If you ever saw George Shearing live, you'll know the moment in the show when he'd say something along the lines of:
I'm credited with writing some three hundred songs. Two hundred and ninety-nine rocketed from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here's the other one.
Lullaby Of Birdland
That's what I
When you sigh...
And that's what he always heard - for the best part of 60 years. The other 299 ranged from "Adieu", which promptly lived up to its title, to "Road To Nowhere", which did likewise. But "Lullaby Of Birdland" gave George Shearing a small but secure slot in the standard repertoire, thanks to recordings from Ella Fitzgerald to Scott Walker (not the Governor of Wisconsin, the other one).
This week marks the centenary of Sir George, as Her Majesty, cutting it exceeding fine, dubbed him a couple of years before his death at 91. He was born in London, south of the river at Battersea, on August 13th 1919 - and was blind from that first gulp of air, the result, he believed, of a botched attempt at abortion.
Nevertheless, he grew up to become one of the greatest pianists of our time. His quintet sound of the late Forties made his name and earned him a fortune, but it was the later Shearing I loved: He was a superb improvisor whose allusions roamed far beyond the jazz songbook. More unusually, for a truly great pianist he was a superb accompanist. But he was picky about singers, and over the course of half a century they formed a very exclusive club, from Peggy Lee and Nat "King" Cole to John Pizzarelli and Michael Feinstein. He never accompanied Sinatra, although I saw him open for Frank once at Carnegie Hall. But he had a special affinity for Mel TormĂ©. Shearing had a droll sense of humor (to an interviewer who asked him whether he'd been blind all his life, he replied, "Not yet"), and he and TormĂ© enjoyed musical jokes. The best involved Shearing starting up the famous da-da de-da-da vamp to "New York, New York", at which point TormĂ© comes in singing "(The bells are ringing) For Me And My Gal", and detours through "They Didn't Believe Me", "Mack The Knife", "Birth Of The Blues" and "How High The Moon", all to the accompaniment of the same insistent "New York, New York" vamp - until finally an exasperated Shearing yells, "Okay, Melmy, sing it already!" And so TormĂ© finally starts spreading the news and being a part of it, at which point the pianist drops the vamp and accompanies "New York, New York" by playing Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade".
As an arranger, Sir George developed his quintet's distinctive "Shearing voicing" from listening to the Miller orchestra's reed section. He played in "block chords" - "a four-note chord in the right hand with the left-hand doubling the little-finger melody played in the right hand". Then he got the guitar to double the lower melody and the vibraphone the upper. Where the Miller sound often made tunes sound simpler than they were, the Shearing sound deepened them.
But, as I said, most of Shearing's incredibly successful career is beyond the province of our Song of the Week department. His contribution to the American songbook rests on one tune only. It's a number for which I have a particular affection, because I do believe it's the first individual piece of sheet music I ever owned. As a kid, I took piano lessons, and soon figured that, aside from the Royal Academy of Music lesson books and a few Easi-Play Classics compilations, I'd like to get a couple of songbooks. So one Christmas I got a Cole Porter collection, and an Al Jolson anthology, too. But I'd taken a liking to one particular tune, "Lullaby of Broadway" (our Song of the Week #79), and I requested the sheet music as a birthday gift. As is the way with these things, my mum went out to get it and returned not with "Lullaby of Broadway" but "Lullaby of Birdland", a tune I didn't know. But what the hell, I propped it up on the piano and bashed it out. The title line - "Lullaby of Birdland" - was okay, but what I really loved was what came next:
...that's what I
When you sigh...
I loved the chords on those three-word phrases. Loved to play them over and over, fast and staccato, slow and dreamy. I think it was the first time I truly appreciated the pleasures of harmonic progression. It's basically a variation on the "Blue Moon" road-map (our Song of the Week #155), but it was the coolest thing I'd ever played, and it made you sound like a real pianist.
