Seventy years ago British troops were on the road to Mandalay - or, actually, coming to the end of it. On March 21st, the 14th Army under the command of General Bill Slim finally liberated the city and returned it to British rule. There wasn't that much left: In taking the city three years earlier, the Japanese had destroyed 60 per cent of the houses. Given the popularity of this song among British military concert parties of the time, more than a few of Slim's men must have found themselves singing:
Come you back to Mandalay
Where the old flotilla lay
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On The Road To Mandalay
Where the flyin' fishes play
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
'Crost the Bay!
The words are by Rudyard Kipling, but, had British troops attempted to use his geography - "by the old Moulmein Pagoda lookin' eastward at the sea" - to reach Mandalay, the Japanese would still be holding it. "My childhood image of this was of a seaside road leading to a place called Mandalay, with a pagoda on the landward side of it and flying fishes 'playing' (an important word for a child) close inshore in the bay," wrote Sir George Engle, whose analysis can stand for a gazillion others:
But the city of Mandalay is 400 miles north of both Moulmein and Rangoon, and a good 200 miles inland... There is a subsidiary puzzle, about dawn coming up 'outer China 'crost the Bay', since the Bay of Bengal and China lie respectively to the west and north of Moulmein. I take it that 'comes up like thunder' likens the sunrise to a sky full of thunder-clouds; but to an observer in Moulmein dawn would surely have come up overland from the east, out of Siam. That Kipling was disorientated is confirmed by the fact that, in the original version of the poem, the first line read: 'By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea, on which the passage in Murray's Handbook [page 710] mentioning two pagodas at Moulmein comments drily in parenthesis, '(not "looking eastward to the sea")'.
Kipling had been hearing critiques such as the above, ever since he published "Mandalay" as one of his Barrack-Room Ballads in The Scots Observer in 1890. In Something Of Myself, he concedes that Moulmein "is not on the road to anywhere" nor does it "command any view of any sun rising across the Bay of Bengal". Rather, the song's refrain about "the road to Mandalay" should be understood in a more general or metaphorical sense as the "golden path to romance". And, if there's any chap who understands the golden path to romance, it's Frank Sinatra. Which is why, 67 years after the poem's first appearance, Kipling's words found themselves in the mouth of a Hoboken boy who'd never been anywhere near the old Moulmein Pagoda:
By the old Moulmein Pagoda
Lookin' eastward to the sea
There's a Burma broad a-settin'
And I know she thinks of me...
Wait a minute. "Broad"? That doesn't sound like Kipling. Well, no. And Frank's improvisations did not sit well with the keepers of Kipling's flame, as we'll discover.
Nevertheless, he was something of an old Burma hand musically speaking. In fact, "On The Road To Mandalay" was Sinatra's second Mandalay song. The first he'd sung four-and-a-half years earlier, on May 2nd 1953, at the beginning of the Capitol era. It was Frank's second recording session with Nelson Riddle, and - after the "ghosting" for Billy May two days earlier - the very first session of Riddle as Riddle, so to speak. The songs included a rather bland ballad, "Anytime, Anywhere":
You could leave tomorrow, fly to Mandalay
Darling, I would love you anyway
I just couldn't help but care
That makes two more mentions than most South-East Asian cities get in the Sinatra oeuvre, and one more than Singapore (as in "On A Little Street In...", recorded by Frank with the Harry James band in 1939). The only reason Lenny Adelson and Imogene Carpenter were namechecking Mandalay in American pop songs in 1953 was because Kipling had put it on the map. It was one of those select group of places (Timbuktu, for example) that in America had become, somewhat oxymoronically, a familiar, household name for somewhere unfamiliar and remote.
In Britain and the Commonwealth, Mandalay had a more specific identity. The "old flotilla" was a reference to the steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, whose chunkin' paddles had been ferrying thousands of British Indian troops the over 400 miles "from Rangoon to Mandalay" since the third Anglo-Burmese war of 1885. Kipling's poem was written from the point of view of an English Tommy smitten by the native girls - as, indeed, the 24-year-old poet had been:
When I die I will be a Burman, with twenty yards of real King's silk that has been made in Mandalay, about my body, and a succession of cigarettes between my lips …and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor shall she tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India. She shall look all the world between the eyes, in honesty and good fellowship, and I will teach her not to defile her pretty mouth with chopped tobacco in a cabbage leaf, but to inhale good cigarettes of Egypt's best brand.
Young Rudyard wasn't the only one with an eye for those "pretty almond-coloured girls". Until well into the Seventies, framed prints of "the Burmese girl" were as ubiquitous in English suburban cul-de-sacs as posters of the tennis player scratching her bum were on the walls of bachelor bedsits. Certainly Kipling's British soldier knows the difference between the girlie by the old Moulmein Pagoda and the lasses back home:
Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but what do they understand?
