We have a brace of musical centenaries for you this weekend at SteynOnline. Our latest edition of On the Town celebrates Bobby Troup with "Girl Talk", "Route 66", "The Girl Can't Help It" and much more, including live performances by Tal Bachman, Manhattan Transfer's Cheryl Bentyne and yours truly. Bobby Troup was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on October 18th 1918. The following day - October 19th - a chap called Jack Segal arrived in this world in Minneapolis, Minnesota:
Jack Segal was not an actor, pianist or (until very late in life) recording artist, so he's not as well known as Bobby Troup. But he was a very fine lyricist whose songs were sung by the best - Sinatra, Streisand, Nat "King" Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett - and, unlike many of his generation, he kept on plugging to the end - which is how he wound up with a couple of semi sorta standards that took off as he was pushing seventy. In a celebrated lawsuit between Whistler and the art critic John Ruskin, the painter was asked by opposing counsel whether a recent picture was really worth two hundred guineas for a mere two days' work. He replied that it was for two days' work and "the knowledge of a lifetime". An eventual hit song can be two hours' work and the frustration of a lifetime. And so it was that Jack Segal's breakout hit took fifteen minutes ...and two-thirds of a decade.
Segal was a political science graduate from the University of Wisconsin who'd taken some creative writing classes and was looking for work in that area. In the late Forties, he wound up in the music department at Paramount, where he labored on Manhattan Angel, which was something to do with kids trying to stop a youth center being razed and replaced by a skyscraper, and Make Believe Ballroom, a lame-o cash-in on the famous WNEW radio show with a plot hung around two carhops trying to win a mystery record competition. With a film career like that, Segal wisely diversified into songwriting. This one had a cute premise:
A Boy From Texas, A Girl From Tennessee
He was so lonely in New York and so was she
The boy said, 'Howdy.' The girl said, 'Hi, y'all.'
He could have kissed her when he heard that southern drawl...
The conceit appealed to both the country-&-western guys and the cool cats. So Gene Autry recorded it, and the King Cole Trio's single made it all the way to Number 24 on the Billboard charts in 1948. And, as a result, Jack Segal was invited one night out to Port Washington on suburban Long Island, to the home of Evelyn Danzig.
Miss Danzig was born in Waco, Texas, the daughter of Maurice Danzig (who hailed from, er, Danzig) and the sister of Allison Danzig, who was a sports writer at The New York Times for almost half-a-century. Like her sibling, Evelyn headed east and studied composition with Sigismond Stojowski, a Polish émigré who'd set up shop in Manhattan. His other pupils included Alfred Newman, the film composer (and uncle of Randy); Arthur Loesser, the concert pianist (and older brother of Frank); and Oscar Levant, the mordant wit (and confidant of George Gershwin).
As you might deduce from her fellow alumni, Miss Danzig was a composer rather than a songwriter. They're two different skills, and masters of the one are not necessarily good at the other. Evelyn Danzig had played on WOR radio as one half of a two-piano act, styled somewhat counter-intuitively as Treble & Clef, and she had composed a lot of music, for an opera and for a stage play adapted from The Scarlet Letter. But she wanted to write songs. And that night at her home in Port Washington she played Jack Segal some of her music.
And he was polite, but he didn't hear a hit song in anything she was playing. Somewhere in the mix of an exhaustive recital of her concert pieces, she tinkled a little piano exercise she'd cooked up just to loosen the fingers - little more than a four-bar phrase of seesawing dotted crotchets and quavers with minimal variation. Shortly thereafter some guests arrived and Miss Danzig excused herself to attend to them, and Jack Segal found himself alone at the piano with Evelyn's childlike warm-up still rattling through his brain. And he started to write:
I peeked in to say goodnight and
Then I heard my child in prayer
'And for me some Scarlet Ribbons
Scarlet Ribbons for my hair...'
He finished it up in a quarter-hour:
All the stores were closed and shuttered
All the streets were dark and bare
In our town, no scarlet ribbons
Not one ribbon for her hair...
