Bob Merrill was born one hundred years ago - May 17th 1921 - in Atlantic City. He's not exactly a household name - and, if you beg to differ, chances are your household's mixing him up with Robert Merrill, the great Metropolitan Opera baritone who appeared around the same time. Merrill (Bob) chose the diminutive deliberately to avoid confusion with Merrill (Robert), although it's hard to see why anyone would think a fellow who makes his living singing Mozart and Verdi would go home at night and write "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window". Yet, unlike Cole Porter or Bob Dylan or any number of more famous names before or since, Bob Merrill is an era all to himself - between the Golden Age of the standard song and the dawn of rock'n'roll. In a century-and-a-half of pop music, Merrill pretty much has a hammerlock on the first half of the 1950s.
He was head writer at NBC and dialogue director at Columbia Pictures, but when he tried to break into Tin Pan Alley, they kept telling him his stuff was too complex. He took their advice to heart - and how:
If I Knew You Were Comin', I'd've Baked A Cake
Baked a cake
Baked a cake
If I Knew You Were Comin', I'd've Baked A Cake
Not exactly Rodgers & Hart. But it sold a million and gave him his first hit:
Grammar pedants will point out that it should properly be "If I had known you were comin', I'd've baked a cake", but I don't entirely rule out that Merrill deliberately committed his faux pas in order to make a mega-irritating song even more totally so. In Bernard Slade's once boffo hit play and film Same Time Next Year, the two principals consummate their relationship while "If I Knew You Were Coming, I'd've Baked a Cake" is playing on the radio - and they realize with appalled horror that that will ever after be their song. It always got a big laugh from the audience - and that's almost a textbook definition of the "laughter of recognition".
Having stumbled on a lucrative niche - numbers that annoy you into submission - Merrill followed "Cake" with an even bigger hit - a blockbuster for my late New Hampshire neighbor, the Singing Rage Miss Patti Page:
Children loved the song, even though it's not a children's song: Obviously a kid spotting an adorable pup with a waggly tail in the pet-store window is not preoccupied by the cost. But, as would become his wont, Bob Merrill had given his lyric a very precise scenario. The young woman is obliged to make a trip to California and is concerned about her boyfriend being vulnerable to a home invasion:
I read in the papers there are robbers
With flashlights that shine in the dark
My love needs a doggie to protect him
And scare them away with one bark...
Some years ago, asked to pick a favorite record, Mrs Thatcher named the Beverly Sisters' version of "(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window?" – as pithy a distillation of Thatcherism as any, in that the singer's enthusiasm for the doggie is explicitly mediated by her need to know the price, the sort of hard-nosed cost-benefit analysis other dog songs ("Old Shep") eschew. Despite this apparent sophistication, few music critics were as appreciative as Mrs T. "It would be unfair to call this a nursery rhyme; it was childish rather than childlike," raged Donald Clarke in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music. "Nobody knows how many music fans stopped listening to the radio after hearing 'Doggie in the Window' too many times."
Clarke's being a little harsh. The early Fifties, don't forget, were the heyday of the dog song, and rare was the pop star who managed to avoid having one inflicted on him: Four decades later, Frank Sinatra would sock you on the jaw if you so much as mentioned "Mama Will Bark," his canine love duet with the big-breasted faux-Scandinavian "actress" Dagmar. The Singing Dogs, who barked their way through "Oh, Susanna", are more relaxed about it, but then, of course, they are dogs. By these standards, Merrill's song was, as they say at Westminster Kennel Club, Best in Show.
Novelty songs, they used to call them. But, in the early Fiftis, novelties weren't so much a novelty as terrifyingly ubiquitous. Even for Sinatra. After Mitch Miller, top dog at the record company, insisted Frank record "Mama Will Bark", Sinatra wound up leaving Columbia, and never forgave Miller. Years later, they happened to be crossing a Vegas lobby from opposite ends. Mitch extended his hand in friendship; Frank snarled, "F**k you! Keep walking!"
But so what? In those days, Sinatra was a loser. The smart money was on Miller's new discovery, Guy Mitchell - nice kid, pleasant voice, no trouble. Frank refused "Sparrow in the Treetop", so Miller gave it to Mitchell, along with "My Truly, Truly Fair", "Belle, Belle, My Liberty Belle", "Feet Up (Pat Him on the Po-Po)", "She Wears Red Feathers (and a Hula-Hula Skirt)" and "(From a pawnshop on the corner in) Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania" - the biggest hit ever written about Pittsburgh. And about a pawnshop. All six songs were by Bob Merrill, all were arranged with Miller's unrelenting jolliness (whooping French horns throughout), and all were smashes:
Place songs aren't meant to be that particular: "My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)." Oh, really? Why? Hey, let's not get hung up on details. But Merrill had a preference for bizarre and lurid vignettes - like a broad who bleeds you dry so you got nuthin' left to hock at the pawnshop on the corner in a town with an unglamorous image and a name of minimal singability. If he ever had a yen to write basic boy-meets-girl, it didn't show: boy-meets-cake, boy-meets-pawnshop, girl-meets-dog, sparrow-meets-treetop ... Pop songs are supposed to be universal ("I Will Always Love You") but Merrill was specific with a vengeance: Even if you were minded to write a song about a gal who wears red feathers and a hooly-hooly skirt and lives on jes' cokeynuts, why would you open with the line "I work in a London bank"? It remains, incidentally, the biggest hit ever written about a London banker who meets a hula-hula girl:
Bob Merrill composed his tunes, in case you hadn't guessed, on a child's toy xylophone. Between 1950 and 1955, it also cranked out "Where Will the Baby's Dimple Be?" "Chicka Boom", and my personal favorite, "Ooh! Bang! Jiggily Jang!":
When I spoke to Doris Day back in the Nineties, she initially disavowed all knowledge of that - until I sang her the title, and then she remembered, as who could not. If you discount the middle-section and the bum rhymes ("snap", "that") which set up the main phrase, what's left prefigures the pop hits of a decade later - a much reprised "hook" with minimal connective material to avoid distracting from the catchiness. Even those singers whose careers were launched by Bob Merrill tunes don't care for these songs. In the Nineties, Rosemary Clooney, revisiting "Mambo Italiano" for a musical retrospective, was at pains to emphasize in the liner notes how much she loathes all her early hits - "Come On-a My House" (Armenian novelty song), "Who Don Mon Man" (calypso novelty song), "Botch-a Me" (botched novelty song). And yet one has to admire Merrill's resourcefulness: Any old Tin Pan Alley opportunist can write a novelty Italian song ("That's Amore") or a novelty mambo song ("Papa Loves Mambo"), but to write a novelty song about Italians doing the mambo - that takes guts:
Go, go, Joe!
