Occasionally, when I'm doing a long in-depth interview, my interlocutor will ask me, being a writer-type chappie, when did I first become interested in language - or alternatively, as a writer about music, when did I first become interested in the language of songs specifically. The answer to the latter (and possibly the former, too) I can pinpoint very precisely. "Goodness Gracious Me" was a Top Five hit for the unlikely double-act of Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers, the latter playing an Indian doctor and the former his mysteriously stricken patient. It had a long afterlife on children's radio shows around the Commonwealth because its boom-boody-boom hook is fun for kids to sing along to. But I remember the day, as a slightly older young'un, that after thoughtlessly boom-boody-booming along, I heard - or paid attention to - for the very first time Peter Sellers' intervening patter:
From New Delhi to Darjeeling
I have done my share of healing
And I've never yet been beaten or outboxed
I remember that with one jab
Of my needle in the Punjab
How I cleared up beriberi...
Wait a minute, what was that? The Punjab I knew vaguely from a reference in some recent telly show or book, but I had never before noticed that that funny Peter Sellers had rhymed it - and I remember being aware that it was the rhyme that made it both arresting and pleasurable. And that's, alas, how for me the whole rigmarole began...
The song was supposed to go into Miss Loren and Mr Sellers' new film The Millionairess, but the producers decided they were not so fond of it. The YouTube version below is an enterprising fellow's near-lip-synching of song and movie, which you'll find either ingenious or faintly irritating:
The man who came up with the idea of a Peter Sellers/Sophia Loren duet was Sellers' record producer, George Martin (not yet of Beatles fame). So he commissioned Dave Lee to compose the music and a fellow called Herbert Kretzmer to write the words. And so it is to Mr Kretzmer rather than Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart that I owe the first sung rhyme to lodge itself in my brain as such. On Wednesday's Mark Steyn Show I concluded by wishing Herbie, lyricist of Les Misérables, a belated happy 95th birthday, and playing his and Dave Lee's great song for Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman, "Kinky Boots", an unlikely Top Five hit in 1990. No sooner had we posted the show than the news broke that Herbie Kretzmer had died in the early hours that morning.
Les Miz is, of course, a phenomenon: It's the all-time longest-running London musical (since 1985) and the second-longest on the planet (after the original off-Broadway run of The Fantasticks, which Les Miz seems likely to eclipse if Doris Johnson ever re-legalizes live stage performance in the UK). Herbie's co-writers, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, mourned their colleague's passing:
There will no longer be three of us taking a bow on stage when Cameron [Mackintosh] introduces 'the creators of Les Misérables!' Herbert Kretzmer sadly passed away last night. Herbie was a vibrant, hard-working man, but above all a man with an exceptional moral force as well as a brilliant lyricist.
Thanks to him, Les Misérables found its English voice - Herbie embraced our original version and turned it into a work that speaks to the rest of the world. On his 90th birthday, he stood on the stage of the Queen's Theatre, by then already frail, to receive a standing ovation! There is no doubt that we, along with the public, will continue to clap for him again and again, thankful for his talent. Herbie may no longer be present, but he will always be here with us as there is more than a little bit of Jean Valjean in him.
Herbie was a tall courtly South African, the son of Lithuanian Jews who fled the Tsar and wound up in the Orange Free State. In the 1990s his oldest brother became Mayor of Johannesburg, which would be sufficient honor to make him the most distinguished member of most families, but not in this case, the junior Kretzmer's unlikely adaptation of Victor Hugo having already embarked on its conquest of the planet.
I associate Herbert Kretzmer with a very happy time in my life, when I was a young man about town doing a bit of light theatrical criticism, and Herbie was kind enough to take me seriously. He had been a West End drama critic himself, and, at the time I first met him, The Daily Mail's TV reviewer. He was a brilliant journalist, and, if you don't believe me, check out the wonderful anthology he published a couple of years ago of some of his favorite interviews - with Frank Sinatra, Leni Riefenstahl, Sugar Ray Robinson, Marlene Dietrich, Marcel Marceau, Judy Garland, Matt Busby... He had a sharp mind on all kinds of subjects: Herbie is the only man on the planet ever to explain the OJ verdict to me in plausible legal reasoning, as opposed to the usual if-the-glove-don't-fit wankery. He had been a hardworking reporter for The Sunday Express in Johannesburg, and, for his first three decades after disembarking in Southampton, the songwriting was just a sideline.
