The composer Jule Styne died a quarter-century ago this month - September 1994. Everybody knows at least one Jule Styne tune ("Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!") and most of us know a few more, whether through stage ("Everything's Coming Up Roses") or screen ("Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"), Sinatra ("Time After Time") or Streisand ("People"). And the requirement that rockers crank out the inevitable standards album can be traced back to Linda Ronstadt's decision to ask Nelson Riddle to cook up an arrangement of Styne's "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" for her.
For our song selection, though, I thought I'd pick something from Jule's Broadway heyday - about midway through a spectacular run of hits from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes via Gypsy to Funny Girl:
"Just In Time" is more associated with Tony Bennett than Sinatra, but it was offered to Frank first - because the composer went back with him a long way. Jule Styne & Sammy Cahn wrote a ton of Frank's early solo hits - "Five Minutes More", "Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week", "Three Coins in the Fountain"... But then Jule decided he wanted to write Broadway shows and Sammy by contrast was happy to stay in Hollywood. So they broke up, much to Frank's fury. "I didn't speak to Sinatra for three years," Styne told me, "or he didn't speak to me for three years."
So here we are in 1956. Jule Styne is now a big Broadway composer, but when he yells at choreographers and orchestrators he waves his arms around, and you notice he's still got the gold bracelet he's worn for over a decade. The one inscribed on the inside "To Jule, who knew me when – Frankie" - a present from Sinatra, delivered by Cartier's the morning after the singer's first ever solo concert.
Styne wore it to the end. And more or less until his final breath - through Gypsy, Funny Girl, and all the flops that followed - there was a part of him that was still the Sinatra house composer he'd been in the 1940s. "When you work with Jule," his lyricist on a late London flop, Don Black, said to me, "he'll look at the lyric and go, 'This'd be great for Frank.' Or Barbra." As Styne liked to put it, "Without the rendition there is no song" - and, rendition-wise, he'd been spoiled. "I've been very fortunate in having my songs sung by the greatest male singer and the greatest female singer," he told me, referring to his former flatmate (Sinatra) and a funny girl he helped make a star (Streisand).
This tune was a first-tier Styne song from a second-tier Styne show. Before the iPhone, before voicemail, before the mobile, before the answering machine, there was the "answering service". It was state-of-the-art: You dialed a telephone number and asked to speak to Mr Smith and the nice lady at the other end told you Mr Smith wasn't available but she'd write down a message with a pen on a piece of paper and relay it to him when next she communicated with him verbally. On my first proper extended business trip to New York, I got myself an "answering service", mainly because I liked to be able to tell people, "Call my service", which I'd heard in movies and seemed, to an out-of-town hick, a very cool line. The mobile telephone was in circulation by then, but it was the size of a brick and, if you shoved it in your pocket, it looked like you were packing extremely lumpy heat, and, after an hour or so padding up and down the streets of Manhattan you were walking with a limp. Besides, most of the showbiz types I was there to interview would still tell you themselves: "Call my service." So it seemed like the thing to do. A while later, in London, I briefly used an answering service. But, like so many American ideas imported by the Old Country, it worked about a fifth as well and cost ten times as much. They didn't always answer, and sarcastic friends would suggest, "Maybe your answering service should get an answering service."
In New York, the service I really wanted was Belles Celebrity Answering Service, but, as the name suggests, they only catered to celebrities - and then only by referral. Leonard Bernstein had to be put up for membership by his pal Adolph Green, as if it were a gentlemen's club in St James's. But, if I never got to join the club, I certainly had occasion to call Belles over the years, although I'm not sure I ever spoke to its founder, Mary Printz. She died in 2009, plugged in to the end, still catering to a small group of fiercely loyal clients - Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Stephen Sondheim - celebs who preferred to say "Call my service" rather than "Fax me on my Wii", or whatever the tech-savvy chappies say.
Mrs Printz founded the service in 1956, and shortly afterwards Adolph Green and his writing partner Betty Comden went round to see Jule Styne. "Here's our next show," Green told him. And then he dropped the phone book on the desk.
