The only reason this weekly feature - now in its thirteenth year - exists at all is because, at a tender age, I became strangely fascinated by the names in parentheses on LP sleeves or printed inside on the actual gramophone records: the names, that is, of the writers. As far as I can tell, most fans of pop music think the singer or the group created the song and are content to leave it at that. But I found myself intrigued by this sub-species of humanity that, aside from a few stellar grandees (the Irving Berlins and Cole Porters), existed only as surnames on vinyl. Sometimes the surnames were so memorable they stuck with you. And so it was that one day, examining a Nat Cole album, I first espied the credit "De Lugg". And a while later, consulting the fine print on a Doris Day compilation, I read "DeLugg". Could Mr De Lugg and Mr DeLugg possibly be one and the same?
In fact, he was Mr Delugg - Milton of that ilk, which seems to me the perfect first name for a Delugg. On the other hand, when his moniker was mentioned for the musical director's gig on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show", one NBC exec responded: "Milton Delugg? What is it?"
What it is is a chap born in Los Angeles one hundred years ago this very day - December 2nd 1918. Milton did not come from a long line of Deluggs. "There aren't any Deluggs," he said. "It's not a real name. I think the name originally was d'Luggatch. Nobody could pronounce it." So Milton's great-grandfather changed it to Delugg - pronounced as it reads. If you're not the kind of weirdo who scours the songwriter credits on album sleeves but you're a perfectly well-adjusted fellow who watches TV all day long, you may recall Milton from his internally-rhymed house ensemble on "The Gong Show" with Chuck Barris - "Milton Delugg and the Band with a Thug".
If that suggests a varied life, well, it was. If you've ever wondered what's the connection between Al Jolson and Buddy Holly, Bing Crosby and Lady Gaga, Frank Loesser and Frank Zappa, the answer is Milton Delugg. Along the way he was also a fitful songwriter. To celebrate his hundredth birthday, I've chosen this particular song because, in the midst of interminable legal harassment these last two years, I've become rather partial to picker-uppers. So last week we had "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah", and you can't really follow a zip-a-dee-doo-dah except with a flash and a bam - and even then you probably need to throw in an alakazam:
That's such a great single: For all the sorrows of this world, all cannot be lost if a civilization is capable of bringing together the Nat King Cole Trio and the Stan Kenton orchestra for a joint recording session. (Bond composer David Arnold talks more about Stan Kenton on our John Barry 007 special.) Who isn't on that cut? Maynard Ferguson among the trumpets, Milt Bernhart among the trombones, Art Pepper on alto sax, Laurindo Almeida guitar, Shelly Manne drums... Indeed, it's such a terrific track that, for a songwriter, the worry is there's nothing to add to it and no other performer will ever go near it again. But, in fact, "Orange-Colored Sky" has endured - to the point where, at my New Hampshire town's "cabin fever" talent show one late February some years ago, the three brothers who owned the hardware store and their various warring offspring strolled out on the grade-school stage and did a very creditable version of the song. The finger-snaps were a bit stiff, but they were certainly spirited yellers on:
I've been hit!
This is it!
This is it!
Young Milton's dad, Sam Delugg, was walkin' along mindin' his business one day circa 1930 when he passed a music store offering an accordion and six lessons for sixty-eight bucks. Mr Delugg was a California meat wholesaler, which means he got up at four in the morning and went to the packing houses to buy slabs of beef to sell to butchers. But, blithe and carefree and with business all done by lunchtime, he was in a generous mood when he saw the notice in the store window. So he went in, signed up, and came home to Milt with an accordion and a teacher.
The kid had been learning the piano, but dad thought the new instrument might be more to his inclination. If you're thinking polkas, that wasn't really Milton's bag. He liked jazz and especially Benny Goodman, and so he determined to be the Benny Goodman of the accordion. And if you're thinking, "Er, is there actually a market for the Benny Goodman of the accordion?", Milt was a young lad and didn't know that at the time. When I met him many years later, he said to me in a marvelously dry, deadpan delivery: "When you're a clarinet player, you're a musician. When you're a trumpet player, you're a musician. When you're an accordion player, you're an accordion player."
