As I mentioned earlier today, the Age of Lockdown has seen a massive transfer from small business to global megaliths such as Amazon. I regret that because it has accelerated the replacement of genuine social life by mere cyber life. So I thought we might have a song on the theme. When I moved to New Hampshire, I was thrilled to find that two or three towns away there was a genuine old-school all-American five-and-dime, just like in the movies. My kids loved it because of all the toys, but you could also find everything else from clothes to, as the song says, china. The proprietor was a justice of the peace, so she occasionally married couples at the register.
It is gone now, and it will never come again:
It was a lucky April shower
It was the most convenient door
I Found A Million Dollar Baby
In A Five And Ten Cent Store...
I could do without Gordon Jenkins' meteorological flourishes in the arrangement, but that vocal is Nat Cole at his best. The song was a quarter-century old by then, and much recorded, ever since 1931 when Bing Crosby's version and that of Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians (vocal by Clare Hanlon) were tussling for the top spot. It's one of those numbers that sings so easily you'd have to be a total idiot to louse it up. I've always loved it because it's pure Americana, a song that no other culture could have produced. As I mentioned last week, I'm often asked how I started writing, what got me interested, who were my influences, all the usual questions. And I don't really have a ready answer. But, if I were to be semi-serious about it, it was songs like this that tickled my curiosity about language – not just the words and phrases and images, but the way the ideas were expressed so neatly. Compression is the essence of songwriting, and if you had to come up with a couplet that defines the genre, that encompasses a whole world and a whole point of view and an entire musical tradition, "I found a million dollar baby in a five and ten cent store" comes as close as any.
I once asked a friend in the French music biz how the song went over there. I hummed him the tune and he sang me the French lyrics and, although I can't recall any of them, I remember they were entirely different from the English words. It's not just the five-and-ten that's hard to translate or the million dollar baby. But the concept of finding the latter inside the former is also very American. There are a ton of Mitteleuropean operettas in which the prince or duke or count wanders into the streets in disguise and falls in love with a serving wench, but the serving wench usually turns out to be a Countess or Margravine or some such also wandering around in disguise. Even the British are prone to this syndrome (Spring In Park Lane , etc). But in an American song the shop girl is a genuine shop girl, and she's still a million dollar baby. That's what makes it American.
In the Sixties, by the way, you could have found a future billion dollar baby in a five and ten cent store: Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, got his start in retail as a franchisee at a Ben Franklin's, founded in 1920 by the Butler brothers, who'd been in the five-and-dime business since the 1870s. I'm not saying "I Found a Million Dollar Greeter in the Big Box Store at the Strip Mall on the Edge of Town" would be as big a hit, but there is an historical continuity from the Butlers to Wal-Mart.
Anyway, the song was introduced in a revue called Billy Rose's Crazy Quilt , which opened on Broadway at the 44th Street Theatre on May 19th 1931. Fanny Brice starred and her big number was supposed to be a Rodgers and Hart song called "Rest Room Rose". But this was the hit. Accompanied by Ted Healy and Phil Baker, Miss Brice strolled out in top hat and tails and sang:
The rain continued for an hour
I hung around for three or four
Around A Million Dollar Baby
In A Five And Ten Cent Store...
Streisand recreates the moment in that mess of a movie Funny Lady (it's also in the 1941 Ronald Reagan film Million Dollar Baby) but Barbra never captures the song's talismanic quality:
On radio and records, it was a Depression picker-upper – it wasn't about lacking money ("Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?") or peddling false hopes of getting any, but about finding a real goldmine in an ordinary place. The composer was Harry Warren, at the beginning of a catalogue that would include "I Only Have Eyes For You", "Jeepers Creepers", "You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby", "Chattanooga Choo-Choo", "That's Amore", "September In The Rain", "Lullaby Of Broadway", "At Last", "I Got A Gal In Kalamazoo", and on and on. By some counts, he's second only to Irving Berlin as a hit composer – and 999 out of a thousand Americans have never heard of him. Mr Warren was always somewhat peeved about his colleague's celebrity: during the Second World War, after a night when the allies pounded the German capital, he remarked, "They bombed the wrong Berlin." He always wanted to be a Broadway writer but instead he found success in Hollywood, beginning with the movie 42nd Street. Billy Rose's Crazy Quilt and this song were two of the last things he did in New York before leaving for the coast.
