Luigi Francisco Varlaro was born one hundred years ago in the Bronx - April 21st 1919. And if your reaction to that is "Who?", well, he belonged to that generation of Italian-American male vocalists who felt obligated to anglicize their names - Frank Sinatra being the notable exception to the rule and, to most promoters and managers, the exception that proved the rule. So Luigi changed his moniker to "Don Cornell". On paper, "Don Cornell" isn't any blander a handle than, say, Tony Bennett or Dean Martin. But Don did less with his. He had an impressive run of Billboard Top 40 hits through the early Fifties, plus a Number One in the UK ("Hold My Hand"). But, as with other melodramatic Italiano balladeers, most of his catalogue falls in a strange twilight zone between the great timeless songs and the nostalgic where-were-you-when hits of the Fifties, so you don't hear them on either the oldies stations or the standards stations.
Nevertheless, for most of my disc-jockey days, I was very grateful to Mr Cornell, because, for radio pop quizzes, he provided a surefire audience stumper.
Question: What is the Top Ten hit record with the shortest title?
Answer: This - from Don Cornell in 1952, the unilettered "I".
No, not "I (Who Have Nothing)", the Leiber & Stoller song that provided a hit for Ben E King, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones et al, but "I (Who Have Nothing - Not Even a Parenthetic Sub-Title - Other Than a Single Letter)":
Don Cornell got to Number Seven on the Billboard charts with "I" . If you're wondering who wrote it, Mr Cornell's record credits the song to Milton Berle, Buddy Arnold and Robert Mellin. Yes, Milton Berle is that Milton Berle, Mister Television. Buddy Arnold is not the Buddy Arnold who was a terrific tenor saxophonist and, alas, also a voracious drug addict, which led him to several spells behind bars for burglary. No, this Buddy Arnold was a Friars Club habitué who became a TV writer for Uncle Milty, and co-wrote his theme song for "Texaco Star Theater":
Oh, we're the men of Texaco
We work from Maine to Mexico
There's nothing like this Texaco of ours!
Our show tonight is powerful
We'll wow you with an hour full
Of howls from a showerful of stars...
When a showerful of stars take a shower with Milton Berle, they are, so to speak, reduced to bit parts. (For our younger readers, Uncle Milty was famously the best endowed man in Hollywood: When challenged to measuring contests, he "only took out enough to win", etc.)
Where was I? Oh, yeah: The nearest thing to a real songwriter on those credits for "I" is Robert Mellin, who wrote the words to Acker Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore", which lyric has spent almost six decades being entirely unsung, but also co-wrote a lovely Sinatra ballad, "My One and Only Love".
But, in fact, the guy who did the heavy lifting on "I" is not Mellin or Arnold or Berle but a fellow called Riccardo Drigo, who composed the tune - single-handed. Back when he wrote it, it was called the Sérénade from Les Millions d'Arléquin, a hugely successful ballet that premiered at the Imperial Theatre of the Hermitage in St Petersburg in 1899, in the presence of the Tsar and Tsarina. In 1952, the "Sérénade" was still a popular recital piece for the likes of Mario Lanza et al - and it was still in copyright. But Signor Drigo was entirely cut out: The composer of "I" was reduced to "I (Who Have Nothing)". Perhaps it was something to do with the Cold War, and the high degree of copyright theft by the Soviets.
Milton Berle wrote songs for most of his life, mainly because he knew there was a lot of money in it and figured he had to strike gold sooner or later. Other than "I" his best-known effort is "Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long", a lament to one's tailor and a comic variant on what Berle felt was the ludicrously ardent "Lawd, You Made the Night Too Long". Still, for a while "I" was a bona fide hit - and more power to Milty: it's quite something to hold the record for the shortest song and the longest dong. Whoops, sorry, I don't usually work blue until the late show...
Anyway, I wonder if Berle didn't get the idea for a short-titled song after getting the short end of the stick on this radio duet with Frank Sinatra:
Miss Jessica Martin and I divide the honors somewhat more equitably here. "It's De-Lovely" is, of course, by Cole Porter, who was somewhat antipathetic to Milton Berle, rhyming him with "castor erl" in a laundry list of undesirables that concludes "Cherry Pies Ought to Be You". Nevertheless, Berle did the trick for Don Cornell with "I", which remained the shortest title of a hit record for forty years.
And then came Prince. In 1992, Prince and the New Power Generation made a number called "7" - which is one of my favorite numbers. "7" got to 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was a 7-inch single, which they still had (just about) back then. And, in addition to all that, the track "samples" "Tramp", Carla Thomas and Otis Redding's duet from '77. Oh, wait, no: it was '67. Too bad:
Prince was the great abbreviator, most famously of his own name. But, even though Twitter has taught us to think of writing as "characters", I'm not sure a single character really ties Don Cornell's record: After all, "7" is, in fact, "Seven", which is a two-syllable word. Publishing it numerically is a bit of a dodge.
So I'm inclined to think that Don Cornell's record was not tied until Xzibit came along a few years later with another single-letter hit "X". This gave Don nothing much to worry about Billboard-wise - it only got to Number 76 in America - but in the UK in 2000 it made it to Number Fourteen. Caution: This record samples "Not these niggas again" from Eminem's "Bitch Please II", so, if that's offensive to you, feel free to scroll back up to my Milton Berle penis jokes:
If you can have a hit with the letter "X", surely someone along the way must have written a song called "O", which is a bona fide word and has kickstarted a zillion song titles from "O Come All Ye Faithful" to "O Sole Mio"... Well, in fact, a couple of guys did, Byron Gay and Arnold Johnson, way back in 1919. But they blew it when they took it to the publisher and agreed to a parenthesis: "'O' (Oh!)" Here's the Ted Lewis band with a century-old hit record that was very nearly the shortest song title in history:
That's Ted Lewis, O for Oh.
What's the biggest-selling two-letter hit title? It would have to be "If". Everyone from Pink Floyd to Janet Jackson has turned out songs so titled, but the two biggest were written forty years apart. A trio of British songwriters - Tolchard Evans, Robert Hargreaves and Stanley J Damerell - came up with the first in 1934, and it did nothing much for a decade and a half until Perry Como made it a Billboard Number One in America:
Como was Number One for eight weeks in 1951, and, after him, everybody sang it - and everybody charted with it: Jo Stafford (Number Eight), Billy Eckstine (Number Ten), Dean Martin (Number Fourteen), Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians (Number Twenty), The Ink Spots (23), Jan Garber (26), Vic Damone (28)... Tolchard Evans was visiting America that spring and went back to London a very happy man: Never have two letters generated so many hit records.
And then another "If" came along, a somewhat fey ballad by David Gates of the soppy hippie group Bread. Sinatra sang this "If" rather a lot in the Seventies and Eighties, and always very seriously, as if trying to impress it with more weight than it could bear. But the definitive recording is that of Kojak, Telly Savalas. He has a, er, narrower range than Perry Como above, but this was a UK Number One in 1975:
As you can see, lip-synching to speaking is considerably more difficult than lip-synching to singing. But the fact remains: "If" is a very short word, just two letters, yet two songs, two Number Ones, on two continents, with two singers. Well, one singer, and a bald TV cop intoning in between drags on his cigarette.
Finally, if you're minded to entertain Prince's claim to the title with "7", we should note that there have been far more songs with the number 1 than with the number 7 or 47 or 597 or anything else. But all the songs called 1 are nevertheless formally published as "One". So, unless they go all Prince-like on the sheet music, they don't count. But here's a good "One", written by Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban for A Chorus Line in 1975. This is one of my favorite Tony Bennett arrangements, even though I don't believe he ever put it on an album:
Like a lot of Tony Bennett arrangements, that one (in the spirit of this week's song titles) is very short. So one' mo time:
On this centenary of Don Cornell he remains one singular sensation - the singer of the biggest shortest-titled hit in history. If you have any other short-titled songs, do let me know in the comments. We'll save the long 'uns for another day, so for now, like Milton Berle, please only take out enough to win.
~Mark tells the story behind more great songs, from "My Funny Valentine" to "Light My Fire", in his book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are available from the SteynOnline bookstore. And, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter the promo code at checkout to enjoy the special Steyn Club member discount. Our Club is fast approaching the start of its third year - and although, as we always say, club membership isn't for everybody, it does help keep all our content out there for everybody, in print, audio, video, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Sunday song selections. And we're proud to say that this site now offers more free content than ever before in our sixteen-year history.
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