Who needs accordion players? You'd be surprised: In 1939 Milton Delugg celebrated his twenty-first birthday playing the accordion on a Broadway stage in Very Warm for May. Written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, it had June Allyson and Eve Arden and a fine score that deserved to be the hit of the season. But it also had a stinker of a story, so it died after a few weeks. Nevertheless, it meant Milton Delugg got in on the ground floor of what many of Kern's fellow composers considered the greatest popular song ever written, "All the Things You Are", with, among other pleasures, its lovely enharmonic change at the end of the middle section. From Broadway to Hollywood: Delugg showed up on screen, playing the accordion in, among others, Jolson Sings Again. Indeed, within a few years, Milt had made his dream come true: He was the Benny Goodman of the accordion, and much in demand. He joined the Matty Malneck orchestra, and Matty was so impressed he ceded the conducting duties to Milton.
But Delugg's most consequential gig in those early years was at Paramount Pictures. Studio orchestras need accordion players because maybe the film's set in Paris or there's a scene in Argentina with someone playing a tango. So Milton Delugg was hired by the Paramount music department, whose staff included not only house musicians but house songwriters, among them Burton Lane, Hoagy Carmichael, and Frank Loesser. Delugg and Loesser hit it off and became fast friends. Loesser was a lyricist who wanted to be a lyricist/composer - like the bigshots, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. But at this point in his life he didn't know enough about how to get the tunes he heard in his head down on paper. So he needed an amanuensis, a musical secretary, and Delugg volunteered for the role. So young Milton was the lad at hand to transcribe Loesser's first big self-contained words-and-music hit, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition". And in turn Frank gave his amanuensis an ongoing masterclass in songwriting.
For example, King Records invited Delugg to make an accordion album. So Delugg wrote a piece called "Roller Coaster", and a few years later "What's My Line?" chose it as its closing theme on TV for two decades, which proved very lucrative for its composer. King Records, in its pre-James Brown r'n'b incarnation, was a country-&-western label whose slogan boasted: "If it's a King, it's a Hillbilly. If it's a Hillbilly, it's a King." So they wanted at least a semi-hillbilly accordion album - ie, including a polka. Dutifully, Delugg obliged and wrote one he called "Hoop-Dee-Doo". He played it for Frank Loesser, who liked it and offered to put a lyric to it:
I hear a polka and my troubles are through...
Delugg was appreciative of Loesser's efforts - until the final stretch:
Hand me down my soup-and-fish
I am gonna get my wish
Hoop-Dee-Doin' it tonight!
And Milton Delugg turned to the guy who'd written "Heart and Soul" and "Two Sleepy People" and "The Lady's in Love with You" and told him, "That's a very pedestrian line." And Loesser said, "You got a better idea?"
Check my hat and park my gum
California, here I come
Hoop-Dee-Doin' it tonight!
After which, Loesser "very carefully and very slowly explained that I was a complete idiot". By which he meant that you don't get cute or clever in the last line of a song. So they stuck with the soup-and-fish, and Perry Como made it a Number One record. And for decades afterwards, through all his TV work on "The Tonight Show", "The Newlywed Game" and "The Dating Game", Delugg kept "Hoop-Dee-Doo" alive to the point where it became thought of to two generations of Americans as "game show music". On "The Gong Show", for example, it was played when the contest winner was announced.
Delugg's big television break came in 1950 as bandleader of NBC's prototype late-night show, "Broadway Open House", hosted by Morey Amsterdam and Jerry Lester and regarded as the forerunner of "The Tonight Show". Milton Delugg, with a sly smile and a moustache-less beard and the omnipresent accordion slung around his neck, became a familiar and striking figure on screen. Shortly after launch, the network added a big-breasted if small-talented blonde and told her she was now called "Dagmar". "Boy, was she stacked!" recalled Delugg six decades later. On her first night, he ushered her on, and told the host, "Jerry, this is the new chick with the band. She's going to sing with us."
Lester said, "How does she sound?"
Delugg said, "Who cares?"
