Exactly three-quarters of a century ago - July 1st 1944 - this record hit Number One on the Billboard pop charts:
That's a bonus bit of studio chatter at the end there. It was pretty much Bing's hit parade in the 1940s. The above record held the top spot throughout July, and then in August was succeeded by more Crosby - "Swinging on a Star".
As much as "It Had To Be You" or "The Way You Look Tonight", "I'll Be Seeing You" belongs to a select group of ĂĽber-standards, the ones we'll still be singing when ninety per cent of the rest have fallen away. It's one of those "our song" songs - especially if you happened to find yourself on a railway platform in the early 1940s waving a loved one off to war. When the Queen Mum died in 2002 (for non-Commonwealth readers, that's the mother of the present Queen), it was said to have been one of Her Majesty's favorite songs, although its catchpenny sentiments - that small cafĂ©, the chestnut tree - are a virtual laundry list of experiences denied to a king and queen. Nevertheless, for consorts and commoners alike, "I'll Be Seeing You" caught the moment and could conjure it through all the decades after. It's one of those tunes that's more than a hit, that somehow distills the mood of an era, as John Schlesinger understood when he used it in Yanks, his 1979 wartime romance starring young Richard Gere as a GI in England, over-sexed, overpaid and over here, as the local lads grumbled.
Schlesinger had it sung on the soundtrack not by Vera Lynn but by Anne Shelton, Britain's other "Forces' Sweetheart". I once asked Sammy Fain, the song's composer, which was his favorite recording, and he reeled off about 40 he enjoyed - jazz, country, rhythm'n'blues. But, if you fell in love with it as a wartime ballad, you always hear it in the voices of the day, as the last dance under the glitterball, with some big-band canary up on the stage.
And yet it's not a war song, not really. Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal wrote "I'll Be Seeing You" in 1938, for a Broadway show called Right This Way. The team had been together off and on for about a decade and had had a handful of hits, among them a Maurice Chevalier movie number, "You Brought A New Kind Of Love To Me", and an effervescent pop song that's a perfect evocation of the late Twenties/early Thirties:
When I Take My Sugar To Tea
All the boys are jealous of me
So I never take her where the gang goes
When I Take My Sugar To Tea...
But for the score of Right This Way, Fain and Kahal surpassed themselves, writing two terrific ballads, "I Can Dream, Can't I?" and "I'll Be Seeing You", both introduced by Tamara. If you're wondering "Tamara who?", well, just for the record, it was Tamara Drasin, but she was a big enough star in 1938 to dispense with the surname. "She was doing that years before Madonna," Sammy Fain said to me back in the Eighties. And she certainly was - even when co-starring in Roberta with bi-appellated types like Bob Hope, Faye Templeton and Sidney Greenstreet. For Right This Way she asked Fain & Kahal for a song to do in the Third Act, seated downstage at a little cafĂ© table - one of those intimate numbers that's between a great performer and her audience, with no-one and nothing getting in the way. The plot of Right This Way was basic boy-meets-girl, but the boy's a foreign correspondent based in Paris and, when he's called back to the States, the girl's left behind. So Tamara sang:
Cathedral bells were tolling and our hearts sang on;
Was it the spell of Paris or the April dawn?
Who knows if we shall meet again?
But when the morning chimes ring sweet again
I'll Be Seeing You
In all the old familiar places...
Eighty years on, a surprising number of singers make a point of singing the verse. I don't know why, to be honest. The tune is moving, if oddly formal. But the words, in making the situation more special ("cathedral bells", "the spell of Paris"), somehow make the song less so. The verse, though, does explain why the imagery, although often taken to be that of small-town America, is in fact better suited to the City of Light:
In that small cafĂ©
The park across the way
The children's carousel
The chestnut tree...
Sidewalk cafes, chestnuts in blossom: More Paris, France than Paris, Maine. Nevertheless, the real power of the chorus is the way it transforms the commonplace:
I'll Be Seeing You
In every lovely summer's day
In everything that's light and gay
I'll always think of you that way...
How could it miss?
But it did. When I used to run into Sammy Fain at Ascap get-togethers in the Eighties, he was a small, dapper man with a philosophical buoyancy about failure. Within a year, he'd written both a huge Broadway hit - Hellzapoppin' - and a colossal Broadway flop - Right This Way. But in Hellzapoppin' no one cared about the songs and with Right This Way no one cared about the show. It ran 15 performances, which suggests an awful lot of theatergoers never stuck around for the big ballad. As Fain said to me: "Where's the exit? Right This Way."
