Don Black was a guest on The Mark Steyn Show a few weeks back to celebrate the 50th anniversary of "Born Free" becoming the first British song to win an Oscar. 1967 turned out to be a pretty good year for Don because he also wrote what proved to be Billboard's Number One record of the year in America - which isn't bad for an East End boy and tyro lyricist still recovering from his first attempted career (stand-up comedy). This second entry from the Black songbook was introduced to the world half-a-century ago this month in the hit movie of the same name starring Sidney Poitier, and has lingered in public consciousness, as we'll hear, all the way to Barack Obama's last day in office.
When Don ventured up to our mountain vastness to appear on the show, he very kindly flew in from New York, where he was in rehearsal with Glenn Close for the boffo revival of his show with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Christopher Hampton, Sunset Boulevard. And, trying to get a firmer grip on which obscure patch of nowhere he'd landed in, he wondered how far we were from Montreal. "A couple of hours," I replied. "Why'd you ask?"
"Oh, Mark London lives in Montreal," he said. Which, if I ever knew, I'd forgotten. But it's true. This American Number One record of the year sung by a Scots lassie in a very English movie about a schoolteacher from British Guiana was, in fact, composed by a Canadian. So, if you're one of our many readers celebrating St-Jean-Baptiste Day this weekend, here's an authentic QuĂ©bĂ©cois folk song by an authentic QuĂ©bĂ©cois folk to wash down your poutine with. On the other hand, if you're an anglo anticipating the Dominion of Canada's big 150th birthday bash in Ottawa next Saturday, you can look on this as a great Canadian anthem to kick off a week of Canadian content at SteynOnline. And, if you think it's ridiculous to pass this song off as a maple blockbuster, well, it's an official Canadian song, formally inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame just two years ago, so there.
It began a long way from Montreal:
The crowded red double-decker bus inched its way through the snarl of traffic in Aldgate. It was almost as if it was reluctant to get rid of the overload of noisy, earthy charwomen it had collected on its run through the city - thick-armed, bovine women, huge-breasted, with heavy bodies irrevocably distorted by frequent childbearing, faces pink and slightly damp from their early labors, the warm May morning and their own energy...
They joshed and chivvied each other and the conductor in an endless stream of lewdly suggestive remarks and retorts, quite careless of being overheard by me - a Negro, and the only other male on the bus.
Thus the opening of E R Braithwaite's autobiographical novel, To Sir, With Love. Mr Braithwaite had had something of a charmed upbringing. Born in Georgetown, British Guiana in 1912 to black parents who'd both been to Oxford University, he joined the Royal Air Force, where he said his race went all but unnoticed, and after the war went to Cambridge, earning a doctorate in physics. And then he tried to obtain employment commensurate with his skills and education, and found that suddenly he was just a Negro whom putative employers thought should be working down on the docks. So he wound up taking a job at a rough school in the East End, presiding over a class of grunting illiterates who insolently swore their way through lessons (bleedin' this, bleedin' that). This must have been tough on an alumnus of Queen's College, the best school in British Guiana and one modeled on the (non-bleedin') English system (they sing their school song in Latin to this day). There have been many stories, of course, of skilled teachers who turn around a bunch of ne'er-do-wells, but what gave Braithwaite's account its distinctive wrinkle was that the cultured, civilized man was a Negro and his white charges were the savages. It was a timely theme when he published his book in 1959, and the novel was a big success.
By the time they came to film it, the subject was even more topical, so they moved the action from grey, dismal post-war London to the swingin' Sixties. For the starring role, the producers managed to snare Sidney Poitier, which sounds sorta obvious now, but, in fact, To Sir, With Love was released before his other two big films of the year, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? 1967 was as good a year for Sir Sidney as it was for Don Black, even if the star essentially played variants of the same character in all three pictures: the black man who's more noble and dignified than the whites he's fallen among, whether California liberals, southern rednecks, or East End yobboes. But To Sir... was perhaps the closest to Poitier's own story: like E R Braithwaite, he was one of Her Majesty's colonial subjects, raised in the Bahamas.
For the locals, they signed a lot of fine Brit dolly birds of the period, including Judy Geeson, Adrienne Posta and Suzy Kendall (whom my dad knew, for some reason). But, after seeing her on stage with the Beach Boys, the director James Clavell decided also to cast the young Scots five-foot-two barrel of dynamite Lulu. She'd had a couple of hit records but was still a teenager and thus in her first movie role made a more convincing schoolgirl than, say, Olivia Newton-John in Grease. Casting Lulu also conveniently solved the problem of who'd be singing the theme song. Now all they had to do was get someone to write it.
