It's been a hellishly cold weekend here in northern New Hampshire, down to below -20 Fahrenheit, and that's without adding in the wind chill. So readers may prefer to warm up with "Baby, It's Cold Outside" - which it certainly is. Nevertheless, all you millennial types, make sure you do the right thing and send the young lady out into fifty-below temperatures to die in a snowbank rather than trigger her by inviting her to stay for one more drink.
Alternatively, there are a couple of wintry songs from Loudon Wainwright III and Everything But The Girl in our audio special rounding up the best live performances from my various shows over the years - plus many non-wintry songs from Liza Minnelli, Paul Simon and others. In the course of the show, I mention that my friend Monique Fauteux sang with Charles Trenet, and I credit him as the writer of "La Mer" (famous in English as Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea") and "Boum!" (memorably deployed by Bond's nemesis in Skyfall). But this week's Song of the Week is another Trenet song, a lovely ballad. It's celebrating its 75th anniversary, and it has an additional significance, in English, as the signature song of Keely Smith, who left us just before Christmas.
Keely died just shy of ninety in Palm Springs, where for many years she was the town's Honorary Mayor and discharged that role with great distinction. Part Cherokee, part Irish, and all southern, she went to the Surf Club in Virginia Beach one night to catch Louis Prima and his band. For some reason, she showed up in a bathing suit, and the doorman wouldn't let her in until she'd rustled up some clothes. Once dressed, she was offered a singing job by Prima. They married and became one of the greatest double-acts of all time. In the Fifties, their records - "That Old Black Magic", "I've Got You Under My Skin" - weren't big smashes in the Hit Parade sense, but they've endured over the decades, and their combination of gleeful zaniness and brilliant musicality is unique. They were both comic and cool, which is tricky to pull off. If you first encountered Louis and Keely on disc, the visual shtick can seem a bit limiting - Prima goofing around while the missus, in a persona he created for her and controlled very tightly, looks on stoney-faced and bored. But they were a phenomenon in Las Vegas, and one of the acts that, two-thirds of a century ago, helped build the town.
One of the others, Frank Sinatra, liked to turn up at the Sahara late at night after his own shows and catch the duo. He loved Prima for the laughs, and he loved Keely, period. In the entirety of that golden decade at Capitol Records, Frank released only one single with a female vocalist (I discount "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?", with Celeste Holm, which was a mere B-side to Bing and Grace Kelly, and anyway was simply lifted from a movie soundtrack). And this lone double-duet wasn't with old pals like Doris Day, Dinah Shore, Rosie Clooney, but with Keely. It got to Number 22 in 1958 and it's a brace of Cahn & Van Heusen songs, "Nothing In Common", which is fine, and "How Are Ya Fixed For Love?", which is irresistible:
How are ya fixed for someone to watch the rain with?
To stroll down the lane with?
For someone to just
Go a little insane with?
It's a masterclass in duet chemistry, and incomparably superior to all those pseudo-duets Frank did four decades later with Bono, Julio, Aretha et al. Five years on, Sinatra was running his own record company and brought all his pals to the label for an ambitious project called the Reprise Repertory Theatre - ie, how a Broadway cast album might sound if Nelson Riddle or Billy May were in the pit. For South Pacific, Frank gave "(I'm in love with) A Wonderful Guy" to Keely Smith, which years ago Sammy Cahn told me was an intentional jest on Sinatra's part: Keely was raised in the south and was one of the first vocalists to sign southern. Indeed, she was famous for her inability or disinclination to sing the long vowel "i", which this song is nothing but: "Ah'm in love with a wonderful gaah... Haah as a kaaht on the Fourth of Julaah." But it's not without its appeal, and their "Twin Soliloquies" on the same album is wonderful. She and Sinatra capped that on the Kiss Me, Kate set with a sumptuous but intense take on "So In Love".
The chemistry was so good that the ol' test-tube started overheating and Frank asked Keely to marry him. She turned him down because she found all the Rat Pack slang he liked to use a little raunchy for her tastes - words like "bird" (for penis), "charlies" (breasts), "mother" (half a word). "I'm not a prude," she said, "but I knew I couldn't raise my kids around that." So instead she married Sinatra's lieutenant at Reprise, Jimmy Bowen, the inventive producer who in the Sixties gave Frank and Dean their big hits and then in the Eighties moved to Nashville and did the same for Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire.
