One hundred years ago this month - April 1918 - an unknown song was propped up on the music stand of a Columbia recording studio for the very first time. And in the ensuing century it's never stopped being recorded and sung and played. There are other songs from 1918 that are still kinda sorta known - "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?", "Hinky-Dinky Parlay-Voo" - and still sung - "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody". But even the ones that aren't explicitly about the Great War have a period feel to them. This one is different: If you got a quintet of great jazz players together, told 'em the title and said, "A-one, a-two, a...", what followed would be fresh and vital, and the cobwebs of a century nowhere in sight.
After You've Gone
And left me crying
After You're Gone
There's no denying
You'll feel blue, you'll feel sad
You'll miss the dearest pal you ever had...
Yeah, we don't sing about "dearest pals" so much in today's songs, but nobody minds because the tune's forever, and eternally young. Indeed, if anything, it sounded stodgier a century ago - or at least it did in the first commercial recording, made at Columbia in New York on April 29th 1918, by Henry Burr and Albert Campbell.
Ha-ha, scoff the young 'uns, what kind of names are those for pop stars? In fact, both Burr and Campbell, singly and together and as part of vocal quartets, had spectacularly successful hit-making careers from the dawn of the recording industry - circa 1900 - to the middle of the jazz age. Or about ten times as long as, say, Hootie and the Blowfish. Albert Campbell was a Brooklynite, born near the center of the action, but Henry Burr was a Canadian, from St Stephen, New Brunswick, on the Maine border and the edge of the Great North Woods. And, if neither seems quite to have the measure of the song, in fairness they may simply have been mimicking the authors' demo thereof, made at the same Columbia studio eleven days earlier, April 18th 1918.
To 21st century ears, it doesn't seem an obvious male duet, but that was the way they did things back then. The first solo record was made three months later - July 22nd 1918 in Camden, New Jersey - by Marion Harris, with Rosario Bourdon's orchestra. Compared with later performances, Miss Harris took it at crawl tempo - 80 beats per minute - as befits the ostensibly gloomy scenario of the text. And then everyone seemed to agree that there was no point letting the lyric hold the tune back, and the song spent the rest of the century getting faster and faster.
In our time, it seems to slowed down a little again. Here's a Billboard Top Three album artist from the second decade of the 21st century taking a crack at a century-old song - Miss Fiona Apple:
Miss Apple's recent Top Three album was called, by the way, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do - which is even longer than "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Paree?" Before Miss Apple's bite of "After You've Gone" there was Suzy Bogguss, Phil Collins, Loudon Wainwright III, Nina Simone, Bobby Darin, Frankie Laine, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, and, of course, Henry Burr and Albert Campbell - a century of pop music history in one song.
But, like all songs, it began with its writers, Turner Layton and Henry Creamer. Layton, the music half, was born in Washington, DC in 1894, the son of a professor who served as director of music for the District's public schools. Creamer, the words man, was 15 years older, born in Richmond, Virginia in 1879. Both men were black, and they enjoyed huge success in the American music biz one hundred years ago, at a time when the contemporary grievance industry would have us believe such a thing wasn't possible. Henry Creamer loved the New York theatre, hung around the stage door, and by 1900 was gainfully employed as an usher. He worked his way up to stage manager and then out on stage as what they used to call an "eccentric dancer" - and somewhere along the way he found he had a talent for eccentric lyrics. He met Turner Layton around 1916, when the older man was going through a dry patch and the younger fellow had yet to publish a song. But tunes were pouring out of Turner, and they had a vitality that the pedestrian comic settings of Creamer's earlier collaborators lacked.
By 1917 Layton & Creamer were writing songs for the Ziegfeld Follies. Creamer was the multi-talent: lyricist, singer, dancer, actor, director, producer, impresario. He was no Ziegfeld, but his Creole Production Company brought Strut, Miss Lizzie to Broadway in 1921, and made Layton & Creamer's title song a hit. That was Layton's principal interest in the partnership: hit songs. The following year the team hit it big with "Way Down Yonder In New Orleans", which the sheet music advertised as "A Southern Song, without a Mammy, a Mule, or a Moon", in mockery of the Tin Pan Alley clichés of the moment. "Way Down Yonder" transcended such passing fancies, and survived long enough to be a rock'n'roll hit for Freddy Cannon and a surf song for Jan & Dean at the dawn of the Sixties, and a showstopper for Harry Connick Jr at the Hurricane Katrina fundraiser in 2005.
Layton & Creamer went their separate ways in 1924. Henry Creamer found a new writing partner in James P Johnson and had a hit with "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight". He died in 1930. Turner Layton sailed to England, and became a huge success in the British Isles as one half of Layton & Johnstone, a black double-act that in the course of a decade sold ten million records. After Tandy Johnstone was named in a divorce action and returned to New York, Layton struck out on his own and was an elegant cabaret fixture at the Café de Paris in London until after the Second World War. When he died in 1978, many Britons never knew that the popular 'tween-wars performer had had an earlier life as a songwriter and written "After You've Gone". Likewise, many African-Americans never knew that a pioneer black songwriter had had a second life on the other side of the Atlantic as a London cabaret darling.
There are no and-then-I-wrote stories about "After You've Gone". It was supposedly written the previous year and briefly interpolated into the touring production of a flop show called So Long, Letty, starring Charlotte Greenwood, who survived to play Aunt Eller in the 1955 screen version of Oklahoma!, her penultimate film. If you're wondering about her ultimate film, it was The Opposite Sex (1956), with among others Joan Collins and Leslie Nielsen. Its poster promised "the bare facts" about the eponymous and opposite sex and offered the bare backs of the five leading ladies as further enticement. A long way from So Long, Letty. "After You've Gone" did nothing for the show and the show did nothing for the song. So Layton & Creamer stuck it in a bottom drawer until that recording session a year later on April 18th 1918. They seemed to think Columbia might be interested in signing them as a double-act, and figured this would be a good song for their first record. Instead, Columbia decided they liked the double-act they already had - Henry Burr and Albert Campbell - just fine, thank you. And then they gave them Layton & Creamer's song anyway.
And so "After You've Gone" emerged into the world, fully formed and "as American as a song can get," as the musicologist Alec Wilder put it. The chorus is only 20 bars, but so what? The 32-bar standard was not yet chiseled in granite in 1918, and the American popular song was in transition, gradually casting off the verse-and-chorus format in which the chorus was relegated almost to a 16-bar afterthought. Layton and Creamer's chorus may be only 20 bars but it's no afterthought. Let us overlook the remarkable coincidence that the title phrase has the same four notes as a big hit song from just a couple of years earlier, "Peg O' My Heart". That aside, what follows is a nervy, jumpy melody of short ascending phrases with at least one chord change every bar. It starts on the sub-dominant, and seems to come flying out of the gate with a momentum few other songs can match. It says everything it needs to say in a quartet of four-bar sections plus a four-bar tag.
So who needs 32 bars? But, if you do want anything else, you'll notice that Fiona Apple in the performance above sings one of those and-that's-why-I-sing explanatory verses set to a rather pedestrian tune:
How could you tell me that you're goin' away?
Which is a bit whiny, frankly. And it doesn't get any better from there:
Oh, honey baby, can't you see my tears?
Listen while I say:
After You've Gone
And left me crying...
Who needs it? Mildred Bailey liked to sing the verse of "After You've Gone", but most other singers pre-Miss Apple figured they could live without it. Shorn of their verse, those 20 bars became one of the most valuable copyrights in popular music over the next two-thirds of a century.
So, on hearing in 1984 that Frank Sinatra was planning to record "After You've Gone", your initial reaction would be: Surely he must have done the song before, sometime in the previous half-century... If so, no evidence survives. In 1940 Tommy Dorsey had it in his book, but he doesn't seem to have let his boy vocalist anywhere near the song. On the radio with the Dorsey band on Sunday June 7th 1942, "After You've Gone" was included in a medley with "My Silent Love" and "I'll See You In My Dreams". But Jo Stafford got "After You've Gone", and Dorsey saved "See You In My Dreams" (whose opening bars have a similar chord progression to "After") for his trombone, leaving Sinatra with "My Silent Love" - a love song so discreet it's remained entirely silent ever since.