Somehow, in nothing flat, Jack Segal had intuited that Evelyn Danzig's tune was a child's lullaby, and you sing a lullaby to a child at bedtime, and so the song should be about a child at bedtime, maybe sung from a mother's perspective... And by the time the fifteen minutes were up he had a scenario about a little girl who wants scarlet ribbons but all the stores are closed.
Is it for her birthday? Christmas? Why scarlet ribbons? Was it something to do with Miss Danzig's interest in The Scarlet Letter? Was it just a bisyllabic color and red, blue and green were insufficient? And he decided to leave yellow to Tony Orlando, Irwin Levine and L Russell Brown? Well, as Whistler would say, all that and more is the knowledge - and instincts - of a lifetime. The basic scenario is recognizable and universal, and fleshed out just enough. Evelyn Danzig was delighted to discover that Jack had written a song while she'd been entertaining her guests, and invited them to listen to it:
Through the night my heart was aching
And just before the dawn was breaking
I peeked in and on her bed
In gay profusion lying there
Lovely ribbons, Scarlet Ribbons
Scarlet Ribbons for her hair...
The party guests loved it, but, according to Segal, they were also - per the Whistler case again - "aghast that it took so little time".
Time was about to exact its revenge. In 1949 Jack Segal left Evelyn Danzig's pad and headed back to town with what he thought was a hit song. The first recording was by Juanita Hall, then starring as Bloody Mary in what was the hottest ticket on Broadway, South Pacific. The song went nowhere. Dinah Shore did it. Again: crickets. Jo Stafford made a record, and this time it tickled the lower end of the hit parade at New Year 1950 - and was instantly forgotten.
Jack Segal thought the song deserved better than that. Three years went by, and he met a young singer called Harry Belafonte. In 1952 Belafonte had signed a contract with RCA Victor, who thought he was just another conventional pop singer. So for his first recording session they stuck him in front of a conventional pop orchestra, and got nothing out of it. For the second, they dialed it back to a five-piece combo: still nothing. Belafonte was smart enough to figure where this was headed. For the third session, he brought in a song Jack Segal had given him, and sang it with just his guitarist, Millard Thomas, very intimate and colla voce. It can be fairly said to be the recording on which Harry Belafonte became Harry Belafonte.
Alas, as a single it did even less than Jo Stafford's: one week at the very bottom of the chart in Christmas week 1952. But Harry kept singing it in his club act, and audiences loved it, and eventually RCA Victor figured out that Belafonte-wise singles weren't where the action was: his medium was this new-fangled thing called an "album". So three years later they took a bunch of disconnected tracks and released an LP called Belafonte. It can also be fairly said to be the first blockbuster album of the LP era - at least in the sense that when Billboard magazine published its first ever weekly chart of Best-Selling Popular Albums on March 24th 1956 the very first Number One bestseller was Belafonte.
And that's why everyone knows "Scarlet Ribbons", and hundreds of singers have recorded it.
What changed between 1949 and 1956?
Well, in part Belafonte re-categorized it. He struck it big as a purveyor not of "commercial" pop tunes but of calypso and folk - and that self-titled LP contained examples of both, "Matilda" ("she take me money and run a' Venezuela") and "Jump Down, Spin Around" ("pick a bale of cotton"). As the great musicologist Alec Wilder put it, "Scarlet Ribbons" is "very simple and very evocative in the manner of a true folk song". And Belafonte's recording made it one, very convincingly. It became that paradox of the Fifties/early Sixties music scene: the contemporary traditional folk ballad, so professionally written it's assumed to be anonymous. For example:
If I live to be a hundred
I will never know from where
Came those lovely Scarlet Ribbons
Scarlet Ribbons for her hair.
"Came those lovely.."? Who talks like that? But the inverted word order sits beautifully on the notes and betrays no whiff of the professional Tin Pan Alleyman.
