When Chicago burned, I offered a song about Chicago. So, with Kenosha burning, I thought I'd offer a song about Kenosha - figuring the way things are going in America this format should keep me going till retirement. Alas, I failed to anticipate that there are apparently no songs about Kenosha. Oh, well. There must be a songwriter or two born in Kenosha. But again, apparently not. There is, however, a very great instrumentalist who, while not born in Kenosha, can legitimately claim to have been shaped by the town, both as a man and as a musician. I speak of the long-lived king of the vibes, Lionel Hampton.
After his father's death in the Great War, Hamp spent his boyhood in Kenosha, in the second decade of the twentieth century. He attended Holy Rosary Academy, whose mission was to educate black and Indian children. Young Lionel fell into the former category: He was black, and his life mattered because, at a time of far fewer opportunities, he didn't piss it away looting Macy's and burning Wendy's. Instead, a Dominican sister taught him the basics of percussion, and he went on to play fife and drums in various school bands. At fifteen he left for Los Angeles, and one day, booked as a drummer on a Louis Armstrong session, he noticed a vibraphone over in the corner of the studio. He had never before played such a thing, but he wandered over and started noodling around, and the guys listening liked it so much they had him play vibes on one of the tracks.
Over a career stretching beyond three-quarters of a century, Lionel Hampton wrote just one standard song, which took its sweet time becoming first a song and then a standard. But this is how it was introduced to the world, in 1947, and with not just Hampton but a young Wes Montgomery on guitar:
It was, in fact, already a couple of years old by then, written by Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke back in the mid-Forties. Burke was a fitful composer: He composed that slow-burn Peggy Lee classic "Black Coffee" and then went on to write (with Peg) the songs for Disney's Lady And The Tramp, one of which I re-purposed here. He ended his career as Frank Sinatra's producer at Reprise: No one really "produced" Frank, but Sonny Burke came closer than most; for example, he's the guy who came up with the idea for Trilogy: Past, Present, Future. But before all of that he was a very respected arranger with the Charlie Spivak and Jimmy Dorsey bands. So it seems not unreasonable to assume that, with this instrumental, Hamp came up with the themes - the principal material sounds very vibes-like - and that Burke knitted them together and fleshed them out. Conversely, maybe Burke came up with the whole thing, and Hamp demanded a co-writer's credit as the price for playing it. But I prefer the first option.
Sooner or later someone staples words to just about every popular jazz instrumental. But, from Duke Ellington's "Take The A Train" to Bill Evans' "Waltz For Debby", they somehow never quite convince you they're anything other than instrumental pieces to which a lyric has been appended. They fail the test of that marvelous Encyclopedia Britannica definition that Ira Gershwin liked to quote:
SONG is the joint art of words and music, two arts under emotional pressure coalescing into a third.
With lyricized instrumentals, they rarely "coalesce" in the way that, say, "Ol' Man River" or "Over The Rainbow" do. It's like putting words to Beethoven's Fifth: You can do it but the lyric winds up riding the tune like a jockey, rather than achieving, as Britannica puts it, the status of a third, joint art. Still, there are a handful of exceptions, and this can just about claim to be one of them.
It happened this way. One day in 1954 Johnny Mercer was driving from Palm Springs to Hollywood when, midway through the desert, he heard an instrumental that caught his fancy. So he pulled into a gas station and called the radio station. He told them who he was and then asked if they'd mind playing the tune again. Which would be a problem today when it's all programmed by a computer thousands of miles away three months in advance, but things were different then. "I love it," Mercer told the station, and asked them if it had a name. It did: "Midnight Sun".
So, when the disc-jockey played it a second time, Mercer knew the tune already had a title. Which, if you're sitting in your car on the California freeway and figuring you'll write a lyric to pass the time, ought to be a big help. Except that the midnight sun is such a particular situation, it's hard to figure it'd be much use in a love song. That's not how Mercer saw it, though. "The first thing I thought of with 'Midnight Sun' was 'aurora borealis'," he said. "I heard it in the music. It fit the music. I thought, well, what rhymes with aurora borealis?" And, if you're on the freeway, you can't consult a rhyming dictionary. Nevertheless, from somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind, he worked out the answer:
Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice
Warmer than the summer night
The clouds were like an alabaster palace
Rising to a snowy height
Each star its own aurora borealis
Suddenly you held me tight
I could see the Midnight Sun...
For a long time, I used to blow hot and cold on "Midnight Sun". Even if the tune demands it, a three-way feminine rhyme - "meeting/bleating/greeting" - usually comes out sounding either dull or obtrusive or both, and Mercer's choices - "chalice/palace/borealis" - seemed like an exercise in contrivance. But Hamp's theme is so confidently beguiling, you want the lyric to work. And, as Mercer hints in the release, the ornate unreality is the point:
Was there such a night?
It's a thrill I still don't quite
But after you were gone
There was still some stardust on my sleeve...
"By the time I got to Los Angeles from Newport Beach," said Mercer, "I had that lyric finished, in my car. So then I called up to find out who published it and if they had a lyric, and would they be interested if they didn't. And they didn't and they were."
In his book The Poets Of Tin Pan Alley, the late Philip Furia makes an interesting observation:
In 'Midnight Sun', the oldest clich├ęs of the Alley, appropriately it would seem, are pushed to baroque extremes: lips 'like a red and ruby chalice', clouds 'like an alabaster palace', and every star 'its own aurora borealis'. It's as if the lyric itself is a midnight sun, a last blaze of an Alley style extinguishing itself along with the Broadway stage and Hollywood studios its songs once had fueled.
Well, I don't know about that last bit. Mercer himself had plenty of hits ahead of him: "Satin Doll", "Moon River", "Days Of Wine And Roses". But it is striking that he wrote up Hamp's tune as a kind of hyper-pop song - traditional imagery pushed, as Furia says, to "baroque extremes". Perhaps that's why singers love it, from Ella, slow and dreamy...
...to Frank Sinatra Jr, flip and swingin':
Lorenz Hart, of Rodgers &, used to say that he hated "now singers", as in obtrusive grace notes of thoughtless singers: "Now Ol' Man River, that Ol' Man River, now he mus' know somethin'..." "Now It Had To Be You, It Had To Be You, now I wandered around..." "Now God save our gracious Queen..." Junior's doing a fair bit of now singing above, but it's a cracking Billy May arrangement originally written for Junior's dad that Frank Senior never got around to, and so I'll tolerate the nows.
We should note, by the way, that "Midnight Sun" is not exclusively a jazz standard. The Beach Boys had a go at it, and so did the Aussie electronica band The Avalanches:
We heard Hamp's take on the tune up at the top, so I suppose we ought to hear Johnny Mercer's take on his lyric. My old chum Ken Barnes produced this album, for which I'm grateful, but I do regret the fairly blah arrangement the Harry Roche Constellation is chugging through:
I never met Mercer, but I found Lionel Hampton a lovely man, who loved songs and surely had more in him. But he also loved being a showman - there's a famous anecdote about him appearing on an aquacade double-bill with Louis Armstrong, who wowed the house, prompting Hamp to climax his set by getting the drummer to dive into the pool. I've never checked out the story, not so much because I'd be disappointed if it never happened but because I have fond hopes that rather than the drummer taking a dive it was the entire horn section.
But, as I said, he was savvy about songs, and, given that he and Mercer had both worked for Benny Goodman, you'd think there must have been some other half-formed doodles of his Johnny could have written up. But no, there's just a "Midnight Sun". Like the man said, was there such a night? In song - even in a song written on the freeway heading back to Los Angeles - all things are possible:
The flame of it may dwindle to an ember
And the stars forget to shine
And we may see the meadow in December
Icy white and crystalline
But oh, my darling, always I'll remember
When your lips were close to mine
And I saw the Midnight Sun.
Ah, but that was then and this is now - when the midnight sun is just a flaming precinct house in an American city on the far horizon...
If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we have a mini-companion, a Song of the Week Extra, on our audio edition of The Mark Steyn Show - and sometimes with special guests from Mark's archive, including Eurovision's Dana, Ted Nugent, Peter Noone & Herman's Hermits, Patsy Gallant, Paul Simon, Lulu, Tim Rice and Randy Bachman.
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've done the same for our musical features merely to provide some mellifluous diversions in this age of lockdown and looting. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Liza Minnelli to Loudon Wainwright III; Mark's interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse's lyrics, John Barry's Bond themes, sunshine songs from the Sunshine State, 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 house arrest without end and revolution on the streets.