Forty-two years later, sans GI Jo and "the Old Man" (as they called Dorsey), sans "My Silent Love" and "I'll See You In My Dreams", Sinatra finally had "After You've Gone" all to himself. He was running low on trusted collaborators by 1984: One long-time arranger, Don Costa, had had a fatal heart attack the year before at the age of 57, and another, Gordon Jenkins, was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. As for Nelson Riddle, he was off with Linda Ronstadt. So instead Sinatra turned to his old friend Quincy Jones for a project with Lena Horne. Jones had just come off producing the biggest-selling album of all time - Michael Jackson's Thriller - and was at a phase in his life where big was the only way to go. So the Frank-Lena project had metastasized to incorporate more and more of Jones' Rolodex - Lionel Ritchie, Barry Manilow, and of course Jacko. And, when it all collapsed under the weight of its massive over-inflation, FS and Q figured, hey, let's just go into the studio and make a jazzy little record - in fact, the jazziest Sinatra album since his work with Count Basie in the Sixties. It would also prove to be Frank Sinatra's last studio solo set. Thereafter, there would only be live albums and celebrity duets.
By comparison with its predecessor, She Shot Me Down, an album of dark, largely unknown saloon songs, LA Is My Lady has a loose, relaxed vibe, as if everyone involved went into the studio, had a good time, and let the chips fall where they may. Jones conducted a band of all-star soloists, cutting loose on a few new songs but mostly familiar standards. And the oldest song on the album was almost as old as the singer:
After You've Gone
And left me crying
After You've Gone
There's no denying...
By this stage in his career Quincy Jones was far too grand to do any orchestrating. So Sinatra found himself in the studio with a bunch of charts by seasoned arrangers who were nevertheless not his "house arrangers" and wrote from a little ways outside the Sinatra style – Frank Foster, Sam Nestico, Torrie Zito... The result are road-maps with a jazzy looseness, certainly when compared with the polish of Riddle, but that suit the singer's sexagenarian chops. Saxophonist Frank Foster's arrangement of "Mack The Knife" would stay in Sinatra's act right until the end, but his take on "After You've Gone" is just as impressive. "There were no other charts in the whole production that were quite like that," Foster told the musicologist Will Friedwald. "I was just trying to put a heavy personal Frank Foster touch on it. I try not to borrow from anybody else. I just went down into my own arsenal of licks and said, 'I'm just going to make this a bad mother**ker!' I liked the challenge of writing the uptempo arrangement."
Tempo-wise, it isn't the fastest that "After You've Gone" has gone, but from George Benson's opening guitar licks it's rhythmically busy and, especially in the instrumental passages, appears to propel itself at breakneck speed. The solos are generally longer on this album, and Sinatra's more than happy to let Benson and then Lionel Hampton on vibes take all the bars they want. Hampton's history with "After You've Gone" went back half-a-century to his own 1937 recording. The band is, as Hamp might put it, flying home, but, at that clip, those 20 bars come round again awful quickly, so Foster decided to provide Sinatra with a second chorus more in tune with the spirit of the music than any of the creakier refrains that have attached themselves to the song over the years:
After we paid
Our dues together
You should have stayed
Through all that nasty weather...
In a sense, Foster makes explicit what the tune always implied. The guy may be singing about how you've left him cryin' and broken up, but, after you've gone, he's gonna be back out there on the scene, and you'll get yours. As the original lyric puts it:
There'll come a time
Now don't forget it
There'll come a time
When you'll regret it...
And so, for the reprise, instead of missing your "dearest pal", Frank brags:
You'll miss the slickest partner you ever had...
I especially like Foster's rewrite of the tag. Instead of...
After You've Gone
After You've Gone away
After you've split
After you've flown the coop!
Which is very sly on Foster's part – because it's written in perfect Sinatra argot and surely came from nights on the stand listening to Frank's spoken introduction to "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)": "This simply tells the story of a guy whose chick split. She flew the coop..."
The difference this time is that when Sinatra sings those words they kick into a killer instrumental that really does fly the coop.
Sinatra sang most of the best standards of the 20th century, but we all have a list of songs we wish he'd got to. That's the service LA Is My Lady provides: He got to one last handful of them just in time, and he did them great credit. But Frank, George Benson, Lionel Hampton, Frank Foster and Quincy Jones are on especially good form on "After You've Gone".
Neither Turner Layton nor Henry Creamer heard that record. It came long after Creamer was gone – 54 years. But, in his second life as a West End song stylist, Layton lived until 1978. When his daughter died in London in 2001, she left her dad's copyrights to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, the same hospital to which J M Barrie bequeathed his Peter Pan royalties. Which goes to show that, pace Shakespeare, the good that men do can live on after you've flown the coop.
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