After Belafonte, everybody did it: Doris Day, Jim Reeves, Vera Lynn, Roy Orbison, Slim Whitman, Joan Baez, Ken Dodd, Perry Como, Duane Eddy, the Kingston Trio, the Band of the Black Watch, the London Welsh Male Voice Choir, Nina and Frederik, David and Jonathan, Joe and Eddie, Dick and Deedee ...and in the fullness of time Sinéad O'Connor:
That's Joanie Madden on tin whistle and Jerry O'Sullivan on bagpipes, from Sinéad's third CD Am I Not Your Girl? Many years ago I had the pleasure of telling Miss O'Connor how much I enjoyed that album, which evidently surprised her as she'd pegged me for a bit of a wanker. But there are some very fine things on it, including Sid Ramin's big swinging arrangement of "Secret Love" and Pat Williams' custom-fit Sinéad chart for "Why Don't You Do Right?" And I especially like the raw and vulnerable sincerity of "Scarlet Ribbons".
With a hit that size, Evelyn Danzig assumed she was now a bona fide songwriter. So she and Jack Segal wrote more songs - like "When a Warmhearted Woman Loves a Coldhearted Man". But lightning never struck twice, and "Scarlet Ribbons" is Miss Danzig's only standard.
For many years Jack Segal taught songwriting classes, in the course of which he offered his four rules for a good lyric:
1) There's a simple and universal story (or concept) that states a desire, and through the singing of song, the narrator is transformed in their desire.
2) All the rhymes are true - but not always easily predicted. No words are rhymed with themselves!
3) There is a perfect balance between repetition of words, novelty, and familiarity in the words and phrases, that is, as soon as the listener thinks they know the pattern, it changes ever so slightly to keep the interest.
4) The melody and the tension and release of the harmony match the meaning of the lyric in position and intensity.
"Scarlet Ribbons" exemplifies all of the above. The concept is "simple and universal": No parent wants to disappoint her child. The rhymes are true, although they're mostly masculine (one-syllable) pairs for "hair": prayer, bare, there, where. Segal reserves feminine rhyme for the release, because the music must "match the meaning of the lyric in position and intensity", which is why that big yearning "aching" occurs on the two highest notes of the tune.
Yet, notwithstanding that it vindicates his four key rules, "Scarlet Ribbons" is a most untypical Jack Segal song. Segal wrote most of his semi-standards with Bob Wells or Marvin Fisher. Wells is best known as the composer of "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire") and Marvin Fisher comes from the veritable songwriting dynasty founded by ex-prototype-U-boat seaman Fred Fischer. Fischer moved to America, dropped the middle "c" (not easy for a musician), and wrote "Chicago" , "Your Feet's Too Big" and "Peg o' My Heart":
As for Fred Fisher, in 1942, after three years of cancer and five painful operations, he hanged himself. That week in America, he was on the Hit Parade with "Whispering Grass", written with his daughter Doris. A third of a century later, in 1975, the same song was Number One in Britain. He bequeathed the world not only his own catalogue but an entire family of songwriters: His son Dan wrote "Good Morning, Heartache" for Billie and Ella (and Natalie Cole and Gladys Knight et al). Dan's brother Marvin wrote "When Sunny Gets Blue" for Johnny Mathis and Nat "King" Cole, and "Destination Moon" for Dinah Washington. And their sister Doris wrote "You Always Hurt The One You Love", "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" and many more. When some Eighties rocker revived "That Old Devil Called Love". Miss Fisher was happy to see the uptick in royalties, but, when I asked whether this heralded a return to the good old days, she snorted: "Ha! They always say that, every time there's an exception to the rule. But that's all it is."
But there's a market for exceptions. For Frank Sinatra, Wells & Segal wrote "Here's to the Losers", which is a fine concept for Frank, if not fully realized, and certainly better than the drippy schlocko soft-rock ballad called "Here's to the Winners" he recorded a couple of years later. For Tony Bennett, Wells & Segal produced "When Joanna Loved Me", whose lyric (per Rule Number Four) is exquisitely contoured to the music (particularly when it all heads south on "when Joanna left me") but whose imagery - Paris on a Sunday in May - has always struck me as trite and unconvincing. For Nat "King" Cole, Fisher & Segal constructed a saloon song that stays just the right side of maudlin loserdom:
I Keep Goin' Back To Joe's
To that table in the corner
Sippin' wine and staring at the door
Our old waiter knows we're through
Still he sets a place for you
Everything the way it was before...