After "Goodness Gracious" came "That Was The Week That Was", the BBC's satirical take on current affairs launched in 1962. The show was devised by my friend and mentor Ned Sherrin, presented by David Frost, and written by the likes of John Betjeman, Peter Cook, Roald Dahl, John Cleese and Graham Chapman (Ned, to the end, had a beady eye for rising talent). Each episode began with Millicent Martin (best known to Americans, I think, as Daphne's mum on "Frasier") singing "That was the week that was/It's over, let it go...", followed by Herbie Kretzmer's lyrical précis of the previous seven days, which gave him the chance to show off funny rhymes.
And then, on Friday November 22nd 1963, the President of the United States was assassinated in Dallas - and Herbie and Dave Lee were told the jokes were off and were given a few hours to come up with a serious song. I have no idea how I would have responded to such a short-notice commission, but this is what Lee and Kretzmer turned in an hour and a half later for Millie Martin (it starts about two minutes in):
NBC broadcast the show in the United States the following day, and the great Dorothy Fields asked that the song be entered in the Congressional record. All sorts of eminent Americans recorded it - from Kate Smith to Mahalia Jackson to Connie Francis - and for a while it trembled on the brink of a massive hit, until America's radio stations turned against it, on the grounds either that there was something vaguely unseemly about getting a blockbuster smash out of a presidential assassination or that the thing was a bit of a downer among all the bouncy-bouncy poppy stuff.
But still: Herbie, a very part-time songwriter, had managed to attract the appreciation of Dorothy Fields, lyricist of "The Way You Look Tonight", "I Won't Dance", "Pick Yourself Up" and many more. Long before he wrote his own songs, he knew everybody else's - which isn't always conducive; it becomes too crushing a burden. In my book Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, Herbie gave me his thoughts on the relationship of words to music: "It's a question," he said, "of finding what Johnny Mercer called the sound of the music. You're trying to capture something as elusive as a sound ...which suggests a word ...from which, eventually, a complete lyric emerges." A lot of songwriters think that's making far too much of a meal of it: Just rattle it off and get on to the next one. But, if that's your standard, bits and bobs of lyrics can niggle away at you. Thirty years ago, I used to see Herbie at a lot of workshops for new musicals, some of which became massive hits, most of which didn't. I'd say something like, "I'm quite partial to that bossa nova", and he'd say, "Yes, but 'of' is a very weak word on that long note. Why don't they say..?", and somehow he'd manage to improve the song as we were strolling up the aisle to the bar. At one such workshop, by a very prestigious writing team, there was one of those rhymes that draws attention to itself - "going nowhere in mohair" - and then set me wondering whether in any variant of English it actually rhymed at all - nowhere/mowhere? mohair/no hair? At the end, I said tentatively, "Herbie, did you notice that line..?" And he interrupted: "I know exactly what you're referring to."
One day the music publisher David Platz called Kretzmer and asked him if he fancied a weekend in France with Charles Aznavour, a huge star in the francophone world but not one with any great presence in Britain or America. There wasn't a lot in "Goodness Gracious Me" or topical telly songs for Millie Martin to indicate Herbie was the obvious guy for French composers in need of English words. Nevertheless, Kretzmer grabbed his passport and hurried off. He and Aznavour spent two days at the singer's home outside Paris going through various of his songs and winnowing them down to a dozen or so that especially appealed to Herbie. One of them was called "Hier encore":
J'avais vingt ans,
Je caressais le temps
Et jouais de la vie
Comme on joue de l'amour,
Et je vivais la nuit
Sans compter sur mes jours...
Which means more or less:
I was twenty years old
I caressed time
And played at life
As one plays at love
And I lived for the night
Without counting my days...
Kretzmer decided to call it "Only Yesterday", and headed back to London. There's nothing wrong with that: A few years later, the Carpenters would have a hit with a song by that name. But a day or two after getting home Herbie had come up with a better title: "Yesterday When I Was Young." It's working the same general turf, but with a little more bite and focus:
When I Was Young
The taste of life was sweet
As rain upon my tongue
I teased at life as if
It were a foolish game
The way the evening breeze
May tease a candle flame...
I always liked that "breeze"/"tease" internal rhyme, especially the way Aznavour sang it. Years later, Herbie would bristle somewhat on being introduced as the "translator" of Les Misérables. As he put it to me, "I'm not a translator, and I'm not interested in translation." Instead, he took the mood of the music and the theme of the French text, and he intensified it, made it more specific. They offered the song to Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, and every other male singer. And their New York publisher told them "Yesterday When I Was Young" was a lousy title, because the music business was all about the youth market and even the old guys went around pretending to be young:
When I Was Young
So many happy songs
Were waiting to be sung...
And this one waited and waited. The perfect guy would have been Sinatra, but he'd done a whole album in the key of yesterday-when-I-was-young just a couple of years earlier to mark his 50th birthday. September Of My Years was just that: songs for the old and the old at heart, including the album's masterpiece, "It Was A Very Good Year". And so "Yesterday When I Was Young" sat around until Roy Clark picked it up. Herbie was wont to call Clark a "country singer" but he was really more admired as a guitarist and banjo-picker than as a vocalist, and better known for his stints on "Hee-Haw" and "The Beverly Hillbillies". Yet he did Aznavour's tune straightforwardly and without making a meal of the lyric, and suddenly "Yesterday When I Was Young" was a hit. Clark wasn't that old - barely thirty-five - but the end of the record is oddly moving:
The time has come for me to pay
When I Was Young.
And after that almost all the fellows who'd turned it down - Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams - decided they'd like to record it. Except, that is, Sinatra - even though "Yesterday When I Was Young" is far better than the elegaic French tune he did wind up putting in the act ("My Way"). As a bittersweet summation of life and time, "Yesterday" wants some great iconic figure bringing his legend to bear on it. The nearest it got in those first few years was a record by Bing Crosby made in London in 1977. Bing was working on an album called Seasons - "Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year", "In The Good Old Summertime", "Autumn In New York" - and out of the blue decided he wanted to do "Yesterday When I Was Young" as the final track. His fine producer, Ken Barnes, told me he was a little befuddled by Crosby's demand: all the other songs were about months and seasonal weather and suchlike, and he couldn't see how it fit with the album's theme. But Bing insisted the seasons were really a metaphor for the span of a man's life and this was a great way to wrap it all up:
I ran so fast that time
And youth at last ran out
I never stopped to think
What life was all about...
The septuagenarian Crosby was in great voice on that track. On September 14th 1977, he wrapped up the session and left the Whitfield Street studio. Exactly one month later - October 14th - he dropped dead on a golf course in Spain. And so "Yesterday When I Was Young" proved to be the final track on the final album of Bing Crosby's fifty-year career:
There are so many songs
In me that won't be sung
I feel the bitter taste
Of tears upon my tongue
The time has come for me...
There are female versions of the song - Dusty Springfield's, for example - but, as both Aznavour and Kretzmer conceded, it doesn't seem quite to work for a woman. I think it suffers from the same problem that happens with "It Was A Very Good Year": as a lady vocalist once said to me, when a man sings "It Was A Very Good Year", the audience thinks, "Wow! What a life he's led"; when a female sings it, they think, "Wow! this woman's really old..."
A decade and a half after "Yesterday When I Was Young", Herbie went to see the West End impresario Cameron Mackintosh to talk him into reviving an old Kretzmer musical from the Sixties, based on The Admirable Crichton. Cameron, the hot young producer of Cats, wasn't interested, but somewhere along the way Herbie chanced to mention having written with Charles Aznavour. As he did so, he was not aware that Mackintosh had a big French musical all ready to go except for the pressing matter of an English text. One of the reasons for Sir Cameron's spectacular success as an impresario is that every once in a while he'll take a truly wild flyer on something. Except in this case his truly wild flyer hadn't panned out: For an adaptation of Victor Hugo, Cameron figured you needed not some showtune hack but a genuine high-class wordsmith. So he'd signed up James Fenton, Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. An acclaimed poet, he'd turned in lyrics that looked great on paper, but didn't sing. And Cameron realized that he was going to have to sack Fenton and replace him with ...well, who? He had no idea, until the guy across the room blabbing about My Man Crichton happened to bring up his English lyrics for Aznavour. There's no reason why a fellow who can adapt Charles Aznavour should be any good with Victor Hugo, any more than a Frenchman who's worked with Ginger Spice would be your go-to guy for Jane Austen. But Cameron Mackintosh chose to take another wild flyer, and this one paid off spectacularly.
