Jerry Herman died on Boxing Day, at a grand old age he never expected to see. You can read more from me about the vicissitudes of Jerry's life here, but this department is about songs, and this song was a big hit at a time when showtunes generally weren't. On May 9th 1964, after a three-month consecutive hat-trick at the top of the US charts ("I Want to Hold Your Hand", "She Loves You", "Can't Buy Me Love"), the Beatles were finally knocked off the Number One spot - by a jazz trumpeter and vocalist as old as the century, and singing a showtune that sounded as old as he was:
This is Louis, Dolly!
It's so nice to have you back where you belong!
You're looking swell, Dolly
I can tell, Dolly
You're still glowin'
You're still crowin'
You're still goin' strong!
The show it came from was called - well, go on, take a wild guess... And it was goin' very strong on Broadway, where it had opened round about the time the Beatles touched down in New York at the beginning of the year. Hello, Dolly! was the first blockbuster show by Jerry Herman, and its title tune became his first breakout hit, and remains, half-a-century on, the definitive Jerry Herman song, the one that established his signature – big songs for big ladies on staircases: Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Dorothy Lamour, Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly!; Angela Lansbury and Lucille Ball in Mame; and a bunch of guys in drag, but otherwise much the same wigs, frocks, staircases and songs, in La Cage aux Folles. As one of the song cues in Herman's flop Mack and Mabel has it:
D W Griffith makes film epics of sweep and grandeur. Sennett? Hell, he just makes movies.
And so with Jerry Herman. His contemporary, Stephen Sondheim, gets credit for serious "music drama", for "breaking down the barriers between opera and the musical"; Herman? Hell, he just writes shows. Or, to paraphrase an old Broadway gag, nobody likes him but the public. "I write simple melodies," he said to me the first time we met, "and critics don't understand simplicity. They're looking for the complicated, and they only understand simplicity in retrospect. When Hello, Dolly! opened in 1964, it was called a one-song show. On the tenth anniversary revival, they said some nice things about me and the music. On the twentieth anniversary revival, they called it one of the classic Broadway scores. I don't mind anymore, I write for the people."
Hello, Dolly! was adapted from The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder. There was a lot of matchmaking around in that 1964 Broadway season: As they pleaded in the year's other blockbuster, Fiddler on the Roof, "Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match." Herman and his librettist Michael Stewart had a different problem: Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a musical. The eponymous Dolly Levi (played by Carol Channing) is a lady in 1890s Yonkers who's retreated from life, until, in what Herman and Stewart came to see as the dramatic hinge of the evening, she's prevailed upon to return to one of her old haunts, the Magnolia Gardens restaurant. She enters, and, to put it mildly, the waiters are happy to see her:
Well, Hello, Dolly!
It's so nice to have you back where you belong...
There follows 15 minutes of singing, dancing, prancing and general delirium that set the pattern for all Jerry Herman title songs thereafter. He has a Busby Berkeley appetite for repeat choruses, ransacking all the tricks in the book – slowed down rubato vocal solo, then full company with elaborate vocal fills; spare, minimal orchestration, then full blasting brass; dance break, double-time, slow it down, speed it up, and hammer it home in a high-stepping, slam-bang, triple-rhymed finale with exclamations all the way. In the words of Mame's Dixie belles:
We're baking pecan pies again!
Tonight the chicken fries again!
This time the South will rise again!
And, when he's really cooking, Herman dispenses with rhyme altogether:
Dolly'll never go away!
Dolly'll never go away
Dolly'll never go away
Not everyone got it. I once discussed "take-home tunes" – the songs you leave the theatre humming – with Harold Prince, perhaps the most celebrated Broadway director of his generation, the man who staged Evita and Sweeney Todd and Phantom of the Opera. "Put it this way," he said. "I was asked to direct Hello, Dolly! They played me this title song, and I said, 'This is for a scene where a woman who doesn't go out visits a restaurant?' They never mentioned directing Hello, Dolly! to me again."