On the back was a picture of a girl surrounded by telephone wires: a young lady from an answering service. Styne liked the idea. So they hooked up with their old chum Judy Holliday, with whom Comden & Green had once performed in a nightclub act called the Revuers. Miss Holliday was cast as a telephone gal not unlike Mary Printz - that's to say, she doesn't just pass on messages; she gets mixed up in the lives of the agency's clients. That was what Mrs Printz did, for Spencer Tracy, Shirley MacLaine, Al Pacino: If Noël Coward called up because Marlene Dietrich had chugged down all his Scotch and the stores were closed, a new bottle would shortly materialize in time for Marlene's refill. No matter how smart your smart phone gets, it won't do that for you.
Of course, being a musical comedy, Bells Are Ringing couldn't be about a telephone gal who merely helps out her clients. In the stage version, she also had to fall in love with one of them, which means they have to have some love songs to sing.
Which you don't always get when Betty Comden and Adolph Green are your lyricists. They'd started out as revue performers, and thought like that almost to the end. In their stage act in the Eighties, they had a prescient number sung by two schoolchildren in a brave new world where everything has been "simplified", including the sexes. Instead of a penis or vagina, everyone now has a "penina". And as Betty and Adolph would then sing:
Oh, nothing could be finer
Than to play with my penina
If you will show me yours-a
Then I will show you mine-a...
"Simplified Language" is a great piece of special material, but that's what everyone expects from Comden & Green: great material rather than great songs. Alan Jay Lerner once said to me how much he'd enjoyed their second show with Leonard Bernstein, Wonderful Town. He happened to mention to their mutual publisher, Max Dreyfus at Chappell, that he especially liked the lovely loping ballad:
Why did we ever leave Ohio?
Alan thought it might be a hit. Dreyfus shook his head sadly. "The public knows they don't mean it," he said.
That was the problem with Comden & Green. Funny, wacky, satirical ...but not so good when it comes to "meaning it". Except with Jule Styne. On Bells Are Ringing, Styne brought forth from them a pair of great lasting songs that indisputably "mean it". "They write with me like they write with nobody! Nobody!" Styne told me with his customary understatement. "Sure, they can write funny and all that, but all their best pop lyrics they wrote with me!" It's hard to argue.
The first of those songs is poignant and reflective. Ella – the Judy Holliday character – has decided that, although she's had a grand time in her new beau's sophisticated world, she'll never fit in. In the play, the song was sung at the end of a party scene, so, using that ingenious Broadway trick of turning the literal into something big and metaphorical, Betty and Adolph came up with the title: "The Party's Over".
Yet, wistful and affecting as it is, I'm not sure it's the best number in the show. That honor belongs to what's really a charm song. "We need a simple song here," Jule told Betty and Adolph. "Like 'Hello, good evening.' Easy."
"Hello, good evening" isn't as easy as it sounds. Styne had always been a big fan of Vincent Youmans, whose big hits – like "Tea For Two" – are built around deceptively simple two-note seesaws. "Vincent Youmans," Styne said to me, "is the composer's composer. The football player's football player." So he told his lyricists, "I'm going to write half-steps. A whole song on half-steps."
"Won't that be rather, you know, monotonous?" asked Adolph Green. Jule gave a sly smile, sat down, and played the thing all the way through.
And that's how it stayed for a while – just a tune that Betty and Adolph couldn't quite find the words for. So for months on end it was known only as "Da-Dee-Da". In fact, Comden & Green took to performing it at parties around town as "Da-Dee-Da":
As to anything beyond that, they hadn't a clue. Jule Styne took the tune off to his old lyricist Frank Loesser, and Loesser listened and then said: "It needs a rolling title. Something like 'Just In Time'." And it might never have wound up in the show at all, except that, as they were writing the book, Comden & Green came to a plot point in which the leading man feels that his life has been turned around just in time ...by this goofy big-hearted answering-service girl. And suddenly "Da-Dee-Da" found its voice:
Just In Time
I found you
Just In Time
Before you came
Was running low...
As Styne conceived it, it's a Youmansesque tune built on two seesawing notes only half a tone apart. Melodically, it could easily have been, as Adolph Green worried, a total bore. But the chord changes underneath make it one of the most musically satisfying tunes in the catalogue. Having steered clear of any rhymes in that first phrase, it lets loose a little bit in the second:
I was lost
The losing dice were tossed
My bridges all were crossed
Nowhere to go...
