Johnny Mercer loved trains, and he loved writing train songs - "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe"; the elusive "Laura" whom one glimpses only "on a train that is passing through"; "Blues in the Night", in which the eponymous blues are basically "the lonesome whistle blowin' cross the trestle"...
But his very first train song was just pulling out of his Grand Central Station exactly eighty years ago. In 1939, Mercer had formed his own publishing house with an unexpectedly sacked Warner Bros exec called Buddy Morris, and one of the talents they had their eye on was Jimmy Van Heusen, a young composer who had not yet formed what would become his more or less permanent partnership with Johnny Burke. So one day Van Heusen comes to Mercer with a new tune. "He played me the melody," the lyricist recalled. "I didn't have any idea, but I had to go to Chicago that night. I think I was on the Benny Goodman program."
And so the very first of Mercer's great train songs would prove to be the only one actually written on a train. Mercer got on board the Chicago-bound Streamliner, and couldn't sleep. "The tune was running through my mind, and that's when I wrote the song. On the train, really going to Chicago." So he began:
I took a trip on a train
And I Thought About...
...the Jimmy Van Heusen tune I'm supposed to be writing a lyric for?
Well, yeah, but more importantly:
I took a trip on a train
And I Thought About You
I passed a shadowy lane
And I Thought About You...
"The essence of lyric writing," said Mercer, is "to paint pictures". And he did:
Two or three cars
Parked under the stars
A winding stream
Moon shining down
On some little town...
The view from one insomniac lyricist's seat, as the Streamliner hurtles down the Burlington Route to Chicago. When the Mercer-Morris company published the sheet music on October 13th 1939, right there on the front, flying through the night, was the self-same Denver Zephyr on which the author had written his song.
Mercer initially professed himself to be very pleased with the lyric, except for what he considered a weak ending - with the lovesick singer looking out the window at the other track...
...the one going back to you
And what did I do?
I Thought About You.
Mercer thought the two "you"s were a bit undernourished: Technically, that's not a rhyme but an "identity". And over the years it would come to nag at him: "I never was happy with the ending," he said. "I know it could be better. I don't know why, but I just have a feeling about it."
Nobody else seemed to mind. And that trip to Chicago for the Benny Goodman show paid off. It was Goodman's band, with a vocal by Mildred Bailey, who had the first hit with the song:
For its first decade-and-a-half or so, "I Thought About You" remained mostly the province of chanteuses: After Mildred Bailey came Billie Holiday, Dinah Shore, Nellie Lutcher... But a fellow called Frank Sinatra had always liked the song, and one day in 1956 he put it on the set list for what would prove to be the definitive Sinatra "up" album: Songs for Swingin' Lovers. The first run at the number didn't go well, and Frank was unhappy. He and his new arranger Nelson Riddle had hit it off almost immediately but one of their few arguments in those early days at Capitol Records was about the backgrounds Frank was singing over. He didn't like it too complicated or "too busy" or "dense" when he was setting up a song - the mood, the story. "Don't write a concerto behind me," as he once snapped at Riddle. And, certainly for the busy opening here, Nelson did:
So Frank nixed the above recording, Nelson re-conceived the chart, and they all assembled for another crack a few weeks later. The result is almost a textbook example of what Sinatra and Riddle did for pop vocal arrangements in the mid-Fifties. It begins somewhat sparely and restrained, with Harry Klee, a musician Frank admired and kept close in those middle years (he was the flautist in those Royal Festival Hall sextet gigs that tuckered Sinatra out before the Great Songs From Great Britain sessions). And then Harry Edison's trumpet mute comes in to join Frank as the first chorus builds to a conclusion:
At ev'ry stop that we made
Oh, I Thought About You
And when I pulled down the shade
Then I really felt blue...
At Capitol with Frank, Nelson Riddle had learned quickly to save the fancy instrumental stuff for the fills between the lines - and in particular for the man who was the master of those fills, all the way from the early days at Capitol to Sinatra's "farewell" concert in 1971: Harry "Sweets" Edison. Who was Sweets Edison? Well, as his fellow trumpeter Miles Davis put it:
Music is about style. Like if I were to play with Frank Sinatra, I would play the way he sings, or do something complementary to the way he sings. But I wouldn't go and play with Frank Sinatra at breakneck speed... The way you play behind a singer is like the way Harry 'Sweets' Edison did with Frank. When Frank stopped singing, then Harry played. A little before and a little afterwards, but not ever over him; you never play over a singer. You play between.
And no one "played between" like Harry "Sweets" Edison. Before we get to him and Sinatra, here's Miles Davis' take on Van Heusen's tune. There's not a word of Johnny Mercer's lyric, but in the beautiful opening you can hear all the ache and desolation the author conjured on that Streamliner to Chicago:
It's different when you're playing for a singer. Sweets Edison couldn't read music, which is a problem for a studio musician, where you're hired for your ability not merely to read but to sight-read: You stick it in front of him and he plays the part. But, as Count Basie had done almost two decades earlier, Riddle and Sinatra loved Edison's sound, and were prepared to figure out workarounds. "Nelson Riddle was the most patient man I've ever been with," said Sweets. "I would get to a date a half-hour before, and he took time to show me how things would go."
He didn't sit with the rest of the trumpet section, but off to one side, at his own microphone. This was at a time, remember, when it was the practice to record sessions with just two mikes for the entire string section and two more for the brass (very different from today, when everyone's individually miked). In part, Edison sat off on his own because he couldn't read, so there was no point writing anything for him. But, at another level, Riddle didn't bother writing anything for him because he and Frank trusted him implicitly and so he had carte blanche to play what he wanted whenever he felt he had something to say. "If you hear a hole, Harry," Frank had told him, "fill it." He does:
The contrast with Nelson Riddle's first arrangement is very telling, and a great example of how beautifully Edison's commentative mute tracks Sinatra. He didn't have a huge amount of space, not compared to a jazz soloist in a small combo, but he accomplishes an awful lot with superb economy. Emotionally, he and Frank are telling the same story. To do it as well as Harry does, you have to know as well as the vocalist himself how he breathes and phrases.
If you're a fellow musician, like Miles Davis, maybe you notice Edison. But, if you're the average 1956 record buyer, maybe you don't even notice it as a separate instrument, maybe you don't even know what a muted trumpet is. It's just part of that great sexy Sinatra sound that's better than any pop vocal arrangement you've heard before. In any other singer's career "I Thought About You" would have been a stand-out track. But in Sinatra's stellar catalogue it somehow fell by the wayside and never became one of those songs that he took on the road with him night after night. The last time I saw Frank in concert he had Steve & Eydie as his opening act, and, just before the wrap-up, all three of them would do an epic Sinatra medley of a couple of dozen songs in which this number briefly surfaced as a gag for Steve Lawrence:
I turned a trick on a train
And I Thought About You...
And Frank would correct him: "Trip! Trip!"
And I regret that that one word is as close as I ever came to hearing Sinatra sing "I Thought About You" live.
As it happens, there is a trick in the song - and a very neat one: Mercer's use of "k" sounds:
I peeped through the crack
And looked at the track
The one going back
That "crack"/"track"/"back" is very onomatopoeic: it's the sound a train makes crossing the tracks. Did Mercer write it that way consciously? Or because he was on a train when he was scribbling it down? Or was he just such a good lyricist that by that point such sensitivity to subject matter was instinctive to him? Who knows? I do notice, though, that a lot of singers and arrangers seem to be unaware of those cracking consonants and glide across them very legato. But not Riddle and Sinatra. With his new arranger, Frank learned to bounce those consonants off the band:
I peeped through the crackkk
And looked at that trackkk
The one going back to you
And what did I do?.
It's a rhetorical question, but Frank pauses and lets the band ponder it for a moment. A few years ago, back before the Internet dwindled down to a Big Social cartel of woke billionaire control-freaks, one of my favorite bloggers, The Pundette, wrote of "I Thought About You":
When I started listening to Sinatra about ten years ago most of the music was new to me, and all of it was new to my children. It was playing more or less non-stop in the kitchen and they responded by making wisecracks about the lyrics. After Frank asks, 'And what did I do?' they said things like, 'I'm sure he's going to tell us,' or 'Probably the same thing he did the first fifty times we heard this.' Ah, well. Youth is wasted on the the young and all that.
The cynical Pundettettes are only able to do that because of that big dramatic gap Sinatra and Riddle leave after the question, which accomplishes the neat trick of putting enough distance between "the one going back to you" and "I thought about you" that you no longer notice Mercer's "flawed" lack of rhyme. And after the final title line the band wraps things up with a tag that surely reminded Harry Edison of his days with the Basie band.
At which point you realize that Frank et al have done something rather remarkable: A song that starts out as a dreamy laconic ballad has wound up a swingin' blast. This was something Sinatra seemed to grasp in a way that few others did at the time - that, like a Streamliner headed to Chicago, a recording of a song has to go somewhere. So it does, pulling gently out of the station, and gradually building up not speed but energy.
Finally, here's the man who gave birth to the song, in a recording made many years later in London with conductor Pete Moore, and produced by my late friend Ken Barnes. Pete's arrangement rather misses all that crack/track/back stuff, but Johnny Mercer's mellow vocal reminds us that, as a prototype singer-songwriter, he had few rivals:
As you can hear in those final seconds, he finally worked out a solution to what he regarded as the weak ending of the duplicative "you". For almost four decades, he'd thought about "I Thought About You".
~There's more about Johnny Mercer in The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore. And there's more on Jimmy Van Heusen and Frank Sinatra as told by Van Heusen's lyricist in our Sammy Cahn centenary podcast.
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