One hundred years ago today - October 15th 1917 - a man called Alan Livingston was born in McDonald, Pennsylvania. You probably don't know his name, and, if you think you know your songwriters, you may be confusing him with his older brother Jay Livingston, who with Ray Evans wrote "Que Sera Sera", "Mona Lisa", "Buttons and Bows" and the urban Christmas song "Silver Bells". Jay's kid brother doesn't have a song catalogue like that, but one way or another we owe a lot of the late 20th century's best known music to him. For one, Alan Livingston was central to the most spectacular comeback in American popular music. As I wrote two years ago:
I'm not sure what the opposite of having the world on a string is, but whatever you call it that's the situation Frank was in in early 1953. "Sinatra had hit bottom, and I mean bottom," said Alan Livingston, vice-president of A&R at Capitol and co-writer of "I Taut I Taw A Puddy Tat" (a song that Frank, oddly enough, never got around to). "He couldn't get a record contract, and he literally, at that point, could not get a booking in a nightclub. It was that bad - he was broke, and in a terrible state of mind."
But Livingston thought he had a future, even if nobody else did. So he announced he'd signed Sinatra at the national sales convention in Colorado - and the entire room groaned.
What would stop them groaning? Alan Livingston had an idea to pair Frank with a Capitol arranger called Nelson Riddle.
A decade later, the groans were closer to home. Capitol had been bought by EMI in London, whose fortunes had been revitalized under Joseph Lockwood. Sir Joe's Parlophone label had a four-piece Liverpool beat combo that were doing rather well in the UK, but Alan Livingston, now president of Capitol, thought them a bit too British for American ears and wasn't minded to release them in the US. One day he was in his living room and put on a pressing of the English lads' latest offering, "I Want to Hold Your Hand". His wife Nancy groaned, and said nobody would buy it. This time Alan felt differently.
He had a good run in that respect. Livingston's instincts were better for longer than almost any other record-label executive, which is why, to one degree or another, we have him to thank for "I've Got You Under My Skin", "Good Vibrations", "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", "Fly Like an Eagle"... Aside from that, he came up with a genuine Los Angeles architectural landmark - the Capitol tower, looking like a stack of hit singles - and, in a brief detour into TV during a likewise brief marriage to Betty Hutton, commissioned and developed "Bonanza" for NBC. (The above-mentioned Nancy was also an actress - Nancy Olson, who can be seen with Alan's brother Jay in a memorable party scene in the film Sunset Boulevard.)
So the latter half of Alan Livingston's career was pretty spectacular.
But on this hundredth birthday I'd like to go back to the very beginning. Capitol was the very first West Coast record label, founded in 1942 by Johnny Mercer, his fellow songwriter (and movie producer) Buddy De Sylva, and Glenn Wallichs, who owned California's biggest music store. Alan Livingston wasn't part of that founding team, because there was the small matter of a world war to wind up, for which Livingston was doing his part as a second lieutenant. Upon his discharge from the infantry, he decided that, before settling down, he'd like to see the West Coast. "I hitched a ride on an army plane, sitting on a bucket seat, hedgehopping across the country," he recalled. He arrived in Los Angeles broke and knowing nobody, but an employment agency told him Capitol Records were looking for a copywriter in the ad department. He walked in wearing his army uniform to see James Conkling, who was holding down the fort while Johnny Mercer was back on Broadway writing St Louis Woman (whence came "Come Rain or Come Shine"). The copywriting job had gone, and Conkling told him, "The only thing we're looking for is someone to produce children's records."
I'm not sure why he'd say such a thing. He added that Capitol wasn't really in that field, but they'd like to be, even though it was very small. Indeed, it was so small a field as to be all but undetectable. But Livingston needed a job, so he said yes, and they hired him at $100 a week. There was no Capitol tower back then, just a small office up the street from Wallichs' music store, "about the size of Manny's delicatessen," as a subsequent vice-president, Lloyd Dunn, would later remember it. They gave Alan a small upstairs cubicle, and the new one-man Children's Records Department got to work. "I said to myself, 'Children would like to hear funny sounds on records, funny voices. I'll have animals talking. Where would the animals be? The circus. Who's going to talk to the animals? A clown."
