According to Johnny Mercer, "Writing music takes more talent, but writing lyrics takes more courage." What he meant was that a tune can be beguiling and melancholy and intoxicating and a lot of other vagaries, but there comes a moment when you have to sit down and get specific, and put the other half of the equation on top of those notes. A songwriter spends his life chasing the umpteenth variation of "I love you", and that takes courage because there's usually a good reason why no one's used your variation before: the thought's too precious, or clunky, or contrived.
Topicality isn't much help. The American telegraph and telephony songs of the 1890s ("I Guess I'll Have To Telegraph My Baby") and the airplane songs of the oughts ("Come, Josephine, In My Flying Machine") seemed like smart moves at the time, but this is one area where the fundamental things apply as time goes by. Moon/June/stars above/so in love, etc.
So in 1953 Bart Howard sat down to write a love song and, for once, as he put it, "it just fell out of me". In 20 minutes, he had a number that was full of all the usual stuff – moon, stars – and yet not so much topical as prescient. It's the only hit he ever wrote, and he didn't need another. He called it "In Other Words".
Never heard of it? That's because Howard didn't know what he was sitting on. What hits you aren't the other words, but the first five:
Fly me to the moon...
You might know it by Peggy Lee, or Tony Bennett, Astrud Gilberto, Marvin Gaye, Diana Krall, Agnetha (the blonde from Abba), or any one of a few hundred others. You might know it from the opening of Oliver Stone's valentine to the "decade of greed", Wall Street: the trains and ferries and buses feed the workers into the city, hundreds and thousands of stick figures, pouring up from the subway tunnels and on to the teeming sidewalks of Lower Manhattan. And above the skyscrapers Count Basie plays and Sinatra sings:
Fly Me To The Moon
Let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like
On Jupiter and Mars...
The song makes the scene. Without it, it's nothing: for what's drearier and more earthbound, more literally everyday than commuting? But not when it's accompanied by Basie and Sinatra and a Quincy Jones arrangement that starts low-key with bass and tweeting flutes and surges into blaring brass rocketing into the skies. It's what Nelson Riddle meant when he called his preferred 4/4 swing for Sinatra the "tempo of the heartbeat". It's what Bono had in mind when he said "Frank walks like America. Cocksure." And, of course, it's what Gordon Gekko renders more bluntly in his "greed is good" speech: all the possibilities of the day ahead, all the dreams and ambitions of the anonymous figures on the street articulated in music and, like the buildings, reaching for the stars.
By then, "Fly Me To The Moon" had served as the soundtrack for the fulfilment of the grandest dream of all: In 1969, Buzz Aldrin took a portable tape player up there with him, and "Fly Me To The Moon" became the first moon song to get to the moon itself. "The first music played on the moon," said Quincy Jones. "I freaked."
And none of this is anything Bart Howard had in mind for his song. "I didn't know what I'd written," he told me a few years ago. Upon his death in 2004, NPR's Michelle Norris announced that they'd be paying tribute to "the man who wanted to see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars". But that's exactly what Howard didn't mean. He couldn't have been less interested in what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars. His little-heard verse sets up the premise:
Poets often use many words
To say a simple thing
It takes thought and time and rhyme
To make a poem sing
With music and words
I've been playing
For you I have written a song
To be sure that you know what I'm saying
I'll translate as I go along...
Fly Me To The Moon
And let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like
On Jupiter and Mars
In Other Words
Hold my hand
In other words
Darling, kiss me...
In other words, Howard wasn't reaching for the stars, but trying to bring the airy, high-flown sentiments of romance back down to earth. He called the song "In Other Words" because that's what it was about – what we're really saying underneath all the "Moonlight Becomes You" starry-eyed hooey. He wrote it for Mabel Mercer, whose accompanist he was in the post-war years, at Tony's on 52nd Street. In its first decade, "In Other Words" was picked up by all Manhattan's cabaret darlings – Kaye Ballard, Felicia Sanders, Portia Nelson - and a few other chantoosies like Frances Wayne. They sang it as it was written, in waltz time, or in a very slow ballad tempo. And, instead of that supreme Sinatra confidence, it sounds wistful and tentative.
Pretty much all Howard's compositions did in those days. His other great flying line comes in another cabaret song called "Walk Up", a recollection of love in a cheap flat up the stairs on the fourth floor: "We'd fly up every night." It's an intimate, rueful lyric, but a little too special, too particular. Howard's cabaret songs from the Fifties seem so specific to that world, and a little exclusive of everybody else's. He wasn't wealthy and nor were his friends, but even a fourth-floor walk-up had a kind of romance to a boy from Burlington, Iowa. "He was the epitome of a certain kind of New York elegance that people that came to New York aspired to," said Jim Gavin, author of Intimate Nights: The Golden Age Of New York Cabaret. Howard was homosexual, and that was easier in the city, too.
He started out at 16, playing piano in a dance band through the Depression. Like Bob Hope, he worked with the Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, accompanying them at the piano through their lively three-legged tap routines. Howard moved on to accompany the drag act Ray Bourbon, and eventually to New York, the Rainbow Room, and the life he'd wanted all along. It's a small, in-the-know world, and "In Other Words" is tailored for it, at least in its suggestion that big, bellowed professions of love are not what really matters.
In 1953, he finished up "In Other Words", and took it to a publisher, who loved everything about it except that first line of the chorus. "Fly me to the moon"? Nobody said "fly me"; it didn't sound right. How about switching it to "Take me to the moon"? Howard resisted, which was just as well. There were over a hundred recordings in the next few years, and the song never did take flight. Then the Sixties came along, and the space race got going, and so did bossa nova, and a chi-chi ballad for the cognoscenti suddenly seemed in tune with the times. Peggy Lee suggested re-naming it "Fly Me To The Moon", and her conductor, Jose Harnell, had an instrumental bossa hit with it.
Basie and Sinatra enlarged the song, opened it up for the world beyond 52nd Street. Frank knew what he wanted that day. Quincy Jones' arrangement didn't build: It started with the band at full strength, and there they stayed. "I dunno," said the singer, after the run-through. "Up there at the beginning, it sounds a little dense, Q." So Jones told most of the guys to sit out the first bars and leave it to Frank and the rhythm. Sonny Payne's brushes set the tempo, Basie provides a couple of plinks an octave apart, and there's Sinatra:
Fly Me To The Moon...
And suddenly Bart Howard's sideways cabaret ballad is head on and literal: it flies to the moon, a love song for the space age, a wild ride with a well-stocked wet-bar. In the Nineties, Sinatra did a couple of faux "duet" CDs, in which he recorded his songs solo and Phil Ramone then scrambled around to find supposedly young, supposedly hot acts who could be pasted in to the tracks. For "Fly Me To The Moon", they asked the country singer George Strait, and the strained hipster patter of the intro – George's banter with an absent Frank, a Frank who left the studio months earlier, a Frank who's never even heard of George Strait – sums up, in a desperate wannabe-cool kind of way, the transformation of Bart Howard's little cabaret ballad:
Hey, Francis, I don't know 'bout you but I could use a break... Maybe a trip or somethin'...
Fly Me To The Moon...
By this time "Fly Me To The Moon" was such a Vegas über-swinger, the overwrought cabaret songstresses defiantly reclaimed the song, putting it back in three-quarter or ballad time. The critic Will Friedwald says the fast and slow versions are really two separate numbers, respectively "Fly Me To The Moon" and "In Other Words". So Bart Howard achieved a rare distinction: the only one-hit songwriter to get two standards out of his one hit.
It was enough. After the Sinatra recording, he retired on the song, and dabbled in interior decorating for most of the rest of his life: a modest, dapper man who'd written a tune about not flying to the moon that somehow wound up there. Had any other nation beaten Nasa to it, they'd have marked the occasion with the "Ode To Joy" or Also Sprach Zarathustra, something grand and formal. But there's something very American about Buzz Aldrin standing on the surface of the moon with his cassette machine: Sinatra "cocksure" in 4/4, with Count Basie and Quincy Jones. The sound of the American century as it broke the bounds of the planet: a Bart Howard song finally playing among the stars.
~The above essay includes material from Mark's obituary of Bart Howard from Mark Steyn's Passing Parade, which can be yours in personally autographed print format direct from SteynOnline, or in the new expanded eBook edition, which you can be reading within minutes in Kindle, Nook or Kobo - from Barnes & Noble in the US, from Indigo-Chapters in Canada, and from Amazon outlets worldwide. You can read the stories behind more Sinatra songs in Mark Steyn's American Songbook, and Steyn's original 1998 obituary of Frank, "The Voice", can be found in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.
~For an alternative Sinatra Hot 100, the Pundette is also counting down her Frank hit parade, and at Number 29 he isn't flying to the moon, but he is bouncing it. Bob Belvedere over at The Camp Of The Saints is trembling on the brink of his Top Five, and at Number Six places "The Way You Look Tonight". The Evil Blogger Lady continues her September songs with Frank, Billy May and "Autumn In New York".
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
52) YOUNG AT HEART
57) THE TENDER TRAP
60) EBB TIDE
61) COME FLY WITH ME
62) ANGEL EYES
63) JUST IN TIME
65) NICE 'N' EASY
66) OL' MACDONALD