It's December at SteynOnline, and, although we don't go full seasonal sleighlist for the month, our Song of the Week department will be spending the next few weeks celebrating a handful of Christmas classics, both in print and in audio. To kick things off, this isn't really a Christmas song, or even, necessarily, a winter song, like "Winter Wonderland" or "Sleigh Ride" or "Marshmallow World". After all, baby, it could be cold outside just because it's pelting with rain or it's a chill autumn day. Nevertheless, this song has found a more secure place in the Christmas repertoire than far more specifically seasonal songs, and this year it celebrates the 70th anniversary of its birth:
In its first couple of decades, this song was popular, but now it's everywhere. My theory is that that's because the only thing holding up the music industry now is celebrity duets, and there aren't that many songs written expressly for two persons to sing. Hence, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" as sung by Rod Stewart & Dolly Parton, Norah Jones & Willie Nelson, Cee Lo Green & Christina Aguilera, Natalie Cole & James Taylor, Ron Paul & Sandra Fluke, etc. Miss Jessica Martin and I essayed a few bars of it at the start of our "Sweet Gingerbread Man", and there's also a very sly musical reference to it right at the end of "The King's New Clothes". And, because of that, folks started writing in suggesting that, as a follow-up, for our next Christmas release we do a full-scale "Baby, It's Cold..." I demurred, in part because I thought it was kinda cool to be the only singing duo that doesn't have a record of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" out there, but also because I didn't feel I had anything new to add to the song. Tootling around the other day, I heard two new versions within ten minutes of each other - Seth MacFarlane & Sara Bareilles and Colbie Caillat & Gavin DeGraw. The latter I thought coarse and witless, and the former was just rather bland, which pains me to say because, among the musicians playing on the MacFarlane/Bareilles record, are trumpeter Pat White and tenor sax Howard McGill, who are also playing on my own humble musical offerings.
Some years ago, my late BBC comrade Alistair Cooke took a young friend to New York's famous Plaza Hotel, where a pianist was gaily tinkling. As Alistair enthused about each song, it gradually dawned on him that these familiar standards by Gershwin and Kern were entirely unfamiliar to his callow companion. I experience a slightly more unsettling form of cultural dislocation each Christmas season: People still know the songs, but have no idea what they mean. "Baby, It's Cold Outside is a fun song, but one line in particular caught the eye of our pals at Rob Long's Ricochet website:
SHE:The neighbors might think . . .
HE: But baby, it's bad out there.
SHE: Say, what's in this drink?
HE: No cabs to be had out there . . .
As Mollie Hemingway remarked, "My feminist friends assure me that this is really a song about date rape and roofies." I'd like to think her feminist friends are maybe half-joking, or at any rate half her feminist friends are quarter-joking, and it's merely their way of deriding the obsolete gender roles of man as the seducer and the gal as the receiving end. I mean, they're not seriously arguing it's about drugging a woman into sex, are they? If it were, wouldn't it be available as a celebrity duet between Bill Cosby & [Insert Name Here]?
The song is 70 years old this year. Frank Loesser wrote it in 1944 not for a show or a film but for a housewarming party. So that night in their new flat in the Navarro Hotel in New York he and his wife Lynn wowed a showbiz crowd with the first performance:
SHE: I really can't stay...
HE: But Baby, It's Cold Outside!
SHE: I've got to go 'way...
HE: But Baby, It's Cold Outside!
Richard Rodgers, never the most generous man, pronounced it "brilliant." Back then, everyone got it. You want the girl to stay, just another hour . . . okay, half . . . okay, 20 minutes: "Give me Five Minutes More, only Five Minutes More," as Frank Sinatra pleaded around the same time. And if Sinatra needs to plead, who doesn't? But nice girls go — or at least insist on being talked into staying:
SHE: I ought to say, 'No no no, sir!'
HE: Mind if I move in closer?
But seduction is superfluous in the hook-up era. I chanced to be in a Vermont bookstore the other day and overheard two teenagers' plans for the evening gang agley because (if I understood correctly) she had texted him an insufficiently gynecological pic for him to warrant investing an hour or two in a first "date." I'm sure it's all much better to get this stuff up front without a lot of coy byplay, but it's harder to get a song out of it.
By 1944 Frank Loesser the lyricist had become his own composer. Previously, he'd supplied the words to melodies by Hoagy Carmichael ("Two Sleepy People"), Burton Lane ("I Hear Music"), Frederick Hollander ("See What The Boys In The Backroom Will Have") and Jule Styne ("I Don't Want To Walk Without You"). But during the war, while writing "Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition", he found himself with no tune to hand and so wrote it himself. And, after that, the only composing partner he needed was himself.
There are a few genuinely self-contained songwriters, equally adept at both words and music – Cole Porter, Irving Berlin – and there are others who've gone from one to the other as and when needed. But Loesser is a rare case in that for the first decade of his career as a professional lyricist he gave absolutely no indication that he had a note of music in him. Courtesy of the Steyn archives, the late Burton Lane, who wrote many songs with Frank, sheds some light on that in our Loesser centenary special. But Jule Styne (who can also be heard on that two-CD special) puts it this way: "Here's a fellow with hardly any musical education, and he took it on and wrote some marvelous songs. But he had a right to write his own music. Certain fellows, who shall be nameless, haven't. But Loesser had; he could write his own music, He told me, 'Listen, after I write with you and Arthur Schwartz and Hoagy Carmichael, and this one and that one, by God, I have got to learn something, if I'm smart. You boys showed me how it goes.'"
Yet he remained a songwriter rather than a "composer". First, he had a genius for song ideas – "Let's Get Lost": What a terrific premise for a romantic ballad.
Second, he also appreciated what his brother Arthur, the "serious" composer in the family, called "the power and pleasure that comes from well-chosen words." In "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?", the "well-chosen words" are: "Ah, but in case I stand one little chance / Here comes the jackpot question in advance." Loesser was sure enough in his choices to know you could put a slang phrase like "jackpot question" on those dreamy notes and make it seem the height of romantic intoxication.
Third, he understood how "well-chosen words" should be sung, which is why eventually he no longer needed anyone to supply the notes. If you listen to, say, Dinah Shore or Peggy Lee or k d lang sing "I Wish I Didn't Love You So", the plaintive ache in that title phrase is one of the very best unions of words and music in the repertoire.
My sense of Loesser is that he came at the music from the song idea and how best to serve it. Two numbers from the Forties serve to make the point. You can look on them as a Neptune's Daughter medley. Do you know Neptune's Daughter? MGM, 1949, a fun little film, with Metro's mermaid Esther Williams plus Ricardo Montalban, Red Skelton, Betty Garrett, Xavier Cugat. The plot, if I recall, is something to do with a South American polo team, mistaken identity, a Teach-Yourself-Spanish record, the usual stuff. But we have this silly piece of fluff to thank for two great Frank Loesser songs – or actually, to be more precise, one great Frank Loesser song that was written for Neptune's Daughter but wasn't really used in it, and another great Frank Loesser song that wasn't written for Neptune's Daughter, but wound up in it anyway. Between them, they embody Loesser at his Forties pop peak.
To start with the later song, how about this?
I'd love to get you
On A Slow Boat To China
All to myself
Where'd that come from? Well, it was an expression used by poker players to refer to guys who lost steadily and reliably and lavishly: "Boy, I'd like to get you on a slow boat to China" – ie, a journey that's about as far as you can go on which I can take you to the cleaners to my heart's content. But not until Loesser did anyone think, "Hey, there's a love song in this." That's what I mean about his genius for song ideas.
But, of course, once you get the idea, the trick is to extend it through 32 bars. Loesser follows up with one of my very favorite rhymes in the entire popular songbook:
Out on the briny
With a moon big and shiny
Melting your heart of stone...
"Briny"/"shiny" isn't clever – not Cole Porter/Noel Coward/Stephen Sondheim clever, not look-at-me clever, but it's wonderfully fresh, and it's particular to the song. "Slow Boat To China" is the only number with that rhyme, now and forever.
Loesser was contracted by MGM to write the songs for Neptune's Daughter, and figured the number would be great for Esther Williams.
As for the rest of the score, Loesser finally thought it was time to let the wider world in on his and Mrs Loesser's half-decade-old party piece - the duet for "wolf" and "mouse":
SHE: I really can't stay...
HE: But Baby, It's Cold Outside!
SHE: I gotta go 'way...
HE: But Baby, It's Cold Outside!
Thomas L Riis, in his somewhat academic survey of Loesser for the Yale University Press Broadway Masters series, has a fascinating section on "Loesser and Counterpoint", in which he notes the number of contrapuntal tunes in the composer's catalogue: "Contrapuntal", at least for pop purposes, means two or more singers singing different things on top of each other. For example, Loesser's marvelously inspired opening to Guys And Dolls - the "Fugue For Tinhorns" - has a trio of gamblers each boasting that he's "got the horse right here". In a way, it's a brilliant musicalization of the source material - a "Broadway fugue" is the perfect musical equivalent of the stylized vernacular Damon Runyon used in the stories that inspired the musical. But Loesser is not driven by the same motivations as Bach.
Riis hits on a much more useful term when he refers to Loesser's fondness for "interruptive duets". In Guys And Dolls, Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit finally get their big love duet - after a fashion. She unleashes a blizzard of machine-gun nagging:
You promise me this!
You promise me that !
You promise me everything under the sun!
But then the small-time, no-account crap-game promoter interrupts her shrill twittering with a big broad legato protestation:
Call a lawyer and
What would you do me?
I love you...
Which is the point: Basic boy-meets-girl but tailored to the specifics of this particular boy and girl. For the "wolf" and "mouse" of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", Loesser uses an entirely different tack:
SHE: My mother will start to worry...
HE: Beautiful, what's your hurry?
SHE: And Father will be pacing the floor...
HE: Listen to the fireplace roar!
SHE: So really I'd better scurry...
HE: Beautiful, please, don't hurry
SHE: Well, maybe just a half a drink more...
HE: Put some records on while I pour...
As Thomas Riis writes:
With one rhythmic idea, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" uses the standard ABAC format of thirty-two measures and adds an unremarkable chord progression for foundation, yet its cumulative effect is so impressive that Loesser can be said to have built his little tune into a miniature dramatic scene, a scena in the operatic sense, in which two characters and the nature of their relationship are fully sketched with efficiency and emotional clarity. The call-and-response conversation of the characters is fraught with humor, danger, and suggestiveness.
Riis compares "Baby, It's Cold Outside" to "Mozart's celebrated seduction duet 'La ci darem la mano'" and calls it "a model of monomotivic development". But you feel Loesser got closer to it when he said he liked to write songs in "concurrent speech". In other words, whether Mozart works better as a "seduction duet" depends on who's got whom on whose bearskin rug, but clearly "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is a seduction duet rendered in the American vernacular, in musicalized "concurrent speech":
SHE: I've got to get home
HE: But baby, you'll freeze out there
SHE: Say, lend me a comb
HE: It's up to your knees out there...
At that housewarming party in New York at the Navarro Hotel, the Loessers introduced "Baby, It's Cold Outside" to their friends. As Lynn Loesser recalled:
Well, the room just fell apart. I don't think either of us realized the impact of what we'd sung. We had to do it over and over again and we became instant parlor room stars. We got invited to all the best parties for years on the basis of 'Baby'. It was our ticket to caviar and truffles. Parties were built around our being the closing act.
As Richard Adler, Frank's protégé, once told me, Lynn Loesser was a domineering woman. She was known around town, somewhat inevitably, as "the evil of the two Loessers", a gag that's stuck to her beyond the grave. You wonder sometimes whether her reputation hasn't simply adjusted itself to a joke too good to pass up. Certainly, on her demonstration records with her husband, she's very charming – and never more so than on "Baby, It's Cold Outside". Through the mid-Forties, Loesser held on to the number and he and Lynn performed it as their party piece at celebrity get-togethers in New York and Hollywood. Lynn Loesser loved the song, loved singing it, and loved the fact that it was theirs alone.
But business is business. And in 1948 Frank Loesser sold the song to MGM for Neptune's Daughter. "I felt as betrayed as if I'd caught him in bed with another woman," huffed Mrs Loesser. "I kept saying 'Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban?'"
Her husband figured it this way: "If I don't let go of 'Baby' I'll begin to think I can never write another song as good as I think this one is."
It's the highlight of the picture – Ricardo Montalban putting the moves on Esther Williams. A couple of years back, when I protested that I had nothing new to add to "Baby, It's Cold Outside", some listeners responded, "Hey, switch things around: Make Jessica the predator, and you the one trying to resist." But that switcheroo's as old as the song: in the movie, after Ricardo hits on Esther, it's immediately followed by a bit of role reversal from the comedy support, with a man-eating Betty Garrett pursuing Red Skelton. It brought Loesser his fourth Oscar nomination, and this time he won - for a song that predates the movie by four years and was only included for purposes of commercial exploitation. When the film came out, Loesser found himself with a new pop hit. Two versions – one by Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark, the other by Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer – both got to Number Four. Frank Loesser lost a party piece and gained a standard: At the 1Academy Awards, it was sung by Mae West and Rock Hudson. A few years later, Ray Charles and Betty Carter nibbled the lower end of the pop chart. The only person who wasn't happy was Lynn Loesser: "her" song was now the world's.
Meanwhile, what happened to the brand new song that was supposed to be introduced in Neptune's Daughter? You remember – "Slow Boat To China". Well, you can still hear it in the film, but only instrumentally – during a swimsuit fashion show. Esther Williams apparently recorded a vocal, but the studio nixed it on the grounds that the song appeared to be encouraging an "immoral liaison". It was left to Kay Kyser's big hit record to establish "Slow Boat" with the public.
Speaking of immorality, MGM's censors cut the wrong song. A few decades back, a young middle-class Egyptian spending some time in the US had the misfortune to be invited to a dance one weekend and was horrified at what he witnessed:
The room convulsed with the feverish music from the gramophone. Dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around the waists, chests met chests, lips met lips . . .
Where was this den of debauchery? Studio 54 in the 1970s? Haight-Ashbury in the summer of love? No, the throbbing pulsating sewer of sin was Greeley, Colorado, in 1949. As it happens, Greeley, Colorado, in 1949 was a dry town. The dance was a church social. And the feverish music was "Baby, It's Cold Outside," as introduced by Esther Williams in "Neptune's Daughter." Revolted by the experience, Sayyid Qutb decided that America (and modernity in general) was an abomination, returned to Egypt, became the leading intellectual muscle in the Muslim Brotherhood, and set off a chain that led from Qutb to Zawahiri to bin Laden to the Hindu Kush to the Balkans to 9/11 to the brief Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt to the Islamic State marching across Syria and Iraq. Indeed, Qutb's view of the West is the merest extension of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" — America as the ultimate seducer, the Great Satan.
I'm a reasonable chap, and I'd be willing to meet the Muslim Brotherhood chaps halfway on a lot of the peripheral stuff like beheadings, stonings, clitoridectomies and whatnot. But you'll have to pry "Baby, It's Cold Outside" from my cold dead hands and my dancing naked legs. A world without "Baby, It's Cold Outside" would be very cold indeed.
~If you enjoy Steyn's Song of the Week each week, you may like to know "Slow Boat To China", Song of the Week #172, along with some of Mark's other favorite Song of the Week songs - including Song of the Week #31, Song of the Week #32, Song of the Week #195, Song of the Week #207, Song of the Week #220 and Song of the Week #221 - can be heard on his new album Goldfinger, available from the Steyn store either on CD or via digital download or as part of a limited-time-only double-bill with Mark's new book.