Another Cinco de Mayo has come and gone. Not a big day in my corner of northern New Hampshire, which means we're not dissimilar to most of Mexico, where it's not a big day, either. But to America's multiculti enforcers it's supposedly a big deal, so as a postscript to the occasion here's the most successful song by Mexico's first successful female composer:
Cuando Vuelva A Tu Lado...
Not ringing any bells? Try this:
What A Difference A Day Makes
Twenty-four little hours...
No, hang on. Make that:
What A Difference A Day Made
Twenty-four little hours...
What A Diff'rence A Day Made...
What a diff'rence a couple of titular variations make, none of which have anything much to do with the original. There's a huge diff'rence between the English and the Spanish:
Cuando Vuelva A Tu Lado
No me niegues tus besos...
Those words and the tune they sit on were by a lady called Maria Grever, born in the Mexican city of León in 1894. A singer, lyricist, pianist and violinist, Señora Grever is all but forgotten today, though her songs are still sung around the world by everyone from Placido Domingo to Aretha Franklin to Jamie Cullum. Her first composition - a Christmas carol - was written at the age of four in 1898, though it's no "Feliz Navidad". Her first published song, "A Una Ola", written when she was 18, sold some three million copies in Latin America and Spain. By the time she was 25, she'd sung opera in Madrid and given recitals in New York.
Most of her hits of the Twenties were in the Latin vernacular, and "Cuando Vuelva A Tu Lado" was no exception, a tango bolero of sultry smoldering south-of-the-border exoticism. That's how it caught the eye of the music publisher Edward B Marks. His company was one of the first in Tin Pan Alley to figure out there was gold in them thar Latino hills. Marks' son Herbert had honeymooned in Havana and fell in love with the music of Ernesto Lecuona and the other star composers of the Spanish world, and in the next few years he and his dad snapped up and Anglicized "Malaguena", "The Peanut Vendor", "Andalucia" and many more. That's how Maria Grever's tango bolero came their way. It fell to one of Marks' staff writers to work up an English lyric:
What A Diff'rence A Day Makes
Twenty-four little hours
Brought the sun and the flowers
Where there used to be rain...
The guy who turned "Cuando Vuelva A Tu Lado" into "What A Diff'rence A Day Made" was a fellow called Stanley Adams. By the time I knew him, he was a music biz administrator rather than an active songwriter. A longtime president of Ascap, the composers' and lyricists' copyright protection agency, he presided over the expansion of what had been a very Broadway-Hollywooden-Tin Pan Alleycentric operation into one that embraced Nashville, country music and points beyond. And, until his death in 1994, he was one of a doughty band of elderly songwriters who could be relied on to turn up for industry events in the Ascap rotunda on Broadway: Whatever the occasion, you could count on finding Adams, Sammy Cahn ("Come Fly With Me"), Sammy Fain ("I'll Be Seeing You"), Burton Lane ("Old Devil Moon"), Ervin Drake ("It Was A Very Good Year"), and, representing the younger cats, Leiber and Stoller ("Jailhouse Rock").
A lawyer as well as a lyricist, Adams wearing his Ascap hat spent much of his time dealing with the confusion over copyright and royalties that can arise when, among other complications, a song gets credited to multiple titles. "Difference" versus "diff'rence" is a dist'nction without a diff'rence, but "What A Difference A Day Makes" or "Made" is more crucial. As a general rule, I'm with Alan Jay Lerner, who used to go through his finished lyrics taking out as many "s" sounds as he could. Even with the most punctilious singers and recording engineers, too many "s"s in a song can come out sounding like a tea kettle. In this instance, though, I prefer "makes" to "made". The past tense makes it too detached and historic - someone looking back at an important moment, but one in the past. The present tense makes it vivid, an account of something that's just happened by someone still in the contented glow of having been lovestruck:
What A Diff'rence A Day Makes!
What a diff'rence the Rio Grande makes. South of the border, Maria Grever's lyric smolders with a hint of the forbidden:
No me preguntes nada
Que nada he de explicarte...
Don't ask me anything
There's nothing to explain...
It's never quite spelled out, but this is a tale of illicit love. North of the border, the Marks company liked the tune, but they gave it a more conventional Tin Pan Alley sentiment:
My yesterday was blue, dear
Today I'm part of you, dear
My lonely nights are through, dear
Since you said you were mine...
For the most part, Stanley Adams sticks to time - days, little hours, lonely nights - and tide: the changeability of the weather, sun, rain and...
What A Diff'rence A Day Makes
There's a rainbow before me
Skies above can't be stormy
Since that moment of bliss
That thrilling kiss...
Unfortunately by that point, what with the sun and the flowers and the rainbow and the skies above, Adams had pretty much exhausted his meteorological conceit. And so, in the final section, the most striking rhyme in the lyric depends on an image otherwise entirely unconnected with the premise of the song:
It's heaven when you
Find romance on your menu
What A Diff'rence A Day Makes
And the difference is you...