Beefy face an' grubby 'and -
Law! Wot do they understand?
I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
Kipling wrote it to be sung to an old waltz tune he knew, but the journeyman songwriters of the late 19th century had other ideas. There are apparently just shy of two dozen musical settings of the poem, but it was a composer called Oley Speaks who made his tune stick and turned "Mandalay" from a poem into a hit song. Speaks was not a son of Empire but an all-American boy, born in Canal Winchester, Ohio in 1874, and a popular baritone in local churches. When he turned to composition, he favored religious themes - "The Lord Is My Light", "Gently, Lord, Oh, Gently Lead Us", "If You Became A Nun, Dear"... But in 1907 he swapped the Lord for Kipling's "Law'!" and set those Moulmein musings to music:
For the wind is in the palm trees
And the temple bells they say
Come you back, you British soldier
Come you back to Mandalay...
It sold a million copies of sheet music, and for the rest of Oley Speaks' life never stopped selling. He would write a couple of other, semi-popular tunes, such as "Morning", with words by Frank L Stanton (whose "Mighty Lak' A Rose" is another turn-of-the-century song recorded by Sinatra), but nothing like "Mandalay". In America it was a popular song about an exotic love. In Britain and His Majesty's Dominions beyond the seas, it was something more, testifying to the hold Burma had on the imperial imagination, and summed up in Kipling's great line:
If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else.
Very true. Speaks' setting was taken up by singers throughout the Empire, but none was more associated with the song than the great Aussie bass-baritone Peter Dawson, who sang "On The Road To Mandalay" for some four decades. He sang all kinds of other things, too, but "Mandalay" was special. He liked the words so much he recorded them not only to Oley Speaks' tune but also to Walter Hedgecock's. And in 1945 he made a "Mandalay Potpourri", a six-minute mélange of Kipling's verses in settings by Speaks, Hedgecock, Gerald Cobb and Charles Willeby.
Three years later Burma quit the Empire. I mean, for real - not like India, Pakistan and Ceylon, graduating to Dominion status within the Commonwealth. Brimming with post-war resentments against their imperial masters, Burma just checked out: One minute it was a Crown Colony under the King-Emperor with Sir Herbert Rance as Governor. Then the Union Flag came down and it was a sovereign republic with Sao Shwe Thaik as president. The hereditary Saopha of Yawnghwe, Shwe Thaik died in prison shortly after the 1962 coup - and his saophasate (saopharate?) was abolished, and Burma lost to the world.
And so it might have gone for the great song of imperial romance, too. But on October 1st 1957 Frank Sinatra walked into the studio for the first of three sessions spread over eight days in which he would record his first album with Billy May: Come Fly With Me. You'll know the cover art: Sinatra, hat on head, taking the hand of an unseen lady and beckoning her toward the steps to the jet behind. Frank disliked it, and told his producer, Voyle Gilmore, that it looked like an ad for TWA. But it captured the spirit of the title song, and the set as a whole: "London By Night", "Brazil", "Blue Hawaii"... All fine charts by Billy May, but the album's masterpiece was, of all things, "Mandalay". What was it Kipling said?
Ship me somewhere's east of Suez,
Where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments
An' a man can raise a thirst...
You didn't need to be east of Suez to raise a thirst: Billy May drank at the conductor's podium during the Fly With Me sessions.
He was a famously last-minute arranger. The standard gag is Paul Weston's - that May was so conscientious he'd always be sure to start writing his arrangements at least three hours before the session. He'd arrive with copyists trailing instrumental parts on which the ink was still wet. Often, it worked - it's hard to argue "Come Fly With Me" could be any better if May had worked on it a little longer. And "Mandalay" starts off great, Frank and his "Burma broad", gongs and other oriental flourishes, a little sparring between swing and march tempo in the instrumental, and Sinatra all nice and loosened up for the second verse:
Where there ain't no Ten Commandments
And a cat can raise a thirst
For those crazy bells are calling
And it's there that I would be...
But the end was difficult. Maybe, for once, May should have worked on it a little longer. "Billy had written the arrangement," percussionist Frank Flynn told Sinatra historian Chuck Granata, "so that when we got to the line that says, 'And the dawn comes up like thunder', I would hit this huge gong as a punctuation. Then the arrangement would continue for about another half a chorus."
They ran it down, and Sinatra struggled with the ending. He looked at the gong. "Tell you what," he said to Frank Flynn. "When we get to that line, you hit that mutha with everything you got." He had a quiet word with Billy May, and they started again:
On The Road To Mandalay
Where the flying fishes play
And the dawn comes up like thunder...
