God Almighty, part of me wishes they did have vaccine passports: you do as ordered, are issued the necessary paperwork, and get your life back. But instead you do everything you're told to do - and then they tell you to do some more: wear a mask over your mask; get a booster shot of your last booster shot - and wherever it is you were planning on going has a completely different and contradictory set of rules: wear a mask over your booster shot; get your antibodies surgically removed...
I have never in my life traveled less than I have this last year-and-a-half, and I realized some months ago that the pre-Covid world is never coming back. Such international travel as survives will require multiple passports and endless guile, bluffing one's way across frontiers and forging the relevant forms. Domestic air travel has become even more miserable, which I would not have thought possible: The mandatory masks on long-haul flights mess me up for days, and leave me with insufficient voice for stage appearances and broadcasting. So it occurs to me that, if I haven't already been there, I probably never will, and, for many of those places I have been, I've seen them for the last time.
So I travel mostly in my mind these days, and this song just dropped into my head the other day like stars falling from the sky. It is not, in any real sense, a Sinatra song - a song one would expect him to sing in concert or on TV - but his record of it put the number back in circulation, and that's why other singers post-Frank sing it: from Sinatra to Jimmy Buffett, from Sinatra and Buffett to She & Him. Do you know She & Him? The actress Zooey Deschanel (Elf) and her musician chum M Ward. This is several degrees past too cute by half, but a lot of people seem to dig it:
The composer of the above is a one-hit wonder called Frank Perkins, born on April 21st 1908 in Salem, Massachusetts. He was a studio conductor and writer of serviceable film music for such landmark pictures as The Incredible Mister Limpet. The apogee of his time in Hollywood was conducting the score for the screen version of Jule Styne's Broadway masterpiece Gypsy. Perkins had a non-meteoric career, except for one very meteoric hit:
We lived our little drama
We kissed in a field of white
And Stars Fell On Alabama last night...
That's Frank Perkins' lone enduring contribution to the American songbook - his tune, and Mitchell Parish's words. Which comes first – the words or the music? Well, in this case what came first was the meteor shower.
One hundred and eighty-eight years ago, a spectacular Leonid shower rained down on the eastern United States, but most especially Alabama. Leonid meteor storms supposedly originate in the Leo constellation, have been recorded since AD 903, and show up every 33-and-a-bit years. But there's never been a Leonid storm as luminous as this one. Many Alabamians thought it was the end of the world. William Fillingim was a young boy traveling in the Yellowhammer state with a wagon train, and when the meteor storm began he and everybody else got under the wagons to protect themselves from the falling stars. Some 60,000 meteors fell every hour that night, and, when it ended, young William peeked out from under the wagon "and looked to see if there were any stars left up above." Local Indians portrayed the meteor storm on deer hides and used the event as a fixed marker in time - pre-starfall, post-starfall. But then so did most Alabamians. When it turned out not to be the end of the world, a grateful citizenry ever after recalled the evening of November 12th and the early hours of November 13th 1833 as the night "stars fell on Alabama" – a night so brilliantly unforgettable that for decades it was used as a standard reference point in the life of the state and its people: "She was born round about the night the stars fell." "We got married a week after the stars fell." As Carl Carmer wrote a century later:
Many an Alabamian to this day reckons dates from the year the stars fell - though he and his neighbor frequently disagree as to what year of our Lord may be so designated. All are sure, however, that once upon a time stars fell on Alabama, changing the land's destiny...
Carl Carmer was a professor at the University of Alabama and in the Twenties he traveled around the state's corn-whiskey backwaters collecting a ton of songs, yarns, and other folklore and social history. Early in 1934 he wrote a book about the state and published it under the title Stars Fell On Alabama. And it was a big enough bestseller that the music publisher Irving Mills, one of the canniest of Tin Pan Alley opportunists, decided there must be a song in it. It fell to Frank Perkins to write the music, and the words are the work of a man who wrote lyrics to everybody's tunes – Duke Ellington's ("Sophisticated Lady"), Glenn Miller's ("Moonlight Serenade"), Cliff Burwell's ("Sweet Lorraine"), Peter De Rose's ("Deep Purple"), not to mention Maurice Ravel's ("The Lamp Is Low"), and the light orchestral composer Leroy Anderson's ("Sleigh Ride"), and the Italian pop star Domenico Modugno's ("Volare"). Oh, and Hoagy Carmichael's, as we discussed on the very first Steyn's Song of the Week on Serenade Radio.