It was impromptu, but it got a huge laugh. And after that they gave him lines and skits and bits, as they did on various TV outings all the way to "The Gong Show", when he'd appear with Chuck Barris in the character of venerable philosopher Old Drool or dud joke teller Naso Literatus. I met Delugg just the once, post-"Gong" at some Ascap gathering, and he was a funny guy who would say funny things quite matter-of-factly and then just hold your eye for a smidgeonette longer to see if you got it. I would have thought he'd have been a great foil for Johnny Carson, but Carson didn't like the accordion and insisted Delugg eighty-six his trusty companion, and so Milt proved to be a brief interlude between "Tonight"'s two long-running bandleaders, Skitch Henderson and Doc Severinson.
As for "Broadway House Party", the big-breasted Dagmar got too big, and Jerry Lester quit in protest, and after a month of the stacked blonde in charge they canceled the show. Dagmar went off to duet with Sinatra on "the doggonedest thing you ever heard", which was the final nail in the coffin of Frank's relationship with Mitch Miller and Columbia Records.
Nevertheless, in its short life "Broadway House Party" can claim to be the first TV show to produce a hit song. "Orange Colored Sky" is such a distinctive number you assume there has to be a great and-then-I-wrote story about it. But I asked Delugg, and he said no. So I pressed him: "Well, where did such a memorable title come from?"
"Oh, my wife gave me that," he said. "She usually does."
Surely there has to be more to it than that. After all, there are lots of breezy effortless swingers in the American Songbook, but rarely so yoked to lyrics that track the contours of the tune note for note. I happen to have the original sheet music, and right on the top it says "Walking Tempo". Then the first line:
I was walkin' along...
The melody itself then walks along - left, right, left, right, F, G, F, G - as the lyric sets up the tale:
I was walkin' along
Mindin' my business
When out of an Orange Colored Sky...
At which point we get the tempo marking "Violent".
Is that common in sheet music? I don't think even the gangsta rappers actually type it on to the manuscript, do they? But this song means it:
And then that contrasting legato glide down to love:
Wonderful you came by!
I have a lot of respect for Lady Gaga. When it comes to the standard repertoire, she has excellent taste in songs, and she clearly loves the material, and she gives thoughtful and intelligent presentations of much of it. But with all due humility, to one of the biggest superstars on the planet from one of the most obscure losers in northern New Hampshire, I do feel that in her many performances of "Orange Colored Sky" she misses a crucial aspect of the song. There's supposed to be a contrast between the jaunty saunter of the opening and the violent lightning bolt of love. The "flash!" and "bam!" are meant to be staccato and exclamatory. That's part of what makes the Cole/Kenton record great. It all comes out smooth and homogenized and uncontrasted in Lady Gaga's rendering. But see what you think. Here she is on the Beeb, prefaced by a couple of minutes of trumpet-noodling and a rather sweet intro by her ladyship:
Frank Loesser was not just a peerless lyricist, fine composer, shrewd publisher, savvy producer and lethal song demonstrator; he was also a solid talent-spotter. During the war, he was part of the Special Services Unit, responsible for producing entertainment for the troops and conscripted for said purpose as Private Frank Loesser. Notwithstanding his lowly rank, he insisted on having his uniform custom tailored, which once led to a confused general from the Philippines saluting the bespoke private. Loesser's best pal in Special Services was a fellow called Willie Stein, with whom he wound up writing sketches and special material and the occasional song. Through Loesser, Stein met Milton Delugg, and began providing lyrics for some of the accordionist's tunes. Like Delugg, Stein must have learned from the master Loesser, because "Orange Colored Sky" is very pleasingly yet unobtrusively structured. Thus, on the second outing of the jaunty sauntering section, the "hummin'" and "drinkin'" parallel the "walkin'" and "mindin'" of the first:
I was hummin' a tune
Drinkin' in sunshine
When out of that orange colored view...
And back to the "Flash!" and "Bam!" and that warm downward legato glide to "you". And how about that killer middle section? More exclamatory staccato:
One look and I yelled 'Timber!
Watch out for flying glass!'
And then that wacky pneumatic twelve-triplets-per-bar pile-up of thunderclaps:
'Cause the ceiling fell in and the bottom fell out
I went into a spin and I started to shout...
Eight years later, for Gigi (1958), Lerner & Loewe wrote in "Thank Heaven for Little Girls":
Those little eyes so helpless and appealing
One day will flash and send you crashing through the ceiling...
