For this Easter Day, we have an audio special for you telling the story of the only Easter standard in the American songbook. However, April 1st 2018 is not only Easter, and not only All Fools' Day, but also the one hundredth birthday of the Royal Air Force. So I thought this day we'd incline our eyes and ears skyward:
In April 1911 the British Army's Royal Engineers formed the first air battalion, consisting of aircraft, airships, balloons, and men with kites. At the end of the year the Royal Naval Flying School was born. The following year - 1912 - both were merged into the army's Royal Flying Corps. By 1914 the navy had reasserted itself and inaugurated the Royal Naval Air Service. And finally on this day exactly a century ago the RFC and the RNAS were merged to form an entirely separate third branch of the British military - the Royal Air Force, the first such independent air force in the world.
A hundred years on, if you walk into the RAF Club in Piccadilly, the first chap you see as you enter the foyer is not an Englishman but a South African - that's to say, a bust of General Jan Smuts, later Prime Minister of South Africa, and the only South African to be honored with a statue in Westminster's Parliament Square until Nelson Mandela's went up. Smuts was a member of Lloyd George's Imperial War Cabinet, and it was his report arguing that air power should be treated as entirely distinct from land and sea that led to to the creation of the RAF. Not long after, the RAF, as part of the post-war "Imperial Gift", donated its surplus air craft to the Dominions, and the Royal Australian Air Force, the RCAF, the RNZAF and, of course, Smuts' own in South Africa were born. The French and the Germans, by contrast, did not form separate air forces until the mid-Thirties - and in America air power remained formally part of the US Army until after the Second World War, and the belated establishment of the USAF.
Lots of songwriters have passed through the ranks of the RAF in the last hundred years - among them:
~Paddy Roberts, a veteran RAF and BOAC pilot from Durban, who wrote the lyrics to "Softly, Softly", a Number One hit for Ruby Murray, the Belfast lass who became one of Britain's biggest pop stars in the Fifties, and "Lay Down Your Arms", which was almost as big a hit for Britain's other Forces' Sweetheart, Anne Shelton;
~Lionel Bart, who did his national service with the RAF and then wrote book, music and lyrics for Oliver!;
~Jerry Lordan, an RAF radar operator who wrote a few pop songs for Anthony Newley and then cleaned up big-time with his instrumentals for the Shadows - "Apache", "Wonderful Land", "Diamonds" and doubtless a few more that have slipped my mind;
~Barry Gray, who wrote the cracking theme music for almost all Gerry Anderson's supermarionation productions, including "Fireball XL5", "Stingray" and "Thunderbirds" (when I was a lad in the Combined Cadet Force, we used to march the parade ground to "Thunderbirds Are Go");
~Jim Dale, the mainstay of many a child's car journey as narrator of the Harry Potter books (also used to torment the jihadis at Gitmo) but Oscar-nominated as the co-writer of "Georgy Girl";
~Cy Grant from British Guiana, who served with Bomber Command in the Second World War, did the "Topical Calypso" on the BBC's "Tonight" every night, and was the first person to sing (long before Nina Simone or anybody else) Bricusse & Newley's "Feeling Good";
~Mike Hawker, who wrote "I Only Want To Be With You" for his new bride, Jean Ryder of the Vernons Girls, and saw it become a hit for Dusty Springfield, the Bay City Rollers, the Tourists, and longtime Sun Page Three Girl Samantha Fox;
~Elton John's dad, an RAF flight lieutenant who played trumpet with Bob Miller and the Millermen...
Okay, we're wandering a bit far afield now... If I had to identify the first enduring standard by an RAF veteran, it would probably go to a song by Lawrence Wright, composer, music publisher and founder of the long-lasting music newspaper Melody Maker. In 1927, under the pseudonym Horatio Nicholls, Wright teamed up with lyricist Edgar Leslie to write this lovely if even then somewhat archaically perfumed ballad:
There's nothing left for me
Of days that used to be
They're just a memory
Among My Souvenirs...
