Programming note: Steyn's Song of the Week can now be heard weekly on Serenade Radio, every Sunday at 5.30pm British Summer Time. If you missed today's first show, you can hear the repeat at 5.30am Monday UK time - that's 9.30pm Pacific Sunday evening on the West Coast of North America, or Monday lunchtime in Australia.
This month we are marking the centenary of Nelson Riddle, perhaps the greatest of all arrangers of popular song. That's what Frank Sinatra thought, and we cite "I've Got the World on a String" and "I've Got You Under My Skin" as merely the obvious examples. But Sinatra and Riddle rescued a lot of other songs over the years - songs that had once been hits and then been forgotten, songs that had been in hit shows but no one had noticed, songs that had been in the stage version but dropped for the movie adaptation... But they rarely transformed a song's fortunes on the scale they did with this one. It was from an awe-inspiringly hideous train-wreck of a musical. But Sinatra recorded it - and made it a hit. And twelve years later he re-recorded it with a Riddle arrangement - and made it a standard. And, a quarter-century after that, another Nelson Riddle arrangement of the song wound up spawning an entire industry. Here are Nelson and Linda Ronstadt on stage at the 1984 Tokyo Music Festival:
That song could have turned out really bad. It is, after all, the only torchy ballad of lost love whose central image is of laundry - the household wash, the clothes line:
When I want rain
I get sunny weather
I'm just as blue as the sky
Since love is gone
Can't pull myself together
Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry..
It was written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, two songwriters who went way back with Sinatra. The first time I met Jule Styne was at his office up the dingy stage-door stairs above the Mark Hellinger Theatre on Broadway. I noticed he wore a gold identity bracelet, and he showed me the inscription on the inside: "To Jule, who knew me when, Frankie" - a gift from Sinatra delivered to a bleary Styne by a courier from Cartier's the morning after the singer's spectacular solo debut at the Paramount Theatre in 1942.
Cahn and Sinatra went even further back. Back in the Thirties, Sammy Cahn had had a Dixieland band called the Pals of Harmony, who'd got a summer engagement at the Hotel Evans at Loch Sheldrake in the Catskills. One night, down the road at the Loch Sheldrake Hotel, Sammy met a trumpeter called Axel Stordahl. He was very blond, very Norwegian, very Nordic, very Aryan, which kind of stuck out in the Catskills. Sammy said to me it was like going over to George Wallace's house and finding H Rap Brown had come by for a game of tennis. I didn't know who H Rap Brown was, so Sammy politely explained that he was the "Minister of Justice" for the Black Panthers, since when I see that he's changed his name to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin and is currently serving a life sentence for murder.
Anyway, Cahn and Stordahl became fast friends, and Stordahl got hired by Tommy Dorsey as a trumpeter and arranger, and put in a word for Sammy, who picked up a bit of work writing "special material" lyrics for the band. Dorsey hired a boy singer called Frank Sinatra, and when Frank quit two years later he took Axel with him as his all but exclusive arranger for the first decade of his solo career. And for a while they all wound up living at the Sunset Towers on Sunset Strip in Hollywood, Cahn and Stordahl rooming together in one apartment, and Frankie two floors up.
Sinatra was loyal to his friends. When MGM signed him for the first multimillion dollar film musical (that's to say, it cost two million - which would barely cover a scene these days), the studio asked him who he wanted to do the score - Jerome Kern? Cole Porter? Rodgers & Hart? He replied: "Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn." There was a quick exchange of glances between the assembled suits, and then the guy running the meeting said: "Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn? We don't mind hiring them, but who are they?"
Styne & Cahn wound up writing a lot of Sinatra's early pop hits - "Saturday Night (Is The Loneliest Night Of The Week)", "Five Minutes More", "The Things We Did Last Summer", "Time After Time" - but Jule was itching to go further. He wanted to be a musical dramatist, a Broadway composer, where the music guys got respect. In 1944, they had an offer to do a show called Glad To See You! The book - the script - was about a lousy comic and a song'n'dance duo who've been turned down for a USO tour, and they're sitting in the waiting room commiserating when a great magician comes in to pick up the papers and passports for him and his assistants. And a couple of guys show up and tell him, "If you go to any of these countries, you're a dead man - because people are waiting there to kill you for a bunch of stuff you did there years ago." So the magician flees in terror, but he leaves the travel papers and the three passports, and the comic and the song'n'dance team pick 'em up and decide to pose as the magician and his assistants, and everywhere they go they have to dodge bad guys trying to kill them until finally...
Are you still awake? Sammy Cahn thought it was a heap of junk, but Jule Styne said not to worry: the show was called Glad To See You! because that was Phil Silvers' catchphrase, and Silvers was going to be the lead, and the Latin siren Lupe Vélez had been signed as the girl. But Silvers pulled out because 20th Century Fox needed him for a movie, and Miss Vélez committed suicide in a manner that would lead to persistent urban legends about slipping on the bathroom floor after ingesting Seconal and falling onto the toilet where her head slipped into the bowl and she drowned. So instead of Phil Silvers and Lupe Vélez the show had Eddie Davis and June Knight. Which isn't the same at all.
They opened in Philadelphia, and the show overran just a little - to a quarter after midnight. There were three try-outs on the road back then - On The Town by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, Carousel by Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Glad To See You! Variety reported that the first two were in trouble, but that Glad To See You! just needed a little trimming. Busby Berkeley, a legendary Hollywood choreographer but a hopeless stage director, ordered that an hour be chopped out of the show. So they chopped out an hour, and thereafter the plot never made any sense.
And then a couple of nights later, heading home from the theatre in Philly, Eddie Davis was injured in a car accident. They didn't have an understudy, so Sammy Cahn, as the guy who already knew the words to the songs if not the scenes, was prevailed upon to take the leading man's place. Eddie Davis was a six-foot-one handsome leading man. Sammy was, in his words, "a little Jewish boy from the Lower East Side", five foot seven-and-a-bit. So they put him in Eddie Davis' clothes and the sleeves came over his fingers, and the pants trailed along the floor. And they told him, to modify the famous director's line in 42nd Street, you're going out there a little five-foot-seven Jewish schnook but you've got to come back a great big six-foot-one Broadway star...
It was that kind of show. And it closed on the road.
But, in the brief life of Glad To See You!, in the midst of all the rubble Jane Withers looked out across the footlights and sang a lovely eight-bar verse:
The torch I carry is handsome
It's worth its heartache in ransom
And when the twilight steals
I know how the lady in the harbor feels...
When I want rain
I get sunny weather
I'm just as blue as the sky
Since love is gone
Can't pull myself together
Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry..
Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn both liked the song, and they wanted to save it. But how? The obvious answer was to get it to Frank, but one of Styne's reasons for doing Glad To See You! in the first place was that he was worried that he was writing so much for Frank that every time he sat down to write a song it came out like a Sinatra song. So they took it to Frank's old boss, bandleader Harry James, and James made the first record of "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry" with a vocal by Kitty Kallen:
And it wound up on some B-side or other and nobody noticed it.
So Jule and Sammy played it to Frank, and on July 30th 1946 - a year and a half after Glad To See You! bit the dust - Sinatra went into the studio with Axel Stordahl and made his first recording of a song he would sing for the next half-a-century:
Friends ask me out
I tell them I'm busy
Must get a new alibi
I stay at home
And ask myself 'Where is she?'
Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry...
That "busy"/"is she?" is an impure rhyme, but in the show, for Jane Withers, it had been "busy"/"is he?"
There's nothing wrong with the Stordahl arrangement, although it's a bit harp-heavy for my tastes. But Frank seems a bit over-awed by the ambition of the Jule Styne tune, with its odd formality and all the octave leaps - it's a long way from "Saturday Night (Is The Loneliest Night Of The Week)". In Mark Steyn From Head To Toe, I quote something Styne said to me a long time ago:
Frank's figured it out. He sings the words. The other fellers sing the notes. But we've already worked all that out: The words fit the notes. So sing the words.
There's a lot of truth in that. But in parts of this first recording Sinatra seems, unusually, to be singing the notes.
Nevertheless, the song stayed with him, and twelve years later, for the album Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely, he took a second crack at "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry" and he and Nelson Riddle finally uncovered the masterpiece within.
Only The Lonely, which Riddle would always cite as the best of all his Frank albums, had a bigger orchestra than any Sinatra LP to date. There were so many musicians in the studio that, as Frank's guitarist Al Viola put it, "I thought I was at a union meeting." Sinatra seems to have been looking for something a little more classical in the orchestral voicings for this set - and Riddle was really the only one of his then arrangers who could have pulled it off. He used regular classical pairings - two clarinets, two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons - and he knew how to write for them.
