This week's song is a Number One hit from the Sixties, and, more to the point, a lethal earworm that'll be nibbling at your brain for the next 48 hours. So we'll hold off on it for a moment and posit a theory:
As I've occasionally whined over the years, the trouble with putting words to an existing instrumental is that it tends to come out sounding less like a song than as an instrumental somebody's singing a lyric to. It lacks the unity of a conceived song: You can sense the words weren't present at the creation. If an orchestra's playing, say, Jerome Kern's tune to "Ol' Man River", Oscar Hammerstein's lyric is implicitly present: you hear in the instruments the sweat and strain, the barges and bales. If they switch to, say, Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train", I doubt one in a thousand listeners find themselves thinking:
Must Take the A Train
Get to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem...
They're not part of the tune in the way the Hammerstein words are. That goes for almost every lyric to a jazz instrumental.
I found myself revisiting my argument earlier this week when I heard the news that Jon Hendricks had died at the grand old age of 96, just shy of his ninetieth anniversary in showbiz. That's to say, he began singing professionally at the age of seven in Toledo, and within a couple of years was fielding offers from Fats Waller and Art Tatum and the like. At thirteen, he was asked by the bandleader Ted Lewis to be "the little colored boy" in "Me and My Shadow" - Ted was the white "Me" and little Jonny would have been the black "Shadow". The Second World War cast a longer shadow, and by the time it was over Hendricks had decided to forget about music and take up the GI Bill's offer to go to university and become a lawyer. Then he met Charlie Parker, who told him to move to New York and keep singing.
In the big city, Hendricks teamed up with a white singer called Dave Lambert, and Annie Ross, the daughter of one Scottish music hall star and brother of another, Jimmy Logan, a Hogmanay mainstay on British telly for many years. It was a striking look for a vocal group in the Fifties: a redhead, a white guy, a black guy. It was an even more striking sound. In essence, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross set out to solve the vexed relationship of jazz to lyrics. There are legions of jazz fans who believe that jazz is inherently non-vocal, and thus they exclude from the pantheon not only me (scroll down) but Billie and Ella and Sarah: "I've Got You Under My Skin" is supposed to be an improvisation opportunity not a searing tale of romantic obsession. Lamberts, Hendricks & Ross' solution to this age-old conundrum emerged on their first album Sing a Song of Basie (1957), which was so distinctive that the critic Leonard Feather felt obliged to invent a word for it: "Vocalese."
What is vocalese? Well, that album title - Sing a Song of Basie - pretty much explains it: Take a great Count Basie instrumental - "One O'Clock Jump", say - and sing it. I don't mean just add words to the top line, but sing the arrangement: Write lyrics for every solo instrument; replace the horn section with vocal parts. The effect is quite different from just a regular ol' lyric, which is why Feather called it not "vocalizing" but "vocalese" - a language all its own, like Chinese or Japanese. In previous jazz singing, the jazz comes from bending the notes and elongating the words to polysyllables, melismatically ("lo-o-o-o-ove"). Vocalese is the opposite: not melismatic, but syllabic, so that if there are ten notes, there are ten syllables, and, if the notes are hemi-demi-semi-quavers, it means you get a big bunch of words all tumbling out:
Life is over in a minute an' they never dug it in it or enjoy a minute of it
'Cause they put too much above it
That was gross
Somethin' that was worth a couple bucks at mos'
So there is the reason that the maker of man included there in his plan
A certain fountain deep within where there was laughter, youth an' gold
For human beings t'have an' hold...
Tricky, and not for the amateur: It's not like warbling along with "Shine On, Harvest Moon". But Lambert, Hendricks & Ross were so good at it that Britain's Melody Maker hailed them as "the Number One vocal group in the world" five years running. And then, as happens, they all got a bit fed up with each other, and wandered away, and any possibility of a reunion ended forever on an October night in 1966 on the Connecticut Turnpike. While changing a tire on the shoulder, Dave Lambert was hit by a truck and killed.
Jon Hendricks kept busy and kept writing, including for our pal Cheryl Bentyne and Manhattan Transfer, who've done their bit to keep the vocalese language extant these last few decades. The Transfer's words to "Birdland", for example, are a Hendricks lyric. Leonard Feather called him "the Poet Laureate of Jazz", which I thought was a bit glib and feeble. Time magazine's anointing of him as "the James Joyce of Jive" was closer to the mark: his more ambitious lyricizing has the Joycean combination of extreme precision masquerading as stream of consciousness. Still, I confess I blow hot and cold on vocalese: I don't mind one or two in a 15-song set, but too many takes its toll. And, while it's more satisfactory than all those Duke Ellington lyrics, I'd still put it in a slightly separate category from songwriting, which is, after all, the principal concern of this department.