Everyone loves Lulu, and Lulu loved Don Black, not just as a songwriter but as a funny guy to hang out with. When I first met Don, there was a line he used to do if you were in the middle of a discussion and you'd be interrupted by the phone ringing: "Hold it," he'd say, with dramatic solemnity. "This could change everything." When I met Lulu, the phone rang and she immediately said, in her lilting Scots vowels, "Hold it. This could change everything." I giggled. "I got that from Don Black," she added. "But I can't do it with his deadpan face."
So the film-makers asked Don to write the song, one of eight movie themes he did that year. Title songs were big in those days, regardless of what the title was. When Black was asked to write his first Bond song, he was thrilled. Then they gave him the title: Thunderball. "But what does it mean?" he asked. When he inquired of John Wayne what kind of title theme he'd like for True Grit, the Duke replied that he didn't care as long as it had "true" and "grit" in it. By comparison with those, To Sir, With Love seems at the very least less obviously problematic.
Yet there was a problem. The producers told Don that the lyric was vital to the story and thus the crucial element. So they wanted him to write the words first, and then they'd find someone to stick a tune to it. Everyone knows the old question everyone asks of songwriters: Which comes first - the words or the music? Like everyone else, Don's been asked it a thousand times. As a matter of fact, about a month before 9/11, Saddam Hussein announced plans for a musical version of his bodice-ripping novel Zabibah and the King - seriously. So I wrote a whimsical fantasy for The Daily Telegraph about Saddam in rehearsal:
"I don't need this in my life right now," grumbled Saddam, stomping up the aisle. "I've got these Kurdish dissidents to torture, and now he says he wants another 64 bars for the dream ballet."
"You've probably been asked this a thousand times," I said, "but which comes first - the Kurds or the music?"
Don sent me a note saying he got a chuckle out of that. But, in my experience, the answer to the question is that almost every lyricist would prefer to have the tune first. Oscar Hammerstein, author of our Father's Day song, is the exception that proves the rule. Years ago, I discussed the subject on a BBC show with Black, Tim Rice and Simon Climie, whose hits include Aretha Franklin and George Michael's Number One, "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" (and whose dad wrote Lulu's TV series, as it happens). All of them wanted the music first. "When the lyric's written first," said Rice, "it comes out 'Di-dum di-dum di-dum di-dum/Di-dum di-dum di-dum di-dum', which is very boring for a composer" - in part because composers are not as sensitive to the contours of words as lyricists are to the contours of melodies.
So Black wasn't happy about having to write the lyric first. "I'd much rather be walking around London with a tune in my head," he said, "trying to work out what thoughts and images might go with it." But the producers were adamant: "The lyric is everything here," they said. No tune till they had the words. So Don settled down at his kitchen table in Mill Hill, and for one of the few times in his life wrote the entire text without a note of music:
Those schoolgirl days of telling tales
And biting nails are gone
But in my mind I know
They will still live on and on...
At which point, regardless of which comes first, it's worth noting what a fine line this song has to walk. Throughout the history of popular music, there have been occasional songs about education. Gus Edwards and Will Cobb had a monster hit on the subject in 1907:
School Days, School Days
Dear old Golden Rule days
Reading and 'riting and 'rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hick'ry stick...
That lingered in the American consciousness for three generations - and, if it's faded in recent decades, that's no more to do with the song than with the eclipse of the three Rs, the fact that nobody now knows what the Golden Rule is, and getting out the hick'ry stick will get you a seven-figure lawsuit. There have also been songs about schoolma'ams - "An Apple For The Teacher" (a Bing Crosby movie hit by Jimmy Monaco and Johnny Burke) - and even about love as a school lesson ("Teach Me Tonight"). But Don Black was attempting something much more delicate. As the BBC's Libby Purves wrote a few years ago:
I had forgotten what a startling, rare love song it is: a love song to a teacher, a guide and mentor and most beloved Sir.
A song from a grateful pupil to the man who has ushered her from girlhood to womanhood - or as the song puts it:
But how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?
It isn't easy, but I'll try...
It isn't easy. But that line certainly helps: Lulu used From Crayons to Perfume as the title of a Greatest Hits collection a while back, and it makes the song, because no other has a line like it - it's the equivalent of, say, "simply hold your horses" in "Nice 'n' Easy" or "Heaven rest us, I'm not asbestos" in "I Won't Dance". When asked where the crayons-to-perfume came from, Don tends to give one of his just-a-good-day-at-the-office answers. As he said to me on The Mark Steyn Show, "I didn't realize that it was such a great line, but people always quote that line, 'crayons to perfume'. I dunno, where did we go right?" It's really a very good day at the office.
And then Black gets to the nub of it:
If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky
In letters that would soar a thousand feet high
To Sir, With Love...
You notice the way the lyric is doing its best to avoid Tim Rice's tumty-tumty-tumty trap. For example, the lyric pattern opens with an internal rhyme:
The time has come for closing books
And long last looks must end...
The movie guys professed themselves delighted with it, just the ticket and all that. And then they farmed it out to various composers to see who would come up with the best tune. Among the guys who took a crack at it was Al Saxon, sometime singer (Len Goodman of "Dancing With The Stars" is partial to him) but also a songwriter and an old friend of Black's from his comedy days. One night young Don was doing his stand-up act at the Panama strip club in Windmill Street, Soho. Like the man said, "It isn't easy, but I'll try" - because there's nothing more thankless than being the non-stripping act in a strip club. As usual, not a bloke in the audience was paying a jot or tittle of attention. Black peered across the footlights and saw Al Saxon come in and take a table at the back. So he stopped trying, abandoned the jokes, and called out to his old friend:
"Hello, Don. What you doin'?" Al yelled back at the stage.
"I've got to introduce the next act, but I could meet you for coffee after."
"How long will you be?"
Having firmed up his appointment, Don looked out over the crowd of raincoated punters, none of whom had noticed a thing. His conversation from the stage with Al Saxon was of no more or less interest to them than his comedy act was. "The Amazing Maria and Her Fans!" said Black, with an extravagant flourish, and off he went for coffee.
They wrote a song called "April Fool", which Don reasoned, what with "White Christmas" and "My Funny Valentine" and "Easter Parade", was one of the few wide-open calendar dates. It still is, alas, notwithstanding Matt Monro's lovely record. But Saxon remained a friend of Black's, and so got to set his "To Sir, With Love" lyric to music.
So did Laurie Johnson. If you don't know Laurie Johnson, you should: He wrote the magnificent theme music for "The Avengers" - no, no, not Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and the Black Widow, but Steed, Mrs Peel and Tara King. He also composed the only marginally less splendid title theme for "Jason King" (the hirsute and ruffled inspiration for Austin Powers), and the incidental music for "Spongebob Squarepants" and "Ren & Stimpy". I would love to hear what he did with "To Sir, With Love" if there's a yellowing lead sheet in anyone's trunk.
But at this point enter the Canadian. Born in Montreal, Mark London had headed across the Atlantic in 1965 to find fame and fortune in his municipal namesake. So far it hadn't been going too well. But, with respect to "To Sir, With Love", he had one advantage over Messrs Saxon and Johnson: he was dating Lulu's manager, Marion Massey (who happens to be the one who gave the wee 14-year old powerhouse the name "Lulu"). He was handed Black's lyric, told he had a day to come up with a melody, and finished it in half-an-hour. Years ago, I asked Don what he made of the winning tune. "Well, to be honest," he said, "I can never really remember it."
I sort of know what he means. If he'd done things his usual way round, and Mark London had handed him that tune, I think he'd have come up with an entirely different rhyme pattern. For example:
The time has come
For closing books and long last looks must end...
The tune sounds as if "come" ought to rhyme with "looks". As for those internal rhymes, London sets this subsequent line to the same notes as the books/looks phrase:
I know they wi-ill still live on and on
- which can't have been Don's intention, because there's no internal rhyme there, or even sufficient syllables, which necessitates a melisma on "wi-ill", which Black would never have written if presented with that tune. And by the time we get to London's chorus - or, if you prefer, hook - we're in a melisma tsunami:
If you wanted the moon I would try to make a start but I-I-I
Would rather you let me give my hea-a-art
To Si-i-ir, With Luh-urve...
Which is definitely not how Jerome Kern or Richard Rodgers would have set it.
