Seven decades ago the Billboard pop chart began the New Year with a Number One hit that was also on its way to winning an Oscar a couple of months later. The last chart-topper of 1948 and the first of 1949 was the most successful version of a much recorded item that season - Betty Rhodes, Gene Autry, Betty Garrett, the Dinning Sisters and a bunch of others all took a crack at the song, but Dinah Shore's lovely record outsold them all, and still sounds good today:
The number was one of three Academy Award winners written by the team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. There was "Que Sera, Sera" (our Song of the Week #17), and before that "Mona Lisa", and before either of them their very first Oscar champ:
East is east
And west is west
And the wrong one I have chose
Let's go where
They keep on wearin'
Those frills and flowers and Buttons And Bows
Rings and things and Buttons And Bows...
Livingston & Evans weren't exactly big men on backlot in 1947. They'd had a couple of pop hits but they were relatively new to the movies. As Time magazine reported in 1948:
Two Hollywood tunesmiths were singing the blues. 'Every producer wants a song just like some other song. They want another Stardust. We write it for 'em. But it's tough. We have to please the publishers, the song pluggers, the singers, the disc jockeys and the public. But before we even get that far, we have to keep the musical director, the producer, the star and the director happy. If Betty Hutton's hairdresser doesn't like your stuff, brother, you're dead.'
That was the way Songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans talked—but they really had no complaint coming. For two years, Evans & Livingston, both 33, have been eating high on the hog. Their first big hit was a song called To Each His Own, which made them about $80,000, enough for each of them to buy a house and get married.
Their houses were about to get a lot fancier. "At that time," recalled Evans, "we were low men on the totem pole in the music department." But Paramount decided to assign them to the new Bob Hope picture – which, as it turned out, featured totem poles. The film was to be called The Paleface and Hope was Painless Potter, a cowardly dentist from back east on the loose in the wild west and accompanied by Calamity Jane, played by Jane Russell, which is the kind of calamity most of us like in a jane. The incompetent Painless was a diversionary front for her activities. Hard to believe Jane Russell would be looking for a diversionary front, but there we are.
Paramount needed a scene that starts out with Hope driving a covered wagon with Miss Russell in the back. He turns round to cop a gander, and doesn't notice that, while he's distracted, his horses have hung a left and diverted Painless Potter, Calamity Jane and the entire wagon train into an Indian ambush. So Livingston & Evans wrote a song called "Skookum", which is a Chinook word meaning various things in English, from "monstrous" to "good luck", but intended by its authors here to mean something like "Okay!"
Their director Norman McLeod thought it was anything but okay, and refused to use it. Hope's the designated funny guy, the Indians are supposed to be threatening, so a funny song about comedy Injuns would wreck the scene. Jay and Ray were shooed away and told to start over. The studio wanted a song for Hope to sing to Russell: She's running around in chaps and he's the chap who's getting the runaround. What do you write for that? Evans remembered it this way:
We had a very creative producer, and he said, 'Why don't you write a song about how Bob Hope is a tenderfoot in the west, he hates it, and he wishes he was back in the east where the girls were pretty and there was civilization and society and everything?' Now on the way back from the producer's office to our office on the Paramount lot, which was about a minute or two minutes, somehow in my mind I got the idea of a kind of rhythm: 'Let's go where the girls keep wearing those frills and flowers and buttons and bows, rings and things and buttons and bows.' The minute we got to our office, Jay sat down at the piano and went da-da-dah dah da-da-da-da da-da da-dah da-da-da dah...
The clippetty-cloppy rhythm was just right for the movie – Hope sings it in a covered wagon, and the song alludes directly to his predicament:
My bones denounce
The buckboard bounce...
You can hear the buckboard in the tune. It's a simple song, but written in the jaunty buckboard bounce of a wagon rumbling westward across a bumpy trail and strung around an Americanized take on Kipling: "East is east, and west is west, and ne'er the twain..." Hope likes his gals citified and refined, not in chaps and buckskin. "Buttons And Bows" is a "bouncy lament" (in Stanley Green's phrase), which is perfect for a western number that's anti-western. There used to be a whole bunch of those – "Way Out West," wrote Rodgers and Hart with East Coast condescension, "where seldom is heard an intelligent word". But "Buttons And Bows" isn't about snobbery. It's a man pining for femininity. If you pick up the CD he made with Michael Feinstein right at the end of his life, you can hear Jay Livingston giving a marvelously heartfelt rendition of the verse:
A western ranch
Is just a branch
Of Nowhere Junction to me
Give me the city
Where living's pretty
And the gals wear fi-ne-reee....
...and into the chorus. "Finery" is a fine word: I wish more gals wore finery, and I wish we still called it that.
The musicologist Alec Wilder had a theory that "contrived country songs" are so memorable because they eschew the fourth interval (and in this case also the seventh, except for one quaver). Whether or not he's right, I doubt Livingston & Evans conceived it that way: they wrote all of a piece, some words, a melodic line, some more words, a middle eight, until the whole thing was complete. And, in any case, there are plenty of "contrived country songs" that are nowhere near as big as this. As Time reported 60 years ago:
They worked up a bouncy little tune for Bob Hope to twang to Jane Russell while leading a covered-wagon train in a western called The Paleface. Record companies recorded it, then held back on it, as usual, until about ten to twelve weeks before the movie was due for release. Last September the record companies began to let it spin. By last week, Dinah Shore's record of Buttons and Bows was No. 1 on the hit parade. It was just the songwriters' good fortune that by the time their tune finally came out, the U.S. was in a mood for "corn belt" music with words like:
'East is east and west is west
And the wrong one I have chose;
Let's go where you'll keep on wearin'
Those frills and flowers and buttons and bows.'
Paramount was slightly embarrassed by its sudden success: Buttons and Bows might be as cold as Constantinople by the time the movie is released at Christmas. But Tunesmiths Evans & Livingston hope to pocket $20,000 apiece from it.
They did a lot better than that. Aside from Gene Autry's recording, it was the gals who went for the song: Evelyn Knight got to Number 14, Betty Jane Rhodes Number Nine, Betty Garrett Number Eight, the Dinning Sisters Number Five, and Dinah Shore hit the top for ten weeks. Heavily pregnant, Dinah recorded "Buttons and Bows" at three minutes to midnight, anxious to get the orchestra out of there before the clock struck. At midnight, the musicians' union strike was set to begin, and "Buttons and Bows" would be the last record made before the deadline - and a year-long drought of studio players.
Dinah and the band more than delivered. By the time the movie opened, the song was so big it got star billing. The posters read:
Bob Hope, Jane Russell and 'Buttons And Bows'
Hope's own recording is a bit much for my tastes: I love his singing voice on "Thanks For The Memory" and "Two Sleepy People" and many more, but he hams up the western accent on "Buttons" at the expense of the song's charm. It was Dinah's Georgia-creamy tones that sold it to the public, and so well that the studio decided to reprise it in Son Of Paleface, with Hope as Painless Potter's son and Jane Russell squeezed into the kind of get-up he wanted her in all along. During the "Wing-Ding" number, when she descends the staircase of the saloon shoehorned into a scarlet bodice, Bob's pipe begins to bubble and pop his lid and his nose starts steaming:
Standing alongside, Roy Rogers is completely unmoved. "What's the matter?" asks Hope. "Don't you like girls?"
"I'll stick to horses, mister," says Rogers – which more or less confirms Hope's general view of the neighborhood:
Don't bury me
In this prairie
Take me where the cement grows...
It's sung as not "PRAIrie" and "ceMENT" but "praiRIE" and "CEment". As Frank Loesser observed in another context, "You jes' put the acCENT upon the wrong sylLABle" - and suddenly it's country-&-western, as least as far as the city folks are concerned.
The song put in a third appearance at Paramount in 1950 – in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. William Holden sneaks out of Gloria Swanson's mausoleum and heads off to a party with all the young movie crowd. Livingston & Evans are in there, seated at the piano and playing "Buttons And Bows". They'd written another number for the scene, "The Paramount Don't Want Me Blues", but Paramount thought it was too "in".
Certainly, Paramount wanted them, as did Bob Hope, for whom they subsequently wrote "Silver Bells", his big Christmas hit from The Lemon Drop Kid. They stuck with him almost to the end. In the late Eighties, Hope asked them for a song about the touring life. Pushing ninety, he was still on the road more nights than Motorhead and he'd got fed up singing Willie Nelson's "On The Road Again". So Livingston & Evans came up with a few ideas and called him up at his hotel in Montana.
"What've you got?" he said. They ran through some titles, and one he liked: "I'm Available". "That's it!" he said.
So they wrote it up – "If the circus comes to town/And they need another clown/I'm Available." You get the idea. It was the last fruits of a partnership that had begun over forty years earlier, when "Buttons And Bows" beat out "For Every Man There's A Woman", "It's Magic", "This Is The Moment" and even "The Woody Woodpecker Song" to bring home the 1948 Best Song Oscar. The song also has the distinction of being the only Livingston & Evans Academy Award winner that Ray Evans never heard on vacation in Afghanistan. The house band in his hotel played "Mona Lisa" and "Que Sera, Sera" but never "Buttons And Bows", presumably because references to women in "peek-a-boo clothes" would have got any Talibs in the crowd even more over-heated than Bob Hope's pipe.
But Hope kept on singing it. Here he is four decades on, on the telly with Dolly Parton and topical Boy George cracks:
Oh, and Paramount got a bit more use from the song, too - on the small screen this time. On an episode of their sitcom "Frasier", Dr Crane was making his annual appearance on the local PBS telethon, where it had been his custom for some years to sing "Buttons And Bows". This time round, though, he decides he's going to do something more befitting to his status, something from Rigoletto – Verdi rather than Livingston & Evans. At the last moment, live on air, he chickens out and announces that by popular demand he's going to stick to his classic rendition of "Buttons And Bows" ...and promptly forgets all the words, reducing the number to gibberish:
All together now:
My bones denounce
The fearful trounce
And la-la la-la mole that grows
Ba-da Seuss and a pom caboose
And a panda hop and pantyhose
You'll look buppity Buttons And Bows...
Cute. But I think I'll stick with the original. The close of the lyric has one of my all-time favorite couplets from the entire American songbook, and is a peachy example of how one word ("rocks") can freshen up even the most familiar image. As Dinah sang on the charts seventy years ago this January:
Gimme eastern trimmin'
Where women are women
In high silk hose
And peek-a-boo clothes
And French perfume
That rocks the room
And I'm all yours in Buttons And Bows.
~If you're in the mood for eastern trimmin' where women are women, take yourself where the cement grows, and check out Steyn with Dennis Miller together on stage for the first time in Pennsylvania and New York. They'll be starting their tour next month in Reading and Syracuse. And remember that with VIP tickets you not only have the best seats but you also get to meet Dennis and Mark after the show.
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. 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. And there's many more great songs in our annual Twelfth Night live-music special with Mark and his guests.