From an unscientific survey of those to hand as I write, it appears that most people think this a rather more recent song than it is - as recent, indeed, as Beyoncé, of whom more anon. Currently, it's the third most popular wedding song, ahead of passing fancies by Ed Sheeran, Michael Bublé and John Legend. But, in fact, it hit public consciousness eight decades ago, in the summer of 1942, in the hands of Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, taking it up the Hit Parade and previewing their forthcoming motion picture, Orchestra Wives. Here's how they did it in the movie, calming the crowd down after a vigorous terpsichorean workout:
That's Ray Eberle and Lynn Bari handling the vocals with Mr Miller. Miss Bari was dubbed by Pat Friday but she does mouth along very appealingly. Orchestra Wives was an entirely forgettable film, but it left us three unforgettable songs. Which isn't bad for a movie with George Montgomery and Ann Rutherford and Cesar Romero and Carole Landis, none of whom are where you go to look for great hit numbers any more than one would Lynn Baru. In fact, Harry Warren and Mack Gordon wrote a quintet of songs for Orchestra Wives, and the two that haven't lasted would have sounded pretty good in most circumstances. Had the United States Government not considered it unhelpful to the war effort, "That's Sabotage", in particular, might have taken off: it's kinda cute and super-catchy, and one I used to enjoy playing when I was a teenager. But the government was concerned that, during air-raids, lines like "there's a bomb-proof shelter in my arms" might be taken literally:
But the three big songs from the film are on another scale. There was a splashy production number, "(I've Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo", and two great ballads. This is the big one:
My love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song...
In fact, very few lives are like this song. I doubt many of those couples who pick "At Last" for their big dance know that we owe its existence to the film Orchestra Wives, notwithstanding that so many of them choose to become wives by dancing to an orchestra playing this ancient song. While the song proper - music and lyric - was introduced in Orchestra Wives, the musical half of it was heard a year earlier in Glenn Miller's previous picture Sun Valley Serenade. After seeing a preview of the film, Daryl Zanuck, who headed 20th Century Fox, pronounced: "There are too many big ones in this picture. Let's save that one for the next." So the song was cut, and all anyone heard was a waltz-time instrumental with wordless warbling by the studio chorus, as Olympic-skating-champ-turned-Hollywood-headliner Sonja Henie twirled about on black ice - about two minutes in below:
And if any moviegoers said, "Hey, that tune that goes 'Da-da! Da-da da-da da-dee' is pretty good. Wonder if there are any words to it", no one let 'em in on the secret, and "At Last" was put on ice for twelve months and left for Ray Eberle and Lynn Bari.
I don't suppose those names resonate with many twenty-first century newlyweds, either. Miss Bari was a working actress who, after years of chorus work and receptionist roles, graduated to playing the man-eating "other woman" through the 1940s. "I seem to be a woman always with a gun in her purse," she said. "I go from one set to the other shooting people and stealing husbands." There are worse ways to make a living.
Ray Eberle didn't need his singing voice dubbed, but his acting might have benefited from it. He was a house singer with the Miller orchestra, and he must have thought he had it made when this ballad was dropped in his lap:
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song...
In fact, by the time the film opened, he was no longer with the band. In June 1942, in Chicago, he got stuck in traffic and was late for rehearsal. Glenn Miller fired him on the spot.
The skies above are blue...
Harry Warren, the song's composer, was a prodigious hit-maker, with forty-two Top Ten songs between 1935 and 1950, and the runner-up, a long way back in the distance with a mere thirty-three, Irving Berlin. But everybody knew Berlin's name, and no one knew Warren's - which is partly his fault, as he was born Salvatore Guaranga and by comparison "Harry Warren" sounds like the name you'd choose if you were going into an FBI witness-protection program. He complained so much about his obscurity that it became, paradoxically, his principal claim to fame. Warren was the churlish nobody who wrote beloved songs for everybody:
In the Twenties, he composed big Tin Pan Alley pop hits like 'Nagasaki'; in the Thirties, the first of four great American train songs, 'Shuffle Off To Buffalo'; in the Forties, the number that earned Glenn Miller the world's first gold record, 'Chattanooga Choo Choo'; and in the Fifties, big Italiano ballads like 'Inamorata'. In the Sixties, Chris Montez had a hit with 'The More I See You', and in the Seventies Art Garfunkel with 'I Only Have Eyes For You'. In the Eighties, his score for 42nd Street provided Broadway with one of its few homegrown blockbusters on an otherwise Lloyd Webberized Great White Way, and in the Nineties his big orchestral theme from An Affair To Remember did most of the heavy lifting for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in Sleepless In Seattle.