So Livingston created a clown called Bozo, and then wrote a story called Bozo at the Circus. And then he hit upon a real inspiration. Along with the two 78 rpm records, there'd be a book - even though his target audience was too young to read. On the disc, Bozo the Clown would instruct the children: "Every time I blow my whistle, turn the page." And, when they did, they'd see text on one side and a bright engaging picture on the other. At the big established labels like Columbia or Decca they'd have told him to forget it, but at the fledgling Capitol they figured they might as well give it a go. Livingston called his book-album concept a "Record-Reader", and it sold a million copies. For a hundred bucks a week, he'd just invented the first children's read-along format. So Capitol told him to go write some more, and he did: Bozo at the Farm, Bozo at the Dog Show, Bozo and the Birds, Bozo Under the Sea... And so, while all the cool kids at Capitol were working with Jo Stafford, Margaret Whiting and the Nat Cole Trio, Alan Livingston was up the stairs in his little cubicle "playing with Bozo dolls and making strange noises for his children's albums", as Lloyd Dunn put it.
At this point, we might as well mention the King Sisters, because sooner or later we're gonna have to. There were six of them, and in various permutations they'd been singing professionally since the early Thirties. Jim Conkling, who'd hired Livingston at Capitol, was married to Donna King. And Jim's brother-in-law was the bandleader Alvino Rey, who was married to Luise King. And Alvino's pianist was another brother-in-law Buddy Cole, who was married to Yvonne King. Cole knew his sister acts: in the Twenties, he played piano behind the Gumm Sisters, the youngest of whom, Frances, changed her name to Judy Garland.
Where was I? Oh, yeah: Cole was friends with a guy called Billy May and asked Billy to do some arrangements for his brother-in-law Alvino, and that's how Billy wound up moving to Los Angeles and doing the charts for the King Sisters, and thereby meeting Buddy and Alvino's brother-in-law Jim Conkling. Indeed, it was Billy May who encouraged Conkling to take the job at Capitol. And so, when Alan Livingston came down from his upstairs cubicle to see if anybody had any ideas as to who could do the background music for his Bozo the Clown Record-Readers, Conkling thought of his wife and her sisters' arranger. Billy May was at that time conducting the band on Red Skelton's radio show, which was close enough to clown music to qualify him for the job.
And if you're saying, hang on - Billy May? Is that the same Billy May who arranged Sinatra's "Come Fly With Me", "Luck Be a Lady", "Moonlight in Vermont", etc, etc? What's he doing wasting his time doing a lot of kiddie music for some bozo called Bozo?
Well, for a masterly musician who'd not yet hit his stride, it was steady work, and a very lucrative living. With Bozo the Clown cleaning up, Alan Livingston went to Walter Lantz and suggested Woody the Woodpecker might like a piece of the Record-Reader action. Alan didn't mess with a hit format: "Woody said, 'Every time I laugh, you turn the page'." Then he went to Disney, for Mickey and Donald and co, and to Warner Brothers, for Bugs and Daffy and Porky. "I built a Capitol children's library that became 40 per cent of Capitol's business." Not bad for a second lieutenant straight out of the army with no knowledge of the record biz. But then, if you'd had knowledge of the record biz, you'd never have figured Bozo the Clown for a goldmine.
The short-pants phase of Alan Livingston's career peaked in the late winter of 1951 with a smash hit single, written by Livingston, Billy May and Warren Foster. The last was a Warner Brothers animator and writer who worked on the Sylvester and Tweety Looney Tunes episodes. I have a particular regard for Sylvester and Tweety because they're the Looney Tunes genius distilled to its essence. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck lead a rich and varied life, but Sylvester and Tweety just do the same thing over and over and over again: Tweety's a bird, Sylvester's a cat, and they live with a nice l'il ol' lady. And every episode Tweety's sitting on his perch bothering nobody and leading a blameless existence, and Sylvester's plotting how to sneak up, grab him and eat him. That's it, that's all there is, week in, week out, year after year: Tweety's a sweetie, and Sylvester wants to kill him.
And at some point or other Warren Foster wrote Tweety what became a catchphrase. The bird would turn to the camera and say:
I tawt I taw a puddy tat.
And then, after confirming his suspicions:
I did! I did tee a puddy tat!
So May and Livingston took Warren Foster's catchphrase and turned the magnificently unvarying formula of Sylvester and Tweety into a song. First the bird:
I am a little tiny bird, my name is Tweety Pie
I live inside my birdcage a-hanging way up high...
And then in the second verse we meet the cat:
I want to catch that little bird and eat him right away
But just as I get close to him, this is what he'll say...