Alan Jay Lerner agonized over that because he felt one crashed through floors rather than ceilings. But I have to say I find it a little tame after "Orange Colored Sky", in which love flashes and everything crashes: ceiling and floor and timber fall, glass flies, and the poor chap walkin' along mindin' his business is suddenly in a tailspin. It's the accumulation that makes it so good.
And then more staccato:
I've been hit!
This is it!
This is it!
That's just a straight climb up the scale, and I believe it was Pete Rugolo, the arranger for the Cole/Kenton record, who suggested that the band just cap the whole sequence by spelling it out most emphatically:
After which, Delugg and Stein return to a reprise of walkin' along mindin' their business. They showed the song to Loesser, who was enthusiastic (and, in fact, brought it to Nat Cole), but he felt the end was a little... oh, what was that word Delugg used in his critique of "Hoop-Dee-Doo"? Oh, yeah: pedestrian. So Loesser oomphed it up on the spot:
I was walkin' along
Mindin' my business
When love came and hit me in the eye
Out of an orange colored
Pretty green polka dot sky
You'll notice, by the way, that Loesser's tag does precisely the opposite of his advice to Delugg in "Hoop-Dee-Doo": It gets cute and clever right at the end. A sky can be "orange colored" and even "purple striped" but nothing short of a Martian invasion fills it full of "pretty green polka dots". Yet Loesser was entirely correct: The melodic extension and the lyric fancy put the perfect button on the song.
Except that Nat Cole then capped it with his improvised and droll spoken postscript:
Wow, I thought love was much softer than that. What a most disturbing sound.
You want an even more disturbing sound? In the Sixties, Adam West and Burt Ward were a big television hit as Batman and Robin. In 1966, they both sang entirely separate versions of "Orange Colored Sky" - Adam West on "Hollywood Palace" while wearing his Batman long underwear, because the "Flash!" and 'Bam!" of the song were thought to be analogous to the explosive "Ka-pow!" and "Wham!" comic-book lettering of his TV show. That same year Robin the Boy Wonder - sans tights - released his own version of the number, arranged and produced by Frank Zappa:
In 1952, two years after "Orange Colored Sky", Milton Delugg and Willie Stein had another hit - "Be My Life's Companion" for the Mills Brothers. Then Stein decided to concentrate on TV and went off to produce "To Tell the Truth", "Sale of the Century" and "The David Letterman Show". Delugg teamed up with Bob Hilliard to write a daffy novelty song for Doris Day, "Shanghai":
I'm right around the corner in a phone booth
And I wanna be with you tonight!
There was no flash-bam-alakazam-and-goodbye for Milton Delugg. He just kept on, doing this, doing that: He was no rock'n'roller, but he produced Buddy Holly's record of "Rave On", which Rolling Stone ranks as Number 154 on "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". He did an album with Spade Cooley, the western swing-king until he battered his wife to death for having an affair with Roy Rogers, after which he was sent to prison and never heard from again until he was released for a 72-hour furlough to play a benefit for the Deputy Sheriffs of Alameda County, where they gave Spade a standing ovation he found so moving that he died of a flash-bam-alakazam heart attack at intermission. So no second Spade Cooley album for Milton Delugg. Instead he made a killer arrangement of that German faux folk song "The Happy Wanderer", and he wrote the theme song for Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and he was musical director of Macy's Thanksgiving Parade year after year until retiring at the age of 95 in 2013, and making a final on-camera appearance in 2014.
Milton Delugg died five months later, three years shy of this centenary. He is not a household name, though he's probably more of one than he'd be if the family had retained d'Luggach. But for eight decades he was a happy wanderer through the byways of showbusiness; he raved on and on and on, and they never gave him the gong.
~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.
Speaking of the Steyn Club, Mark will be back later this evening with the concluding episode of our current audio adventure, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Tales for Our Time is made possible thanks to members of The Mark Steyn Club, for which we are profoundly grateful. You can find more details about the Steyn Club here. And don't forget our special Gift Membership, which makes a fine Christmas present, and this holiday season comes with a special personalized Christmas card from Mark and a handsomely-engraved gift-boxed USB stick with three of our most popular Tales for Our Time for your loved one to listen to in the car or perambulating through the wilderness or almost anywhere else. (The trio of tales is The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Time Machine and The Thirty-Nine Steps.) For more on our Christmas Gift Membership, see here.