There are famous songwriters - Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart - who have a bunch of "And then I wrote..." anecdotes. There are also one-hit wonders whose one hit has a goofy tale attached to it. But, in posterity's bonus kick in the butt to Harry Warren, there are hardly any interesting stories attending the creation of the above spectacular catalogue. Warren was an assignment writer, and, apprised of the assignment, he composed suitable music and turned it in with little fuss. He spoke well of all his lyricists, although naturally he grumbled about the famous one (Johnny Mercer). He was undoubtedly correct in his view that his employers took him for granted. A couple of years after Orchestra Wives, he quit 20th Century Fox because they ceased paying him while he was out with pneumonia (from which his son had died - and thus a less insensitive accounts department might have concluded it wasn't something to make an issue of).
As for his lyricist on "At Last", a while back I put it this way:
Harry Warren's two most productive partnerships were with Al Dubin in the Thirties and Mack Gordon in the Forties. Both were large men who died young. Al Dubin ate all day, and drank and womanized all night. Mack Gordon ate all day, didn't drink, and struck out with showgirls. Likewise, there's a little more life in Dubin's lyrics, a little more 'hip-hooray and ballyhoo', as he put it in 'Lullaby of Broadway'. Gordon's love songs tend toward the tried and tested ...and occasionally veer into the incompetent.
Re that last bit, I'm thinking of this from one of the most enduring Warren & Gordon songs:
Can you imagine
How much I love you?
The More I See You
As years go by
I know the only one for me
Can only be you...
Sure, but, if you're gonna go that route, why not "I only know the only one for me can only be you only..."? On the other hand, fools rush in where wise men fear to tread, and Gordon's double-only has been relished by singers for over two-thirds of a century. It looks dumb on paper, but somehow sounds right when it's sung. He was very good at that. Harry Warren said that Mack "had an innate sense of song". Wilfrid Sheed, in his book The House That George Built, put it more modestly: Mack Gordon observed the most basic rule of lyric-writing - "First, do no harm." The Lyricratic Oath, so to speak.
So in "At Last" Gordon has a great title: the longed-for love is here! And he comes up with almost nothing to flesh out the concept: Lonely days are over, skies above are blue, his heart was wrapped in clover the night he looked at you:
I found a dream that I can speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to press my cheek to
A thrill I've never known...
Meanwhile, after that big bold upward declaration of the title phrase, Harry Warren has written a gorgeous step-wise melody, beautifully supported by a great bass line and an insinuating use of the minor third and minor seventh - and Mack Gordon can think of nothing to say about it except the hoariest Tin Pan Alley boilerplate about dreams, smiles and blue skies. Granted that ordinary words are transformed by being set to music, do they have to be quite so ordinary?
Ah, well. The Miller orchestra's record with vocal by the abruptly terminated Ray Eberle got to Number Nine on the hit parade in 1942 in a smooth, creamy rendition that I attempted vainly to mimic when I played it on the piano as a kid. The song stayed known, and Miller alumnus Ray Anthony's revival of it a decade later got to Number Two on the Billboard charts. But it wasn't quite a standard and I would wager that the composer never accounted it one of his top-tier blockbusters. As late as 1972, the musicologist Alec Wilder, in a survey of the composer's work, declared that "it isn't one of Warren's big hits".
Well, it is now. What changed the fortunes of "At Last" was Etta James, who in 1960 went into the studio and recorded the song for her debut album, the exclamatory At Last!, on the Chess label. The Chess brothers had figured that Miss James, a rhythm'n'blues gal, had some serious crossover appeal to a mainstream pop audience, and so they brought in Riley Hampton to arrange some standards for her. As a fan of that stately Miller slow-ballad sound, I find Mr Hampton's opening string figure a little under-written: it sounds thin and, dare I say it, a little icy rather than warm and romantic. But what do I know? For virtually everyone else, it remade the number in Etta's image - and totally eclipsed Miller's original:
Like Dinah Washington's "Teach Me Tonight" or Mama Cass's "Dream A Little Dream Of Me", it became one of those records that swallowed the song, spawning a thousand cover versions that aren't so much performing Warren & Gordon's composition as Etta James's recording of it. Back in 1941, the writers wrote:
And then the spell was cast...
But Etta sings it:
Oh, yeah, yeah, you smiled
Oh, and then the spell was cast...
And, if you notice, that's what a thousand other female vocalists have sung in the last half-century. The Etta James recording moved the ballad into semi-soul/r'n'b territory, and although it wasn't a big hit in its day - Number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100 - it hung around and gave the song a cachet among younger singers. In the last couple of decades, Stevie Nicks, Martina McBride and Céline Dion have all had a crack at "At Last", and, before all the record stores closed down, the last time I riffled through the bins half the rock/soul/country/telly crowd's obligatory standards albums seemed to be called At Last. Cyndi Lauper's is, and Gladys Knight's, and Freda Payne's and Lynda Carter's. And along the way it started turning up in all the chick flicks, and became a great wedding favorite - so much so that celebrity wedding planner Sharon Sacks, who planned Michael Jordan's $10 million wedding and both of Kim Kardashian's, chose it when she planned her own wedding.
And then came Presidential Inauguration Night, January 20th 2009, when Barack and Michelle Obama took their first dance to "At Last", as sung by Beyoncé:
My love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song...
And in the bright new dawn of January 2009 the song that life was like was "At Last". Through slavery, Jim Crow, busing and beyond, America's black population had been demanding to know, "How long, O Lord, how long?" And now, courtesy of Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, they had their answer: "At Last!" - complete with Etta James album-title exclamation. As Jen Chaney of The Washington Post wrote:
The song's expression of a romantic promise fulfilled clearly spoke to the hope that political promises would be fulfilled, not to mention the notion that, at last, an African-American had assumed this nation's highest honor.
Unfortunately, Etta James felt somewhat differently. A week after the inaugural ball, on stage in Seattle, she let rip:
You guys know your president, right? You know the one with the big ears? Wait a minute, he ain't my president. He might be yours; he ain't my president. But I tell you that woman he had singing for him, singing my song — she's going to get her ass whupped.
A few days later, another op'nin', another show, and Miss James was warming to her theme:
The great Beyoncé... I can't stand Beyoncé. She has no business up there, singing up there on a big ol' president day, gonna be singing my song that I've been singing forever.
I'd have to give this one to Etta. I don't suppose Ray Eberle cared for Etta James' version of "At Last", but he'd have acknowledged that she at least had her own point of view on the song that no one would ever confuse with his: she wasn't merely doing big-budget karaoke in a plunging ball gown. By contrast, Beyoncé has a big voice and very small interpretative power. It's heartening, in such times, to see divas threatened with a big ol' ass-whupping from real singers. As for the president "with the big ears", it would have required from him a rare generosity to invite Miss James to sing at his inaugural, and there was always something both heartless and shallow about his calculations in such matters: Etta would have been cool, but Beyoncé "honoring" Etta is even cooler. It was no contest.
For my part, much as I love Harry Warren's music, I've never been able to get beyond Mack Gordon's pedestrian imagery. For me, the best song in Orchestra Wives is Warren & Gordon's great brooding masterpiece "Serenade in Blue". The title suggests it was intended as an instrumental, perhaps a showpiece for the Miller band, which prospect prompted Warren, an old Puccini disciple, to write a very unWarrenlike tune, something that sounds more like it belongs in Harold Arlen's or maybe Jimmy Van Heusen's catalogue. But at some point in the process Mack Gordon was instructed to append a text to it, and so it starts out - like many instrumentals to which words are awkwardly fitted - as a lyric about listening to a piece of music, as if we're in for a pseudo-art song like "Prelude to a Kiss":
When I hear that Serenade in Blue
I'm somewhere in another world alone with you...
Pow! Suddenly it's not just a song about a song, but a song about loss, about looking back to when the two of you were...
Sharing all the joys we used to know
Many moons ago...
Warren restates the main theme, and Gordon intensifies the singer's isolation:
Once again your face comes back to me
Just like the theme of some forgotten melody
In the album of my memory
Serenade in Blue...
You don't want to spend too long in the album of your memory: it can get pretty intense once you're that deep into it, as we're about to discover in what I'd rank as one of my all-time favorite middle-sections - six insistent, pounding bars beginning with the same four notes and then slightly varying the second half of each measure. It's this combination - the repeats and the variations - that gives it both relentlessness and the sense that this relentlessness is heading somewhere, working up to something:
It seems like only yesterday
A small café, a crowded floor
And as we dance the night away
I hear you say forevermore
And then the song became a sigh
Forevermore became goodbye...
I love the deft, compressed sketching of the story in those phrases: only yesterday, a crowded floor... And where's all this headed? To one great plaintive cry at a dream that won't die:
But you remained in my heart!
And back to the main theme:
So tell me, darling, is there still a spark?
Or only lonely ashes of the flame we knew?
Should I go on whistling in the dark
Serenade in Blue?
One of the interesting touches of a not always interesting lyricist is that, for each of the three statements of Warren's principal musical theme, Gordon uses a different rhyme pattern:
First time round - "When I hear that Serenade in Blue/you/know/ago" - or AABB.
Second time - "Once again your face comes back to me/melody/memory/Blue" - or AAAB.
Third time - "So tell me, darling, is there still a spark?/knew/dark/Blue" - or ABAB (plus an internal rhyme on "only lonely").
Why did he do that? No idea. But I think the lack of consistent rhyme pattern helps give it the sense of a deep, dark interior monologue. I love this song, and I wish more singers did it, although Sinatra's belated recording with Neil Hefti has to be accounted something of a disappointment.
In the film it's sung by Lynn Bari - ie, Pat Friday dubbing her vocal:
Love the whistling at the end. Don't get that with Beyoncé.
When the Miller band went into the studio to make the single, Billy May arranged an opening passage which the Billboard reviewer characterized as follows:
Band builds an introduction of symphonic tone poem proportions.
He's not wrong. So, aside from the world's greatest middle section, Billy May gave the original Miller recording one of the all-time greatest intros:
I've loved that introduction since I was a kid. And every so often when I'm working on something with our terrific arranger Kevin Amos, I'll say, "Why don't we start with something like that Billy May intro for 'Serenade in Blue'?" And then we both laugh - because there's nothing "like" it, not really. And you'd be ill-advised to try to match it. But we did our best to tiptoe around the same kind of turf in the intro to Jessica Martin's version of "I Wish I Didn't Love You So" for our Frank Loesser centenary special.
I was asked on a Mark's Mailbox a year or three back to name my Desert Island Discs, and I slightly dodged the question, aside from indicating a preference for non-vocal music. But Billy May's intro to his old Miller arrangement would almost be a pick in itself.
At the time, "At Last" was a smaller hit than "Serenade in Blue". It was, after all, wartime, and so romantic uncertainty - "Tell me, darling, is there still a spark?" - had more takers than blue skies up above. But our ears were also, I think, more subtly attuned back then. And when I hear that "Serenade in Blue" I'm somewhere in another world where melismatic divas aren't coarsening up "At Last" into cheaply emotive bombast. Much has changed in the years between a haunting ballad of wartime parting and a reliable 21st century wedding favorite, but some things never change: both songs are by Harry Warren, and still nobody knows his name.
~If you're a Mark Steyn Club member, whether you're crying "At Last!" or sobbing that "Serenade in Blue", feel free to weigh in 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, so have at it. You also get personally autographed copies of A Song for the Season and many other Steyn books at a special member's price.