Decades later, I got to hear from Shearing's own lips the story of its creation. He wrote it in ten minutes in 1952. Back in late 1948, he'd played at the Clique Club on Broadway and 44th Street. The following year the club changed hands and the new owner, Morris Levy, decided to rename it after Charlie "Bird" Parker. It wasn't much of an honor: The room was nothing special, just another little New York jazz joint that at capacity held maybe 150, 175 customers. But three years later Levy came to an arrangement with the radio station WJZ to host a nightly show from Birdland. Not live music, just a disc-jockey spinning platters from 11pm into the small hours. But Levy figured it would help to have a theme tune, which would be played every hour on the hour. So he had one rustled up and asked George Shearing to record it.
There was a small problem. Shearing didn't like the tune. "Look, I can't relate very well to this theme you've sent me," he told Levy. "Why don't I write one for you?"
As one wily businessman to another, the club owner figured the pianist was working his own little angle into Levy's deal. "I'll bet you'd like to write one," he said. "Because you have your own music publishing company, haven't you?"
Shearing insisted it was entirely for artistic reasons. He couldn't record a theme for the club unless "I can feel comfortable about playing it."
"Well," said Levy, thinking of his own comfort levels, "we would feel comfortable about you playing a tune that we own."
So Shearing agreed that he'd get the composing rights but Levy would get the publishing rights. Mrs Shearing was none too happy about the arrangement because at the time she was running George's publishing company, and she didn't like the idea of losing out on the publishing royalties. She cheered up when she heard his new tune because it was so bad she was pretty confident there'd be no royalties no lose. "That's terrible," Trixie told her husband.
Shearing agreed. But as much as he wrestled with the assignment he couldn't come up with anything better. So after a few days he stuck it in the mail and sent it to Levy. That evening, in the middle of eating his char-broiled steak at their home in Old Tappan, New Jersey, he suddenly jumped up from the table. "What's wrong now?" said the missus. Shearing had been known to leap from his chair when presented with a meal not to his taste. This time, though, he ran to the piano, sat down, began to play, and ten minutes later had the whole of "Lullaby Of Birdland" mapped out. At the end, he turned to Trixie: "What do you think of that?"
"I've been back to that butcher many times," he told me, "but I never got a steak that did the trick again." Shearing told Levy to forget the first tune, and sent him the new one. It was a late night radio show from Birdland so they called the theme "Lullaby of Birdland". The show and the tune did well - so well that acts booked into the club quickly began including the theme as a tip of the hat. In 1953, a year after its composition, the Count Basie Orchestra was playing Birdland and delivered a performance of Shearing's tune that's as great as any in the years since. But the number's fame spread way beyond the club: If you were at Massey Hall in Toronto in '53, you could have heard Bud Powell play it with Charlie Mingus and Max Roach.
And then Morris Levy got to thinking: What's more lucrative than a hit tune? A hit song. So he turned to, as Shearing put it in his autobiography, "a man by the name of George David Weiss". Weiss is nobody's idea of a household name but he wrote a big bunch of hit songs over the years, from "Rumors Are Flying", his first Number One (for Frankie Carle, in 1946), to "Let's Put It All Together", for the Stylistics in the Seventies. In between came Mr Wonderful, a hit show for Sammy Davis Jr that produced the title song and "Too Close For Comfort", "Wheel Of Fortune" for Kay Starr, "Can't Help Falling In Love" for Elvis, "What A Wonderful World" for Louis Armstrong and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". With a catalogue like that, you couldn't exactly say George Weiss had a signature style, but, for a jobbing Tin Pan Alleyman, it's not unimpressive. A decade after "Birdland", the Shearing quintet made a fine record of a lovely ballad Weiss wrote for Nat Cole, "That Sunday, That Summer".
As we've had cause to note on several previous occasions, the trouble with putting words to an existing jazz instrumental is that it tends to come out sounding less like a song than as an instrumental somebody's singing a lyric to. It lacks the unity of a conceived song. In Weiss' case, he was additionally handicapped by the pre-existing title: "Lullaby of Birdland". What would such a lyric be about? The club? Charlie Parker? A land of especial ornithological significance? In the end, Weiss decided to write basic boy-meets-girl and shoehorn the title in as necessary. So:
Lullaby Of Birdland
That's what I
When you sigh...
Okay, what next? Weiss then decides to rhyme the title:
Never in my wordland
Could there be ways
In a phrase
How I feel...
"Never in my wordland"? We're in I-can't-believe-what-I've-just-heardland! When I bashed the tune out as a child, I assumed "wordland" was some sort of hepcat talk - a popular vernacular term beatniks used as a synonym for "vocabulary" or "dictionary". But, of course, Weiss just pulled it out of the air, and then has to justify it with a sideways rewrite of "You're just too marvelous, Too Marvelous For Words". What's odd is that the obtrusive Larry Hart-like Ira Gershwinesque coinage of "wordland" is plunked in the middle of otherwise entirely conventional love-song language and imagery. It's not even clear Weiss needed to rhyme it. In fact, on the equivalent lines in the next section, he dispenses with rhyme altogether:
Have you ever heard two
Bill and coo
When they love?
That's the kind of magic
Music we make with our lips
When we kiss...
Weiss isn't the most punctilious of lyricists - the plural "doves" is paired with a singular "love", and it's never very clear whether "lips" and "kiss" is a bum rhyme or meant to be unrhymed. "Turtle doves" is presumably an attempt to conjure a vision of Birdland that doesn't depend on the listener being an habituĂ© of Manhattan nightclubs. So Weiss tries to extend the thought: Birds. What do birds do? They sit in trees. Maybe there's a bisyllabic tree that would fit the middle section:
And there's a weepy ol' willow
He really knows how to cry
That's how I'd cry in my pillow
If you should tell me
Farewell and goodbye...
But, if the tune's great, a lyric only has to be good enough. Weiss' words fit the notes and sing easily. They do the job. On my battered bit of sheet music, I see the song is credited to "George Shearing and B Y Forster". That's because, of America's two copyright collection agencies, Shearing was a member of BMI and Weiss a member of ASCAP, and in those days it was not permitted for an ASCAP writer to collaborate with a BMI writer. Hence, the pseudonym. "We wrote a half-ASCAP song," as the punning Shearing liked to say. Sarah Vaughan was one of the first to record it, and it was a big hit for her. Ella sang it, too, and Shearing himself worked on an arrangement for a Parisian vocal group, the Blue Stars - singing French, dans le pays des oiseaux. It's also been warbled by the Italian singer Mina, the Finnish singer Olavi Virta, and the Korean singer Insooni. On the radio years ago I loved to play the Polynesians singing in their native tongue, and Shearing himself sat in on a very Latin take from Tito Puente. Non-jazz singers have tended to steer clear of the song, but the McGuire Sisters did a nice perky pop version, and we should give a nod to Bill Haley & the Comets for the "Lullaby Of Birdland Twist":
Hey, why not? In Stan Freberg's parody of "The Great Pretender", the hipster pianist, bored out of his skull at having to play the same lame-o rock'n'roll ballad accompaniment over and over, lapses into the first line of "Lullaby Of Birdland" only to be sternly reprimanded by Freberg: "Watch it!"
Shearing continued to play the song - and occasionally sing it, very touchingly - for the rest of his life, but he had no doubt about his favorite version:
After hearing Erroll Garner's record, he said, "I wonder why I didn't write it that way." Because he didn't need to. He wrote it his way, and let the world's musicians play it according to whatever caught their fancy. They're still finding new things to do with it even now - and maybe its composer is, too:
Lullaby Of Birdland
kiss me sweet
And we'll go
Flyin' high in Birdland
High in the sky up above...
Sir George Shearing, Battersea working-class lad and son of (as he liked to joke) a "coal porter" turned knight of the realm, flyin' high in Birdland, now and forever.
~Steyn 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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