"I Can Dream, Can't I?" wiggled free, and was almost immediately a hit for Tommy Dorsey - in 1938, two years before young Frank Sinatra joined the band. But the other great ballad disappeared, which infuriated Fain's lyricist Irving Kahal. "Damn it, this is the greatest song I've ever written," he told his wife Edna, "and nothing's been done with it." It would take the upending of the world for it to find its raison d'ĂŞtre - in a transformed landscape where parting is a fact of life. The lyrical imagery is unexceptional but in the tune you hear something melancholy and uncertain and even vaguely Mahleresque (the last movement of the Third Symphony, to be less vague about it). That's what made the song: In war, you can't even bet on ordinariness, on small cafĂ©s and parks across the way.
"It caught on toward the end of 1943, I would say," Sammy Fain told me. "And it just kept going. Soldiers and sailors would come up to me all the time and tell me it was their favorite song." Bing's version is iconic: This is Crosby just after "White Christmas", when it was implicitly understood that he's the go-to guy for articulating the national mood. Yet the Tommy Dorsey band's record wasn't far behind on the hit parade, although it's Johnny Mince's clarinet rather than the young Sinatra's vocal that supplies the real wartime wistfulness.
There's a reason for that. It's 1944, right? But didn't Sinatra leave the Dorsey orchestra in '42? Indeed he did. But when "I'll Be Seeing You" took off, they remembered they had an old record with Frank sitting around, so why not release it? It was recorded in February 1940, in Sinatra's first month with the band, and on his second recording date - after they'd done "Shake Down The Stars" and "Moments In The Moonlight". "Shake Down The Stars" was a hit for Glenn Miller, and "Moments" was going places, and "I'll Be Seeing You" was just something to round out the session. Maybe Dorsey had had it lying around since the publisher passed him "I Can Dream, Can't I?" two years earlier. And so, yes, it's true that Frank doesn't dig as deep as Bing does. But that's not only because he's just a kid with minimal recording experience who's still learning his trade but because Crosby has a big advantage over Sinatra: Bing knows there's a war on. He made his recording in February 1944 - four years after Frank - and he understands the new context of the lyric. In February 1940, France and the British Empire were in the war, but not America. So Sinatra looked down at the sheet and saw just another love song:
By 1944 he had a far greater interpretative range. Finding a four-year-old recording from his callow youth on the charts, Frankie took to singing it on the radio, usually concluding on a beautiful falsetto "you" that wafts away into the spheres. Within a year or two, he'd concluded that that made the number less about the song and too much about the singing, and so he brought that "you" down for a softer landing, still very expressive but closer to the human experience the lyric demands.
Yet, for a song he sang a lot, "I'll Be Seeing You" had to wait a decade-and-a-half after the end of the war to meet Frankie again in the recording studio. It was 1961. In May of that year he recorded his Dorsey tribute album, I Remember Tommy, and in September he recorded his final, contractually-obligated album for Capitol, Point Of No Return. And on both albums he sang "I'll Be Seeing You" - in two entirely different charts, both by arrangers he'd first met in his Dorsey days, Sy Oliver and Axel Stordahl.
The Sy Oliver "I'll Be Seeing You" is a blast: No wartime melancholy here, no sir. It's swingin' all the way, complete with period slang in the out-chorus:
I will dig you in the early bright
And when the night is new
I'll be looking at the moon
But I'll Be Seeing You!
And then four months later he's back in the studio, with "I'll Be Seeing You" on the stand, and this time it's a beautiful, tender ballad treatment, with Axel Stordahl's characteristically lovely strings and some of the most exquisite horn charts he ever wrote:
Which is the real Sinatra "I'll Be Seeing You"? Both. There's no correct way to do the number. The definition of a standard is a song you can do in a zillion different ways - and sometimes with the same singer, and all in the same year. Grab a piece of paper and draw a triangle. Point A is Frank's 1940 record of "I'll Be Seeing You". Point B is Sy Oliver's May 1961 swinger. Point C is Axel Stordahl's September 1961 ballad version. The lines between A and B and between A and C mark Sinatra's artistic growth, and the line between B and C marks his emotional range.
Not everyone responds to "I'll Be Seeing You". Regular readers will know I like to cite Frank's friend, the musicologist and composer Alec Wilder. Yet, aside from a pick-up note in the 16th bar, Wilder pronounces the tune "boneless and insipid and written as if at an organ with the Vox Humana stop out. I simply don't believe that the experience of writing it was one of deep involvement."
Oh, well. Millions of others beg to differ. For them, Sammy Fain's tune is anything but "boneless and insipid", and Irving Kahal's lyric is an accumulation of treasured places where love will always linger:
I'll Be Seeing You
In that small cafĂ©
The park across the way
The children's carousel
The chestnut tree, the wishing well...
Most couples have done these things - sat in cafĂ©s, walked in parks. But one of the few who almost certainly hadn't were the Queen Mother and King George VI. Even when she and the Duke of York were courting, you'd be unlikely to find a Bowes-Lyon in a Corner House (that's an English pun: if you're American, don't worry about it). I doubt she ever visited a municipal park except to name it after her husband. Yet the imagery of love songs is a kind of aspirational ordinariness - the ennobling of trivialities - and they speak to princes as well as paupers - and across the generations, too. It was the song Johnny Carson asked Stevie Wonder to sing to him to close out his thirty-year run on "The Tonight Show". By that point, for every rocker in mid-life crisis compiling his standards album, "I'll Be Seeing You" was high on the list. And half-a-century after the war it was still a favorite "our song" for star-crossed lovers parted by the cruelties of fate. See, for example, the Starr Report on President Clinton's high crimes and misdemeanors. Footnote 707, a letter from Miss Monica Lewinsky:
When I was hiding out in your office, I noticed you had the new Sarah McLachlan CD. I have it, too, and it's wonderful. Whenever I listen to song #5 I think of you. That song and Billie Holiday's version of I'll Be Seeing You are guaranteed to put me to tears when it comes to you!
Bill Clinton certainly understood what the Queen Mum's pal Noel Coward called "the potency of cheap music". And when a song's that potent, why risk anything else? "I'll Be Seeing You" was Bill and Monica's song - and also Bill and Hillary's. At the fiftieth anniversary D-Day celebrations in England in 1994, it was "I'll Be Seeing You" that the band struck up as the President and First Lady walked away hand in hand. And, according to a 1997 interview he gave about his record collection, it's Bill's favorite song, even if there are no women to hand.
But with Monica it seems either the most absurd self-delusion, or a bleak recognition that her own "relationship" was nothing to sing about. On their very first meeting, after delivering pizza to the President, Monica turned to leave the Oval Office and famously flipped up her skirt to give him a glimpse of her departing thong. When I first read that "I'll Be Seeing You" was her favorite song, it reminded me of a story Sammy Cahn (whose contribution to the songbook we celebrate here) told me many years ago. There was a private party for the president of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, and Sammy had written some special material, including a sketch which ended with Judy Garland turning and flipping up her own skirt, prompting Phil Silvers to sing:
I'll be looking at your moon
But I'll Be Seeing You.
Perhaps even now, over a decade and a half later, that's how Bill Clinton thinks of his lost love.If only she'd held out for small cafĂ©s and chestnut trees...
The songwriter has to say it for everyone, for the GIs shipping out tomorrow, and for more specialized scenarios half-a-century hence. Of the three people most involved in the birth of "I'll Be Seeing You", two-thirds never lived to see its great wartime success. In 1944, the song lent its title to a Ginger Rogers/Joseph Cotten film, and never looked back. But its lyricist Irving Kahal had died two years earlier, and the lady who first sang it, Tamara, had been killed in a plane crash in Lisbon in 1943. Neither knew the song as anything other than a failure. Liberace's syrupy TV theme-tune version, the end titles of Misery, the final episodes of "Star Trek: Deep Six Nine" and "Beavis & Butthead", Mario Lanza, Gene Pitney, Neil Sedaka, the Carpenters, Willie Nelson and Rickie Lee Jones and Rod Stewart, a weird duet by French chanteuse FranĂ§oise Hardy and Iggy Pop and two great versions by Sinatra within four months of each other, all were unheard by Irving Kahal.
He was 38 when he died of uremia on February 7th 1942, still convinced that the obscure, forgotten "I'll Be Seeing You" was the greatest song he and Sammy Fain had written together. Fain spent the time between Kahal's death and the funeral rehearsing the organist, a little white-haired old lady. With the Vox Humana stop out? History does not record, but for three days she sat there and did nothing but play "I'll Be Seeing You" until Fain was satisfied she could do justice to his late partner's favorite ballad.
"He truly loved that song," Irving Kahal's widow Edna said, decades after everyone else had come to love it, too. "Of course, I always felt that it was deserving. I just pray that somewhere, somehow, he knows."
It's traveled a long way. Just a few month ago - February 13th 2019 - the last piece of data transmitted by Nasa down on earth to the robotic space rover Opportunity way out there on Mars was Billie Holiday's version, for any Martian Bill-and-Monicas in need of an "our song" song:
~Mark tells the story of many beloved songs - from "Auld Lang Syne" to "White Christmas" - 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.
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