It's pointless to query as Hal Prince did whether, in strict dramatic logic, Dolly's return to an old haunt merits ten minutes of cavorting waiters. The song walked in on a pretext, and wowed audiences every night for 2,844 performances on Broadway, and a zillion revivals since, and that's justification enough. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes fifteen years earlier, Carol Channing had stopped the show with "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend". "Dolly" topped "Diamonds", and over the next four decades became the song they played whenever she walked into a room. Here she is on one of Dolly's innumerable revivals, introduced by longtime BBC telly fixture (and bondage-dungeon wall fixture) Frank Bough:
It never occurred to Herman that the song would be a hit beyond the theatre. "It's easy to laugh now," he said, "but in the show the melody and orchestration are very 1890s." In the course of all the cavorting, Dolly greets some of the waiters by name, including one "Louie". Is that how the seed got planted? For whatever reason, one day late in 1963, Louis Armstrong's manager passed on a message from Herman's publisher suggesting Satchmo might like to make a demo of the song to promote the show. Armstrong had been a big hit-maker through the Thirties, Forties and early Fifties, but in the last decade jazz and pop had parted company. That might not have mattered so much had not jazz and Armstrong also gone their separate ways. A guy who bestrode both camps looked like winding up with a foot in neither. He still toured and people liked him, but he didn't have anything going for him 1963-wise. So what the hell? "Hello, Dolly"? Why not? He personalized the song:
This is Louis, Dolly...
Not Lou-ee, note, but Lou-iss, as the self-namedrops always were on his discs. Hello, Dolly! the show opened on January 16th 1964, and was a smash. Kapp Records decided Satch's little demo might make a nice single. "The first time I heard Louis Armstrong's record I was in shock," Jerry Herman told me. "I couldn't believe he'd gotten that jazzy record out of my little period song." But Armstrong's jazzy record is a period piece all of its own: It starts with a banjo, for heaven's sake, which not a lot of singles did in 1964. On May 9th it hit Number One, toppling "Can't Buy Me Love" and ending the Beatles' three-song hammerlock on the top spot. It was the last "traditional" Broadway showtune to hit the heights of the Hit Parade. A few years later, the Fifth Dimension reached Number One with "Aquarius" from Hair but that was in a hippie, or pseudo-hippie, vernacular. Other than that, Herman was the last to pull off an impressive hat-trick: Within a few weeks of the Broadway opening, "Hello, Dolly!" had been established as a boffo showstopper, spawned a Number One record, and was on its way to becoming a bona fide standard.
After Armstrong, everybody did it. Bobby Darin made it even finger-snappier, and recycled the famous killer triplets that wrapped up "Mack the Knife":
Look out, ol' Mackie is back!
Look out, ol' Dolly is back!
And she was. Everybody sang her praises: Andy Williams and Marvin Gaye; Lawrence Welk and Duke Ellington; Herb Alpert welcomed her Tijuana-style (in highly Mexican-accented English) and Jean-Jacques Perrey on the Moog; Petula Clark serenaded her in English, French and Spanish, and Britain's porcine puppets Pinky and Perky serenaded her in ...well, in whatever language that's meant to be.
But Armstrong's connection to the song was something special, and was understood to be so. When Sinatra and the Count Basie band went into the studio to record "Hello, Dolly!", just a few weeks after Louis hit Number One, Frank said hello to Dolly in the first chorus, and then turned to the guy he really wanted to say hi to:
This is Francis, Louie
It's so nice to see you back where you belong
You're back on top, Louie
Never stop, Louie
You're still singing
You're still swinging
You're still going strong!
Let us note that whoever wrote that special material for Frank blew Herman's triple rhyme (glowing, crowing, going strong). But he grasped the gist of the situation: Satch hadn't been going strong, but he now was. He was back on top, and he stayed there through "What A Wonderful World" and the 007 song we discuss in our James Bond/John Barry audio special. But it all started with "Hello, Dolly!" And by the time Gene Kelly came to direct his rather stodgy film of the show in 1969 Armstrong had become part of the song. He turns up, albeit for barely a minute of screen time, midway through the number as Dolly (Barbra Streisand) and the frolicking waiters dance their way across the Harmonia Gardens and find the conductor of the house orchestra. He's pleased to see Dolly, and Dolly is pleased to see him:
LOUIS: Well, Hello...
DOLLY: Look who's here!
This is Louis...
DOLLY: Hello, Louis!
It's so nice to have you back where you belong
DOLLY: I am so glad to be back!
It's a charming moment in a film otherwise almost wholly bereft of charm:
Jerry Herman had turned "Hello, Dolly!" into a hit song, a hit show, a hit film. There was just one problem. A fellow songwriter Mack David heard "Hello, Dolly!" – and thought he'd heard it before. David was the older brother of Hal David. Mack David never had a style or a sound the way Hal did in the Bacharach years, but over the decades he accumulated an eclectic catalogue of fitful hits – the English lyric to "La Vie en Rose", and "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" from Disney's Cinderella, and Duke Ellington's "I'm Just A Lucky So-And So", all three of which were memorably recorded by Armstrong, plus the great Bugs Bunny TV theme "(On with the show) This Is It" and Vikki Carr's worldwide telephone-song smash "It Must Be Him", neither of which Satch got to. In 1948 Mack David wrote a song called "Sunflower", about a girl who, the singer assures us, is "my Sunflower from the Sunflower State".
That would be Kansas – and, indeed, "Sunflower" is now the official state song thereof [CORRECTION: It was on the list, but seen off by "Home on the Range"]:
Aside from presumably many renditions at Kansan state occasions, "Sunflower" is not a well-known song. Half-a-dozen vocalists recorded it in 1948, the most successful being Russ Morgan. Nevertheless, Mack David thought the first four bars of "Hello, Dolly!" were stolen from the first four bars of "Sunflower". A few years back, in the wake of my rendition of "Goldfinger", we had a bit of back and forth on our Mailbox page about similarities between various tunes, and about the distinction between the melodic line and the underlying chords. "Sunflower" and "Dolly" are not exactly the same, but you can certainly sing the words of the former to the tune of the latter, and the nature of the lyric pattern seems to reinforce the similarity. Exhibit A:
She's my Sunflower
She's my Sunflower...
Well, Hello, Dolly!
Thereafter, the two songs go their separate ways, the former very drearily when compared to the latter. Many, many years ago, Jerry Herman told me he'd never heard the song "Sunflower". I believe him. He loved Broadway, and, as he discusses here, until the great love of his life introduced him to the delights of Dan Fogelberg in the Eighties, he never listened to anything else – not rock, not jazz, not country, not the ersatz country-&-western of which "Sunflower" is an all too typical example. Herman knows everything by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter – and draws a blank on Bob Dylan, Billy Strayhorn, Woody Guthrie ...and Mack David. So he wanted to go to court and defend his song.
But David Merrick, the producer, had a hit show, and he had a movie offer from 20th Century Fox. And he was in a hurry to close that deal. And, if there was a question mark over the title song, who's to say that film offer would even be on the table? Neither Merrick nor anybody else involved wanted to go before a judge and put everything in jeopardy. So Herman never got his day in court. They settled for a quarter of a million dollars, and Mack David ended up making more money from those first four bars of "Sunflower" than from any other song he ever wrote. Incidentally, Frank Sinatra is the only man on the planet to have recorded both "Sunflower" and "Hello, Dolly!", and, even though they were sixteen years apart, he doesn't appear to have noticed any similarities: Hello, Dolly. Hello, Satch. But not hello, Mack.
It was hello, ev'rybody for a while. I remember at some British Tory party conference one year Mrs Thatcher being serenaded with "Hello, Maggie!" (I believe Sir Ronald Millar, playwright and sometime lyricist, wrote the words.) At a party for Jerry Herman hosted by Ascap, the songwriters' society, that I attended a couple of decades back, Burton Lane, composer of "On A Clear Day" (and a guest on our Frank Loesser special), played the piano while Sammy Cahn serenaded a delighted Mr Herman with, inevitably, "Hello, Jerry!"
For a while it looked like goodbye, Jerry. Like a big chunk of Broadway, Herman was diagnosed with HIV back in the Eighties. But, unlike so many of his colleagues, he hung in there for a Third Act he never expected to get a shot at. "I've always believed in happy endings," he said, "and I'm still the kid whose parents took him to Annie, Get Your Gun, and who was thrilled because he could pick out 'They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful' on the piano afterwards." All that was missing was a new Jerry Herman Broadway hit. But then he's a picky guy about shows. A few years ago Mel Brooks came round to his pad and offered him the composer's gig on The Producers. Herman sat down at the piano and played a medley of "Springtime For Hitler", the title songs of Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety and various other Brooks compositions, and told Mel he should write the score himself. So he did, and Herman was right: another happy ending.
As for the scores Herman said yes to, Bobby Darin had a hipster's take on "Mame", and Gloria Gaynor got a late-disco floor-packer out of "I Am What I Am" (an arrangement I studied rather carefully when Jessica Martin and I were preparing our disco version of "Marshmallow World"), and more and more seasonal CDs find room for "We Need A Little Christmas" (though not all do it with the slow-tempo wistfulness of Nancy Sinatra), and a lot of smoldering chanteuses have lit up the room with Herman's torch ballad "Time Heals Everything".
With Berlin, Porter and Loesser, Herman belongs to a select group of self-contained songwriters – words and music. He finds the latter comes more easily than the former. Indeed, the undoubted and often maddening catchiness of his melodies often diverts attention from the immense amount of detail in his lyrics - to pluck at random from Hello, Dolly!, "We'll join the Astors/At Tony Pastor's..."
"I do research when I start a show, and I write down images and phrases. Then, when I get the form of the song and I have my rhyme scheme, I start filling in. With 'Put On Your Sunday Clothes' it was those restaurants - Tony Pastor's and Del Monico's." It's odd to think of how focused he is on time and place when you think of the way his Hello, Dolly! songs were used to humanize the space robots in the 2008 animated hit WALL-E. But, as my favorite Goethe line puts it, the poet should seize the particular and, if he gets it right, he'll articulate the universal. Start with "Hello, Dolly!" and it's a short step to "Hello, WALL-E".
And, although there was to be no new Jerry Herman score for Broadway, Hal Linden (from TV's "Barney Miller") bumped into him on the street a couple of years back and said that, at the age of eighty, he was making his first album and was singing "Hello, Dolly!" but would like to do a couple of extra choruses, and did Jerry have any additional lyrics for the song? And Jerry said, no, he didn't. But he went home and wrote some, and a week or two later mailed them to Linden. I believe that was the last new material Jerry Herman wrote.
I was at the piano with my kid a while back and there was a book of "elementary" four-handed arrangements on the stand. I told him to choose something and he went for "Hello, Dolly!" I doubt we were as adept as young Gerald Herman playing highlights from Annie, Get Your Gun, but we had fun – and the song is awful hard to resist - a fifty-year old song that was born sounding fifty years old:
We feel the room swayin'
For the band's playin'
One of your old fav'rite songs from way back when
Take her wrap, fellers
Find her an empty lap, fellers
Dolly'll never go away!
Dolly'll never go away!
Dolly'll never go away
~Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn's Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we thought we'd do the same for our musical features. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Herman's Hermits to Liza Minnelli; Mark's interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse's songs, John Barry's Bond themes, Simon after Garfunkel, and much more. We'll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you'll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from the woes of the world.
What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it's an audio Book of the Month Club and a video poetry circle, and a live music club. We don't (yet) have a Mark Steyn clubhouse, but we do have other benefits - and the Third Annual Steyn Cruise, on which we always do a live-performance edition of our Song of the Week. And, if you've got some kith or kin who might like the sound of all that and more, we also have a special Gift Membership. More details here.