Frank Sinatra isn't associated with Christmas - not the way Bing Crosby or Andy Williams is. But he made a lot of Yuletide records over the decades, all the way to a final version of "Silent Night", with Frank Jr on piano, for a children's charity record in 1991. I don't usually care too much for pop singers' versions of carols, but I'm quite partial to Sinatra's "Little Town of Bethlehem" and "It Came Upon The Midnight Clear" because he treats them as songs and brings a rare intensity to the narrative. By contrast, he never quite owned an actual contemporary Christmas standard, although he played a crucial role in establishing at least three of them: He was one of the first to record "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", because it was written by his in-house song team Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. Later they created "The Christmas Waltz" for him. And then there was the Christmas standard he had re-written to suit his needs: "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."
"Have Yourself" had the good fortune to be introduced in a smash hit, Meet Me In St Louis. A blockbuster movie seventy years ago, Vincente Minnelli's film was based on Sally Benson's autobiographical short stories of turn-of-the-century St Louis, published in The New Yorker. She called the series "5135 Kensington", the address of the Benson house. Don't go looking for it: It fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1994. But the street address survives musically, as we'll discover. Irving Brecher and Fred Finklehoffe's screenplay was set against the backdrop of the 1904 World's Fair, a great time for St Louis but a fraught one for the Smith family of Kensington Avenue. Mr Smith has been promoted to the New York office, and that means uprooting the family just at the time the older girls are getting interested in boys and the younger ones have grown attached to their playmates. The four daughters were perfectly cast - Lucille Bremer, Judy Garland, Joan Carroll and Margaret O'Brien - and the rest of the players weren't bad, either. For period flavor, they used period songs: The title of the film, after all, came from the big 1904 song hit: "Meet Me In St Louis, Louis/Meet me at the fair", rendered as "Meet Me In St Louee, Louee", but a grand waltz that not even its municipal mispronunciation can mar.
Yet the picture also needed a few new tunes, and for those they turned to Martin & Blane.
That's right: Hugh. Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. The names might have rung a vague bell with Judy Garland. In those days, MGM sent its stars out on the road for big openings, and got them in effect to perform a free stage show after the film. And so it was that on August 17th 1939 The Wizard Of Oz opened in New York at the Capitol Theatre and as the movie neared its climax Judy stood in the wings with her pal Mickey Rooney and a vocal quartet called the Martins, one-fourth of which was the eponymous Hugh Martin and another fourth of which was Ralph Blane. The film ended, the Martins zipped out on stage to sing "We're Off To See The Wizard", and then Judy came on to sing "The Lamp Is Low" and "Comes Love". Thirty-seven thousand people saw Garland, Rooney and the Martins on stage that day, with thousands more turned away at the door. Not so unusual for Judy Garland, but a big thrill for Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.
The guys had met a couple of years earlier in the chorus of a Broadway show called Hooray For What? Ralph Blane was a classical singer who wanted to sound like Bing Crosby, and Hugh Martin was the fellow he figured could help him get there. Martin was at heart a vocal arranger, one of the very best there's ever been. A few years back, during a recording session, after a particularly complicated bit of vocal harmonizing, Stephen Sondheim roared out from the control room, "Yessssss!!! Eat your heart out, Hugh Martin!!!!!"
So Martin was an arranger and Blane sang on NBC and they worked in the choruses of Broadway shows. And one day Ralph Blane bumps into a fellow who lived in his apartment building, the actor Van Johnson, who says that Broadway's Number One director is looking for a new team of songwriters to write a show he's working on. "So what?" says Blane. "I'm not a songwriter. Never written a song in my life.
"Yeah, but I bet you could," says Van Johnson. "Why don't you get Hugh to help you?" And so Martin & Blane became a songwriting team, and that 1941 George Abbott show - Best Foot Forward - gave them their first hit: "Buckle Down, Winsocki".