Usually, with that kind of two-note seesaw effect in the main phrase, you'd go for something broad and lyrical in the release. But Styne's confident enough to stick with his central idea and just tweak it a little:
Now you're here
And now I know
Just where I'm going
No more doubt or fear
I've found my way...
It was very charmingly done by Judy Holliday's leading man, Sydney Chaplin, son of Charlie, in his first big musical role. They essay a little soft-shoe with Miss Holliday tossing in patter lyrics ("This act could play the Palladium/Or even the Yankee Stadium"):
For the movie in 1960, they paired Miss Holliday with Dean Martin, who latched on to the song big-time. So did Tony Bennett, who's been singing it for almost 60 years, most recently in a duet with Michael Bublé, and Judy Garland, in an arrangement of complex key changes that makes the number sound rather unsettling and conditional:
But Sinatra was the one who had first refusal - because, even as a marquee musical dramatist, Jule heard his old Tin Pan Alley instincts telling him "This'd be great for Frank." Unfortunately, Frank begged to differ, and told Jule he didn't think much of the tune. By the time he changed his mind, Tony Bennett had had a minor hit with it, and Sinatra had to make do with Side One Track Three on his second album with Billy May, Come Dance With Me! There's much less variety on this album than on the previous Sinatra-May collaboration, the swinger-ballad mix Come Fly With Me. This time it's hard swingin' all the way through until the sleepytime lights-up closer "Last Dance". It's brass, reeds, rhythm, and Sinatra "tearin' it up" (as he says on "Something's Gotta Give"), and having a ball. "Just In Time" is, in fact, the slowest of the swingers, although it's still zippier than Tony Bennett's tempo.
They recorded it on December 9th 1958. But a couple of weeks earlier Sinatra and May had laid down another version, a little busier. It's a looser version of what would become the finished arrangement, with much more pizzicato jumping around on Styne's musical seesaw. This first run-through dances with a fizziness that matches the rest of the album, although at that clip Frank sounds at times as if he's having a little difficulty settling in the saddle. "I can hear Dad's wheels spinning," said Tina Sinatra of this first "Just In Time":
I'd never heard it until a few years ago when it was released as a bonus track with the Sinatra centenary box set - but only in certain territories and formats. So you can get it as a download in Slovenia or on a cassette in Belarus or whatever. But, when you find it, you quickly hear that the chart's a little out of Frank's comfort zone. So Billy May pared it back and smoothed it out - and the rewrite pretty much supplanted all other versions of the song. Yet that original session strikes me as much closer both to the rest of the Come Dance With Me! album and to Jule Styne's original Vincent Youmans inspiration.
Still, you can't argue with Sinatra's vocal on the modified chart. He made his own adjustments, too, notably to the emotional peak of the song - "Now I know just where I'm going" - lowering "I'm" to C so that the D of "go-" would seem more climactic.
But Styne told me he never cared much for Sinatra's record, mainly because Sinatra had told him he didn't care much for the tune. So then they didn't speak again for another year or so.
Both men were wrong. Pace Styne, it's a great record of what, pace Sinatra, is a great tune. Cole Porter told Jule it was one of his all-time favorite songs, and it was the one the composer was always happy to hear the band strike up when he walked into a nightclub. He liked to compare it to Liszt - to Liebestraum, which isn't so far-fetched. "I had classical background," he said. "I played Bach morning, noon and night, and that's the greatest bass line." So he took a little Bach, and a little Vincent Youmans, and came up with a song that's pure Jule Styne.
And all from a show based upon an answering service - Plaza 2-2232 - one of my all-time favorite numbers. Get back to me when the iPhone gives us anything this good:
For love came
Just In Time
You found me
Just In Time
And changed my lonely life
That lovely day!
~Steyn (Mark) writes about Styne (Jule) and his many Sinatra songs in Mark Steyn's American Songbook - 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.
You can hear Jule himself talking about Frank on our Sammy Cahn centenary podcast and about another Frank - fellow songwriter Frank Loesser - on another centenary special. And there's lots more Jule Styne here.
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