There is, however, one Jon Hendricks text that bust out of the jazz world and became a worldwide hit. It started, as usual, as an instrumental - by Rodgers Grant and Pat Patrick, respectively a pianist and saxophonist in the band of Mongo Santamaría, a killer conga player among the three or four greatest of all time. So Grant and Patrick wrote their boss a piece of Afro-Cuban Latin-jazz percussionist exhibitionism, and Mongo made a terrific record of it on his 1963 album Watermelon Man. Jon Hendricks heard it and decided to put words to it.
As I said on a recent Mark's Mailbox, the Sixties was the golden age of instrumentals, and Mongo's is irrepressible. He's got the percussion up front and does his thing very amiably for three minutes, and behind him Grant and Patrick provide various instrumental figures for the horns and piano and whatnot to keep things grooving. There's a real danger that putting words to those hooks and riffs is only going to make things duller. And, to be honest, Grant and Patrick's title - "Yeh, Yeh" - doesn't seem very promising. Where did they get it from? And why that somewhat eccentric spelling? The yé-yé craze sweeping France round about that time?
At any rate, Hendricks decides to keep the title, and gets to work. Setting the congas aside, he considers the main theme - which is a basic call-&-response: two bars comprised of a short phrase and a longer, notey phrase, followed by two parallel bars a third down. So off goes Hendricks:
When all my day's work is through...
Then a third lower:
I call my baby
And ask her what shall we do...
And he's away and running:
I mention movies
But she don't seem to dig that
And then she asks me
Why don't I come to her flat...
Just a minute: Has anyone put "flat" in an American song since P G Wodehouse and Jerome Kern in the 1917 Princess Theatre musical Oh, Boy!?
- When it's Nesting Time In Flatbush
- We will take a little flat
- With welcome on the mat
- Where there's room to swing a cat...
"Flat" pretty much dropped out of American English entirely in the ensuing decades. Conversely, the British lyricist Eric Maschwitz put "a tinkling piano in the next apartment/Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant" in "These Foolish Things", so perhaps Jon Hendricks was just returning the compliment and indulging in some transatlantic cultural exchange. Or maybe he was stuck for a rhyme and wee Scots lassie Annie Ross chipped in with a Briticism. But probably not: Lambert, Hendricks & Ross had bust up the previous year. So, whatever the reason, Hendricks extends an invitation to come to her flat
...and have some supper
And let the evening pass by
By digging records
Beside a groovy hi-fi...
Wow. Who wouldn't want to dig records beside a groovy hi-fi if Jon Hendricks is spinning the platters? There's only one possible response to such an invitation:
I say Yeh, Yeh
That's what I say
I say Yeh, Yeh...
The recapitulation of the main theme isn't quite as memorable, but it has its moments:
And when she kisses
I feel the fire get hot
She never misses
She gives it all that she's got...
And suddenly we have a song: They're at her flat, they're digging the groovy hi-fi, and things are heating up.
The middle section starts with a rest on the downbeat, and then an ascending phrase stepping up the scale in pairs of notes: GG AA BB, etc. It sounds rather boring when you put it like that, but the various major/minor chords below make it very distinctive. On the Mongo original, Rodgers Grant keeps it for himself on the piano, and it's cool, but it's not intense and explosive the way it is in the vocal version. In that sense, Hendricks' lyric transformed the music:
We'll play a melody
And turn the lights down low
So no one can see
- which is cute. As the tune's going up, the lights are going down. Sammy Cahn once told me that he couldn't bear to hear notes with no words, so that, for example, when Jimmy van Heusen played him the tune for "Thoroughly Modern Millie"...
Everything today is thoroughly modern
Everything today makes yesterday slow
...Sammy heard the little instrumental fill Jimmy had written after each line and immediately amended the lyric to:
Everything today is thoroughly modern (Check your personality)
Everything today makes yesterday slow (Better face reality...)
But, if you do that, you've got to get it right. I occasionally wish Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio had put words to that spectacular instrumental blast in "Can't Take My Eyes Off You", but, even as the thought occurs, you know that 95 per cent of potential lyrics would only make it more ordinary. Jon Hendricks, by contrast, is fearless. For the five-note fill that follows the bit about turning the lights down low so no one can see, he found the perfect phrase:
We gotta do that!
We gotta do that!
We gotta do that!
We gotta do that!
Why have they gotta do that? For discretion, "so no one can see"? Or because the whole crazy idea is just so groovy they're diggin' it the most? And then it's back to that two-note ascending theme:
And there'll be no one else
Alive in all the world
'Cept you and me...
And this time the capper is even more explosively ejaculatory:
Yeh! Yeh! Yeh! Yeh! Yeh!
Yeh! Yeh! Yeh! Yeh...
Hendricks performed his version with Dave Lambert and Yolande Bavan at the Newport Jazz Festival. Until we get to the solos by Clark Terry and Coleman Hawkins, it seems content to stick to the general vibe of the Mongo Santamaría original. But, way across the Atlantic, it was heard by a young man called Georgie Fame.