Three years later, they were in Hollywood and reunited with Judy Garland for the first time since those heady days at the Capitol Theatre. For Meet Me In St Louis, they provided Judy with three great songs: The first is "The Boy Next Door", a ballad whose device of suspended dominant-ninth chords is so beguiling Sinatra fell in love with it and rendered it as "The Girl Next Door", notwithstanding that its general character seems more suited to the distaff side of the vocal booth. In fact, he liked the ballad so much it's one of a select group of songs he recorded on three different occasions in different arrangements. Sinatra pal and musicologist Alec Wilder claimed that the verse contains more repeated notes than any other song - 24 repeated notes, in fact. "And there is a very dear and sweet reason for them," he said. "They support the lyrical information as to the contiguous street addresses of the girl and 'The Boy Next Door'":
For I live at fifty-one-thirty-five Kensington Avenue
And he lives at fifty-one-thirty-three....
It's one of the loveliest moments in the entire American songbook, and it's all one note.
Their second song was for a scene set on the trolley car and was supposed to be about that particular mode of transportation. Ralph Blane recalled that he and Martin thought it "too corny to be on the nose in writing a song about a trolley". So they went away and wrote a marvelous song to sing on the streetcar but not about it. The producer, Arthur Freed, told them it was a wonderful number and now go away and write what he'd asked them for in the first place. Blane went to the library to dig out some books of the period and came across a picture of a 1903 double-decker trolley, and the accompanying caption: "Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley". So that's what they wrote:
Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley
Ding, ding, ding, went the bell...
It's a terrific song. And, unlike the phony energy of so many tunes, this one has a natural drive across its 86 bars that takes your breath away, right to the finale's ingeniously rhymed extension:
As he started to leave
I took hold of his sleeve
With my hand
And as if it were planned
He stayed on with me
It was grand
Just to stand
With his hand
To the end of the line!
Irresistible. Perhaps it's because it's a production number so tied to its point in the narrative, or perhaps because it's about an anachronistic transit form, but "The Trolley Song" has never quite become a stand-alone song. It deserves to. Tony Bennett made a great record of it a few years back.
But the third song was the Martin & Blane songwriting team's finest hour. As noted, the plot of Meet Me In St Louis hinges on Mr Smith's decision to move the family to New York - right after Christmas. So this will be their last Christmas in their old St Louis home, and who knows where they'll be next year? Brecher and Finklehoffe wrote a scene in which Esther (Judy Garland) returns home from a Christmas Eve ball and finds her youngest sister Tootie (Margaret O'Brien) still awake and sitting in the bedroom window hoping for a glimpse of Santa. The boys were instructed to write a Christmas song that captured all the uncertainty hanging over the family's lives. So they went away and came back with a melancholy minor-key melody and a downright bleak lyric:
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past...
Judy Garland ran through the lyrics and then said: "Don't you think these are awfully dark?" She was, after all, supposed to be singing it to a seven-year old girl. "They'll think I'm a monster if I sing that to little Margaret O'Brien. They'll think I'm a sadist." This was 1944, remember. Judy had been singing to the troops, and believed strongly that, when you're sad, you want hope, not just confirmation of why you're in the slough of despond. Hugh Martin dug his heels in and refused to change a word. He told me a few years ago that Tom Drake, Judy's love interest in the movie (he played the boy next door), took him for a coffee in the commisary and warned him he risked losing what could be a very important song. "You stupid sonofabitch!" said Drake. "You're gonna screw up your life if you don't write another lyric for that tune." So the boys went away and returned with:
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on our troubles will be out of sight
Have Yourself A Merry Lttle Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
From now on our troubles will be miles away...
That was more like it. So, with the help of a little wind-up music box, Esther (Judy Garland) sings it to Tootie (Margaret O'Brien) in the bedroom window, and at the end of it Tootie bursts into tears, rushes out into the yard, and smashes all her snowmen to pieces. Discussing the film with Hugh Martin, I congratulated him on an incredibly powerful scene. "Yes, but it was child abuse," he said. "Just before shooting that day, Vincente Minnelli told Margaret that her dog had been run over. He hadn't. But Margaret burst into tears and he just kept the cameras rolling." Merry Christmas to you, too.