As to her deal-breaking objection to Frank's lingo, I think of that whenever I play Keely's splendid trot through "South of the Border", with its cheery sign-off to the band: "OlĂ©, you muthas." That's from her tribute album, Keely Sings Sinatra, a bright jewel in a crowded but dreary genre. "The Injun" (as Frank called her) plays it as a staunch gal-pal saluting a guy she knows all too well. On "It Was A Very Good Year", she turns Ervin Drake's hey-nonny-nonny and Gordon Jenkins' lugubrious strings-and-oboe wail into a big brassy swinging vamp. It's the very opposite of Sinatra's treatment, all up-tempo swinger braggadocio in the third person: "When he was seventeen, he had a very good year..." A lotta years, a lotta broads. Which makes a kind of sense. After all, chick-wise, if you had half Frank's memories, would you be as mournful and elegaic as Gordon Jenkins' oboe? I think not.
That was one of four great albums she made this century: a Sinatra set, a Basie set, a Louis'n'Keely set, and a great live CD. She kept her voice almost to the end (and that distinctive hairdo, too), and, if she was playing anywhere nearby and you passed up the chance to see her, you missed a treat. But, as much as I love those latter tracks, we can't not note her theme song - the walk-on music for live appearances and played at a stately national-anthem tempo to open the Count Basie and Sinatra sets.
The number was almost fifteen years old before she got to it, and born a long way away from Palm Springs and Las Vegas. The above-mentioned Charles Trenet is one of the very greatest French pop songwriters, the subtleties of whose lyrics are not always present in their English versions: Jack Lawrence's text for "Beyond the Sea", for example, is a far more ordinary affair than "La Mer". My own favorite Trenet song, for personal reasons and a lot of childhood memories, is "Route Nationale 7", which I sang a few bars of in a boĂ®te in Paris a couple of years ago. As far as I know, there's no English lyric to "Route Nationale 7", because truly to render it in English you'd have to turn it into "Route 66", which has already been written. At any rate, it's one of those songs that these days has me mourning for a lost France.
Trenet was a lyricist and composer, but for the latter he relied on having a trained musician around to transcribe his tunes. At one point he liked to spend time in rural Quebec, and some of our northern readers may well have espied him in village cafĂ©s around la belle province, scribbling out lyrics on paper tablecloths, as was his wont. Alas, hundreds of songs were never to be, because there was no around to take down the melody. The best ones seemed to occur when LĂ©o Chauliac, a pianist for Django Reinhardt and others, was close to hand, as he was in 1942 when he and Trenet came up with "Que reste-t-il de nos amours?" The great Lucienne Boyer made the first record of it, and the song took off - in France.
Fourteen years later, Keely Smith found herself in the office of Voyle Gilmore, the top producer at Capitol Records, discussing her impending debut as a solo singer. The album was to be all standards, and the meeting had been called to weigh the competing merits of "Imagination" vs "All the Things You Are", "You Go to My Head" vs "Fools Rush In". But at one point he played her a demo that had evidently just come across his desk - "a really pretty French song.... it won't mean anything to you." And he put on Trenet's tune from the early Forties. And at the end of it Keely said, "I'll sing any eleven songs y'all want me to do on the album, but that one is for me."
Gilmore demurred: "That song's not going to go anywhere." Fortunately for Keely, Louis Prima was in the room to play the role of enforcer, and spelled it out to Gilmore: "She's going to do it."
In the end, she did it twice: the famous version that became the title song of the album, and a lesser-known earlier take made at her very first solo recording session and with an eye on the pop charts - shorter, more melodramatic, a zippier clip, and without the verse. Which, in any case, is disfigured by an impure rhyme:
No use leading with our chins
This is where the story ends
Never lovers, ever friends...
Nelson Riddle arranged both the verse-less single and the longer album track, which are otherwise the same song but mysteriously credited to entirely different English writers. Keely's single of "I Wish You Love" is by "Lee Wilson", whereas the title song of the album is by "Albert A Beach". So which one of them actually wrote it?