The show was called Les Misérables, since when (as our mutual friend Don Black likes to say) Herbie hasn't been the least bit misérable. This song from the score has been recorded by all kinds of people from Sammy Davis Jr to Neil Diamond, Aretha Franklin to Hayley Westenra. Here is Anne Hathaway as Fantine, having been sacked from her factory job and tossed out on the streets, in the 2012 film of Les Miz:
As the posters have proclaimed for decades now, Les Misérables is "the world's most popular musical": it struck a chord wherever its story was told - Vienna, Osaka, Reykjavik. With canny timing, it snuck under the Iron Curtain just in time for Communism's death-throes: in Budapest it was seen as a parable of the 1956 uprising; in Gdynia, Poland, the little urchin girl's tatty tricolor was replaced by the Solidarity flag. In its first decade of global success, the show made over a billion pounds. And they never looked back until this March, when the lights dimmed on theatre marquees around the planet.
With that much money, even the guys who screw up come out okay. James Fenton, the Oxford poet "fired" (his word) by Mackintosh, settled for a little under one per cent of the gross. You do the math: you'd have to give a lot of poetry readings to make that kind of dough. As for the guy who wound up with Fenton's job, Herbert Kretzmer never wanted for offers for the rest of his life. As he told me way back when, "I get sent all the Dickens which haven't yet been done by Leslie Bricusse or Lionel Bart. Which leaves pretty slim pickings. And about six times a year I'm sent musicals about Anastasia [the youngest daughter of the Tsar, long rumored to have escaped the massacre of the family] which all open in a Russian café in Paris with waiters with flaming kebabs on swords."
Not one for flaming kebabs, he eschewed the offers, and reunited with Boublil & Schönberg for a musical based on the French film The Return of Martin Guerre. "How's it going?" I asked Herbie. "People keep saying to me," he said, "I hear you're working on The Return of Marvin Gaye." That couldn't have been any worse an idea. By opening night, Kretzmer had been made the James Fenton of the project and replaced by callow youths.
But who cares about Martin Guerre? "Do You Hear the People Sing?" Les Miz has never stopped. A decade or so back, Susan Boyle gave Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" a new lease of life and made it a hit record around the world. Here's Herbert Kretzmer himself intoning his song at a get-together of the SODS - the Society of Distinguished Songwriters, a somewhat self-parodic institution founded by the big Brit-hit writers of the Sixties and Seventies. Don Black introduces Herbie:
"Thank you, Susie," as Herbie said. A couple of years later he wrote one last song for Les Miz: "Suddenly," introduced by Hugh Jackman in the film version and earning Kretzmer an Oscar nomination - which, even if he didn't win, isn't bad when you're pushing ninety. And "Suddenly", like "I Dreamed a Dream" and all the rest, ultimately derives from Cameron Mackintosh taking that flyer on a guy who spent a long-ago weekend at Charles Aznavour's house outside Paris trying to get a handle on "Hier encore".
I would like to close with one of my favorite songs of Herbert Kretzmer's. One day in 1974, still the Daily Express drama critic and only a fitful lyricist, Herbie was asked to do a theme song for a short-run series of TV plays grouped together under the title "The Seven Faces Of Women". The number was supposed to tie it all together, and the producer wanted it sung by Marlene Dietrich, as she supposedly represented the ageless woman. "I didn't like that idea much," said Kretzmer. "If you're going to write about a woman's mystique, it would be better if it were not sung by a woman. If she sang about her own mystery, the song would be too calculated and knowing." So he suggested Charles Aznavour.
It took a while to crowbar the tune out of Aznavour, who was off touring halfway across the Continent. But the minute Kretzmer heard that long opening note, the word "She" leapt into his head. That's it, that's all, that's the title:
May be the face I can't forget
A trace of pleasure or regret
May be my treasure or
The price I have to pay...
