special member pricing.
Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn's Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we thought we'd do the same for our musical features. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Randy Bachman to Liza Minnelli; Mark's interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse's songs, John Barry's Bond themes, Simon after Garfunkel, and much more. We'll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you'll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from the woes of the world.
What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it's an audio Book of the Month Club and a video poetry circle, and a live music club. We don't (yet) have a Mark Steyn clubhouse, but we do have other benefits - and the Third Annual Steyn Cruise, on which we always do a live-performance edition of our Song of the Week. And, if you've got some kith or kin who might like the sound of all that and more, we also have a special Gift Membership. More details here.