You mixed-up Siciliano...
And, when she'd finished disparaging it in the sleeve notes, once you got her in front of the mic, Rosie knew it was a song that would put her over. Here's her 1996 remake:
For decades, the guy who wrote that got it from both ends. To those who love the classic American standards, Merrill is the man who single-handedly produced the worst songs of that glorious tradition and so debauched the currency of mainstream Tin Pan Alley that it was too bankrupt to resist rock 'n' roll. And for boomers, when all other musical, lyrical, and sociopolitical claims for the rock revolution have collapsed, the memory of growing up with the Bob Merrill songbook will always be justification enough.
Merrill moved on to Broadway and Hollywood. Having been told he was too complex for pop music, he was now regarded as too simple-minded to write show scores. But for a while he had huge success, including Funny Girl. Written with the great Jule Styne, it made Barbra Streisand a star and gave her a signature song "People". Three decades later, I met Merrill for the one and only time during the chaotic run-up to Styne's show The Red Shoes, based on the classic Moira Shearer film beloved by every little girl in ballet class. Alas, Jule had lost confidence in his collaborator Marsha Norman, and had chivvied Bob Merrill to agreeing to punch up the lyrics. There had been a lot of comings and goings on the creative team, and the Broadway wiseacres were already referring to The Red Shoes as The Pink Slips (for non-Americans, that's the form you get when you're laid-off - like a British P45). Merrill seemed vaguely embarrassed about his participation in what was clearly going to be an almighty multi-million-dollar train-wreck, and insisted his contribution be credited to an alias - "Paul Stryker". That's right: a man who doesn't mind putting his own name on "Feet Up (Pat Him on the Po-Po)" and "Ooh! Bang! Jiggly Jang!" finally drew the line. The Red Shoes proved to be both Styne and Merrill's final outing on the Great White Way.
I don't quite buy Bob Merrill as a Broadway writer - because it seems to me he was far better at being the guy who could knock off "Mambo Italiano" on a napkin in an Italian restaurant and then dictate it down the payphone to Mitch Miller waiting in the studio than he was at being a man who wrote penetrating musical drama for character and plot-point. However, this number from Funny Girl is a huge favorite with the ladies, and at ever slower tempo:
I could listen to dear Nancy LaMott sing anything, but, whenever that song turns up on some up-and-coming chanteuse's CD, I have a sneaking desire to hear her sing "Doggie in the Window" and "She Wears Red Feathers" and the rest of the Merrill catalogue at overwrought crawl tempo.
For most of his life Bob Merrill was immensely secure and confident: He was a TV writer, and then decided he wanted to write blockbuster pop songs. And, when he'd had more blockbuster pop songs than almost any other songwriter, he put them away for good and became a musical dramatist on Broadway. And, when that started to sputter, he figured he'd be a Hollywood screenwriter (W C Fields and Me, with Rod Steiger).
Yet not long after the fiasco of The Red Shoes it all went downhill. People who need people are the luckiest people in the world, Bob Merrill told the world via Barbra Streisand. But I wonder who and what Bob Merrill needed on the morning of February 17th 1998, when he walked out of his Los Angeles home onto the driveway and shot himself. He was 76. It was a pitiful end for someone who wrote more determinedly happy songs than anyone in history - but for whom there was no longer any music that made him dance.
Many years ago, one Saturday on the BBC's Loose Ends with Ned Sherrin, my late friend John Walters (longtime producer of John Peel's massively influential Radio One rock show) was doing a bit on how ghastly Bob Merrill's songs were. Low-hanging fruit and all that. To illustrate as much, he regaled us with an excerpt of each hit. And round about the third one we all started joining in - I especially remember Victoria Mather (latterly banned from US TV for some remarks on Meghan Markle) lustily bellowing "Where Will the Baby's Dimple Be?", but Ned, Carol Thatcher, Jools Holland and yours truly truly fair all sang along, too. And, of course, in so doing we entirely undermined John Walters' thesis. Not everything has to be "The Music That Makes Me Dance": sometimes you just want a song with big fat memorably daft words that bounce off the notes so cheerily that you can't help singing, even if you have no idea why the guy in hock wants to let himself get fleeced by that Pittsburgh gold-digger all over again, or why it's safe for a girl to go to California but it's totally unsafe for her boyfriend to be left alone back home, or why a London banker thinks a girl who lives on just coconuts would be happy in the world of hedge funds and derivatives.
Then again, I hope there are no toy xylophones in the hereafter, or God and St Peter and the rest of the gang are gonna be nuts by now.
~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, Paul Simon, Alan Bergman, Lulu, Ted Nugent, Artie Shaw, Peter Noone & Herman's Hermits, Patsy Gallant, Tim Rice, Robert Davi and Randy Bachman.
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