It was a Number One hit for Paul Whiteman in 1928, a Number Seven hit for Connie Francis in 1957, and a Number One country hit for Marty Robbins in 1976. In between came versions by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra - and Hoagy Carmichael played Lawrence Wright's tune on screen in a great film of returning veterans, The Best Years of Our Lives. I assume Wright and Leslie wrote their song with a more general sense of lost love in mind, but it certainly applies to those at home waiting for a post-war reunion that will never come:
Some letters sad and blue
A photograph or two
I see a rose from you
Among My Souvenirs...
An even earlier mainstay of the British music biz has the distinction of serving with one of the RAF's predecessor services, the Royal Naval Air Service, and then being discharged by the RAF in 1918 because it was thought he could do more for the war effort if he were freed up to write songs. Fred Godfrey, born in 1880, actually wrote a number with the above-mentioned Lawrence Wright - a minor hit from 1915, "Those Two Blue Eyes", music by "Horatio Nicholls" (Wright), lyric by "Godfrey Williams" (Fred Godfrey). Two years later, Mr Godfrey, at the grand old age of 36, was in the RNAS, and the following year he was transferred to the RAF.
Before the war, he'd written music hall songs, most of which are of the period. This one, from 1912, survived to become a grand old pub singalong favorite for the rest of the century:
Who Were You With Last Night?
Who Were You With Last Night?
It wasn't your sister, it wasn't your ma
Ah ah ah ah ah-ah ah-ah!
When war broke out, Godfrey turned his hand to war songs ("Let Me Die With My Face To The Foe"), naval war songs ("It's The Way They Have In The Navy"), Catholic war songs ("You Gave Me A Rosary"), nursing war songs ("My Little Red Cross Girl"), Irish war songs ("When An Irishman Is Fighting"), Aussie-Kiwi war songs ("Cooee! Cooee! The Anzac Boy") and French war songs ("Good Luck, Little French Soldier Man"). But the one that stuck was a soldier's lament from the Tommies in the trenches: "Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty" - Blighty being England. The phrase planted itself in the language, so that six decades after the war it was sufficiently familiar for a rocker like Kevin Coyne to record his own ironic take on the song (I think Tim Rice plays piano on that album, oddly enough, but not on that particular track).
While he was in the Royal Naval Air Service, Godfrey wrote another First World War song that had to wait for the Second World War to become a Hit Parade hit:
Bless 'Em All
Bless 'Em All
The long and the short and the tall
Bless all those Sergeants and WO1s
Bless all those Corporals and their blinkin' sons...
(WO stands for Warrant Officer, if you're of a non-martial bent.)
By 1941 the song had been recorded by George Formby and featured in the film A Yank in the RAF and was being lustily bellowed by servicemen around the Empire. So Fred Godfrey recounted to The Daily Mirror how he'd cooked up the song in France during the previous war:
I wrote 'Bless 'Em All' while serving in the old RNAS at Dunkirk in 1916 [actually, 1917]. And, furthermore, it wasn't 'Bless'.
We had a concert party there and it was sung by Archie Glen, the famous bibulous comedian, and also by Billy Bottomley and Charlie Folcher.
It was sung as a sort of fed-up number and as I used to play the piano to hundreds of lads every evening, it was soon the 'theme song' and everybody knew it and sang it.
Then, too, we used to shove a piano up on to an old lorry and go and do concerts for the troops up the line. As there were no ladies present, 'Bless 'Em All' became a sort of national anthem...
'Bless 'Em All' in its raw state did not occur to me as a publishing proposition, and it was left to the ingenuity of young Jimmy Hughes, Frank Lake and Mr Vanlier, of Keith Prowse, to make it so respectable that it might have come straight from the vicar's tea party!
Fred Godfrey is referring obliquely to the fact that Keith Prowse Music, the publishers of "Bless 'Em All", had neglected to put his name on the sheet music cover. "Jimmy Hughes" and "Frank Lake" were noms de plume of two staffers at Prowse, James Lally and Frank Kerslake. Through the Twenties and Thirties, various lyrical variations of "Bless 'Em All" (mostly without the word "Bless") had retained a certain hold among the rowdier types at barracks around the Empire, and it seems Keith Prowse simply assumed it was an anonymous anthem that could be knocked into shape for copyrightable purposes. Frank Kerslake was primarily an arranger rather than a composer, and Mr Lally was required to clean up the words. In America, they added a local lyricist, Al Stillman, presumably to de-Britannicize a few of the more obscure lines, which he did with some success, although not as much as he would have with his Fifties pop hits ("I Believe", Chances Are", "Moments to Remember", "Home for the Holidays", etc). But the Performing Right Society, the British songwriters' collection organization, credits Fred Godfrey as co-writer, and, knowing their rigorous approach to questions of authorship, I'll take them at their word. For one thing, the music sounds a good twenty years older than its official publication date. (You can find more on Fred Godfrey from his grandson here.)
Like "Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty", "Bless 'Em All" was a song from Tommy's point of view. But it had a particular resonance with airmen, who in the Second War adopted it as their anthem:
For if ever the engine should stall
We're in for a hell of a fall
No roses or violets
For flat-footed pilots
So cheer up, my lads, Bless 'Em All...
Vera Lynn, Gracie Fields and innumerable others sang "Bless 'Em All". It lent its name to a British war film of 1948 and its second line to another of 1961, The Long and the Short and the Tall, with Richard Todd, Laurence Harvey, Richard Harris and David McCallum slogging through the jungles of Burma. It was sung by the Polish Brigade of the RAF in Ernst Lubitsch's splendid To Be Or Not To Be, and by Jimmy Cagney and his fellow RCAF pilots in Captains of the Clouds. And for decades after World War Two it was more or less compulsory on any album of air force war music or gala celebrations of the RAF.
You could also find on almost any of those compilation albums or musical gala nights two other pieces of music which I would rank as perhaps the greatest music associated with the RAF: John Wooldridge's "Slow March for the Royal Air Force" and Eric Coates' "Dam Busters March". Wooldridge was a superb commanding officer of the RAF's 105 Squadron, which inflicted huge damage on the Germans in audacious daylight low-level bombing raids. As he wrote:
It would be impossible to forget... the sensation of looking back over enemy territory and seeing your formation behind you, wing-tip to wing-tip, their racing shadows moving only a few feet below them across the earth's surface; or that feeling of sudden exhilaration when the target was definitely located and the whole pack were following you on to it with their bomb doors open, while people below scattered in every direction and the long streams of flak came swinging up; or the sudden jerk of consternation of the German soldiers lounging on the coast, their moment of indecision, and then their mad scramble for the guns; or the memory of racing across The Hague at midday on a bright spring morning, while the Dutchmen below hurled their hats in the air and beat each other on the back.
Wooldridge won the Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, and the Distinguished Flying Medal, and for a while held the record for fastest transatlantic flight after volunteering, in 1944, to fly one of the first Canadian-built de Havilland Mosquitoes over to Britain. He made it from Goose Bay, Labrador back to England in five hours and 46 minutes - over two hours faster than the previous record time.
Although every inch the RAF officer, right down to his Bomber Command moustache, he was a sensitive and profound musician, and after the war wrote several scores for the Boulting Brothers' movies. His "Slow March for the Royal Air Force" is a magnificent piece and was played at the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, an honor that John Wooldridge did not live to see: He died in a car crash at the age of 39, leaving two young children, Susan Wooldridge, who was so splendid in the TV series "Jewel in the Crown", and her brother, and my old friend, the theatre director Hugh Wooldridge.
As for the "Dam Busters", its composer Eric Coates was the king of English light music in the middle years of the twentieth century. Today, millions who don't know his name would nevertheless recognize at least one of his compositions - "By A Sleepy Lagoon", the theme these last seventy years to the BBC's "Desert Island Discs". He did rather well out of the Beeb, contributing among others the themes to "Music While You Work" and "In Town Tonight". But he disliked motion picture work, and when a couple of producers called him up in the 1950s to pitch him a new film his inclination was to say no. The movie would tell the story of Operation Chastise - the RAF's daring assault on the heart of the German industrial base thanks to Sir Barnes Wallis' dam-busting bouncing bomb. It would be, the producers assured him, a film of national importance.