Billy Rose was both the current Mr Fanny Brice and the producer of Crazy Quilt and, when a producer gets his name on a song, folks assume he's cutting himself in – getting a percentage without having made any real contribution. Rose has his name on a ton of hits – "Back In Your Own Back Yard", "Clap Hands, Here Comes Charley", "Does Your Spearmint Lose Its Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight?", "Don't Bring Lulu", "It's Only A Paper Moon", "Me And My Shadow", "There's A Rainbow Round My Shoulder" and "You Tell Her, I Sttt-u-ttt-er" – the second biggest stuttering hit. But, as I heard it, Rose earned his credits. He found writing an entire song too much of a chore but he'd get great ideas or snatches of lyrics and pass them along. "I Found A Million Dollar Baby"? "It was Billy's idea," said Harry Warren. "He had written a song with this title sometime before with another composer, but he didn't like it, so he gave his lyrics to Mort Dixon to rewrite and for me to come up with the melody."
That was typical of the way he worked. Rose had written the first version with Fred Fisher (composer of "Chicago") in 1926 but it had gone nowhere, and he knew it was too good a title to waste. That was his speciality: hit titles. And in this case the words "I found a million dollar baby in a five and ten cent store" are at least half the song. Mort Dixon was a solid lyric writer – the author of "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "I'm Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover" – but he kinda coasts on Rose's hit phrase. The middle section's a charmer:
She was selling china
And when she made those eyes
I kept buying china
Until the crowd got wise...
I love the way he repeats "china" rather than rhyming: it's such a goofy word to find on the big notes in a love song, especially so in Nat "King" Cole's perfect diction. And the next phrase is so lovely musically: The descent on "made those eyes" is pure delight - and then the parenthetic slide ("Incident'lly") into the final eight, a very conversational Tin Pan Alley touch. On Crosby's famous record, Bing sings an A rather than Harry Warren's C, and the great musicologist Alec Wilder always felt that Crosby had improved on the tune and they should have changed the song. I'm inclined to agree:
Do enjoy that introductory verse, which Bing puts in the middle of the record: Harry Warren's favorite composer was Puccini, but he inclines more toward Debussy in this case.
Alternatively, feel free to skip that introductory verse, as most recording artists have done, because it just holds you up on the way to the china counter. This song belongs in the same group as "A Cup Of Coffee, A Sandwich And You", "With Plenty Of Money And You", "Let's Have Another Cup Of Coffee, Let's Have Another Piece Of Pie". But in its warmth and optimism and singability it transcends them all. And, of course, there's a happy ending:
If you should run into a shower
Just step inside my cottage door
And meet the million dollar baby
From a five and ten cent store.
Would you like to meet a million dollar baby? Sorry, the five-and-ten closed in May, but Doc Fauci says it's okay to meet a friend with benefits on the Internet as long as you both wear masks, and, per Boris Johnson, if you're not in UK Tier Two or Tier Three designated areas.
I found a Tier One baby in a Tier Two and Tier Three store? Not a chance.
~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 the Land of Lockdown. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Herman's Hermits 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 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.
If you're a Mark Steyn Club member and regard the above column as just nickel'n'dimin' you, feel free to let rip in our comments section. As we always say, membership in The Mark Steyn Club isn't for everybody, and it doesn't affect access to Song of the Week and our other regular content, but one thing it does give you is commenter's privileges. Please stay on topic and don't include URLs, as the longer ones can wreak havoc with the formatting of the page.