There's a more or less open secret about Martin & Blane. From the moment Van Johnson first put them up to it in the corridor of Ralph Blane's apartment building, they were never really a "team" at all. Martin wrote songs on his own and Blane wrote songs on his own and ne'er the twain did meet. Twenty years later, the Beatles embarked on the same arrangement, with John Lennon writing solo songs and Paul McCartney writing solo songs and both hermetically sealed catalogues getting credited to "Lennon & McCartney". In that case, it worked mainly to Lennon's benefit, since McCartney's were the higher earning songs (notably "Yesterday"). With Martin & Blane, the inequity was even greater. Ralph Blane is more or less responsible for the team's first hit, "Buckle Down, Winsocki", and that's it. Thereafter, on their successes, it was Hugh Martin doing the heavy lifting. A few years ago, Hugh Martin was a guest on The Mark Steyn Christmas Show and we told him we'd like him to perform "Have Yourself A Merry Little..." Hugh said sure, but added that he'd like to do it his way - which is to say he played it on the piano and didn't start singing the lyric until he got to the middle eight:
Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
- and then back to piano only... Ah, right, I thought. That must be something to do with the bust-up with Blane. Hugh wrote the tune and the middle bit of the lyric and Ralph wrote the rest of the words. But apparently not. In the years after Blane's death, Martin told folks that he was basically responsible for the whole song.
Meet Me In St Louis was a blockbuster, MGM's biggest hit since Gone With The Wind, and Judy Garland's performance of the song was very popular - and, if only because of the canine bereavement and snowman demolition, unusually dramatic for a seasonal warble. The film's set in 1904 but the audience it's addressing is 1944. Whether you were shipping out overseas or waiting for someone who'd been gone a long time, the idea of a question mark over next Christmas wasn't some remote concept applicable only to Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien.
Hugh Martin himself was part of that war effort. Shortly after completing his film score, he enlisted. One day, he found himself marching across a parade ground while a military band was rehearsing. They started playing "The Trolley Song", so he turned to the GI next to him and said, "Hey, I wrote that!" To which the solder replied: "Yeah, and I'm Myrna Loy."
And yet, and yet... In the decade after the film, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" showed no signs of becoming a standard. Sinatra recorded it with Axel Stordahl in 1947, and, by contrast with the rueful childlike quality of the Garland original, it has a strangely mature melancholy: The arrangement ends with bell chimes that are almost mocking. It was an odd Christmas record for the late Forties: in that heyday of the American yuletide song, when "White Christmas", "I'll Be Home For...", "Let It Snow!" and "Rudolph" all appeared within a few years, "Have Yourself" was far from the top tier.
Exactly ten years later, riding high at Capitol, Frank Sinatra decided he was going to make a Christmas album and that "Merry Little" would be among the tracks. There was just one problem. He wasn't happy with one particular line:
Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow...
"Muddling through" didn't seem quite right to Frank. So he called up Hugh Martin. "The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas," he said. "Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?"
"You don't say no to Sinatra if you've got any brains," figured Martin. So it was back to the old drawing board. And, instead of "muddling through", he substituted:
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas Now.
"I was relieved when I came up with 'bough'," said Martin, "because, if you're rhyming with 'now', there weren't many options left other than 'cow'."
He made a few other changes, too. It's striking, though, that, after getting Hugh Martin to jolly it up for him, A Jolly Christmas with Frank Sinatra isn't that jolly - not compared to almost any other Christmas album from 1957. This was the first full-length album Gordon Jenkins would score for Sinatra, and, on most of the tracks, in place of the strings, he uses the Ralph Brewster Singers spelling out the opening number:
I love those J-I-N-G-L-E Bells
Those holiday J-I-N-G-L-E Bells
...and it de-jollifies from there. Side One is secular standards, and Side Two is religious carols, and so the First Act finale, as it were - the close of Side One - is "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", which Gordon Jenkins ornaments with frilly pseudo-classical fills that get a little in the way of Hugh Martin's tune.
Yet, not for the first time, Frank's interpretation became the song. The "jolly" version made it a standard, and of the hundreds of "Merry Littles" that followed across the decades almost all used the Sinatra lyric, all the way up to the Pretenders and Sarah MacLachlan.
And then, as often happens, a little bit of purist snobbery set in. James Taylor recorded a version shortly after 9/11, adducing correctly that the uncertainty in the song that so resonated in World War Two would find echoes in Christmas 2001. But he made a point of recording the original Judy Garland movie lyric. In times like these, he said, "we 'muddle through', as the lyric says. As the best lyric says."