Aznavour writes in the chanson tradition. One general defect of that style, for an English lyricist, is that the melody lines invariably end in slightly droopy feminine rhymes, because of the French practice of allowing words that are monosyllabic when spoken to be bi-syllabic when sung: Édith Piaf's "La vie en ro-ZUH", to take a famous example. But in both "Yesterday When I Was Young" and "She" Aznavour wrote two very French tunes with not a single feminine rhyme in them. They're both very muscular melodies of very different character: the first with long, ruminative lines; the second with a simple, repetitive structure that never once seems boring.
From the first note that single-syllable title sits on, "She" exemplifies what Kretzmer meant when he cited Johnny Mercer on sounds suggesting words. The first time I heard the Aznavour recording I thought the power in it on certain lines derived mainly from his idiosyncratic quavery vibrato. But then I listened again closely. The chords are all in the tune's home key until you get to "the price I have to pay", at which point something profoundly melancholic happens, which Kretzmer's text captures in the word "price". Same thing happens with the minor chord on the first line after the reprise of the title:
May be the song that summer sings
May be the chill that autumn brings
May be a hundred different things
Within the measure of a day...
"The song that summer sings" ought to be a joyous sentiment, but it's harmonized to suggest, even in a happy moment, an awareness of its impermanence. Yes, yes, I know that's reading way too much into it. With songs as with jokes: to explain it is to kill it. But the match of Aznavour's tune and Kretzmer's lyric is so fine you want to figure out what the secret is. At a certain level it's a song of contrasts ("beauty or the beast"/"famine or the feast") but the imagery is fresh and specific:
May be the mirror of my dream
A smile reflected in a stream
She may not be what she may seem
Inside her shell...
Aznavour's melody is in a traditional AABA pop form. He's very restrained in that main theme and then lets rip in the release:
May be the love that cannot hope to last
May come to me from shadows of the past
That I'll remember till the day I die!
And he gets away with that big day-I-die thing precisely because he's been so constrained beforehand. And in the final section Kretzmer pulls off the simplest of switches:
I'll take her laughter and her tears
And make them all my souvenirs
For where she goes I've got to be
The meaning of my life is She...
For reasons no one quite knows, Aznavour's record caught the public fancy in Britain. On June 29th 1974 it knocked Gary Glitter off the Number One spot. "Which gave me a particular pleasure," said Herbie:
It was a rare Aznavour ballad in which the English lyric came first, but it made him, at the age of fifty, a Number One British pop star.
It went nowhere in America. A quarter-century later, Richard Curtis put the Aznavour recording of "She" in his Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts romcom, Notting Hill. At test screenings in the US, the audience was unresponsive to the song. So Curtis asked Elvis Costello to cover it. And he did:
But it seems even Elvis Costello couldn't sell "She" to American moviegoers. I didn't think Costello did much of a job on the song, but I believe US prints of Notting Hill now end with Boyzone's "No Matter What", which doesn't bear thinking about.
So for our final performance I'd like to go back to another of those gala nights at the Society of Distinguished Songwriters in London. I'm not generally in favor of people reading words that are supposed to be sung, but I make an exception in Herbie's case, and especially for "She", which is a very fine and not un-poetic lyric - and well delivered by its author on the SODS Ladies' Night in 2013:
Charles Aznavour and Herbert Kretzmer made an odd couple, the hollow-cheeked diminutive Armenian-Frenchman and a tall, dapper South African Londoner. But I didn't know how odd until a few years back, when Herbie revealed en passant on the BBC that the she of "She" was a Geordie, from north-eastern England. "In the summer of 1973," he recalled, "I enjoyed what you might call a luminous romance with a delightful woman, a Geordie." When they split up, he told her in the pub, "There'll be a song in this one day."
And so there was. I had always assumed the she of "She" was a charming demoiselle across a sidewalk table from M Aznavour in Mouriès or some such. But somehow Édith Piaf's protégé wound up singing about a lass from Tyneside who undoubtedly drank Newkie Brown. That's the transformative power of song for you. "I teased at life as if it were a foolish game..." Not really. Herbert Kretzmer played the game well, from Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers to Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe, yesterday when he was young and almost to the end. Rest in peace.
~As Mark said, there's more on Herbert Kretzmer at the end of Wednesday's Mark Steyn Show, and, more tangentially, on our September 25th edition. The Mark Steyn Show is made with the support of members of The Mark Steyn Club. For more on the Steyn Club, see here.