But what do I know? It was a hit song in a hit film, where it's used to serenade Sidney Poitier at the end-of-year dance. On screen, Lulu's backed by the Mindbenders (a popular beat group of the day) as a kind of schoolboy band, but it was a little more produced than that: the studio single was the work of the prodigious hitmaker Mickie Most (a somewhat faded figure now, but, to those who remember "New Faces" on ITV, he was the prototype Simon Cowell) and with a rather appealing string arrangement by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. Nobody seemed to expect too much of it in Britain so they put it on the B-side of "Let's Pretend", which got to Number Eleven. In America it was also a B-side (to "The Boat That I Row"), but the disc-jockeys flipped the record, with the result that this is the only American Number One by a British act never to chart at all in the UK. It was Don Black's first Number One record in the US, although he would return to the top spot a couple of years later with "Ben" for Michael Jackson. But "To Sir, With Love" stayed at Number One for five weeks, and then, when Billboard tallied everything up at year's end, Lulu, London and Black found they'd beaten out "Somethin' Stupid", "Can't Take My Eyes Off You", "Windy," Happy Together", "Ode to Billie Joe", "Light My Fire", "R-E-S-P-E-C-T", "Ruby Tuesday" and "All You Need Is Love" to become the Number One single of the year.
From my observation of young ladies in the second decade of the 21st century, they tend to eschew both crayons and perfume these days. Schoolmasters are thinner on the ground, and the standard address of "Sir" for one's teacher seems to have diminished precipitously. Yet the song nevertheless speaks to female singers across the generations: Chaka Khan sang it with the London Symphony Orchestra, Natalie Merchant with Michael Stipe at Bill Clinton's inauguration, Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, Vonda Shepherd on "Ally McBeal", the cast of "Glee", Tina Arena Down Under... "The royalties I get from BMI," said London two years ago, "it's quite a bit. They keep having new versions coming out constantly." There's over 600 at last count. But, since we're celebrating it as an officially designated QuĂ©bĂ©cois-Canadian song, let me put in a word for two Canuck versions, by Nikki Yanofsky, from Montreal, and Jann Arden, from the RoC.
When Don Black swung by The Mark Steyn Show earlier this year, however, the most recent performance of the song came from "Saturday Night Live", as a farewell to the Great Teacher of the Nation, the Sidney Poitier of the Oval Office, President Obama, on January 21st - one day after he left office. I couldn't resist playing Cecily Strong and Sasheer Zamata's rendition for Don. It turns up about 11 minutes in below:
Personally, I thought that fawning tribute, from an alleged comedy show, embodied the infantilization of a nation: President Obama had taken us from the heady perfume of self-government to the crayons of the state nursery. But, when I asked Don what he made of finding his song yoked to post-presidency prostrations, he was the soul of discretion. "It's strange bedfellows," he said. "It is an odd one... Look, for a songwriter, which is basically what I am, anything that perpetuates a song - that keeps it going - is a great thing."
As I think of it, though, I've come to the conclusion that the song's longevity is due to the lyric's somewhat wacky setting by Mark London, knocking all those rhymes and emphases a little off-kilter. It gives it a looser, rockier feel than much of Black's oeuvre, and the melismatic overdrive, unusual in 1967, is now standard operating procedure for anyone singing a ballad on "American Idol" and the like. So the song is a weird mĂ©lange, as they say in Montreal coffee houses, of an old-school lyric fitted somewhat eccentrically to a new-school setting. Somewhere in that mĂ©lange, Black and London found the sweet spot. That's my theory anyway. But maybe one day we'll get the composer in from Montreal to tell his side of the story.
On the other hand, the runaway success of the film and its theme song did not endear it to the author of the original novel. "I detest the movie from the bottom of my heart," E R Braithwaite told the BBC in 2007. Sometimes when you send a valentine to Sir with love, Sir declines to reciprocate. Braithwaite died six months ago at the grand old age of 104.
As for Mark London, lightning never struck twice. He kept busy producing, singing, writing film and TV music, doing a bit of this and a bit of that, and eventually returned to his hometown in la belle province. Oddly enough, in anglo London he's credited on the original sheet music as "Marc London", but in franco Quebec he's "Mark London". Either way, his best-known song is a fine if not entirely persuasively maple-infused addition to the glorious Canadian pantheon. Maybe for Dominion Day the Liberal caucus can sing it to Justin.
~Last month we launched The Mark Steyn Club. Membership isn't for everybody, and it doesn't affect access to Song of the Week and our other familiar content, but one thing it does give you is the right to gambol and frolic across our comments section. So, if you're a Club member and you have strong views on "To Sir With Love" or Montreal composers, then feel free to lob a comment away below. For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here.