The President's 2020 campaign slogan was "The Best Is Yet to Come" - although, to the best of my knowledge, Trump never actually played the song at any rallies, despite being urged to do so by Laura Ingraham.
So I do now - both for those who still believe and those for whom it rings somewhat mordant. Ladies and gentlemen, Frank Sinatra and the Count Basie band:
The song is by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, written in 1959. Many years later, as a callow youth trying to pass himself off as a man about Broadway, I asked Cy about how "The Best Is Yet To Come" came to be:
I wondered how you worked together - because 'The Best Is Yet To Come', for example, is not an immediately vocal line, I don't think. I may be wrong. And yet she managed to write a lyric that sort of sat on it perfectly. Did you write those sort of things very spontaneously at the time or were they things that took a lot of labor?
And Coleman replied:
Well, first let me say one thing - that you are wrong, obviously.
And then he gave his marvelously infectious sneezy-wheezy a-hur-hur-hur Cy Coleman laugh that I miss to this day. He continued:
And I only say that because so was I. I used to complain bitterly about Carolyn and the fact that she'd want to put everything that I wrote to a lyric. I used to say if I played an arpeggio at the piano, you know, I'd have to hide it because she'd put a lyric to it. And 'The Best Is Yet To Come' was a little instrumental I had written for myself and a little jazz group and it's constructed so that the melody keeps repeating, and I had worked out an entire thing where you have echoes back and forth at a very furious tempo.
In other words, it's not a song, it's an instrumental. And that's how Coleman wanted it. He was never just a songwriter: he was a composer and pianist and he had a little jazz trio that played in clubs and wanted something to kick around that wasn't just a Tony Bennett love ballad with the words shaved off. The problem was that Carolyn Leigh liked to slip into the club and listen to what they were playing, just in case it was something she hadn't heard before. "She'd be sitting in a booth, right next to the trio," Coleman's trio Ray Mosca remembered. "And she'd always be taking notes, I guess of tunes we were playing." And on one such night she heard the Coleman trio's fun little instrumental ...and started scribbling.
The next day she buttonholed Cy and said, "I can put a lyric to that."
"Here we go again," sighed Coleman. "There goes my instrumental." I wish I had a record of the way he played it to me on the piano in his office - sultry and chord-intense. But here's how he did a few years after composition with Billy May and the orchestra:
Carolyn Leigh took it away with her, slowed it down, and eventually returned with a marvelously distinctive opening line:
Out of the tree of life I just picked me a plum
You came along and everything's startin' to hum
Still, it's a real good bet The Best Is Yet To Come...
"She came up with this wonderful lyric," Coleman said, "and of course I was worried about these intervals that people had to sing."
They decided to take it to Sinatra, because they both had form with him. Two years earlier, Coleman & Leigh had given him "Witchcraft" and previously, with other collaborators, had provided him with "Why Try To Change Me Now?", "Young At Heart" and "How Little We Know". So he listened to the song:
Wait till the warm-up's underway
Wait till our lips have met
Wait till you see that sunshine day
You ain't seen nothin' yet
The Best Is Yet To Come and babe, won't it be fine?
The Best Is Yet To Come, come the day you're mine...
The problem for Frank was that the warm-up never quite warmed up enough. He told them there wasn't enough of the song, that they needed to go away and write some more of it. So they did. Coleman & Leigh came up with an extension that seemed to flow well:
Come the day you're mine
I'm gonna teach you to fly
We've only tasted the wine
We're gonna drain the cup dry...
And they finished the song and celebrated by draining the cup dry. And at that point Cy noticed he'd modulated from A flat into A and stayed there. And he told me that he was consumed with panic about how they would even print the song on the sheet music - I mean, what key would they use? And then he thought, "Aw, to hell with it. That's not my problem."
And besides, Sinatra liked the modulation.
So they gave him the song.
And nothing happened.
And a couple of years go by and Tony Bennett asks them for a hit - a big hit, something like "Witchcraft" was for Frank. And they look at each other and instantly know the song they want to give him, but they need to check with Sinatra first. So they do and he gives them their blessing.
Bennett let "Best Is Yet To Come" fall into the hands of a hack arranger who dropped off the chart at the studio an hour before the session. Luckily, Cy Coleman himself happened to be there, looked through the arrangement, and knocked it into shape for Bennett. He's never really stopped singing the song, and I believe this his most recent recording - a semi-Spanish version on his Latino-outreach album Viva Duets with the Puerto Rican colossus Chayanne:
Because Bennett's been singing it for six decades, people tend to think that he was the one who gave it its first big platform. But, to be fair, I think that credit belongs to the late Hugh Hefner.
Hefner had heard Coleman playing in some jazz joint in Chicago, where Playboy was then based, and he asked Cy if he'd be interested in writing a theme tune for a TV show he was planning, called "Playboy's Penthouse". I know that sounds a bit like Penthouse launching a show called "Penthouse's Playboy", but in fact this was before there was any such Penthouse to rival Playboy. The idea was that the show came from Hef's bachelor pad - in reality, a lavish penthouse-like set - in which exponents of "the Playboy lifestyle" discoursed on jazz and politics and sex while various bunnies and playmates hung on their arms and every word. So Coleman was signed up, and on the very first broadcast - October 24th 1959 - he sat at the ol' joanna and, having warmed up to Carolyn's lyric by then, introduced the TV audience to "The Best Is Yet To Come" while Hef smoked his pipe and sundry playmates fluttered their eyelids and moved not terribly rhythmically:
And so it wasn't until 1964 that Frank Sinatra got around to singing the song Coleman & Leigh had re-written for him. It was for his second album with Count Basie. The first, in 1962, arranged by Neal Hefti, is one of the very greatest albums of Sinatra's, Basie's or anybody else's career. If the second, It Might As Well Be Swing, isn't quite in that league, it's because (for the first but unfortunately not the last time) it was just a bunch of recent songs that had proved successful for other people - "The Good Life", "Wives And Lovers", "Hello, Dolly!"... The cover was cute, with headshots of Sinatra and Basie helpfully labeled "Frank" and "Splank", as the famously economical pianist was known to his band. The title was droll, too - a play on Rodgers & Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring". It Might As Well Be Swing means "We don't need Cole Porter or Harold Arlen. We can take ten random slices of easy-listening chart-filler and make these muthas jump."
Oddly, the two songs that stayed with Frank beyond the LP were the two oldest, and the ones that had been the longest gestating, as it were. They were also the two that Quincy Jones succeeded in re-conceiving for the Sinatra style, as opposed to too many of the others, which never got much beyond Frank swinging some other guy's hit. The Sinatra/Basie "Fly Me To The Moon" transformed the song, as we've discussed. With "The Best Is Yet To Come", it wasn't that Frank did anything that hadn't occurred to Tony Bennett; it's just that he did it more so. He bit into the song, liked the taste, and over the next thirty years never tired of it.
I've lost count of the times and places I saw him sing it. He would usually credit Cy Coleman & Carolyn Leigh and/or Quincy Jones and Count Basie, but what I mostly remember about his performances was the sheer joy in his face and sparkle in his eyes. He loved this song, and the deeper into it he got the more fun he had:
Wait till your charms are right for these arms to surround
You think you've flown before but you ain't left the ground
Wait till you're locked in my embrace
Wait till I draw you near
Wait till you see that sunshine place
Ain't nothin' like it here!
In October 1993, almost three decades after that session with Basie and Q, he recorded it again for the second CD of his celebrity Duets project. For this one, some fellow called Jon Secada is shoehorned into the track. Frank's flying as before, but Secada never leaves the ground.
The best was not to come for Carolyn Leigh, whose post-Coleman years were a bleak waste of a great talent, and an object lesson in what happens when a great lyricist no longer has the tunes.. Cy Coleman loved her words, especially for this song, from that opening plum-picking. He never thought singers would take to it because of all those intervals, but, as he told me all those years ago, "it seems if you present the challenge to people they rise to it." It's hard to do in non-Sinatra/Basie style, but here from a couple of years back is the singer-songwriter Patty Griffin giving it a go:
Miss Leigh was a fastidious lyricist. "Carolyn, like any really good writer, had a need to write. And she had a need to write excellently. Didn't make any difference whether it was for a pop song, a commercial for toothpaste, or a letter. Carolyn was a demanding artist and, as a result of that, she put everything she had into a lyric."
