A decade after Frank Sinatra recorded "It Had To Be You", it turned up in the blockbuster romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. There's a lot of songs in the film - Ella and Louis, Allman Brothers, Ray Charles... It was 1989, and we were in the early stages of what I think of as the age of jukebox scoring, in which directors fill up the movie with bits of their favorite pop songs. But Rob Reiner uses the whole Sinatra track - everything from intro to final fade:
Billy May's orchestral opening finds Harry (Billy Crystal) walking along the street, alone on New Year's Eve. As the vocal starts, Harry stops at a shop window. The verse is a series of questions ("Why must I do just as you say?") that Harry, contemplating his reflection in the glass, is asking of himself. By the time Frank is singing about "that something lovers call fate" telling him "I had to wait", Harry is walking on, discarding his ice-cream cone in a trash can, and turning his head on the first line of the chorus:
It Had To Be You
It Had To Be You...
And we're in flashback: Harry and Sally meeting all those years earlier at college, sitting on a plane, strolling Central Park, faking orgasm in the diner - the whole plot replayed to Sinatra's vocal. By the instrumental, they're dancing cheek to cheek. It's a wisecracky kind of a film, but not here: between Billy May's intro and outro, Harry has to understand that he really does love Sally and has to be with her. So the song bears a major dramatic burden - which is why Reiner went with Sinatra and "It Had To Be You".
The ballad belongs to a select group of über-standards - "The Way You Look Tonight", "I'll Be Seeing You", the handful of songs that will still be sung when everything else has fallen away. Johnny Mercer regarded "It Had To Be You" as the greatest popular song ever written, and I've heard several other songwriters say the same thing over the years. So, if it's that good, how come it sat around for 55 years before Sinatra sang it? He first recorded "I'll Be Seeing You" in 1940 and "The Way You Look Tonight" in 1943, but he was late getting to "It Had To Be You". Doris Day beat him to it, and Andy Williams, Barbra Streisand, Harry Nilsson, Petula Clark, Diane Keaton in the film Annie Hall... In the normal course of events, when John Travolta records a 50-year-old standard, he does it in the shadow of a landmark Sinatra recording. But in this case Travolta got there two years before Frank.
Who wrote "It Had To Be You"? Cole Porter? The Gershwins? No, it was Isham Jones and Gus Kahn. Who? Don't laugh: By some rankings, Gus Kahn is second only to Irving Berlin in the number of hit songs he wrote, including our very first two Songs of the Week, "San Francisco" (Number One) and "Dream A Little Dream Of Me" (Number Two). Frank sang a lot of Gus Kahn lyrics. Kahn has two tracks on the defining Sinatra LP of the Fifties, Songs For Swingin' Lovers - "Makin' Whoopee" and "Swingin' Down The Lane", which is the nearest thing to a title song.
He had a remarkable facility for being romantic and true and affecting in simple monosyllables. Maybe he'd have been more polysyllabic if he'd been a natural-born American. But Gustav Kahn was born in Koblenz, Germany, in 1886, and didn't sail for the United States until he was four years old. "My father," Donald Kahn told me, "brought with him a drum, which he drove my grandfather crazy with during the rather lengthy voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. When they got to Ellis Island, my grandfather apparently had had enough of the drum and threw it right in the water. I have had the quaint theory that my father's love of the drum and the love of the beat is part of what made him turn to music and to lyric-writing and writing songs."
Kahn wrote with many composers, from George Gershwin (on "Liza") to Walter Donaldson (on "My Baby Just Cares For Me"). But for a little over twelve months he had an extraordinarily productive partnership with Isham Jones. A Chicago bandleader with a residency at the Hotel Sherman's College Inn ballroom, Jones signed to Brunswick Records in 1920 and was offered a choice between a fixed salary, which many musicians and singers were on in those days, or royalties. He opted for the latter, and by 1923 had made 800 grand. In 1922, in his home town of Saginaw, Michigan, the company cut him in as co-owner of "the Isham Jones Brunswick Shop", selling only Brunswick products.
He'd always composed, on and off. In 1917 he wrote one of the first jazz songs, "That's Jaz!", back before anyone had agreed on the spelling of the word. But nothing really clicked until he hooked up with Gus Kahn. Their first hit, in 1922, was "On The Alamo", a lovely tune built on an opening phrase that's reprised with ever shifting harmony and is utterly beguiling. But the team really hit their stride a year or so later with a quartet of songs that seemingly came out nowhere - "Swingin' Down The Lane", "I'll See You In My Dreams", "The One I Love (Belongs To Somebody Else)" and "It Had To Be You". As Kahn's son Donald told me:
I think when you get in a streak - and my dad and Isham were in a streak, where things are going well and the songs are making it - you just want to ride it out. It's kind of like a lucky streak in Vegas. My dad and Isham had just finished 'The One I Love (Belongs To Somebody Else)', and the band was playing it and my mother and father were dancing to that song. While they were dancing to that song, my father was working on the lyric of another song – 'Swingin' Down The Lane'. At any rate, as they were dancing and the band was playing the one song, my father was saying to my mother, 'What do you think of this lyric for Isham's new tune?' I would say that this is an incredible kind of concentration. It's almost impossible to do: try it some time when you're dancing with your best girl.
A third of a century after Gus Kahn breathed that lyric into his wife Grace's ear on the dance floor of the Hotel Sherman, Sinatra recorded "Swingin' Down The Lane" in a killer Nelson Riddle arrangement:
Ev'rybody's hand in hand
Swingin' Down The Lane
Ev'rybody's feeling grand
Swingin' Down The Lane
That's the time I miss the bliss
That we might have known
Nights like this
When I'm all alone...
It's melodically charming, and the absence of any fill or pick-up notes in that space between "might have known" and "nights like this" is very surefooted on Jones and Kahn's part. Still, it was an old-fashioned song by 1956 that sounds as if it belongs to a pre-automobile Lovers' Lane. Yet Sinatra's reading is utterly sincere, and Riddle scored it in what he called "the tempo of the heartbeat", and with such attention to detail, from the stellar trumpets to the celesta:
When the moon is on the rise
Baby, I'm so blue
Watching lovers making eyes
Like we used to do
When the moon is on the wane
Still I'm waiting all in vain
Should be Swingin' Down The Lane
I'm not even sure "swingin' down the lane" is a thing, or ever was. But by the time it's over Sinatra and Riddle have made it a song for all time.
I said above that that quartet of terrific songs seemingly came out of nowhere. In fact, three-quarters of them came out of a 30th birthday present. On January 31st 1924 Isham Jones hit the big three-oh, and his missus Marguerita decided to give him a baby grand. He was a saxophonist and bassist, and from a long line of fiddlers, but the piano delighted him. He sat down and (according to who's telling the story) either within an hour or the evening he had composed four melodies - "Spain", "I'll See You In My Dreams", "The One I Love (Belongs To Somebody Else)" and "It Had To Be You". The tale sounds plausible to me, but we shouldn't get hung up on whether it took an hour or all night: That group of compositions would be impressive if all were copyrighted within the same year, which they were. Sinatra eschewed "Spain", but he sang the remaining three - "I'll See You In My Dreams" on the radio with Tommy Dorsey in 1940, "The One I Love" every which way for almost half-a-century, and finally in 1979, saving the best till last:
It Had To Be You
It Had To Be You
I wandered around
And finally found
The somebody who...
The musicologist Philip Furia calls that "who" - which has to wait for the song's next section to get its verb and its rhyme ("could make me be true") - the first example in the American Songbook of what he calls "elasticated syntax", where the lyricist stretches the syntax across the boundaries of the composer's eight-bar compartments. If so, it was made for Sinatra's Dorsey-trombone trick of holding a note and connecting it up to the next phrase in order to tell the story better. If you've ever heard a singer take a big deep breath after "somebody who" and leave a gap you could drive a truck through before "could make me be true", you'll know they're not listening to what they're singing.
"It Had To Be You" was part of Sinatra's three-album Trilogy set. Part One was The Past - old songs scored by Billy May in big-band style; Part Two was The Present - contemporary-ish songs scored by Don Costa in middle-of-the-road/soft rock style; and Part Three was Reflections On The Future In Three Tenses, a sort of post-nuclear conceptual suite composed by Gordon Jenkins. The Future LP got panned, the Present got so-so notices, but everyone loved the Past. Sinatra recorded "It Had to Be You" and the other Billy May arrangements in July, but a couple of months later he called May and said his voice was in better shape and he'd like to do the tracks again. May told me he made a lot of changes: raising the key here, eliminating a verse there, re-orchestrating much of the material. But "It Had To Be You" was one of only two tracks retained from the July sessions. Sometimes I wish they'd overhauled that, too. Sinatra sings the verse, which I always feel is musically very ordinary and lyrically superfluous:
Why do I do just as you say?
Why must I just give you your way?
Why do I sigh?
Why don't I try
It must have been that something lovers call fate
Kept me saying I had to wait
I saw them all
Just couldn't fall
Till we met...
It Had To Be You...
Still, at least Sinatra sings the verse, as opposed to shouting it, as Tony Bennett does on his somewhat perplexing reading. Nevertheless, "It Had To Be You" is all about the chorus. The words are commonplace - all about "the somebody who...
Could make me be true
Could make me be blue
And even be glad
Just to be sad
Thinking of you...
But they're deepened and warmed by the notes they sit on, which seem in some strange way to be written as a tune you already know. The music for the title phrase is unusual for a Twenties song; it's like an internal thought, a monologue. And there are all kinds of other unobtrusive, distinctive features, like the octave drop that gets you from the third section to the final stretch:
Some others I've seen
Might never be mean
Might never be cross
Or, try to be boss
But, they wouldn't do
For nobody else gave me a thrill...
Billy May was principally Sinatra's partner-in-swing - "Come Fly With Me", "Come Dance With Me" - but he was a sensitive arranger of ballads, too, as you can tell from Frank's "Moonlight In Vermont". His ballads on Trilogy are lush, and on "It Had To Be You" I'm not sure I wouldn't prefer something more intimate, like Dinah Shore's recording with André Previn. But then you hear that ethereal orchestral introduction of Billy's, and you realize he's very cleverly writing it to convey the sense of memory, as if Sinatra has a history with this song he's never sung before.
After composing "Swingin' Down The Lane", "I'll See You In My Dreams", "The One I Love (Belongs To Somebody Else)" and "It Had To Be You" in nothing flat, Isham Jones lived another 32 years without writing a single other song of note - although Alec Wilder puts in a good word for "The Wooden Soldier And The China Doll" (all together now!). But that 1924 streak is more than enough. There is a line in the final eight bars that sums up the difference men like Isham Jones and Gus Kahn made:
For nobody else gave me a thrill
With all your faults I love you still...
We don't recognize the allusion now, but in 1924 many people did. In 1888, Monroe H Rosenfeld wrote the words and music for a lugubrious ballad called "With All Her Faults I Love Her Still":
Though other hearts have won her love
I bear for her no dreams of ill
Her face to me still dear shall be
With all her faults, I love, I love her still!
It's not just the stodgy prosody and inverted word order. In this case the guy means it about "all her faults", and he's condescending to them. Jones and Kahn don't borrow the words so much as transform them, so that they're an expression of that helpless surrender to love. That's why they're right for Billy Crystal at the end of a film in which he's spent much of the time niggling about Meg Ryan taking an hour to order a salad and then insisting the waiter bring the dressing on the side. I have no idea why a hoary old 19th century parlor ballad written two years before Gustav Kahn's family left Koblenz should suddenly pop into the head of a German immigrant 38 years later, but in the gulf between that line's two deployments is the invention of the eternal, enduring American popular song. Sinatra cut it mighty fine, but I'm glad he got to it:
It Had To Be You
It Had To Be You.
~Mark's original 1998 obituary of Sinatra, "The Voice", appears in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe. You can read about composer Jule Styne and the creation of some classic Sinatra songs in Mark Steyn's American Songbook. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the Steyn store.
~For an alternative Sinatra Hot 100, the Pundette has launched a dedicated Sinatra Centenary site, counting down from Number 100 to Number One. This week she's at Number 95 - Billy May's hard-swingin' arrangement of Rodgers & Hart's "Falling In Love With Love".
Bob Belvedere, proprietor of The Camp Of The Saints, has also begun a Frank hit parade. And, as with the Pundette, there are (so far) no duplications: Number 100 is "It's A Wonderful World" (one of four studio records on which Sinatra sings "ring-a-ding-ding"). Number 99 was our Song of the Week #139 way back when, "I'm Beginning To See The Light", and Number 98 is "Let Me Try Again", a French tune from the Seventies by the singularly appellated Caravelli that I thought might become a widely performed standard. Many years ago, I met a delightful Jamaican lady, Susan Cadogan, who recorded a light reggae version of the song, but other than that, after all these years, in the anglophone world Sinatra still pretty much has the number to himself.
Comment on this item (members only)
Viewing and submission of reader comments is restricted to Mark Steyn Club members only. If you are not yet a member, please click here to join. If you are already a member, please log in here: