Exactly three-quarters of a century ago this week the Number One hit in America was not a new record, but an old one. Which was an odd accomplishment, as the concept of "oldies" had yet to be invented. "All Or Nothing At All" had it all in September 1943, but it had had nothing at all for the previous four years. This is the story of how it, and its boy vocalist Frank Sinatra, came out on top...
It was June 1939 and the singer Louise Tobin was in her room in the Lincoln Hotel in Manhattan, packing for a gig in Boston with Bobby Hackett's band. Her hubby was napping on the bed. He was a trumpeter, name of Harry James, who'd just left Benny Goodman to put together his own orchestra. The radio was carrying a remote from some joint in New Jersey, and a male vocalist came on. Louise listened, and she thought this guy was "a fair singer". "I didn't think he was fantastic," she would explain years later, but he was "fair". And Harry had been having difficulty finding a vocalist, so she shook him awake. "Honey," she said, "there's a kid singing here you might want to listen to..."
The next day Harry James called WNEW and asked where the live broadcast had come from. Then he drove across the George Washington Bridge to the joint in question: the Rustic Cabin on Route 9W in Englewood Cliffs. He asked the manager where he could find the singer. "We don't have a singer," he said. "But we do have an emcee who sings a little." He also waited tables a little, served drinks a little, but a couple of times a night he got to sing a little, too, with an accompanist who pushed a little half-piano around from table to table, with a tip jar on the top.
The emcee was waiting tables when he got word that Harry James was in the house. "He took off his apron and climbed onto the stage," remembered James. "He'd sung eight bars of 'Night And Day' when I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising." When it ended, James asked him to do "Begin The Beguine". When that ended, he offered the guy a job, for 75 bucks a week, and asked him when he could start.
"How about now?" said the kid.
They met next day at the Paramount Theatre in New York, and James said that, because of the smoothness of his voice, he wanted the singer to call himself "Frankie Satin". The singer demurred. "If I'd done that," he said forty years later, "I'd be working cruise ships today*."
So "Frankie Satin" remained Frankie Sinatra. He was with the Harry James band just a few months, and recorded only ten tracks with them. But one of them would remain with him for the next half-century:
All Or Nothing At All
Half a love never appealed to me...
In a six-decade career, that's the first entry in the Sinatra Songbook: "All Or Nothing At All". The guy responsible for it was a jobbing songwriter called Jack Lawrence. He didn't have it all - he wasn't Irving Berlin or Cole Porter. But Jack Lawrence's career wasn't nothing, either. He had his first hit with "Play, Fiddle, Play" in 1933 and, at the age of 20, became the youngest member of the songwriters' society, Ascap. Which was preferable to his parents' plan: They wanted him to enroll in the Institute of Podiatry. Instead, he wrote important hits for almost every major singer of the mid-20th century, and in the Seventies and Eighties enjoyed a second career as a theatre owner and impresario (he produced Lena Horne's one-woman show, plus Other People's Money and Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean). He was a dapper fellow who looked younger than his years, and I always felt he was a sure thing for a big hundredth birthday celebration in 2012. But he took a bad fall at his home in Connecticut in 2009, and died a couple of days later, just shy of his 97th birthday. Jack Lawrence wrote some of the biggest hits of his day, including Rosemary Clooney's signature song:
The evening breeze
Caressed the trees
- which I always hear in its Allan Sherman parody:
The evening breeze
Caressed your knees
Jack Lawrence also produced an English lyric to "La Mer", which fans of Charles Trenet are wont to poo-poo. Lawrence's text bears no relation to the original, but it was a blockbuster for Bobby Darin:
Beyond The Sea
Waiting for me
My lover stands
On golden sands
And watches the ships that go sailing...
He wrote "Sunrise Serenade" (the morning after the "Moonlight" one) for Glenn Miller, and gave Dinah Shore "Yes, My Darling Daughter". He put words to Eric Coates' "Sleepy Lagoon", the long-running theme tune to the BBC's "Desert Island Discs", and retooled an obscure semi-art song into "With The Wind And The Rain In Your Hair", which my friend Monique Fauteux likes to do in cabaret in Montreal. And then there was the time Jack Lawrence was sitting on a park bench, and overheard a lovers' quarrel. "You don't care," said the girl, sulkily. "If I didn't care..." began the boy, and launched into a catalogue of evidence that he did. Lawrence was tickled by the phrase and wrote it up, words and music, into the Ink Spots' first big hit. He had a lawyer whose little girl, Linda, was jealous of her mother because Maurice Chevalier had a famous song about mom's name, "Louise", but there was no song called "Linda". So Lawrence wrote one:
When I go to sleep
I never count sheep
I count all the charms about Linda
And lately it seems in all of my dreams
I walk with my arms about Linda...
The publishers told him it would go better with "Ida" or "Mandy", but Ray Noble and his vocalist Buddy Clark took a liking to it and made it one of the smashes of the post-war years - complete with conversational intro:
BUDDY: Hello, cutie. What's your name?
"LINDA": Fresh! I don't talk to strangers.
BUDDY: Aw, I'm no stranger. Been waitin' every evening for you to walk by...
Anita Gordon played "Linda", very charmingly. As for the real Linda, Miss Eastman grew up and married Paul McCartney, and, whatever one feels about Linda McCartney's contribution to Wings, the song she inspired as a toddler is certainly a very creditable musical legacy. Sinatra made a very pleasant record of it in the Seventies, but then he sang quite a lot of Jack Lawrence over the years. Indeed, the Lawrence song indelibly associated with Frank helped launch his career, and, in a variety of arrangements, stayed in Sinatra's book right to the end:
All Or Nothing At All
Half a love never appealed to me
If your heart never could yield to me
Then I'd rather have nothing at all...
It wasn't written for Frank. Nothing was written for him back in 1939. Nobody knew who he was. Instead, the publisher Lou Levy called Lawrence into his office and played him a melody he needed a lyric for. Jack liked "a lot of" the tune, as he put it, and asked who the composer was. Levy hesitated. It was the same guy Lawrence had written "Play, Fiddle, Play" with six years earlier: Arthur Altman, his songwriting partner since their days as teenagers in Brooklyn. But they'd had some bust-up over something or other, and Lou Levy wasn't sure Jack would want to get the old team back together. Still, he did like "a lot of" the tune, and the bits he didn't he rewrote. "It had some wonderful key changes, and it had a big, broad melody and a nice range," said Lawrence. "I knew it would be a wonderful song for singers, and I was intrigued and I kept working away at it and I finally came up with this title":
All Or Nothing At All
If it's love, there is no in-between
Why begin, then cry for something that might have been?
No I'd rather have nothing at all...
Arthur Altman liked what Lawrence had done with the song, and Lou Levy pushed it hard, landing three recordings by three bandleaders: Freddy Martin, Jimmy Dorsey and Harry James.
In those first few weeks with the James orchestra, Frank sang four Jack Lawrence numbers: "If I Didn't Care", "It's Funny To Everyone But Me", "Ciribiribin", and, of course, "All Or Nothing At All". "It's interesting," Lawrence told Will Friedwald in the Nineties, "to listen to that young voice when he first started and the way he attacked that song and what he did with the breath control, with all of the wonderful phrasing that he did even in those early days." As noted above, it wasn't written for him, but it sounds as if it was, once you get past James' trumpet intro. The long lines of an unhurried 64-bar ballad show off the 23-year old's beautiful legato singing, and, even in those days, the stakes - "all or nothing" - fit him like a glove: the passion, the obsession, the intensity. Even when he glided smoothly, he didn't gloss over what was at issue:
Please don't bring your lips close to my cheek
Don't smile or I'll be lost beyond recall
The kiss in your eyes, the touch of your hand makes me weak...
Frank was "a very serious singer then," said Harry James. "There was no kidding. When he sang, he sang."
But a fat lot of good it did. Sinatra was singing "All Or Nothing At All" with the James band at the Victor Hugo Cafe on Sunset Strip in Hollywood. "The manager came up and waved his hands for us to stop," he recalled. "He said Harry's trumpet playing was too loud for the joint and my singing was just plain lousy. He said the two of us couldn't draw flies as an attraction â€” and I guess he was right. The room was as empty as a barn." The single of "All Or Nothing At All" sold 8,000 copies, and that was that - at least as far as a hit song was concerned.
But a lot of people heard Sinatra and the James band sing it on the radio that summer and fall, including a marvelous performance at the 1939 World's Fair. "There's a guy on 'All Or Nothing At All' who does the vocal," the singer Jack Leonard told his boss Tommy Dorsey, "and he scares the hell out of me." Dorsey heard the scary guy for himself a few weeks later, and determined to hire him away from James. The combination - the singer and the song - had that kind of impact on a lot of people - including Bill Miller, who in the Fifties would become Sinatra's most trusted pianist and his great collaborator on "One For My Baby" and various other saloon-song masterpieces. In 1939, Miller, like Sinatra, was just starting out. Heading home from a gig, Bill and the gal he was dating had the car radio on. "Hey, listen," she said, "doesn't that sound good? That's Dick Haymes."
Miller listened. "No, it's not Dick Haymes," he said. "Dick Haymes doesn't sing that good." He had to wait till the end, and the disc jockey's announcement: "All or Nothing at All," by Harry James and his Orchestra, vocal refrain by Frank Sinatra.
Frank joined the Tommy Dorsey band, the song was forgotten, and that would have been that had not fate and the musicians' union intervened. Flash forward four years: 1943. Sinatra's left Dorsey, and not for another orchestra. He's not a band vocalist now, he's the star. They need police outside the Paramount to stop the squealing, swooning bobbysoxers from mobbing the joint. Columbia's signed him up to a big contract, and they're all set to launch him - the best new songs, with the best arrangers. And then Local 802, the American Federation of Musicians decide to strike against the record companies for a better deal.
So Columbia have the hottest new star, and no way to cash in. No product. A lot of the labels are getting their guys to sing a capella, or accompanied by kazoos. But wily old Lou Levy, Jack Lawrence's publisher, had a better idea. He reminded Manie Sachs, the head honcho at Columbia, that they had this forgotten flop gathering dust in the vault: "All Or Nothing At All." Listen to it, said Levy. It doesn't sound like a band record. It sounds like a Sinatra solo.
Levy was right: Instead of running instrumental chorus, vocal chorus, instrumental outro, Harry James had flipped the traditional big band pattern on its head - vocal chorus, instrumental, vocal outro. So the old label - "HARRY JAMES AND HIS ORCHESTRA, with vocal by Frank Sinatra" - was replaced by "FRANK SINATRA, accompanied by Harry James and his Orchestra." And a four-year old record went straight to Number One. That change in the billing, by the way, sums up one other consequence of the union strike: the decline of the big bands, and the rise of the pop singers.
"It's a very simple story," said Jack Lawrence. "It's a lover who's saying 'half a love never appealed to me'. If you can't give it all to me, I don't want it. I can't accept less. And I think with Frank, at the moment, when these kids were just dying to get into his arms, for him to be saying, 'All or nothing at all', give me all of your love or give me nothing, you know, I think that hit a very emotional thing."
There are lots of things to admire about the song. Here's one stretch I've always liked, the way the release slides back into the main theme via the half-echo of "And if I fell":
Please don't bring your lips close to my cheek
Don't smile or I'll be lost beyond recall
The kiss in your eyes, the touch of your hand makes me weak
And my heart may grow dizzy and fall
And if I fell
Under the spell of your call
I would be caught in the undertow...
The "k" sounds ("cheek"/"weak") and the internal rhymes ("fell"/"spell") really goose up the tune, but what makes that section is "undertow". Isn't that just a terrific word to find in a love song? Everything else is fine and professional and heady but within the conventional vocabulary of the form: love, heart, cheek, kiss, eyes, hand... "Undertow" makes it special. I know of one other song that uses the word, "I'm Just A Girl Who Cain't Say No" from Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!:
Other girls are coy and hard to catch
But other girls ain't havin' any fun
Ev'ry time I lose a wrestlin' match
I have a funny feelin' that I won
Though I can feel the undertow
I never make a complaint
Till it's too late fer restraint
Then when I want to I cain't
I Cain't Say No!
I think Altman and Lawrence get more juice out of the word than R&H. But if you know any other "undertow" songs I'd love to hear them.
"It's a funny thing about that song," Sinatra told Louella Parsons in 1944. "The recording we made of it five years ago is now in one of the top spots among the best sellers. But it's the same old recording. It's also the song I used to audition for Tommy Dorsey who signed me on the strength of it. And now it's my first big record."
It was. In a way, it was the first Sinatra song - the first number to be associated with him, rather than with him and Dorsey. He commissioned a new arrangement from Axel Stordahl to sing on the radio, and kept it in the act. The best part of two decades later, he ordered up a third chart, from Don Costa for Sinatra & Strings (1961). In contrast to the big-note big-finish approach of the James version, this is a very soft and tender take, especially on "the kiss in your eyes, the touch of your hand". At times, he sounds younger than the 23-year old Frank of 1939, but that's a trick of interpretation: he's mature enough, been around enough, to know to sound a little naive and wondering on those lines. The Costa arrangement makes for a beautiful ballad.
Five years later, Sinatra grabbed a fourth chart, this time scored by Nelson Riddle in what he called the "tempo of the heartbeat", an intoxicating swinger with a great jazz organ and an instrumental break that's one of the two or three best killer crescendi Riddle ever wrote. Will Friedwald describes it as "an off-the-chord trombone section episode that sounds like three rhinoceri mating to the tune of Milt Bernhart's interlude on 'I've Got You Under My Skin'" - which gets pretty close to it. I had it in the back of my mind once walking through Manhattan, and it occurred to me in Wall Street Oliver Stone should have used this track rather than Sinatra's "Fly Me To The Moon". I could see the camera swooping in low and then - pow! - at the end of the instrumental the skyscrapers come rearing up. And, in a way, the obsession in the lyric gets closer to the theme of Wall Street than the breeziness of "Fly Me" does. That's what Sinatra liked about the swingin' Riddle chart: It fit the persona: My Way, All The Way, All Or Nothing At All... If the Costa version is the apotheosis of Sinatra tenderness, the Riddle arrangement gets the whole bet-the-farm swagger of the ring-a-ding-dinger.
And then there was the fifth chart. It was 1977, and someone had persuaded Frank to do a disco single. Er, okay. But of what? Someone else suggested a couple of his old hits. And his drummer Irv Cottler proposed "Night And Day" and "All Or Nothing At All". They got Joe Beck in to produce and arrange. Irv wasn't impressed by the results, saying of Beck "he's the worst writer I ever heard in my life! He's not a writer, he's a bricklayer!" By the early Eighties, Frank had ditched the disco chart and returned to the Riddle arrangement, which stayed with him till the end.
When the original hit and the definitive ballad treatment and the definitive swingin' arrangement and the wacky novelty version are all by Sinatra, that doesn't leave a lot for anyone else to grab a piece of. Chet Baker and Sarah Vaughan took a crack at it, and there's a ravishing John Coltrane take. And, in the last decade or two, Diana Krall, Jack Jones and others have attempted to ease "All Or Nothing At All" out of Sinatra's shadow. But it will be his a while yet. After his first few months as a professional singer, young Frank shrugged off "Ciribiribin", "If I Didn't Care" and "It's Funny To Everyone But Me", and never went anywhere near them again. But "All Or Nothing At All" yoked him to Jack Lawrence for six decades. "As he went along he learned a lot more and added a lot more interpretation," said Lawrence. "Every time he rerecorded it, there would be another great lush arrangement, but I still prefer to listen to that young voice singing that song":
And if I fell
Under the spell of your call
I would be caught in the undertow
So you see I've got to say no, no
All Or Nothing At All!
A tender long-lined ballad, a surging finger-snapper, a disco cash-in, and the Sinatra credo, all in one song - thanks to Jack Lawrence, and a trumpeter whose missus heard "a fair singer" on the radio.
*Speaking of "working cruise ships", as Frank was, Mark will be doing just that at the end of this month on the inaugural Mark Steyn cruise, in which he'll be essaying a couple of Songs of the Week live and on water with the help of special musical guest Tal Bachman, who performed a lovely version of another early Sinatra hit on The Mark Steyn Show last year.
So we hope you'll want to join Mark and the rest of the crew for shipboard versions of many of your favorite SteynOnline features as we sail from Montreal to Boston. For queries about the cruise, please call Cindy and her Cruise Authority colleagues on 1-800-707-1634 (or +1 (770) 952-1959) or email us here.
~Mark's beloved book A Song For The Season includes his essays on "My Funny Valentine", "Easter Parade", "Autumn Leaves" and other Sinatra songs. It's also out in eBook - at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indigo-Chapters in Canada, and worldwide. So, whatever your preferred digital distribution method, you can be reading it within a minute! But, if you prefer old-fashioned personally autographed hardbacks and you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter the promo code at checkout to receive special member pricing on this and over forty other products at the Steyn store.
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