Coates was still unenthusiastic. But he'd just finished a march he'd written as a kind of intellectual exercise, to see if he could mimic the structure of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance". And, as they laid out the plot of the picture to him, he thought it might be just what they were looking for. So he agreed to write them a theme, and then gave them one he'd already written. No one who's seen The Dam Busters with its superb fusion of Coates' march and the on-screen action can deny it's one of the best and most unforgettable deployments of music in film. The "Dam Busters March" is a mainstay at RAF flypasts today.
But what's it got to do with Song of the Week? We're in the business of song - which means music and words. As it happens, Eric Coates disliked writing songs almost as much as he disliked writing movie themes. In his early years, he'd composed a few with Fred Weatherly, KC, lyricist of "Danny Boy" and "Roses of Picardy", and also with, of all people, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and author of The Tragedy of the Korosko. But none had caught on, and Coates considered it a waste of good instrumental music. However, in this case, and probably without any active participation by the composer, "The Dam Busters" somehow wound up with a lyric. If you know the famous march, feel free to sing along:
Proudly with high endeavour
We who are young forever
Won the freedom of the sky
We shall never die!
We who have made our story
Part of our empire's glory
Know our hearts will still live on
While Britons fly!
Has anyone ever actually sung those words in performance? I can't recall ever hearing them. They're by a lady called Carlene Mair, who was a staffer at Chappell Music and in fact wrote a rather interesting history of the firm to mark its 150th anniversary. They're stirring words, yet, when you hear Eric Coates' tune, you might find an entirely different text springing unbidden to mind:
I'll Never Stop Loving You
Whatever else I may do
My love for you will live
Till time itself is through...
Sammy Cahn wrote those lyrics, and Doris Day sang them in the 1955 film Love Me or Leave Me. The music is ostensibly by Nicholas Brodzsky, a classically trained Hungarian whose somewhat florid tunes provided Cahn with three of his less likely hits - "Be My Love", "Because You're Mine" and "I'll Never Stop Loving You". Sammy told me that the first time he met Brodzsky the guy sat down at the piano, played him a tune with a lush, ornate and overpowering accompaniment, and then asked, "Could you put a lyric to that?" Sammy, who had in fact not been able to discern the tune through all the accompanying decorative folderol, replied, "I could put a lyric to it if I could hear it."
That tune became "Be My Love". Sammy couldn't recall when he first heard the music for "I'll Never Stop Loving You", and, when I pointed out its remarkable similarity to "The Dam Busters", he professed never to have heard "The Dam Busters". "How can you not have heard 'The Dam Busters'?" I asked. "I'm not interested in any music that doesn't have words," he said.
There are many similar situations in popular music. For example, the above-mentioned Lionel Bart had a hit with "Fings Ain't Wot They Used T' Be", which bears a certain resemblance to Rodgers & Hart's "Mountain Greenery". But "Mountain Greenery" was written three decades before "Fings Ain't Wot They Used T' Be", so, even if any similarity is entirely accidental, we at least know which came first. Not so in the case of "The Dam Busters" and "I'll Never Stop Loving You". The Dam Busters was released in the United Kingdom on May 16th 1955 and Love Me or Leave Me was released in the United States on May 26th 1955. So not only does it seem unlikely that Eric Coates or Nicholas Brodzsky ever heard the other chap's tune before that month of May, but, even if one had been minded to plagiarize the other, it would have been impossible to do so in time to get it into their respective pictures.
On the British pop charts that year, "I'll Never Stop Loving You", sung by Doris Day, and "The Dam Busters", played by the Central Band of the Royal Air Force, jostled side by side, and not, I feel, to the favor of Sammy Cahn's love song. I adore Doris Day's voice and listen to her a lot, but the fact that she appears to be singing a fairly generic romantic lyric to the "Dam Busters" march makes the whole thing seem unusually overwrought if not faintly ridiculous. Not until I heard Dusty Springfield's terrific version from over a decade later did I really appreciate the thing as a song - and, as I think on it, it makes me wish I could hear Dusty singing Carlene Mair's lyric about the freedom of the sky while Britons fly.
So happy 100th birthday to the RAF, with a special tip of the hat to the musical contributions found among its souvenirs. Bless 'em all ...even if, in Theresa May's Britain, there is, on this centennial, an unsettling conditional quality to the final lines of Miss Mair's text:
Know our hearts will still live on
While Britons fly...
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