Everything else about their partnership was a pain in the neck, and eventually it bust them apart. But the songs survived. "I think they were written with purpose, and I think it was recognizable that they had style," Cy told me not long after her death. "They were songs that had a distinctive flavor to them. The combination of Carolyn and myself produced something that was a little different. It's not nice of me, I suppose, to give my own review on it, but I mean it's so many years ago, I suppose I can now."
By then, wherever you chanced to see Frank perform, you could almost rely on this one being on the set list. Mikal Gilmore, reviewing Sinatra for Rolling Stone in 1980, captures the general vibe. Sinatra opens with "I've Got The World On A String", and Gilmore is impressed:
It seemed like a fairly virile statement for a hoary pop singer, but in the next song, Cy Coleman's 'The Best Is Yet To Come', Sinatra went one better. Escorted by a walking blues piano line he entered the tune playfully, toying with syllables and phrases like a spry, sportive house cat pawing at a ball. Then, with a squall of horns swelling behind him, he suddenly tensed his voice into a stealthy instrument and pounced on the middle verse with an awesome iambic roar:
'The best is yet to come, and babe, won't that be fine
You think you seen the seen, but you ain't seen it shine...'
And so it went, night after night, year after year. On February 25th 1995 Sinatra appeared at the Marriott Desert Springs Resort in Palm Springs for his own celebrity golf tournament, and to a crowd of 1,200 people gave his final concert. It wasn't announced as such, only a few people knew, but I've heard from a couple of folks who were there that there was a palpable crackle in the air. The crowd seemed to discern that this night would be in some way significant. Willie Nelson was the opening act, and he was fine, but people seemed distracted. And then Sinatra entered, a man in his 80th year, singing songs he'd sung on a thousand other nights. There were just half-a-dozen on this occasion: "I've Got The World On A String", "You Make Me Feel So Young", "Fly Me To The Moon", "Where Or When", "My Kind Of Town"...
He made a few jokes about Frank Jr, his conductor, not wanting to go to the bar, and then Bill Miller, his longtime pianist, began the unmistakable four-bar piano intro to Cy Coleman's tune, extended to eight on this occasion, because the old man didn't seem to be in any hurry to start singing. The band took it at a slightly slower tempo than usual, but Sinatra's ravaged voice was full of attack, full of energy, his arms stabbing the air. And then we were there, the final assurance:
The Best Is Yet To Come and it's gonna be fine...
And just to underline the point he added a low, growled "Yeeaaahhhh..."
Best is yet to come, come the day that you're mine...
Come that day when you're mine...
And I'm gonna make you mine.
The applause began. "Thank you very much," said Frank Sinatra. And that was it: The best was over. A sixty-year performing career had come to an end. Backstage, someone mentioned a number he'd never got around to singing in those six decades, and a trace of regret seemed to cross his face. "We got to a lot," Bill Miller told him. "A lot of good songs."
Three years later, he was dead. Frank Sinatra sang all the great standards but it was Coleman & Leigh's he took with him into eternity. His gravestone bears the words: "The Best Is Yet To Come".
"Wouldn't it be nice," said Cy Coleman, "if it's true?"
~Mark will see you on the telly Down Under with Chris Kenny on Sky News at 5pm Monday Eastern Daylight Time in Australia. If you're non-Aussie, that's 6am Greenwich Mean Time, so you can work it out from there. Or, if you're one of Steyn's fellow Granite Staters, it's 1am North American Eastern time - or just a few hours from now.
Mark's appreciation of Cy Coleman is included in his acclaimed collection of obituaries Mark Steyn's Passing Parade - which is also available in expanded eBook version. Steyn's original 1998 obituary of Frank, "The Voice", can be found in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe, while you can read the stories behind many other Sinatra songs in Mark Steyn's American Songbook. 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 your promotional code at checkout for special member savings on all three books and many more.
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 far from the best, 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.