The Dominion of Canada celebrates its 150th birthday this Saturday. The official observances include a viceregal gaffe, prime ministerial socks and in a breakthrough for vibrant diversity the first recorded instance of golf-club jihadism. But here at SteynOnline we're celebrating with some great Canadian songs - most of which are not thought of as Canadian. We started a long way from Ottawa on an English movie set, and then moved on to the top of the Billboard pop charts and a drive-in theater in upstate New York. But today we're beginning even further away from Canadian soil, with one of the all-time great openings of any book ever on the subject of popular music. The volume in question is Singers And The Song, a slim anthology by Gene Lees, and it starts thus:
In the autumn of 911, the Frankish king Charles III, known as Charles the Simple, unable to halt the bloody Viking incursions on his northwestern coast -- indeed, the longships had gone up the Seine as far as Paris -- made the best of a bad situation by coming to an agreement with the marauders. This was the so-called Treaty of St Clair-sur-Epte.
Love it! What a fantastically pretentious opening for a book about Peggy Lee, Johnny Mercer and Ella Fitzgerald. At first you think: Get a grip, man, it's supposed to be about Frankish Sinatras, not Frankish kings. Yet, after a while, the heavily worn erudition starts to exert a weird charm. Gene Lees was a writer. That's to say, he was a man who wrote - everything: criticism, novels, biographies, song lyrics, and a ton of stuff that defies categorization, like the leisurely unwinding long-form essays in his self-financed publication called The Jazzletter that a ton of music biz insiders subscribed to, even if they didn't always get around to opening it up. "It's terrific," Fran Landesman, lyricist of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most", said to me years ago. "But who has time to read it?"
He quoted me in his biography of Lerner & Loewe (Inventing Champagne), which gave me no end of a kick, even if, in doing so, he made a fairly obvious error that neither he, his editors nor any subsequent editions have ever spotted. He wrote with tremendous authority that didn't always withstand scrutiny. Lees was born in Hamilton, Ontario, while his great collaborator Antonio Carlos Jobim was born in Rio, and, apropos their respective homelands, he once observed that "Brazil and Canada have something in common: they are the only two nations of the Western Hemisphere that parted from the parent European countries without violence". I'm not quite sure what "parted" means in this context - presumably, evolving to a shared monarchy: just as Queen Victoria became the first sovereign of the Dominion of Canada, so King Pedro IV of Portugal did double service as King Pedro I of Brazil. But, at any rate, a moment's thought, and you say, well, what about the Bahamas or St Lucia? Okay, maybe he means the mainland Americas. But in that case what about Guyana? Or Belize? Heigh-ho. Like many other Lees pronouncements, it sounds good as it's flying by...
Still, various of his critiques have hung around over the decades - which is why, having heard Lees attack Ol' Blue Eyes' recording of "Ol' MacDonald", I found myself bringing up the denunciation with the author, Alan Bergman, on one of our Sinatra Century audio specials. For all that, Lees loved Sinatra - and he considered Frank's recording of his biggest hits to be the definitive version . "He was the best. No one came close to his artistry," said Lees in 2006. "When it comes to American popular song in the English speaking language the ones who can deliver a song like none other are Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra."
On music, he was both authoritative (he compiled my all-time favorite rhyming dictionary, with a marvelous intro on the art of lyric-writing), and also highly opinionated, as anybody who really digs music surely is. Hence, the aforementioned paroxysm of fury over Frank and the Bergmans' "Ol' MacDonald". As to his own lyrics, they lack the insouciant dexterity of, um, "Ol' MacDonald had a farm". Hailing from Hamilton, he definitely counts as "Canadian content", but it is slightly alarming to me to see from time to time albums of "Canadian songs" including various Bill Evans jazz piano cuts to which Lees appended words. Even the best known of them - "Waltz For Debby" - never quite sounds like a song so much as some guy singing along with an instrumental.