Actually, he was called Clive Powell, but he'd signed with Larry Parnes, Britain's protean rock'n'roll manager and a flamboyant homosexual who insisted his pop acts all adopt names that, collectively, sound like an over-ripe escort agency: Tommy Steele, Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Duffy Power, Dickie Pride, and (for those seeking something more tender) Johnny Gentle. Parnes tried unsuccessfully to get Joe Brown to adopt the moniker of "Elmer Twitch", but Clive Powell proved more pliable and consented, despite grave misgivings, to becoming "Georgie Fame".
These days Fame claims to have first encountered "Yeh, Yeh" in that Hendricks, Lambert & Bavan recording from Newport. But I wonder. Ska was big in London at that time, and Fame was playing keyboards on a lot of ska records by Prince Buster and other Jamaicans. As far as I can tell, the very first UK record of "Yeh, Yeh" was an instrumental version by the Skatalites made in the spring of 1964 and re-titled after the recently deceased "President Kennedy". (The Skatalites did that a lot: They also had tracks named "Lee Harvey Oswald" and "Christine Keeler".) It would seem to me Fame had probably heard the ska version, but, whether he did or not, he'd performed the song for months before eventually recording it that December. By the time he did so, he'd moved "Yeh, Yeh" away from the vocalese jazz world and given it the ease of a pop song, loosing off Hendricks' sometimes quite dense lyric with a smooth charm.
Larry Parnes didn't care for it. He liked money - he was known as "Parnes, Shillings and Pence" - and he didn't smell it in "Yeh, Yeh". "I don't know why he was so keen on jazz," he sighed of Georgie. "I could have made him into another Tommy Steele and got him pantomimes and West End shows." But as Jerome Kern advised Vivian Ellis: Keep being uncommercial; there's a lot of money in it. "Yeh, Yeh" was a hit everywhere from America to Australia, but in Britain it toppled the Beatles and hit Number One in January 1965. "Georgie Fame" is a kinda sad for a session player on ska tracks, but, with "Yeh, Yeh", Clive Powell earned it: Yeh, yeh, baby!
Jon Hendricks assuredly made more money from "Yeh, Yeh" than any other song of his. Lots of people do the number, up to and including Hugh Laurie of "House" or (according to taste) "Jeeves & Wooster". But it's not exactly a standard, because you never hear anybody do it as a ballad or a bossa nova or in any style other than that of Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames half-a-century ago. When Diana Krall asked Fame to duet with her on her recent album Wallflower, she was essentially inviting herself to sit in on Fame's arrangement of Fame's hit. Unlike the late Mr Parnes, I'm a huge fan of Georgie Fame's and my advice is, if you ever find yourself in a town in Britain or Europe or anywhere else where he happens to be playing, grab yourself a couple of tickets. Even if every other number were a total stinkeroo, I've never heard him not blow the roof off the joint with "Yeh, Yeh" - whether with just a battered keyboard and a couple of guys, or a full-size big band, or the Hammond organ he has on the Diana Krall version. Somehow, across the decades, that middle section just keeps getting more and more incendiary:
We gotta do that!
We gotta do that!
And half the singers who hear it fancy a piece of the "Yeh, Yeh" action, and say, "Yeah, we gotta do that!" But I've yet to hear anyone top Georgie Fame live, with almost any combination of back-up.
Jon Hendricks is one of those quirky showbiz figures who invent their own categories. He led a rich and varied life. As a kid, he sang on the radio with his Toledo neighbor Art Tatum, and played club dates with Eubie Blake and Nat Cole. He grew up and sang with Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. He was part of the greatest vocal group in the world, and wrote a hit revue about the evolution of the blues. He moved to London, and had the Beatles and the Stones show up in his audiences. He put words to everything from Basie to Rimsky-Korsakov. And, in one inspired moment in 1963, he proved, with a little help from Georgie Fame, that you could take a great instrumental and make it even greater:
No need to ask me
If everything is okay
I got my answer
The only thing I can say
I say Yeh, Yeh
That's what I say
I say Yeh, Yeh.
Yeah. Or yeh. Whatever. Rest in peace.
~Many of Mark's most popular Song of the Week essays are collected together in his book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are available from the SteynOnline bookstore - and, in honor of our 15th anniversary, there's 15 per cent off that and all other books and CDs until tomorrow, Monday, only. Alternatively, if you're looking for a great Christmas gift for a chum, you could get him or here a personally autographed copy of A Song for the Season as part of a Mark Steyn Club special Christmas Gift Membership.
Also for Mark Steyn Club members: If you disagree with any or all of the above, feel free to yell "Nah, nah" to "Yeh, Yeh" all over our comments section. As we always say, membership in The Mark Steyn Club isn't for everybody, and it doesn't affect access to Song of the Week and our other regular content, but one thing it does give you is commenter's privileges, so get to it! For more on the Club, see here - and don't forget that new Gift Membership.
Please join Mark for a different kind of audio pleasure this Friday when he starts a brand new Tale for Our Time, the second half of our Scott Fitzgerald double-bill.