"I Keep Goin' Back to Joe's" is a terrific title, and that's really the fifth rule missing from Segal's quartet. As Ira Gershwin put it:
Here, by way of example, is Jack Segal's song for Tony Bennett's 1986 comeback album, The Art of Excellence. The scenario is more or less "Baby, It's Cold Outside" for grown-ups, and the lyric is truly excellent:
Now the gang is gone
Put Sinatra on...
Baby, take your shoes off
We're not going dancing...
And you won't find this in any rhyming dictionary:
Hi-ho the merry-o
Blame it on the stereo..
And again it's superbly tailored to the music, its intimacy intensifying as the melody rises:
Kiss me like before
Let the fire roar
Throw another pillow on the floor...
And yet and yet...
"What Are You Afraid Of?" has everything but a title. Even before #MeToo gave it the faint whiff of Harvey Weinstein wheedling in his hotel corridor, "What Are You Afraid Of?" just isn't an appealing title for a ballad of seduction: it's too blunt about the seed of doubt nagging behind romantic intoxication. It's a great pity because everything else about the song is first-rate.
Here's the post-"Scarlet Ribbons" song where it all fell into place for Segal. He wrote it with Marvin Fisher the same year that "Ribbons" finally planted itself in the repertoire: 1956. Fisher's tune is a corker, which is why in piano bars all over the world you'll invariably hear this at some point in the evening. "When Sunny Gets Blue" is bluesy not in the sense of twelve-bar blues but in a certain harmonic wooziness - the lowered sixth, etc. The music meanders in a slightly elusive way, and oddly it's the middle section, with its lovely chord progression, that seems the most straightforward and declarative. It wouldn't appear to be the easiest melody to fix a text to, but Segal pulls it off as a kind of stream-of-consciousness tone poem:
When Sunny Gets Blue
Her eyes get grey and cloudy
Then the rain begins to fall...
And here's another example of Segal listening to what the tune's telling him:
Love has gone so what can matter?
Brilliant. Like the tune, the lyric just sort of unrolls organically:
When Sunny Gets Blue
She breathes a sigh of sadness
Like the wind that stirs the trees
Wind that sets the leaves to swaying
Like some violins are playing
Weird and haunting melodies...
Because if you're putting words to a weird and haunting melody, you might as well acknowledge the fact. Johnny Mathis recorded it first, but I confess a fondness for Nat Cole on his splendid album, Love is the Thing:
Some three decades later Rick Dees - the Los Angeles disc jockey who had a monster hit with "Disco Duck" - offered the following topical observation, complete with Mathis vocal impersonation and lush arrangement:
When Sunny sniffs glue
Her eyes get red and bulgy
Then her hair begins to fall...
Dees had sought permission from Fisher & Segal and had been denied. So they sued for copyright infringement, eventually winding up before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of Dees. It became a landmark decision in the refinement of American "fair use" doctrine. I have mixed feelings about the decision: that's to say, it was, on balance, correct as a matter of law, but, if I were Fisher & Segal, I'd be horrified at having my most exquisite work so traduced. Dees is a lethal parodist, who knows enough to understand that the closer you stick to the original the more effective it is - which is why he retains the eyes and the beginning-to-fall bits.
Yet, in the end, it requires more skill to do something for real than for laughs. "When Sunny Sniffs Glue" is a big deal in legal treatises and annals of case law, but "When Sunny Gets Blue" endures on stages and in studios:
People used to love
To hear her laugh, see her smile
That's how she got her name
Since that sad affair
She's lost her smile, changed her style
Somehow she's not the same...
Jack Segal died in 2005. His two biggest hits took off the same year Elvis & Co blew away an entire musical tradition. That's reason enough for a jobbing lyricist to lose his smile, and maybe attempt to change his style. But Segal never did: He wrote what he wanted to write the way he wanted to write it, and never stopped. Here's to the losers, and here's to ingenious if occasional winners.
~Mark tells the story of many beloved songs - from "Auld Lang Syne" to "White Christmas" via "My Funny Valentine", "Easter Parade" and "Autumn Leaves"- in his book A Song For The Season. Personally autographed copies are exclusively available from the Steyn store - and, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter the promo code at checkout to enjoy special Steyn Club member pricing.