He fared better with Antonio Carlos Jobim, with whom he first became musically acquainted circa 1961 on a famous album by Joāo Gilberto that included a Jobim song called "Corcovado". Previously, Lees' knowledge of the samba was confined to Carmen Miranda novelty numbers. So he was startled by what he called the way the Brazilians had "solved the problem of the ballad" by adding rhythm to love songs without making them any less lovely. On February 1st 1962 Lees flew south to manage a Latin American tour by the Paul Winter Sextet sponsored by the US State Department. Working his way down the coast of South America he heard more Gilberto and more Jobim - and then, at last, they were in Rio. Lees met Jobim's publisher, Enrique Lebendiger, and told him he loved the songs and wanted to write English lyrics for them. Lebendiger said Jobim was "crazy and difficult", and advised him to have nothing to do with him. If he liked the tunes that much, he should write the words while steering well clear of Jobim.
Lees got a number for Joāo Gilberto, called and found himself talking to his shy wife, Astrud. She spoke very little English and he spoke less Portuguese, but he managed to tease out of her a second phone number - for Jobim, who asked him round to a rehearsal at his modest home near the beach at Ipanema. Gilberto was on the sofa, "curled around his guitar", singing with a vocal group called the Cariocas. Jobim invited Lees into the kitchen and opened a bottle of Scotch - "Sco-watch", as the Canadian remembered the Brazilian pronouncing it. They discussed translating the Portuguese lyrics into English. More impressively, they conducted their discussion of Portuguese and English lyrics in a mixture of French and Spanish, which, after a bit of trial and error, they decided was the easiest way to communicate. Lees thought "bossa nova" - the "new beat" - had potential in America, and Jobim encouraged him to try translating a couple of songs.
In the introduction to his rhyming dictionary, Lees makes the point that, from one nation to another, the varying preoccupations of popular song are partly determined by rhyme. English has just four rhymes for "love" - "above", "dove", "glove", "shove" - plus the half-rhyme "of". So English love songs often wind up dreaming of/stars above. In Portuguese, "cançāo" (song) rhymes with "violāo" (guitar) and "coraçāo" (heart), so there's an awful lot of "I give you my heart as I play you a song on my guitar". Because of these linguistic variations, you can rarely translate any song directly from one language to another: Instead, you're trying to capture something broader - a mood, a sensibility. As Lees came to see it, the texts of these songs derived from the Portuguese folk tradition fado - or "fate" - which, channeling his Frankish longship side, he decided was the inheritance of the many years of Muslim rule in Iberia: kismet and all that. Each to his own, although I can't help feeling we'll be waiting awhile for the double CD Ayatollah Khamenei Sways With A Bossa Beat.
At any rate, Lees got to work. He rendered "Desafinado" as "Off Key", and then, while crossing town on a city bus, wrote up an English lyric for "Corcovado" - "Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars". If you're saying, "Hmm. 'Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars' doesn't sound like a literal translation of 'Corcovado'", you're right. Corcovado is the first sight Gene Lees ever saw in Brazil, as the plane carrying him and the Paul Winter Sextet approached Rio and the clouds parted and there was the city's famous mountain - Corcovado, or Hunchback Mountain, topped by the spectacular 125-foot statue of Christ the Redeemer with arms outstretched to the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. That was what the Brazilian lyric, by Jobim himself, was all about - a man who lives on the mountain. "He's always dreaming of the simple life, and from his window he always sees the Savior," said Jobim. But Lees figured no one in America knew of the mountain or of the great panorama of ocean that Christ's arms embrace. And anyway what are you gonna do? "Hunchback Mountain"? So he took a very specific song and made it a very general love ballad:
Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars
Quiet chords from my guitar
Floating on the silence
That surrounds us...
"Floating on the silence" is a beautiful and very literal expression of what Jobim's gossamer tune actually does. It's a terrific line. As to the title, quiet nights, quiet stars, quiet chords are all perfectly suited to a quiet tune that, aside from a couple of real intervals towards the end, just noodles around stepping up and down a tone. So Lees' conception for the melody captures its wispy intimacy.