The fellow who wrote the words to all those hits was Mitchell Parish. He was a dapper old gentleman by the time I got to know them, although quite the ladies' man (he invited me on a kind of double date, although he was three generations older than me). Parish didn't look anything like his songs, or sound like them: the Noo Yawk vowels didn't seem to go with lyrics about Currier & Ives and pumpkin pie, and the purple dusk of twilight time stealing across the meadows of your heart before falling on sleepy garden walls. He seemed far too urban for an oeuvre of rhapsodic rural imagery - although, in fact, his earliest memories were of the south. A Lithuanian Jew by birth, he was less than a year old when his family came to America and settled in Louisiana. Later, they moved to New York and he enjoyed the traditional turn-of-the-century songwriter's childhood in the tenements of the Lower East Side. He had, as I recall, twelve brothers and sisters, and he told me that one day, aged six or so, he fell off a wharf into the East River, got washed down a few blocks, clambered up on dry land in a part of town he didn't know and took a couple of days to make his way back home only to find his mom hadn't even noticed he was missing.
By the late Twenties, he was a jobbing lyricist in Tin Pan Alley. His biggest hit in those early days was "Star Dust", and afterwards Parish wrote a lot about stars: Star dust, a stairway to the stars, the stars begin to twinkle in the sky... "I wrote about what I didn't know," he told me. "I'd never taken a sleigh ride, I didn't know any girl called Lorraine, and we didn't have stars on the Lower East Side. I think all my songs about moonlight and stars go back to my childhood, and my longing for things I could never see in New York."
Maybe. There are thousands of songs about stars, and they generally offer some variant of "dreaming of/stars above". But "Stars Fell On Alabama" offered the opportunity to do something different: not stars above, but stars below. Thousands of them. Perkins and Parish took "the night the stars fell" and made it the night I fell - for you. Boy, meteor, girl:
We lived our little drama
We kissed in a field of white
And Stars Fell On Alabama
I'm not sure "drama", or "drammer", quite rhymes with "Alabammer", even in American. But it didn't seem to make any difference to the number's success. That first quatrain is an ingenious solution to the problem of cashing in on Professor Carmer's book title. How do you make a universal love song out of such a once-in-several-lifetimes event? Answer: You do what Parish did and allude to it obliquely. "We lived our little drama" - well, being caught out in a meteor storm is certainly dramatic. "We kissed in a field of white" - isn't that a lovely phrase? Alas, in the second section it all gets a bit more generic:
I can't forget the glamour
Your eyes held a tender light
And Stars Fell On Alabama
Musicologist and Sinatra pal Alec Wilder found the middle section much more interesting than what he dismissed as the imitative chromatic phrases of the principal strain. But I think most of us would disagree. There's a real ache, a real yearning in the upward leap into the third bar of the main theme - "We kissed... Your eyes..." Whereas the middle section seems to me musically very ordinary. It works well enough, but it feels as if it would work well enough paired with any number of other themes:
I never planned in my imagination
A situation so heavenly
A fairy land where no one else could enter
And in the center
Just you and me...
Again, Parish merely suggests the events of 1833: "A situation so heavenly" isn't just standard Alleyspeak but a nod to the heaven-on-earth in Alabama a century earlier. Meanwhile, for a not terribly rhymeable state, he has one more up his sleeve:
My heart beat like a hammer
My arms wound around you tight
And Stars Fell On Alabama
He should have made it a Yellowhammer. For a number inspired by such a specific event, the locale ends up feeling pretty incidental.
On August 27th 1934 Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians made the first record with Guy's brother Carmen on vocals:
It was Jack Teagarden who had the hit in 1934, and then "Stars" fell silent for a dozen years until Woody Herman revived it, and then there was a little flurry of activity in the early Fifties from Patti Page and Anita O'Day, Ella and Satchmo, the Four Aces and the Hi-Lo's...