Answer: Both. "Lee Wilson" is a nom de plume of Mr Beach. Don't ask me why he needed one. Hardly anything at all is known of Albert Askew Beach, aside from this and a couple of other lyrics. With Guy Wood (composer of "My One and Only Love") he wrote a song called "The Wedding". And he translated an Italian song into English as "Stairway to the Sea", which image-wise doesn't really work for me, except as something the Bond villain in The Spy Who Loved Me might come up with. So Albert Askew Beach's entire reputation rests on:
I wish you bluebirds in the spring
To give your heart a song to sing
And then a kiss
But more than this
I Wish You Love...
Charles Trenet's French title is a question: "Que reste-t-il de nos amours?" - or "What's left of our love?", which is rather more pointed than Mr Beach's view of the situation:
Que reste-t-il des billets doux?
Des mois d'avril? Des rendez-vous?
Qui me poursuit
What remains of our billets doux?
All those Aprils? Rendezvous?
That pursues me
On balance, I prefer the French imagery - especially in the release:
Cheveux au vent
"Bonheur fanĂ©" and "baisers volĂ©s" are boilerplate ("faded happiness" and "stolen kisses") but "cheveux au vent" - windblown hair - is an image to treasure, at least for anyone who's ever sat across a sidewalk table and watched a lover brush away stray strands from her cheek. Nevertheless, Albert Beach (who with a name like that really should have done the English lyric to "La Mer") has his moments:
And in July a lemonade
To cool you in some leafy glade
I wish you health
And more than wealth
I Wish You Love...
The lemonade in a leafy glade is a novel thought, although perhaps a bit too non-alcoholic for Messieurs Trenet and Chauliac's taste. Somewhere between Keely's first version of the song and her second, Bing Crosby heard the number and did it with the Buddy Cole Trio on the radio in August 1956. But Bing's take went, as Voyle Gilmore would say, nowhere. It took all that heartfelt yearning in Keely's album version to make the song a hit, and then a standard that everyone did - Nat Cole, Chet Baker, the Driftters, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dionne Warwick, Engelbert Humperdinck, Chrissie Hynde, Bette Davis... And eventually, in 1964, Keely's jilted suitor Frank Sinatra went into the studio with the Count Basie band and a Quincy Jones chart that swings so hard the Chairman wraps it up with some most unGallic Frankisms:
I Wish You Love!
All kinds of love...
A whole gang of love...
I'm not sure what it does for "a really pretty French song", but Frank meant it. Indeed, in a sense, he and Keely lived "I Wish You Love" - "never lovers" (well, almost never) but "ever friends". And in Palm Springs in 1975, when Miss Smith was married for the third and final time (to a singer called Bobby Milano), it was Sinatra who gave away the bride:
So with my best
My very best
I set you free...
Indeed. Albert Beach died comparatively young in 1997, enriched by a much recorded song but without ever enjoying a second such success. I confess a soft spot, however, for a number he wrote for Eartha Kitt, "The Heel":
Tonight my eyes are jealous green
Tonight I'm melancholy mean
He meets, in secret rendezvous
Some dame to tell his troubles to -
Charles Trenet died four years later in France . A while back, I was motoring through Sisteron in the Alpes-des-Hautes-Provences and wound my way on a scenic but terrifying road through the mountains to Romans-sur-IsĂ¨re, where I decided to stop for a late lunch and discovered the town was home to the MusĂ©e international de la chaussure - the International Footwear Museum. Even more amazingly, M Trenet had bequeathed his very own shoes to the museum. They were comfortably padded, because, I learned, his right foot bore a painful scar dating back to the 1940s. Other than that, they were not dissimilar to mine - black semi-brogue - but with a taller heel. If Albert Beach and Eartha Kitt were still around and minded to do a number called "The Heel", Charles Trenet's footwear would make an excellent subject. Absent that, Mr Beach's reputation rests on one song indelibly associated with an enduring and unmistakeable voice that retained all its power and character across half-a-century.
Speaking of those delightfully idiosyncratic vowel sounds, let me end with an old joke:
Keely Smith goes to the doctor. He takes out his stethoscope and says, "Say ah - but leave off the 'wish you love'."
A great lady. 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, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter the special promo code at checkout to enjoy the special Steyn Club member discount.
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Please join Mark for a different kind of audio pleasure this Friday when he presents a brand new Tale for Our Time, and one very meteorologically appropriate.