And yet, and yet... In his many ferocious denunciations of rock music, Lees would often point out the false and forced rhymes used by the form's illiterate pseudo-poets. So one raises an eyebrow upon finding a bum rhyme in the very first couplet of his biggest standard: plural "stars" with singular "guitar". Lees could easily have written:
Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars
Quiet chords from soft guitars...
The reason he didn't was that he wanted to create "an image of two persons alone, and of a very personal and direct musical communication. Therefore, I did not want some anonymous background strummers intruding on the intimacy. And so I sacrificed the perfect rhyme for the better image. It bothered me, incidentally, until I discovered that Shakespeare on occasion used the same cheat." Yeah, but Cole Porter didn't.
And I'm not sure Lees' rationale really holds up. Back in 1962, he learned his way around "Corcovado" by picking out the tune on his guitar at the back of the Paul Winter tour bus. But most singers aren't guitarists: in the Eighties Sinatra liked to do the song on stage with just solo guitar from the great Tony Mottola. So he would sing "Quiet chords from the guitar", a very unnatural stress but one he found easier to sing than "my guitar" when Tony was strumming away next to him. And, besides, if the false rhyme is necessitated by the situation, the intimacy, the present tense, then why not, following the same logic as "guitar", make "night" singular?
As Frank would tell Gene Lees at the recording session for the number, "There are a lot of esses in this song." And there are:
Quiet nights and quiet dreams
Quiet walks by quiet streams
And a window looking on
The mountains and the sea - how lovely...
That's about all Lees retained from Jobim's original lyric - a fragment about a man with "a window looking on the mountains". That "how lovely" as the melodic line trails away trembles on the brink of fey, and in some singers' hands tumbles right in. There's no pretense by this stage that this is a regular American pop lyric - which is what, say, Charles Trenet's "La Mer" became as "Beyond The Sea". Rather, Lees is attempting to convey in English a Brazilian sensibility - which, as he frequently insisted, is what he felt was missing from Norman Gimbel's English words for "The Girl From Ipanema".
Then again, it's hard to imagine "Ipanema" would ever have become the boffo bossa with a Gene Lees text. As a lyricist, Lees has his moments - arresting lines, unusual images, adroit rhymes. But, for a close student of Johnny Mercer and other Golden Age writers, he seemed to disdain the structure of pop writing - the big hit title, the catchy hook shrewdly reprised.
Instead, he saw himself as a kind of samba evangelist. After just a few days in Rio, the writer had fallen in love with Brazilian culture and bossa nova and he was concerned above all to honor the music. On "Corcovado", he noticed that Jobim's tune doesn't resolve: it ends where it began, on the tonic - D9/A. And Jobim's Brazilian lyric underlines the effect, abandoning rhyme entirely in its final lines. So Lees, too, eschewed the neatness of rhyme:
I who was lost and lonely
Believing life was only
A bitter tragic joke
Have found with you
The meaning of existence
O my love...
Oh, my. I respect his respect for the musical structure and his replication of Jobim's rhymelessness, but really there's nothing in the music to support all that "bitter tragic joke" and "meaning of existence" stuff. A few years later, when Jobim began writing his own English words, Lees mercily mocked this quatrain from "Wave" (from the second Sinatra-Jobim collaboration in 1969) as one of the worst lyrics of all time:
When I saw you first
The time was half-past three
When your eyes met mine
It was eternity...
It always reminds me of Benny and Bjorn from Abba:
I must have had my second cigarette at half-past two
And at the time I never even noticed I was blue...
Both sound like a Berlitz English-as-a-second-language version of vernacular pop writing, but they have an odd kind of appeal - and certainly they're no worse than "a bitter tragic joke". When he talked about lyrics to aspiring writers, Lees always enjoined them to eschew self-pity. Yet here, in his most famous song, at the height of romantic intensity, the singer is moping mawkishly in the bitter tragic joke his life was before he discovered "the meaning of existence".