Hugh Martin was more relaxed about it. A few years back I asked him which of all the versions - country, rock, soul, whatever - was his favorite. "That's probably too difficult a question," I added. "No, it isn't," he said. "It's still Judy Garland's. It always has been. I'm just insane about that woman's talent."
He's right. But then, as Hugh added, it's "hard to beat Mister Blue Eyes". That's a powerful scene with Judy in Meet Me In St Louis. But, if I had to name the second best movie deployment of "Merry Little Christmas", check out its ironic reprise in Carl Foreman's film The Victors (1963), a big sprawling drama of George Hamilton, Peter Fonda, Albert Finney and co on the march through Europe, loving and leaving Melina Mercouri, Romy Schneider, Jeanne Moreau, Elke Sommer and other Eurototty en route. The most memorable moment is the execution of a deserter by a firing squad. Anyone who thinks Quentin Tarantino started this sort of thing with "Stuck In The Middle With You" should check out the scene where the guy's comrades are driven through the snows to witness his dispatch to the accompaniment of Frank singing "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas". In Tarantino's case, the movies just use the old pop records. But Sinatra chose to make his third recording of "Merry Little" for this macabre little scene. With Bill Miller on piano, he put down a vocal in July 1963, and two months later in Britain Wally Stott conducted along the orchestra to Frank's voice track, and created (to my ears) a superior version to the Jenkins chart. If you're wondering who that British conductor is, Wally Stott was a famous London arranger who became Angela Morley, moved to America and wound up doing the music for "Dallas". Muddling through somehow, you might say. You can find my favorite Wally Stott story here, about halfway down the page.
Although he came to think his first lyric ("it may be our last") was "laughably lugubrious", Hugh Martin liked the Garland lyric and the Sinatra lyric and the "sacred" version he wrote in his final years, "Have Yourself A Blessed Little Christmas". By then he was spending his Christmases playing carols in his local church in California, and, if anyone asked to hear his seasonal hit, it was that "Blessed Little Christmas" version he'd sing. Four different lyrics, three of them highly successful - and that's without mentioning the relatively unknown verse you can hear on Barbra Streisand's and the Carpenters' records. Every year his publisher called Martin to let him know which artists have joined the band of "Merry" men. Not long before he died, Entertainment Weekly broke the news to him that the song now had its first "hair metal" arrangement: "Twisted Sisters, is that the group's name?" responded Hugh. "Ha ha ha. That's a hoot." But, when he wanted to hear his song for real, he went back to Judy, Frank and a handful of others. You can "jolly it up" but there's loss and uncertainty in that Sinatra favorite, whether in Stordahl's, Jenkins' or Gil Grau's arrangement - and it has a way of breaking through:
Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And Have Yourself A Merry Lttle Christmas now.
~Hugh Martin performs his famous composition "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" on The Mark Steyn Christmas Show - and Mark and Jessica's own merry little take on the song is available here. The first episode of Steyn's new audio series The Song Is You, with the stories behind Sinatra recordings such as "Stardust", "Sweet Lorraine", "Lonely Town" and "How Little We Know", can be heard here. And don't forget Part Two of Mark's conversation with longtime Sinatra conductor Vincent Falcone, discussing "The Gal That Got Away", "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry" and many other songs. There's also Steyn's audio special with Celeste Holm on the Sinatra screen hit High Society. Mark's original 1998 obituary of Frank, "The Voice", can be found in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe, while you can read more on Sinatra in Mark Steyn's American Songbook. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.
~As we hurtle toward December 12th, the Evil Blogger Lady is feeling all alone but glad to be unhappy. Bob Belvedere has grabbed a mip-map-mop and a brim-bram-broom and is clim-clam-cleaning the rim-ram-room. Meanwhile, the Pundette is counting down her own Sinatra Hot 100: Go savor them all as she trembles on the brink of her Top Three.
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
68) AUTUMN LEAVES
78) MOON LOVE
79) ME AND MY SHADOW
84) MY WAY
89) GOODY GOODY
92) PICK YOURSELF UP
93) TIME AFTER TIME
95) MACK THE KNIFE
96) BODY AND SOUL