And then back to Tweety's insistent chorus:
I tawt I taw a puddy tat a-creeping up on me
I did, I taw a puddy tat as plain as he could be.
Both Tweety and Sylvester were sung by Mel Blanc, the greatest of all voice artists in the history of animation. "I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat" was a Billboard Top Ten hit, and did even better in the UK, where Sam Costa, a former dance-band vocalist turned BBC presenter, touted it so enthusiastically that it hit Number One. Mel Blanc's record sold two million copies, and attracted cover versions, by Danny Kaye, Helen Kane (the boop-boop-a-doop girl) and others. Saturday-morning TV cartoons kept Livingston, May and Foster's song alive for the next half-century, to the point where Warner Brothers used it as the title and template for a brand new Sylvester and Tweety cartoon as recently as 2011. Along the way, it turned up in all kinds of odd places: most intriguingly, it was reported that Tony Blair kept the sheet music propped up on his piano for the entirety of the Iraq War.
Which brings us to 2015 - when yours truly acquired a new member of the family - Marvin the cat. He came into my life at a rather dark and depressing time for me - and after a similar period, I gather, for him, as a stray on the mean streets. But he is a friendly and loving fellow, and, as time passed, in our daily interactions he taught me a lot about what's really important in life - a saucer of milk, a bite of fish, a favorite window that catches the sun, and ripping the guts out of the occasional passing mouse.
Generally speaking, when I'm pottering about, I hum and whistle and sing about whatever's to hand - if there's a moon, I hum "Moonlight Becomes You"; when I was in Sweden last summer, I found myself whistling early Abba ("Honey Honey" and "Ring Ring"); etc. So, with Marvin the cat, I started lapsing into cat songs - "Ev'rybody Wants to be a Cat", "Cat Scratch Fever", "The Cat Came Back"...
And then it occurred to me that there were rather a lot of good cat songs, certainly when compared to dog songs ("Old Shep", "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?"), and that Marvin seemed to be enjoying them. So I thought I'd put some of them down on record - that's me and Marvin on the cover, commiserating at the end of a long night. There are songs about prowling the alley after dark, about chasing the cute kitty next door; there's a feline dance craze, and Rossini's Cats' Duet transformed into a samba. But, when you do an album of cat songs, there are certain ones that everyone expects you to have - and "I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat", beloved by three generations of Looney Tunes fans, certainly falls into that category.
The only problem was I couldn't think of any way to do it. I mean, Tweety and Sylvester are great, but I didn't want to attempt a third-rate Mel Blanc impression, thufferin' thucotash! And yet there didn't seem to be any other way to sing the number. Even the all-time greatest English double-act, Morecambe & Wise, whose musical routines brimmed with comedic inventiveness every week through the 1970s, were defeated by "I Tawt I Taw" and reduced to dress-up karaoke. I can't think of anyone who's done anything remotely different with the song, save for the comedian Jeremy Hardy, who was required to sing the Livingston/Foster "Tawt I Taw" lyric to Gustav Holst's majestic patriot hymn tune "I Vow to Thee, My Country" about a decade ago during one round of the BBC's long-running parodic parlor game, "I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue". I recall it as pretty funny, but I'm not sure it would bear enough repeat listens to put on CD.
So I kept setting the number to one side, even as Kevin Amos, our peerless musical director, put all the other songs to bed. And there it sat, Blair-like on my piano stand, rebuking me with every passing day. And then one afternoon I chanced to be in the car tootling up I-93 in New Hampshire and twiddling the radio dial and, from out of nowhere, up started the Police song "Every Breath You Take". Number One in 1983, if I recall correctly. And, listening to the famous guitar intro, I suddenly thought: "Wait a minute! This is 'I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat'!"
And so I airily said to Kevin Amos, "Let's do 'I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat' in the style of 'Every Breath You Take." And, instead of hurling the piano stool at me, he came up with a cracking arrangement. I'm always interested to watch the first reaction from the band and the studio team to a new chart. And on this occasion I was heartened to see Gary, our senior engineer, burst out laughing as the intro began. To amp up the paranoia, we added some "Every Breath You Take"-esque backing vocals for Emma, Jan and Alison ("He's watching you"), and a guitar solo for Pete Callard, which it takes you a moment to spot is actually an electrified version of the Looney Tunes theme. On the first run-through, as soon as it clicked, Emma let out a snort of delight. And the moment we return, abruptly, from the second Looney Tunes break to the Police guitar stuff, everybody laughed.