Still, what do I know? Singers love it, from Frank and Ella back then to Diana Krall and Art Garfunkel today. And so did the composer:
Jobim and I had lunch, or more likely, a couple of drinks, at the Copacabana Palace, one of the more luxurious hotels along what is unquestionably the most beautiful urban beach in the world. I still see the white tablecloths in sunlight that flowed in through big windows. I see that gorgeous crescent of sand, the girls in skimpy bikinis, the curved zig-zag of stones along that great sidewalk. I explained the lyrics to him carefully, probably in French. He was delighted with the lyrics and asked me to leave them with him.
As for "bitter tragic jokes", Gene Lees returned to New York and found that suddenly bossa nova was everywhere, after a fashion: As with "Ol' MacDonald", he was horrified by such harmless novelties as Elvis Presley's "Bossa Nova Baby" and Eydie Gorme's "Blame It On The Bossa Nova". But he'd have been better advised keeping an eye on his own copyrights. Jobim gave Lees' English lyrics to his Rio publisher, Enrique Lebendiger, who sub-licensed "Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars" to Leeds Music in the US. Leeds looked over the English text and called in Buddy Kaye, best known as Rachmaninov's lyricist when the Second Piano Concerto got Tin Pan Alley-ooped into "Full Moon And Empty Arms" (recorded by Sinatra with Axel Stordahl in 1945). Kaye changed the title to "Quiet Nights And Quiet Stars", which enraged Lees. He deplored the "insensitivity to sound and ignorance of the mechanics of singing. Note the clumsiness of motion caused by 'and quiet'. Compare this with the flow of the 'f' into the 'qu' when 'of quiet' is used."
In later years, his denunciations of Kaye got more elaborate:
With 'of quiet', the soft fricative 'vvvv' sound passes easily back to the throat and the 'k' sound of 'quiet'. But with 'and quiet' you get a sudden and awkward motion of the tongue after the 'd' sound from the ridge above the upper teeth back to the 'k' sound in the throat, which produces an ugly glottal click and is awkward for a singer.
All of which is true. But it would be more persuasive if the second quatrain of Lees' own lyric didn't begin:
Quiet nights and quiet dreams...
So suddenly the "ugly glottal click" and the "awkward motion of the tongue" don't matter?
Lees was on surer ground in his complaints about the way Buddy Kaye rewrote the end to make it more of a conventional pop song. Instead of...
I who was lost and lonely
Believing life was only
A bitter tragic joke
Have found with you
The meaning of existence
O my love
My world was dull each minute
Until I found you in it
And all at once the hap-
-piness I knew
Became these quiet nights
Of loving you.
The "minute/In it" couplet Lees considered "banal and a truly dumb rhyme. More to the point, it vitiated the subtle triste quality that I think lies rooted in Arabic kismet. Jobim later was to say - many times, in fact - that he thought that Brazilians had derived the triste from the Portuguese. Altering the ending of my translation butchered all that."
Yet that's the version many singers sang, from Tony Bennett and Perry Como all the way to Queen Latifah. This was Gene Lees' biggest hit, and every time he saw the title on the track listing of a new album he had no way of knowing until he put it on whether he'd be hearing his lyric - or the other fellow's.
But, if Jobim was so appreciative of all that triste, why didn't he kick up a fuss? "I discovered," wrote Lees of his composing partner, "that he was a rather weak and often vacillating man." Only when he heard the Bennett and Como records did he put his foot down.
And then he did it again. Jobim signed a publishing deal with Ray Gilbert, gave him Lees' lyric to "Bonita" - and Ray Gilbert put his own name on it. As careless as he was with his collaborators, Jobim was very protective of his own interests, and his own celebrity.
So they parted company. In 1967 they must have been getting on reasonably well because Lees was invited to sit in on the Sinatra/Jobim recording sessions. He told me years ago that the night before the session - January 29th - he got a call from Frank's arranger Claus Ogerman to come round to his room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Sinatra had decided to do a bossa version of Irving Berlin's "Change Partners", but neither Ogerman nor Jobim knew the song. So Lees spent the night teaching Claus Ogerman an old Fred & Ginger number from 1938. As a result he was a wee bit tired for the session. Nevertheless, sitting in the control booth, he said he could "feel" Sinatra enter before he saw or heard him. Lees had quit cigarettes, but that night, hearing the world's greatest singer record his song, he got so excited he started smoking again.
