This weekend's Song of the Week comes by way of breakfast on the Adriatic. As many readers are aware, I've been a little under the weather in Trieste, which, as goes weather to be under, is about as good as it gets.
I wouldn't want to exaggerate my proximity to death's door, so instead let me emphasise my proximity to neighboring Slovenia's door. The other day I was pronounced sturdy enough to be taken twenty minutes across the border to the lovely town of Koper, which under one name or another goes back at least as far as Pliny the Elder. So I was having an espresso on the terrace of the oldest coffee shop in town (and indeed in the country) and admiring the beautiful fifteenth-century praetorian palace directly across the square and, off to my left, the twelfth-century cathedral with its somewhat more recent bell (1333, made in Venice). Off to my right, on the other hand, was the local university, and so, after a while, the architectural delights faded into the background, somewhere behind the pretty Slovene girls in their summer dresses crossing back and forth across the square.
And a fragment of song popped into my head:
Walk a little slower
When you walk by me...
Or, to be more precise, a fragment of conversation about a song popped into my head. For seven decades Denis Norden was a fixture on British telly and radio - as comedy partner to Frank Muir, as the man who gave cinemagoers the all-time greatest Carry On gag, and as begetter of the plot that launched a global phenomenon. But in Koper the other day I found myself thinking back to a long-ago dinner party in a London flat in Abbey Road just above the pedestrian crossing made famous by the Beatles:
One night with Lionel Bart, composer of Oliver!, the conversation turned to the music you'd like to have for your funeral. And Denis said he wanted the song whose chorus begins:
Walk a little slower
When you walk by me...'
And we all loved the lines and we all knew the song, but none of us could remember the title. 'Sinatra sings it,' I said, 'and Nat "King" Cole.'
'But what's it called?' asked Denis.
"'Walk A Little Slower",' said Lionel.
'"Beautiful Girls"?' I suggested.
There's a reason no one knows the title, as we'll come to. But discriminating singers sang it anyway. The late Tony Bennett, for example, kept it in his book for six decades:
That's Bennett at his best - a perfectly sincere reading with a fine (if atypical) arrangement by Ralph Burns. Here he is half-a-century later, on one of those highly lucrative celeb-duets albums:
I have no idea why anyone would think that's a song for two blokes to sing. And, for fans of early (or early-middle-aged) Bennett, his reliance on mannerisms - the yelps and shouts - could be sorely trying. But he loved the songs and wanted them to survive. I'd be surprised if young Mr Groban had heard of the song before he got the call for the album, but, if he sings it as long as the old man, that'll keep it around till the end of the century. So mission accomplished.
If you're wondering by now who wrote it, here's Sinatra tipping his hat to the song's author at Carnegie Hall in 1984:
Frank and Gordy: Jenkins doesn't get the credit Nelson Riddle and Billy May do, but he was at Sinatra's side for a lot of the heavyweight projects. Frank, more than most pop singers, was interested in the encrustations of age. In 1965, he was approaching his fiftieth birthday. On the one hand, life was a blast: He was the swingin' bachelor, high-rollin' with his pallies in Vegas. On the other hand, he was feeling the march of time.
So he decided to make an autobiographical album about entering autumn - September Of My Years. These days, fifty isn't the September of your years, more like early May, because fifty is the new thirty, or the new fourteen-and-a-half, in our infantilized culture. But even then making an album about how old you are (actual song title: "How Old Am I?") was unusual. One recalls the artful evasion of even as timeless an icon as Cary Grant when a newspaper fact-checker wired his press agent: "How old Cary Grant?"
Grant's reply: "Old Cary Grant fine. How you?"
But how old Frank Sinatra?
Well, he figured there was a whole album in that. As I wrote a while back:
I used to think the idea was nothing more than Sinatra contrarianism: At a time when most celebs cling ever more fiercely to lost youth, he embraced premature old age. But Sinatra scholar Will Friedwald makes the point that 'many of Sinatra's closest associates bought the farm while they were in their fifties'. In the preceding decade, he'd lost his old boss, Tommy Dorsey; his first great arranger, Axel Stordahl; his record producer at Columbia, Manie Sachs; his longtime first violinist, Felix Slatkin - and many of the jazzers he most admired, such as Billie Holiday, died even younger. So it's entirely possible he and his arranger Gordon Jenkins were completely sincere in their intimations of mortality. It's a beautiful album: a couple of remakes - 'September Song' (of course) and 'Last Night When We Were Young' - and a lot of new material by fellows on the fringes of the Sinatra circle - 'The Man In The Looking Glass', 'I See It Now', 'When The Wind Was Green', 'It Gets Lonely Early'... You get the gist early - the falling leaves, the graying hair, the days dwindle down to a precious few. Yet it never wears.
And of course the masterpiece of the set: "It Was a Very Good Year."
Gordon Jenkins is an oddly controversial figure in Sinatra circles. I noticed years ago that Frank's musicians tended to fall silent or, a drink or two on, downright hostile toward Jenkins. His orchestrations didn't have the harmonic richness of Riddle or Axel Stordahl or Don Costa, and he returned again and again to certain tricks - two-note string seesaws, one-fingered piano - but he was, as Sinatra understood, a master storyteller, which is a vital quality in arranging a song.
As for his fellow arrangers, they tended to speak warmly if evasively. Nelson Riddle said he "admired Gordon so much for having written" ...the arrangement of "Lonely Town"? No. He admired Gordon for having written the song "Goodbye", which Riddle professed to be "crazy about". Billy May said he'd "been a fan of Gordon's for a long time". For his exquisite ballad orchestrations for Nat Cole and Sinatra? Er, no. As May put it, "He was a good songwriter and wrote some beautiful songs, especially 'This Is All I Ask'."
In other words, Riddle and May are enthusing not about Jenkins the arranger but about Jenkins the songwriter. He was the only one of Sinatra's key arrangers to have a serious sustained songwriting career - "San Fernando Valley" was a monster hit for Bing Crosby, "When A Woman Loves a Man" was beloved by Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, and Peggy Lee, and every other discriminating female vocalist. He wrote both music and lyrics: "Words, music and orchestration by Gordon Jenkins - the triple threat," as Sinatra liked to say when performing a Jenkins song live.
In this case, Frank could hardly not ask Gordy to score September Of My Years, because the entire project began when Sinatra, in melancholy autumnal mood, chanced to hear a Jenkins song:
Walk a little slower
When you walk by me...
There's a lot of truth in that sentiment. As a man grows old, he learns that young love is one of the things you leave behind, that are lost to you. Other kinds of love take its place - warmer love, deeper love. But there will be moments when a head turns and her hair sways and you'll be momentarily reminded of when such fancies made a heart leap. But it's not about romantic appetite anymore, just a wistful, warm nostalgia for something that can never come again. Sinatra was moved by the tenderness and sensitivity of that fragment from a Gordon Jenkins lyric, and with it was born the idea for an entire album of songs in an autumnal hue.
A lot of us have been touched by that line as the years roll by. That's why Denis Norden, Lionel Bart and I were waxing rhapsodic over it in the wee small hours in Abbey Road. Even though none of us could remember the title. Here's the triple threat with the first guy to sing the song:
Given that Nat Cole was introducing a new song to the world and that the guy who wrote it was standing in the same room waving a baton, you're surprised Gordy let Nat muff the "leisure"/"pleasure" rhyme.
The song was born during a postprandial stroll in 1956. One day Gordon Jenkins was in New York lunching with a couple of music publishing pals, and pickings were thin, and somewhere between the soup and cognac one of the guys jokingly suggests:
Gordon, we're not doing anything today. Why don't you go home and write us a hit?
And Gordon says sure, why not?
Meet me around five o'clock, we'll have a drink, and I'll have a hit for you.
And they all had a big laugh and parted company on the sidewalk, and Jenkins headed uptown. And round about 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue a building had been torn down and wooden fencing thrown up and, if you looked in through the little grilles that occasionally punctuated the wooden fence, you could see that a new skyscraper was under construction. And somewhere on the fencing one of the crew had scrawled:
Pretty girls, slow down when you walk by here.
That's it? That wistful, tender, melancholic sentiment that Tony Bennett and Denis Norden and I had been so moved by was the work of some hardhat ogling stacked chicks as they wiggled through midtown Manhattan?
Oh, well. Gordon Jenkins was bowled over by the graffito:
That was like a cartoon when the light goes on in someone's head. I thought to myself, 'Oh, my God - where's the piano?
He headed straight to the office of the publishers he'd been lunching with, found a piano, and got to work. First he explains the situation:
As I approach the prime of my life
I find I have the time of my life
Learning to enjoy at my leisure
All the simple pleasures...
Ira Gershwin and Larry Hart wouldn't have rhymed "leisure" (in the British pronunciation) with "pleasures". Would it have made so much difference, in lieu of "all the simple pleasures", to write "ev'ry simple pleasure" or some such? Tim Rice once described this to me as "Lewis Carroll rhyming", where you carry over the extraneous consonant to the vowel at the beginning of the next line. And so:
...all the simple pleasures
And so I happily concede
This is all I ask
This is all I need...
Gordon Jenkins wrote songs his entire life, but he wasn't your typical Tin Pan Alley formula guy. And so he wrote a 15-bar verse, with a pair of two-bar phrases with a quadruple rhyme ("prime of my life"/"time of my life"), a three-bar phrase with a feminine rhyme ("leisure"/"pleasure") and then a trio of two-bar phrases with a masculine rhyme ("con-cede"/"need"). Who writes like this? And how?
I've never been able to work out how Jenkins wrote his songs. In some of his later work, there seem to be far more chord changes than the ho-hum melody can support, almost as if he's orchestrating a tune that hasn't quite been written. On the other hand, there are some wonderfully freewheeling tunes on which a lyric is trying without much success to establish a structure. How did this one happen? The melodic stresses of "prime of my life"/"time of my life" and "leisure"/"pleasures" seem obviously to be there to accommodate a pre-written lyric. Yet who would write a pop lyric in such an unstructured way?
Did I mention we're still in the introductory verse? Only after "This is all I need" do we slide into the chorus:
Walk a little slower
When you walk by me
Stay a little longer
With the lonely sea...
For years I thought the first line was actually "Beautiful girl, walk a little slower", which I wonder sometimes wouldn't have been better: a singular individual rather than merely womanhood in general. But maybe not. The second image is perhaps a bit over-familiar in pop songs, but the third is genius:
When you shoot at bad men
Shoot at me
Take me to that strange, enchanted land
Grown-ups seldom understand...
What a great scene: an old man passing a bunch of young tykes playing in a park.
The rest of the song returns to more familiar generalities, very skilfully, but it's the vivid specificity of the walking girls and the boys going bang-bang that makes the song memorable:
Leave a bit of color
For my heart to own
Stars in the sky
Make my wish come true
Before the night has flown
And let the music play as long
As there's a song to sing
And I will stay younger than spring.
Jenkins wrote most of the song at that office piano, then went back to his apartment and finished up. And at five o'clock he called his publisher pals and said: "I've got that song we talked about." And after he played it to them their reaction was: "Great! What's the title?"
And at that point the composer realized that a song that had everything was nevertheless lacking one vital ingredient: A title. What about that final line - "Younger than spring"? Um, no. Rodgers & Hammerstein got to that one in South Pacific: "Younger Than Springtime."
Nothing else in the chorus seemed to work. "Beautiful girls" and "Wandering rainbows" sound like song titles, but here they're only one in a series of injunctions. The middle section? That "strange enchanted land" is striking, but it refers only to the kids' games.
Eventually, a year and a half later, Jenkins settled on the penultimate line of the introductory verse: "This Is All I Ask." Which is certainly what the number is about, but it's a phrase from the verse. Half the singers of pop standards don't even sing the verse - and now here's a song whose title makes no sense without it - and, even with that solitary mention in the verse, doesn't exactly plant the name of it in your head. As witness me, Lionel Bart and Denis Norden straining to recall it all those years later.
Still and all, it is a great song, as Sinatra recognized. And he and Jenkins made a great record of it, one in which Jenkins the orchestrator did full justice to Jenkins the songwriter. Stan Cornyn, the liner king, set the scene:
'You ready, Gordy?' Sinatra asked.
'I'm ready. I was always ready. I was ready in 1939.'
'I was ready when I was nine.'
Jenkins starts a song, conducting with his arms waist high, sweeping them from side to side. Not leading the orchestra, being the orchestra...
As Stan Cornyn explains:
Tonight will not swing. Tonight is for serious.
Vincent Falcone, Sinatra's musical director in the late Seventies and Eighties, put it this way:
When you hear a Gordon Jenkins arrangement, you know it immediately. Not that other arrangers weren't in his league, but when you have something that's so quickly recognizable, it sets you apart from other people. And you can't imitate Gordon Jenkins. You either were him or you weren't. That's why you don't hear anything like him, then or now, and that's what separates the men from the boys... If you took 'This Is All I Ask' and did it any differently, it wouldn't be right.
"The songs all had a thing about age, and growing older," Jenkins told Wink Martindale. "I was exactly the right age to do it, as he was. And we were talking about that on the date - that neither one of us could have made that album at any other time in our lives, except at that time."
Then again, if you don't care for Sinatra's or Bennett's or Cole's version of "This Is All I Ask", there's always Fantasy Island's famously randy midget Herve Villechaize:
If you're wondering why I'm playing Herve Villechaize, well, I'll take that over the lady vocalists. That was another mistake Jenkins made. Not only no title, but way too sex-specific for your average Tin Pan Alleyman:
Walk a little slower...
What are the gals supposed to sing? Gordon Jenkins did his best:
Speak a little softer
When you speak to me...
But that's really not the same at all, is it?
Sinatra, Bennett and all the others who took up "This Is All" in middle-age kept it in the act until the end. By then, Gordon Jenkins, like Stordahl and Riddle, was gone. Afflicted by Lou Gehrig's disease, injured in a car accident, Jenkins rallied to make one last great album of Sinatra saloon songs, She Shot Me Down, in 1981. Two-and-a-half years later, he was dead.
Okay, one more. As that "triple threat", Gordon Jenkins wrote more arrangements of his own song for more major singers than any writer has ever done for his own standard. Here he is in the Seventies conducting the orchestra for the big rock balladeer of "(Can't live if living is) Without You, Harry Nilsson:
And as Gordy says at the end:
Yeah, Harry. Good.
The beautiful girls and the sunsets did not linger long for Nilsson: He was dead at fifty-two. He got to the old-man songs when he was young, because, unlike Tony Bennett, waiting to grow into them as the decades roll by was not an option.
Two-and-a-half months after the above recording, Jenkins was back in the studio with Sinatra. He and Frank were never buddies. That was, to one degree or another, a conscious decision: if you have a great professional partnership, you risk a lot taking it into after-hours. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby rarely saw each other outside the soundstage or broadcast studio; likewise Rodgers & Hammerstein away from Broadway theatres. At the studio door, as Gordy put it, "if Frank made a left turn after the gig, I made a right." Nevertheless, Sinatra treated Jenkins with a respect he'd didn't accord other arrangers. And at certain points in their relationship it extended into private matters, too. Half a decade after Jenkins' death, Sinatra told his son Bruce about sharing with Gordy "a lot of late-night, soul-searching talks over cocktails".
"They went to some quiet place and drank," said Bruce Jenkins, "and Frank would talk about Ava, and he'd talk about the chick from 'Goodbye' or whatever. They both had a lot of stuff like that. And it wore on 'em. And they didn't talk about it much, but to each other they could."
Which is one reason they worked together so well: Each knew what the other meant. So, like the song says:
...let the music play as long
As there's a song to sing
And I will stay younger than spring.
If you say so. In the end, you can't hold the feeling: no matter how slow the beautiful girls walk, they walk and they're gone... But this song comes as near as any to capturing it for the ages.
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