So, after doing Looney Tunes Sting-style, I figured I might as well make an Eighties rock video to go along with it. Greg Gutfeld loves playing clips from this on his Saturday-night show on Fox, and we hope you enjoy it, too:
Re that last line: Unlike Mel Blanc, I wasn't comfortable playing both the cat and his prey. So there's a special appearance right at the end by David Porter-Thomas from the English National Opera as a basso profondo puddy tat. That's how nutty this track is: The best singer on it gets one line, and I get the rest.
Bonus question: What longtime vaudevillian enjoyed a late-career royalty fillip from all that "That's all, folks!" cartoon music?
Answer: Eddie Cantor, a great star of The Ziegfeld Follies and the man who introduced "Makin' Whoopee". In 1935, he and Murray Mencher and Charles Tobias (for more on the Tobias family see here) wrote a song called "Merrily We Roll Along". It didn't do much, but it was taken up by Warner Bros as the theme for Merrie Melodies, and thus became the most famous piece of cartoon music in the world - and I'm honored to have put it in a 1980s rock video.
Here's another odd bit of trivia for Alan Livingston's centenary day: By sheer coincidence, my cat album, Feline Groovy, brings together the two most important record executives in Frank Sinatra's career. The man who brought him to Capitol wrote "I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat", and the man who produced his albums at Reprise Records through the Sixties and Seventies, Sonny Burke, wrote "The Siamese Cat Song", which on my CD we fold in with "Year of the Cat". How weird is that? Two of the best known cat songs are by Frank Sinatra's label execs.
Billy May, of course, went on to arrange some of Sinatra's best albums, including Come Fly With Me and Come Dance With Me. What Billy would have made of my rocky version of "I Tawt I Taw", I cannot say, but I hope it would have brought a smile to his face - he was a fabulous musical comedian. As Alan Bergman notes re Nelson Riddle on our Sinatra songwriter series, composing and arranging are two entirely separate skills. Billy was a master at the latter, but not so much with the former: Frank had a modest success singing May's "Lean Baby" and even conducted an orchestral composition of Billy's for the album Tone Poems of Color (May's hue was "Purple"). But it remains a fact that this great American musician's biggest-selling composition was "I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat", which oddly Sinatra never got around to recording (although he once sang "The Woody Woodpecker Song" on the radio).
A quarter-century ago, I asked Billy about all those children's albums he made with Alan Livingston. "My theory," he explained, "is that it wasn't the kids or the parents. Every grandparent in America bought those records." So what happened? "Television," he said. "Overnight nobody needed us anymore."
Shortly after "I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat" hit the pop charts, Columbia Records poached James Conkling and made him their president, and back at Capitol on the West Coast Alan Livingston stepped up to fill the job of the man who'd hired him and take over as Vice-President, Artists & Repertoire. Artists-wise, the long-trouser phase of Alan Livingston's career was about to begin: Time to say goodbye to Bozo and Woody and Tweety and Sylvester, and hello to Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra...
~Mark's CD, Feline Groovy: Songs for Swingin' Cats, featuring a baker's dozen of kitty ditties, is available from the Steyn Store - and, if you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, don't forget to enter your promo code at checkout to enjoy special member pricing. Steyn Club members enjoy special pricing on over 40 CDs, books and other Steyn Store items.
Also for Steyn Club members: feel free to do as Sylvester's wanted to do to Tweety for seventy years and rip Mark apart in our comments section. For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here. And don't forget our new Gift Membership.
There's more video entertainment from Steyn's Song of the Week below:
#311: Paul Sorvino recalls and sings "O Sole Mio"
#303: Carol Welsman sings and plays "The Glory of Love"
#297: Robert Davi swings "At Long Last Love"
#295: Cheryl Bentyne sings "The Meaning of the Blues"
#294: Tal Bachman performs "I'll Never Smile Again"
#293: Carol Welsman sings and plays "As Time Goes By"
#292: Don Black reminisces about "Born Free", with Robert Davi
#291: Tim Rice recalls "A Winter's Tale", with Emma Kershaw
#290: Patsy Gallant sings "La Vie en rose"
#289: The Klezmer Conservatory Band perform "Dance Me To The End Of Love"
#288: Cheryl Bentyne sings "This Masquerade"
#287: Maria Muldaur sings "Aba Daba Honeymoon"
#286: Mark asks "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"
#285: Anthony Kearns sings "The Wexford Carol"