Sinatra was trying something else on this set, too - what Jule Styne might have regarded as an extension of sing-the-words-not-the-notes. Frank wanted to do a lot of it rubato - or actually, to be pedantic, colla voce. They're both terms for particular kinds of expressive performance. "Tempo rubato" means "robbed time": The musician steals a quaver from the front of bar two so he can hold on to a note in the first bar he happens to like a little longer. But it all evens out in the end - and it's not so different from the back-phrasing and all the rest that Sinatra had been doing for years. "Colla voce" is the more precise term for what he wanted here: "Follow the voice." The tempo is suspended, and the singer sings what he wants, freely, taking the time he needs for what he's trying to express. That's what Frank had in mind for several tracks on the album, including "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry".
On May 5th 1958 he and Riddle arrived at Studio A at the Capitol Tower in Los Angeles. They left three hours later, having recorded "Ebb Tide", "Angel Eyes" ...and "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out":
Sinatra was unhappy with the results, and decided to scrap all three tracks. The problem on all the songs was that Nelson Riddle the arranger had written such a magnificent arrangement that it was beyond the skills of Nelson Riddle the conductor to conduct it. Riddle was no one's idea of a great conductor. No reason why he should be: Arranging and conducting are entirely different skills, but for convenience as much as anything else it had become standard practice for pop vocal arrangers to conduct their own charts. For most fixed-tempo dance tunes it didn't really matter. Warren "Champ" Webb, an excellent woodwind player, told Sinatra archivist Charles Granata that in the studio they'd just ask Riddle to give them the first beat of each bar and they'd take it from there. Many of Sinatra and Riddle's musicians in the Capitol era felt that by this stage Frank himself was actually a better conductor than Nelson (he'd come a long way since his Alec Wilder album a decade earlier). Riddle was without peer as an arranger - to such an extent that, on this album, he'd left his conducting skills far behind.
Still, it's a tough thing to tell a guy he's not good enough to conduct his own work. Happily, fate intervened, in the form of a prior engagement: Riddle was scheduled to tour Canada with Nat "King" Cole. And, once he was north of the 49th parallel, Sinatra booked another session at Studio A for May 29th and asked Felix Slatkin to conduct. Slatkin was a violinist, and founder of the Hollywood String Quartet, and he and his wife Eleanor, a brilliant 'cellist, played on many Sinatra sessions in this period. (Their son Leonard Slatkin became the musical director of the Detroit Symphony.) But Felix was also a superb conductor, and Sinatra decided he needed him for all the colla voce stuff. "That's the difference," said Eleanor years later. "He turned every phrase to fit Frank."
On May 29th in Studio A, Sinatra, Slatkin and the orchestra did twice as many songs as you'd normally do in a three-hour session: seven tracks, plus an uncompleted "Lush Life". Everyone was at the top of his game that night. For the verse of "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out", it was just Sinatra and Al Viola on gut string guitar. To get around the tricky F-sharps in Riddle's part, Viola raised the low E with his thumb. "Yeah, dago!" said Frank. "That was clean!"
It's a very skilful song: that goofy Cahn wash-day imagery married to a rather stately Styne tune full of octave leaps between each section; that subtle setting of the first line, in which "get sunny weather" is put on the low notes of the phrase, because the singer doesn't want sunny weather at all. But nobody ever wrung the full juice from the song the way Sinatra, Riddle and Slatkin did.
I asked Jule Styne how he felt the first time he heard it. "That's one of the greatest records ever made!" he yelled, waving his arms around. Sammy Cahn even managed to clean up that false rhyme on "busy"/"where is she?":
Friends ask me out
I tell them I'm busy
I must get a new alibi
I stay at home
And ask myself "Who is he?"
Ah, yes. She's got herself a new man.
If you want to hear the difference twelve years makes, compare Sinatra in 1946 and Sinatra in 1958 on the song's middle section:
Dry, little tear drops
My little tear drops
Hanging on a string of dreams
Fly, little mem'ries
My little mem'ries
Remind her of our crazy schemes...
In the Stordahl arrangement, he glides across the lines: The words are, after all, rather catchpenny. But in the Riddle arrangement Sinatra's expressiveness finds pathos and profundity in the text.
A quarter-century later, at a very low point in her life, motoring out of London, Linda Ronstadt chanced to listen to Sinatra's "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry", and fell in love with it. And she decided she was going to make her own recording of the song. She didn't know what it would be for, but she knew she wanted to sing it, and she wanted Nelson Riddle to arrange it. He and Frank had had a rather bad falling out at this point, and the Capitol glory days were far behind. When he got the call from Ronstadt, he'd never heard of her. So he asked his daughter, and she laughed and said, "Don't worry. Her checks won't bounce."
They met in the studio, where Ronstadt was finishing up her album Get Closer. When she'd got the rock stuff out of the way, Riddle went over to the piano and opened his briefcase, and to Linda's astonishment produced his original pencil sketch of "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out" with "Frank Sinatra" written at the top of the page. They ran through it a couple of times, and then, to Linda's further astonishment, Riddle took out his pencil and crossed out Sinatra's key and wrote in hers:
There was just one problem. "I don't do tracks," he said to her. "I do albums. The Beatles wanted me to do 'The Fool On The Hill', and I turned them down because I don't do tracks. I do albums."
"Great," she said. "Let's do an album."
Her producer Peter Asher and her record company were strongly opposed. She was a major rock star and they figured an album of pop standards would kill her with her fans. But it didn't. It was a smash, and was followed by two more. It worked out pretty nicely for Riddle, too: By that point in the music biz, arrangers weren't really a thing anymore; the rock guys just sort of worked out a groove, and multi-tracked it from there. So Asher & Co balked at paying Nelson his arranging fee, and instead offered him a percentage of the albums, which they were certain would flop. Riddle wound up making more from his Ronstadt trilogy than from all the years with Frank and Nat and Ella.
Not long before he died, Sammy Cahn told me how tickled he was that his song from that ancient flop show where he'd been lyricist-cum-understudy had brought Nelson back and given Linda Ronstadt three hit albums. He didn't live long enough to appreciate that in a sense it invented a whole new genre: standards albums by rockers. From Linda Ronstadt to Gloria Estefan to Lady Gaga, the standards album, like the Christmas album, is the card every singer keeps until she needs to play it.
As for Sinatra, he returned to the studio for one more "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry" in 1993, a few months after Sammy Cahn's death. It was the first of his Duets CDs, in which Frank was electronically yoked to a bunch of younger guys he'd barely heard of. In the case of "Hang My Tears", it wasn't so much a duet as twin solos: Sinatra sang the Styne & Cahn song in Riddle's arrangement, and Carly Simon warbled contrapuntally after a fashion "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning". As with Dr Johnson and women preaching, you're surprised to find it done at all - especially when Miss Simon had to record her part by singing from Martha's Vineyard to Frank's track down a telephone to Los Angeles, with a slight delay on the line, so not only did she have to sing contrapuntally but also anticipatirally.
Sinatra's voice is worn but powerful on that record. But the really great, final "Hang My Tears Out" came the following year. Jule Styne died on September 20th 1994, after over a decade of very rough health in which he'd had dialysis treatment every other day to crank him up enough to get through the next day. Sinatra had outlived so many old comrades: Styne, Cahn, Riddle, Stordahl, Slatkin... All gone. A few days after Jule's death, Frank was on stage in Dallas. He thanked his friend for all the music over the years, and then he went into the great ballad Jule had given him half-a-century earlier, and somehow, pushing 79, found it in himself to dig as deep into the song as he'd ever gone. The Sinatra daughters are sitting very tight on that performance, but it all comes together - lyrics, music, arrangement, performance - and I hope one day the world gets to hear it:
Somebody said just forget about her
So I gave that treatment a try
Strangely enough, I got along without her
Then one day she passed me right by
I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry.
~Don't forget the new weekly audio edition of Steyn's Song of the Week, every Sunday on Serenade Radio at 5.30pm British Summer Time. If you missed today's first show, it will be repeated Monday at 5.30am UK time - that's 9.30pm Sunday on the West Coast of North America, or half-past-midnight Eastern. If you're Down Under, it's Monday lunchtime in Western Australia, 2.30pm in the east.
Sinatra sings Styne & Cahn galore in Mark's special two-part Sammy Cahn centenary podcast. And there's lots more Jule Styne, and Sammy Cahn, and Frank Sinatra in the Styne and Sinatra sections of Mark Steyn's American Songbook, while Steyn's original 1998 obituary of Sinatra, "The Voice", can be found in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the Steyn store - and, if you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, remember to enter your promotional code at checkout for special member pricing.