Sinatra? When Frank and Nelson Riddle found their groove in the mid-Fifties, the music just poured out. In 1956 there was so much of it: The year began with the sessions for the defining album of the early LP era - Songs For Swingin' Lovers, including "You Make Me Feel So Young", "Pennies from Heaven", "How About You?", "We'll Be Together Again" and, of course, "I've Got You Under My Skin". It ended with the sessions for Swingin' Lovers' swingin' successor, A Swingin' Affair! In between came a great soundtrack album of new Cole Porter songs (High Society), an exquisite ballad set with the Hollywood String Quartet (Close To You), a collection of specially commissioned orchestral pieces conducted by Frank (Tone Poems Of Color), and a bunch of singles, variously slight, terrific, goofy, memorable, including "How Little We Know", "Five Hundred Guys" and "Hey! Jealous Lover". All in twelve months.
From that banner year of 1956, here's a track from Swingin' Affair! that surely cannot have been a priority for Sinatra in that most artistically ambitious year, but it's beautifully sung to a marvelous arrangement - and the combination is so good that, as with so many other songs, it secured the number's place in the standard repertoire. It's in that classic Riddle style, where the first chorus swings very lightly and romantically so, and then Frank comes roaring back hard for the out-chorus - almost as if he and Nelson are giving you the defining ballad and up-tempo treatments on the same chart. Sinatra floats across the lyrics - "Your eyes held a tender light" - as tenderly and sincerely as anything he's ever sung - and only in the final section - on "hammer" - does his tone betray that he's going to kick it up a notch on the second chorus. Indeed, the contrast between this line's two renditions reminds us that, notwithstanding it was the name he chose for his record company, Sinatra rarely "reprises" anything in the literal sense: He never simply sings it again. The first time round - "My heart beat like a hammer" - it's the shy uncertain nervousness of romantic trepidation; second time around - "My heart beat just like a hammer" - the lyric addition ("just") and musical modifications (the repeated notes) turn it into a rhythmic pounding, capped by the big legato surge of pure bliss on "arms wound around you tight". It's a great listen - and, if you're so minded, a masterclass in pop singing. And what an intro - Nelson and the band evoking November 13th 1833:
On that second chorus, he slips in a Frankism: Instead of stars falling on Alabama, "stars fractured 'Bama". "People always ask me about that line," Mitchell Parish said to me. "'Does that bother you? "Stars fractured 'Bama"? Of course not. I like it. He was just so carried away by the song that it came out that way."
On one wall of his New York apartment, Parish had a huge bookcase (he was a very well read man) displaying an eclectic range of novels. "Do you know what they are?" he asked. "They're all novels that mention one of my songs as part of the plot." There are a fair few that reference "Stars Fell On Alabama". I didn't spot this one on the Parish bookshelf, but its sensibility is typical. In Hill Towns by Anne Rivers Siddons, the narrator meets an American painter now living in Rome with an ex-wife back in Alabama:
'It's hard for a certain kind of southerner to leave the south. Like cheerleaders and Ford salesmen...'
'She was a cheerleader?'
'She was. Prettiest girl at 'Bama that year. Like to dazzled me right out of my mind. Stars fell on Alabama, like the song says.'
That amused me. I began to sing, softly. 'We lived our little drama, we kissed in a field of white, and stars fell on Alabama ...last night.'
Parish was always tickled by that: If a novelist wants to communicate a sense of time and place, there's no easier shorthand than a popular song, and often one of his. But Anne Rivers Siddons' novel also exemplifies the Alabamafication of what is after all a New York song. The process was completed in 1980 when Jimmy Buffett, an Alabama native, recorded "Stars Fell", complete with a 'tween-chorus patter filling in all the local color Mitchell Parish couldn't be bothered with:
Alright, lets take it on down from Muscle Shoals through Decatur
Mmmm, Birmingham, oh, Montgomery
Right up over Spanish Fort into Mobile, my hometown...
The song's journey is almost complete. In 2002, it was adopted as the motto for the Alabama license plate, squeezing the state's longtime brand - "Heart of Dixie" - into an obscure corner. A motion to make "Stars Fell" the official state song passed the Alabama Senate but was scuttled in the House. It will pass one day, however, as the final stage in a long near-two-century journey - not a meteoric rise but a steady one, from a meteor shower to an Alabama book to a Tin Pan Alley song, stars rising onward and upward.
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