You can hear why Lees loves the Sinatra/Jobim track. Frank's tone is just lovely - but his voice cracks just a little on the final two words and I've always wondered whether it was a conscious choice by the singer to leave it in, as a way of humanizing the ludicrous grandiosity of Lees' last lines:
The meaning of existence, O my love...
In the almost 50 years since, many people have come to love Sinatra's "Quiet Nights" as much as Lees did. In 1999, the British singer-songwriter David Gray heard it for the first time while stopping at a Red Roof Inn on an American tour:
From the moment you step into 'Quiet Night of Quiet Stars', you can't help but gaze in wonder at the glorious architecture of a musical age gone by. It is perfect in its simplicity, the arrangement elegant and the execution faultless.
Sinatra sings his first line and leads us by the hand into a dreamlike scene of starlight and magical stillness. Then the lyric unfolds in a series of meditative haiku, subtly gathering pace...
The lyrics he sings describe a moment of bliss. Yet at every turn in the song, there is the sense that it all might disappear at any moment. This is what gives this little song its great power. It's not a description of two souls in the throes of love, but rather the darkness that surrounds them.
One day, Warner Brothers decided the old songs had been recorded too many times and wanted Jobim and Lees to write some new ones. So the lyricist flew from California to New York to resume the old partnership. Jobim drank, a lot. Lees not so much. The composer didn't show up to work. The lyricist sat around and wasted yet another day on a guy who wasn't there. One morning Lees checked out of the hotel and flew back to Los Angeles. Antonio Carlos Jobim died in 1994 - not an old man, but way older than "the young man opening the door to me on that rainy night in Rio".
But the songs never got old. Warner Brothers were wrong: The old songs are being recorded now more than ever. And the new generation of jazz and pop standards singers have to be forcibly restrained from turning everything into a bossa. As one critic put it not so long ago, there should be a rule for aspiring jazz vocalists that you should never sing anything as a bossa nova that wasn't written as one. Sinatra recorded five Gene Lees songs - apart from "Quiet Nights", there was "Bonita", "Triste", "This Happy Madness" and "Someone To Light Up My Life", none of which seems particularly suited to him but all of which recordings have led innumerable younger singers to the work. A quintet of Sinatra songs: Not bad for a very part-time songwriter like Lees. Just to put it in perspective, over the course of sixty years, Frank recorded precisely four songs by Duke Ellington, a man he adored.
By the way, if you recall Lees' observations on the four-and-a-half rhymes for "love", in "This Happy Madness" he manages to deploy the one that gets used the least:
The gods are laughing far above
One of them gave a little shove
And I fell gaily, gladly, madly into love...
When God gave Gene Lees his final shove in 2010, the writer was busy working on a biography of Artie Shaw. I loved reading Lees on Jo Stafford and Edith Piaf, Johnny Mercer and Oscar Peterson, and above all Sinatra. Musicological writing is mostly awful: He gave it style and color and a ton of opinions you didn't always have to agree with. And he did a lot to spread Brazilian music around North America and the rest of the English-speaking world - which is how a guy from Hamilton, Ontario came to write more bossa nova lyrics than any other anglo on the planet.
In his warm appreciation of a difficult colleague, Lees ended with a lyric he'd written to a Jobim tune:
The jasmine vines are all in blossom
A little brook of clever waters
Flows into a vast river...
And he added:
It was the last song we would ever write together. Like his little brook of clever waters, Jobim has flowed into the river of history.
Gene Lees' little brook had more tributaries than most - criticism, lyrics, fiction. And, if he was never the type to turn it into a Jobim-like freshet, he too flows into the river of history - not to mention the meaning of existence, o my love.
~Join us for another entry from Mark's Maple Songbook tomorrow.
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