And Frank Flynn whacked that gong. Billy May signaled to the band not to play a note, and the musicians looked to Sinatra to pick up the ending. And then, as his lead alto Skeets Herfurt recalled to Will Friedwald, "Instead of going on, Frank put on his hat and threw his coat over his shoulder, like he does, and walked out of the studio! We all laughed like mad. We said, 'What's happening? Is Frank going to come back and do it again?'"
No, he wasn't. The gong was still reverberating and the singer was in the corridor. And that's how they released the track - with Sinatra's improvised ending.
It's a great record. Oley Speaks never heard it - he died in 1948 - nor Rudyard Kipling - he died in 1936. But Kipling's daughter, Elsie Bambridge, heard it, and strongly disliked it. And she forbade the inclusion of "Mandalay" on the Come Fly With Me LP throughout the British Empire. In the United Kingdom, it was replaced with a goofy Capitol single, "French Foreign Legion" (by Guy Wood, who also wrote the Sinatra masterpiece "My One And Only Love"). In Australia and elsewhere, they substituted "Chicago", and some parts of the Commonwealth wound up with "It Happened In Monterey".
Frank didn't care for Mrs Bambridge's enforcement of her copyright, and made a point of singing "Mandalay" in foreign stage appearances, especially in front of British subjects. Live in Melbourne in 1959, he introduced it this way:
This particular song was written from the poem by Rudyard Kipling. Now it seems that we have done a rather different version of 'Road To Mandalay', so that his family has objected, and anywhere in the British Empire it's not to be played on the record. So they took it off the long-playing record of Come Fly With Me and replaced it with 'Chicago'. But this is an unusual version of 'Road To Mandalay' - it's comedic, but it swings, it jumps. I think that Rudyard Kipling's sister [sic] was chicken not to let us put it on the record.
And then he sang:
And those crazy bells keep ringing
'Cause it's there that I long to be
By the Egg Foo Yong Pagoda
Looking eastward to the sea...
Peter Dawson was still around in 1959 - in fact, he'd made his last studio recordings in London only four years earlier. I wonder if he caught Sinatra on that Aussie tour, and, if so, what he made of the Egg Foo Yong Pagoda. Maybe they had one in Adelaide.
Elsie Bambridge died in 1976. And shortly thereafter "On The Road To Mandalay" was restored to its rightful place on British pressings of Come Fly With Me.
Strange that Frank should fall out with the Kipling family. For he was quite a Kiplingite and, Mrs Bambridge notwithstanding, he continued to Kipple. Three years after that Australian tour, he recorded "Pick Yourself Up" in a Bach-esque arrangement by Neal Hefti. Dorothy Fields slips a sly allusion to Kipling's "If" into that one:
And you'll be a man, my son!
In 1966 Sinatra made his first ever spoken-word recording, of another of Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads, "Gunga Din". He wasn't happy with it, and it remains unreleased, but, if Sinatra wants to record poetry, better Kipling than Rod McKuen.
Time marches on like British troops on the road to Mandalay. Burma's post-independence history has been mostly bloody, brutal and ugly, and much of its own past is unknown to contemporary citizens of "Myanmar". But tourists do come, and they take the road to Mandalay, and the young Burmese tour guides who show them around, if they know Kipling's song at all, know it not through Peter Dawson's or any other imperially evocative recordings but only as a Sinatra swinger. And so these days you'll be on the road to Mandalay and ask the tour guide if he digs the song and the response will be oddly Sinatra-esque. And thus Frankie, the last Tommy as the sun drops low on the rice fields and the hathis ply teak to the paddle steamers:
For the wind is in the palm trees
And the temple bells they say
Come you back, you British soldier
Come you back to Mandalay...
Maybe there's a Burma broad a-settin', after all.
~For an alternative Sinatra Hot 100, the Pundette has launched her own Frank countdown. She's reached Number 78, a lovely trio version of "Autumn Leaves" - Frank's voice, Al Viola's guitar, Harry Klee's flute, recorded live at London's Royal Festival Hall in 1962. Mark tells the story behind "Autumn Leaves" in his book A Song For The Season. And don't forget Steyn's original 1998 obituary of Sinatra, "The Voice", appears in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the Steyn store.
~Bob Belvedere over at The Camp Of The Saints is also counting down his Top 100 Sinatra tracks, and eschews Mandalay for Brazil, where they've got an awful lot of coffee. Evil Blogger Lady is also getting in on the Frank festivities, and eschews Mandalay and Rio in favor of Sorrento.
6) THE ONE I LOVE (BELONGS TO SOMEBODY ELSE)
10) WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?
12) THE CONTINENTAL
13) ALL OF ME
15) NIGHT AND DAY
16) I WON'T DANCE
17) I'VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN
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: