Like the song says:
Fairy tales can come true
It can happen to you...
It happened to Frank Sinatra three months after recording our Friday song, "I've Got The World On A String": He had, finally, a movie role worthy of his talents - Maggio in From Here To Eternity. It opened in August 1953, and was a sensation. Six months later he had an Academy Award - for acting, which, as Sammy Cahn liked to say, "isn't even what he does". On Oscar night, March 2nd 1954, Frank literally ran down the aisle to pick up his statuette from Rosalind Russell. All he needed was a Number One record, which he hadn't had since "Mam'selle" in 1947. But he came pretty close with this one, Number Two in early 1954 and a solid seller for months on end:
For it's hard you will find
To be narrow of mind
If you're Young At Heart...
"Young At Heart" started out under an entirely different name, its music composed by Johnny Richards, who himself started out under an entirely different name: Juan Manuel Cascales. Juan Manuel was born in 1911 in Toluca - not Toluca Lake, the tony Los Angeles neighborhood where the Sinatras, the Reagans and the (Bob) Hopes lived, but the rather less tony Toluca, Mexico. Juan Manuel, his three brothers, his sister and his mother entered America at Laredo, Texas on August 4th 1919 - which we know because back then the Government of the United States had this thing called "legal immigration" and, incredible as it seems, kept reliable records on the matter. Juan Manuel went to high school in San Fernando, and while there, at the age of 14, he wrote his first orchestrations. At 21, he got offered some work scoring movies in England, and took off for London for a while. He eventually returned and became one of the best jazz arrangers in America, under the name "Johnny Richards". (Juan Manuel's brother, Carlos Guillermo Cascales, adopted the rather more distinctive moniker of "Chuck Cabot" and became a successful saxophonist, bandleader and eventually a tour promoter for the Coasters and the Rolling Stones.)
In the early Fifties Richards was in demand and working with Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt and Stan Kenton. But in his back pocket he had a little instrumental he'd been noodling around on for a decade or so, a circular tune of repetitive phrases that he called "Moonbeam". Somehow or other it wound up on somebody's desk at Sunbeam Music. It wasn't the most obviously vocal melody but the publisher thought it could use a lyric and passed it to a young lady called Carolyn Leigh. Miss Leigh, with Cy Coleman, would go on to write some of Sinatra's biggest and most enduring songs, but at this point she was just a nobody who'd never written nuthin'. A copywriter in advertising and radio, she'd dialed a wrong number and happened to reach a fellow at Sunbeam Music. They got talking and he offered her a contract to write lyrics. Two hundred flop lyrics later, she was surely perilously close to her very last chance with the guy. Nevertheless, she gave Johnny Richards' tune the once-over, and, whether or not she was ever told that it had the name "Moonbeam", she chose to go in a different direction:
Fairy tales can come true
It can happen to you
If you're Young At Heart...
It's not the easiest tune to get a grip on, but, for a cool jazz instrumental, that repetitive pattern does have a certain childlike quality and that's what Carolyn decided to run with. She finished the whole thing in three hours, which is impressive considering how tightly rhymed it is:
You can go to extremes
With impossible schemes
You can laugh when your dreams
Fall apart at the seams
And life gets more exciting with each passing day
And love is either in your heart or on its way
- which thought is lovely, and worth any number of quadruple rhymes. But Carolyn Leigh loved to rhyme, the more the merrier. To cite a later song for Sinatra:
When you arouse the NEED in me
My heart says yes inDEED in me
ProCEED with what you're LEADin' me to...
The sly one there is "proceed". But for this early effort she kept it structurally simpler:
And if you should survive
To a hundred and five
Look at all you'll derive
Out of being alive...
Many years later, Carolyn wrote a musical of love among the stock prices called How Now, Dow Jones, a hit title but the show flopped anyway. It was directed by the legendary George Abbott and, many more years later, I asked Mister Abbott about working with Carolyn Leigh. As I did so, it occurred to me that he had outlived her lyric - for by that point he had survived to a hundred and six (and eventually to a hundred and seven).
At the time she wrote it, Miss Leigh was in her mid-twenties, and it is in that sense quite a sophisticated concept - someone who is actually young urging the importance of being young at heart even when you're not in body. But it was written for a reason, as Carolyn's sister June Silver recalled to me some years back. "It had something specifically to do with my father," said June, "who had had a heart attack and was in the hospital. And she wrote it for my father in a sense." So there is a kind of double meaning to that central message - being "young at heart" even when your heart is not so young. And it surely is worth every treasure on earth to be healthy in heart.
So the tune was written years earlier and the lyric was finished in three hours - and the complete song then sat around unrecorded for months. How did it get to Sinatra? Via his newest arranger, Nelson Riddle. "Nelson told me he had a song that had been floating around Vine Street [Capitol Records] and other companies for weeks or months," Frank recalled. "'I think it's a good song,' Nelson said, 'but nobody wants to do it.' I didn't even ask him if I could hear it. I just said let's do it."
Riddle was a great admirer of Stan Kenton, and assuredly knew of Johnny Richards. Both Riddle and Richards liked Ravel and Stravinsky, and Richards' use of French horns and other instruments in unusual ways for the jazz field prefigured a lot of what Riddle would do with Sinatra. Yet, for all that, Nelson wouldn't have jeopardized a new and still tenuous relationship if he hadn't thought the song was right for Frank - and it was.
From Here To Eternity had premiered on August 5th 1953 and the papers were immediately full of stories marveling at Sinatra's comeback. Recorded four months later, "Young At Heart" finally gave him not only a hit record to match but, according to Frankologist Will Friedwald, finally "consummated" his musical marriage to Riddle. A few weeks after Eternity opened, Sinatra had played the Riviera club in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a sensational engagement for which everyone poured out of Manhattan to see the reborn superstar - fellow celebrities, high society, composers, lyricists and musicians. At one point in the show, Frank thanked his arrangers - George Siravo, Nelson Riddle and "the head man Axel Stordahl". Was he just being generous to Stordahl, an old friend he'd outgrown? Or was even Sinatra unaware, as late as the fall of 1953, that Riddle was his future?
At the Riviera, Frank sang mostly Siravo charts - "My Funny Valentine", "A Foggy Day", "Violets For Your Furs" - and they went down so well he decided he needed to get them on record. So he asked Riddle to conduct them for what would be his first Capitol album, Songs For Young Lovers. Riddle agreed, but it must have chafed. On their first session together, he'd had to pretend to be Billy May. At their second, he was allowed to do a couple of singles and the tie-in song for From Here To Eternity. One step forward - and then back: Having done such a great job pretending to be Billy May, he was now supposed to spend the remainder of the year pretending to be George Siravo?
Milt Bernhart, Sinatra's trombonist, told Will Friedwald that on one of those first sessions Frank cut the song short after a few bars and barked at Nelson: "Call a break!" Instead of going and grabbing a coffee and doughnut with the rest of the gang, Bernhart was curious to know what was up. He saw Sinatra and Riddle behind the sound-proof glass of an adjoining studio and, even though he couldn't hear a word, he could see Frank doing all the talking and, given the way he was waving his arms around, all the yelling, too. Bernhart deduced that Sinatra was objecting to the busyness of the arrangement - all the instruments doing all this distracting stuff behind his vocal: "Write a fill for me when I'm through singing, but don't write a concerto behind me." It's remarkable how many brilliantly gifted orchestrators have to be told this.
For "Young At Heart" Riddle didn't write any concerti and didn't put any clutter in the way of Sinatra's vocal. He uses the strings and flutes brilliantly but unobtrusively - except for when they provide an instrumental echo after the title phrase, where it's showing off the song rather than the instruments. The rest of the time, Riddle is concerned not to bury the light, almost evanescent quality of the tune: the strings float, and the beats he puts under this line support Sinatra the storyteller: "Life gets more exciting with each passing day" - and Riddle's orchestration is a young girl's fluttering heart illustrating the point. In the instrumental, he's a model of restraint: the strings play the melody clean and there's a little bit of discreet solo-ing from the flute ...but nothing to distract from the overall pure, pristine sound.
There were two other numbers on the session - "Rain (Falling From The Skies)" and "I Could Have Told You" (by Carl "Marshmallow World" Sigman). Neither was ever a big enduring entry of the Sinatra songbook, but, in very different ways, both are absolutely first-class records in which, by the end, you feel the song has been given the very best treatment possible. On that December 9th session, Sinatra learned that he could trust Riddle - for ballads or swingers, up tempo or slow. It marks the moment, I think, when even Frank accepted that he had a new "head man". Today Riddle's is the sound most people think of when you say the word "Sinatra". Then again, it was writing for Sinatra that, in turn, gave Riddle his sound. For years he had had big hits with Nat Cole and others, but again, when you say "Nelson Riddle", most people think of Sinatra rather than, say, "Mona Lisa". With Sinatra-Riddle, the whole was greater than either of its constituent parts.
When "Young At Heart" took off, Sinatra was filming a picture with Doris Day. Frank's latest song was such a hit that the studio decided to staple the number to the opening titles and closing credits and rename the movie Young At Heart. I don't think anyone would argue that the film is up there with Citizen Kane or La R├Ęgle du jeu, but for a nothing little story it's always watchable, and Day and Sinatra are very real together: Their very first scene, with Frank at the piano, is remarkable not so much for the chemistry itself as for the fact that it's between two such different individuals - she's perky and chipper; he's surly and withdrawn; but they communicate to each other and to us that there's a connection.
It's 1954 and we're in picture-perfect small-town America, where widower Gregory Tuttle (Robert Keith) lives with his three daughters (Miss Day, Elisabeth Fraser, and lovely Dorothy Malone, a long way from "Peyton Place"). The flaw in the premise is that you don't quite understand why all these young ladies haven't been snapped up and are still living at home being ordered up to their room every night by Ethel Barrymore as their tough-but-you-know-it's-good-for-you spinster aunt. Pa Tuttle is a music professor, and one day a Broadway composer played by Gig Young with a faintly insincere charm moves in on the family. And it turns out that he's the man all three girls have been waiting for. Unfortunately, although he's a big success on the Great White Way, he needs an uncredited assist on the score from down-at-heel eternal-loser pianist Frank Sinatra - which complicates Gig Young's plans, girl-wise.
This is where the film's title doesn't entirely make sense: Frank's character is hard-bitten and cynical, or at least pretends to be, with the result that this single movie contains more scenes than any before or since establishing Sinatra's saloon-singer persona - at the keyboard, with tie loosened, collar unbuttoned, hat pushed back, cigarette on lower lip, three-quarter-empty glass atop the piano. The songs are a good match for the look: an achingly sad "Someone To Watch Over Me", a ballad treatment of "Just One Of Those Things" that's a world away from the swingin' version he'd recorded with Riddle two months earlier, and the first glimpse of "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road" as he'd sing it on stage for the next four decades. All great - although, again, none of them seems quite to fit with the innocence and anticipation of "Young At Heart":
And love is either in your heart or on its way...
In the original story, Frank's character was due to die in a car crash. But Sinatra had died in From Here To Eternity, and died in the lesser known but excellent Suddenly, and, enjoying his spectacular rebirth, he figured it was time to quit dying and live a little. So he made the producers change the ending. And it testifies to his transformed fortunes that, while still second-billed to Doris Day, he was able to do that.
"Young At Heart" worked out pretty well for Carolyn Leigh, too. After a triumphant run in New York and London in South Pacific, Mary Martin and her husband Richard Halliday were planning a musical version of Peter Pan, and had more or less everything in place except the songs. "I was doing a show on Broadway," Mary told me, "and we drove home from the theatre and we heard this song 'Young At Heart' - 'if you are young at heart' - and Sinatra was singing it. We just loved it - and so we tried to find out about her and no one knew who she was. We had always wanted to do Peter Pan and I couldn't get this girl's song out of my head, because that's what I thought: 'If you're young at heart...' because, you know, Peter Pan is forever."
Eventually, Richard Halliday did track her down and dialed her apartment and said he'd like her to write a musical for Mary Martin. Carolyn thought it was a prank call and hung up. And then, just to make sure, she called Halliday's office, whereupon she was put through to him and he told her he meant it: she was going to be writing a musical for the biggest star on Broadway. She put the phone down again and this time, in a combination of awe and terror, she threw up:
Fairy tales do come true
And so what if you threw
When you're Young At Heart...
And so, from that chance bit of car radio listening, Carolyn Leigh was signed to Peter Pan, and the Mary Martin version has become a perennial on stage and TV (the latest Peter was Allison Williams, with Christopher Walken, on NBC last year).
As for Johnny Richards, he was an arranger and musician but not a songwriter, and he had no desire to become one. He did, though, get to write the ceremonial ballet for Prince Rainier's wedding to Grace Kelly. His Serene Highness was apparently a fan of Stan Kenton and someone from the palace called Stan and asked him if he fancied the gig. Kenton said offhandedly that he was going on tour, but why not ask Johnny Richards? So they did.
But "Young At Heart"?
Richards liked his tune, but, as a super-cool jazz hipster, came strongly to detest the easy-listening appeal of its Carolyn Leigh incarnation, as sung by Bing Crosby with (gulp) Guy Lombardo, and thereafter Perry Como, Connie Francis, Bobby Vinton... I wonder what he'd make of more recent versions from Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, Gloria Estefan, Vonda Shepard, Landon Pigg, all of which contributions to the Richards estate derive from Frank Sinatra trusting the judgment of Nelson Riddle way back in December 1953. One of the sweetest non-Sinatra versions of the song is by Tony Bennett and Shawn Colvin ...no, no, come back, don't worry, this isn't one of those recent celebrity-duet CDs that Bennett puts out weekly. This was back in the Nineties, before he started drive-thru duets-to-go, and the combination of the worldly old Bennett voice and the young folkie Colvin voice is quite something.
The song was never a permanent fixture in Sinatra's act, but he liked it enough to re-record it at Reprise for the Sinatra's Sinatra album and endorse it as one of "Frank's favorites". It was that 1963 vocal that was used, posthumously, for a duet with the aged Charles Aznavour a few years ago, Aznavour's quavery franco-geezer combining with Sinatra in his prime to bring a little perspective from the autumn of the years to "Young At Heart". Aside from that studio remake, Sinatra liked to dust it off once in a while on stage, as in Vegas in '61:
I forgot the next line
'Cause it's been a long time
When you're Young At Heart...
But, as rare as it was in Sinatra's stage act, it's usually somewhere to be found on the greatest-hits compilations. Carolyn Leigh's lyric is an appealing philosophy and one that Frank especially appreciated in the early days of that magnificent comeback:
Don't you know that it's worth
Ev'ry treasure on earth
To be Young At Heart?
For as rich as you are
It's much better by far
To be Young At Heart
And if you should survive
To a hundred and five...
Neither the composer nor lyricist of "Young At Heart" survived to a hundred and five. Richards died in 1968 of a brain tumor at the age of 56. Carolyn Leigh died in 1983 at the age of 57 from a heart attack and related ailments, and after years of accumulated frustrations both professional and personal. But on this record they and Sinatra and Riddle are full of heart, and young, now and forever:
And here is the best part
You have a head start
If you are among
The very Young
~For an alternative Sinatra Hot 100, the Pundette has also launched a Frank countdown. She's up to Number 43, Sinatra with Johnny Mandel on the Gershwins' "Foggy Day". Bob Belvedere over at The Camp Of The Saints is likewise counting down his own Sinatrapalooza, but taking time out en route to stop for a few honorable mentions, including Frank's terrific take on "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" . The Evil Blogger Lady continues her Sinatra summer theme with a couple of seasonal songs by Michel Legrand and the Bergmans.
~Steyn's original 1998 obituary of Frank, "The Voice", can be found in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe, while you can read the stories behind many other Sinatra songs in Mark Steyn's American Songbook. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.
12) THE CONTINENTAL
13) ALL OF ME
15) NIGHT AND DAY
16) I WON'T DANCE
24) OUR LOVE
27) FOOLS RUSH IN
32) I'LL BE AROUND
38) SOMETHIN' STUPID
42) THE COFFEE SONG
44) HOW ABOUT YOU?
46) LUCK BE A LADY
49) I HAVE DREAMED