I always loved that "when you"/"menu" pairing. Back in my disc-jockey days, a radio pal and I used to take inordinate pleasure, when our local waitress recited the day's specials, in sighing contentedly, "Ah, it's heaven when you find pea soup [beef stew/key lime/whatever] on your menu." She never did find it funny. But 79 years after he wrote it, it remains Stanley Adams' most memorable rhyme. He wrote with famous composers - Sigmund Romberg - and he has his name on some big tunes, like "La Cucaracha". But be honest, how often do you hear anyone sing "La Cucaracha" with the English lyric? In the Forties, he scored with "There Are Such Things", which always strikes me as unconvincingly ardent. With Hoagy Carmichael, he wrote a sly charmer called "Little Old Lady". With Fats Waller, he wrote "Take It From Me (I'm Takin' To You)", which is one of his neatest lyrical ideas. But it was "What A Diff'rence" that made the big diff'rence to the Adams royalty statements, and gave Maria Grever a foothold in the English-speaking world. The Dorsey Brothers had the first hit version, with a vocal by Bob Crosby, Bing's bro, in 1934. A decade later, Andy Russell took it up the Hit Parade. Then came Dinah Washington in 1959, and Esther Phillips in 1975, and that more or less established it as a diva standard: hence recordings by Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Randy Crawford, Diana Ross. But the lads have stuck by it, too - Ben E King, Tony Bennett, Barry Manilow, Elton John.
The landmark recording is, of course, Dinah Washington's. It marks the dividing line between the jazz'n'blues Dinah and the "mainstream" Dinah. There's nothing wrong with wanting to go mainstream: Nat Cole made some excellent jazz records with the trio and then made some excellent pop records with full orchestral accompaniment. The problem with Dinah Washington's pop stuff is that the songs are good but the arrangements are terrible. They were the work of an exceedingly mediocre orchestrator called Belford Hendricks working under the direction of a producer called Clyde Otis. Everything tended to come out the same: sawing strings that sounded cheesily insincere on top of plonkingly boring 16th-note patterns that were supposed to evoke a kind of MOR approximation of rock'n'roll bass lines. Unlike Nelson Riddle's and Ralph Carmichael's "mainstreaming" of Nat Cole, the Washington arrangements are horribly dated. And, just as Hendricks sounds like he was paid to orchestrate by the yard, so Dinah's vocals take on the same slapdash quality: A bored singer is a boring singer, and in this instance ever more reliant on the dwindling returns of a limited repertoire of mannerisms. The queen's somewhat distracting personal life gave the throwaway interpolations a short shelf life: On Irving Berlin's "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm", she amends one line to "I've got Rafael to keep me warm". Well, not for long. Rafael had split by the time the record was released.
But "What A Diff'rence" was the record on which Otis and Hendricks first worked their leaden charms and, perhaps because the song was not at that time a bona fide standard and their formula was not yet stale, the combination served Miss Washington better than anything that followed. She settles back into the arrangement, cool and languorous, and her choppy phrasing, which can undermine more carefully constructed songs, kinda suits a lyric that doesn't really communicate much except a general mood. It's a crossover record that had a unique success, and retains a rare cachet.
By now, there wasn't much left of Maria Grever's tango bolero in a pseudo r'n'b ballad. Those Latin rhythms can make anything sound more interesting, and, shorn of them, the tune didn't hold much appeal to the musicologist Alec Wilder. In one of his magisterial dismissals, he pronounced:
I very much like the first seven measures and, I'm sorry to say, nothing more.
Oh, well. As for the words, not everyone cared for Stanley Adams' approach to his Tin Pan Alley translation assignment. In the current edition of Down Beat, Havana Carbo, a "new school" bolero chantoosie, complains:
A lot of translations are so abysmal, it's not even funny. 'What A Diff'rence A Day Makes' has nothing to do with the original song by Maria Grever. She was writing about her lover while she was married to somebody else, so that English line about 'What A Diff'rence A Day Makes/Twenty-four little hours' sounds trite compared to what the song is about.
Well, that happens. Some English lyrics of foreign songs don't really capture the thing - "La Mer" lost rather a lot in translation on its journey to "Beyond The Sea". On the other hand, "Autumn Leaves" gained quite a bit. But what Havano Carbo dismisses as "trite", Stanley Adams (and, I suspect, Señora Grever) would regard as universal. Still, if you want something closer to Miss Carbo's characterization of the original, you might hunt down Blowfly's blaxploitation pottymouth rendering of it as "What A Diff'rence A Lay Makes" (which is a more artful parody than he usually manages: "Do the Twist" became "Suck my...", which barely works even as an impure rhyme). Mr Adams sued over the "Lay" lyric, and the judge sided with him, though Blowfly lui-mème, Clarence Reid, insisted, "I ain't gonna apologize to no f---in' cracker."
Heigh-ho. The vicissitudes of success. Mr Blowfly's lay made no diff'rence, while Stanley Adams' day is still not done. Indeed, it's bigger now than it was eight decades ago when his publisher called him in and said, "We've got this Mexican tune..."
So happy Cinco de Mayo. And yes, I know, we're a day late. But let's face it, what diff'rence does a day make?
~If you like Mark's Song of the Week essays, some of his most requested are collected in his book A Song For The Season - including many songs for national days, from "America The Beautiful" to "There'll Always Be An England" to "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling", with other songs from around the world from "Waltzing Matilda" to "Loch Lomond". You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore.