" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Monday, November 16, 2015

Story of a song: 'My Melancholy Baby'

It was the first torch song. It’s only heard in old movies or TV shows these days. The scene is usually a smoky barroom, at the ass-end of the evening. It’s that peculiar time of night when the soused, haunted by their past, call for this maudlin ballad and begin to sob. It’s a running joke in the 1954 film version of A Star is Born, as poor Judy Garland is harassed with, “Sing ‘Melancholy Baby’!”

This drunkard’s tearjerker took only a little longer than 40 years to become a cliché. It’s one of the one-hit wonders in the Great American Songbook, and the only one to be written in Denver, Colorado. Its 1912 birth in my hometown spurred this investigation. A couple of pretty tales have been spun around this song, but the real story of “My Melancholy Baby” is filled with false starts, warring claims to authorship, a scrambling for royalties, and litigation. Failure is an orphan, success has a hundred fathers.

OK, cute stories first.

One: William Frawley is best remembered for playing Fred Mertz on the “I Love Lucy” TV show, but he started as a song-and-dance man. On the May 3, 1965, episode of the TV game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” he revealed that he was the first to sing “My Melancholy Baby,” at the Mozart Café at 1647 Curtis Street. The noted journalists Gene Fowler and Damon Runyon were there.

Two: The composer Ernie Burnett served in France in World War I, was wounded and lost his memory. In the hospital, he heard someone singing “My Melancholy Baby,” recognized it, remembered who he was, and made a full recovery.

I’m unable to confirm or deny the truth of the second story, but the first story is disputed by almost everyone.

Ernie Burnett
Composer Ernie Burnett (originally Ernesto Bernaditto from Cincinnati) and his then-wife Maybelle Watson, who was the song’s first lyricist, filed for copyright on the song, then called “Melancholy,” on October 31, 1911. Despite their efforts, they couldn’t interest anyone in it. (In those days, songwriters carried their songs from one publisher to another, auditioning them.) Finally, Denver club owner and music publisher Theron C. Bennett bought the tune, but tossed the words. He set an employee, George Norton, to write a new set of lyrics. This jerry-rigged song became an enormous hit.

“Come, sweetheart mine, don’t sit and pine
Tell of the cares that make you feel so blue
What have I done, answer me, hon
Have I ever said an unkind word to you

My love is true, and just for you
I’d do almost anything at any time
Dear, when you sigh, or when you cry
Something seems to grip this very heart of mine

Come to me my melancholy baby
Cuddle up and don’t be blue
All your fears are foolish fancies, maybe
You know, dear, that I’m in love with you

Every cloud must have a silver lining
Wait until the sun shines through
Smile, my honey dear, while I kiss away each tear
Or else I shall be melancholy too”

Why was it written? To whom? Burnett told a story abut waiting for a woman (presumably his wife) for eight hours at the train station; Norton spins a tale about being sweet on a Denver waitress. Despite the desire to getting nailed being the wellspring of most romantic tunes, neither of these anecdotes is likely. "My Melancholy Baby" is an inspired piece of hackwork.

When the sheet music was published, it bore a dedication to “Miss Maybelle Watson of Berkeley, California.” Burnett and Watson were divorced by that time; perhaps the publisher sought to assuage Watson’s ego and prevent her from suing for a piece of the royalties, even though her lyrics were replaced by Norton’s.

 So who sang it first? Bennett, the original publisher, claims he gave the debut performance of it at his club, the Dutch Mill at 811 16th Street, in 1912 -- not Frawley. Two original copies of the sheet music feature two different artists pasted into the cameo center of the cover – “That Singer,” Jack O’Leary, and “winsome June Le Vey.” At this point, the song was still titled “Melancholy.” It was changed to “My Melancholy Baby” in 1914, and a year later Bennett folded, selling the song to Joe Morris Music Company in New York. Burnett claims he convinced Sophie Tucker to sing it, which began its rise to popularity.

The person who arguable made this song a hit was Walter van Brunt, whose 1915 recording may contain some of Watson’s original lyrics, pushed down into the song to make a second introductory set of lines. This set of words is omitted in nearly every recording of it:

“Birds in the trees, whispering breeze
Should not fail to lull you into peaceful dreams
So tell me why, sadly you sigh
Sitting at the window where the pale moon beams

You shouldn’t grieve, try and believe,
Life is always sunshine when the heart beats true
Be of good cheer, smile through your tears,
When you’re sad it makes me feel the same as you”

Gene Austin scored with it again in 1927, and England’s Al Bowlly in 1935. 

Tommy Lyman, a cabaret performer, made “My Melancholy Baby” his theme song during the 1920s, playing and singing it late at night and referring to it as his “torch song,” a reference to the old phrase “carrying a torch for someone,” an unrequited love. Perhaps it’s this specific pathos Lyman imbued it with that gave it its cliché effect on the inebriated.

It started showing up in films – The Roaring Twenties (1939), Birth of the Blues (1941), Johnny Eager (1942), Follow the Band (1943), Minstrel Man (1944). In the 1945 film noir Scarlet Street, director Fritz Lang and composer Hans Salter work the tune into the score and as source music in the film itself, as a theme to which the main characters disintegrate.

In Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), it’s the song that always seduces Marilyn Monroe’s character, especially when essayed on tenor sax. Forty-eight years after its birth, “My Melancholy Baby” ends its effective cultural life as a dick joke.

In the end, Bennett and Burnett reaped the royalties, after legal action against Joe Morris; Norton’s son had to litigate for years to get compensation for his father, who had signed away his rights to Bennett for $20 a week, back in the day. Watson got nothing. Frawley got the credit, and the song may have brought back its composer from the dead. Who knows? If you stick your nose down into the warf and woof of history, it's hard to see more than a tangle of contradictions, unresolvable, unprovable, lost in the past.

In the end, we still have a great song.


Denver’s Old Theater Row
Forrest Hall Johnson

The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Thomas S. Hischak
Greenwood Press

American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950
Alec Wilder
Oxford University Press

Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song
David A. Jasen

A Century of American Popular Music
David A. Jasen

Piano Stylings of the Great Standards, Volume 2
Edward Shanapy
Alfred Music

Cladrite Radio: Snapshot in Prose: Ernest Burnett

Mark Steyn: Song of the Week #202, Oct. 24, 2011

“My Melancholy Baby” entry, Chris Tyle at jazzstandards.com

Friday, November 6, 2015

‘Making a Peg Board Game’

Because I am in the bathroom, I am of course reading “The Pocket Daring Book for Girls.” Opening it randomly, I come across the instructions for “Making a Peg Board Game,” and I break out into a cold sweat.

I have never been handy. I have recaulked the bathtub 12 times in the last eight years; a professional is coming Tuesday. My skills are inversely proportional to the complexity of the task involved.

My grandfather was a masterful craftsman and gardener. His workroom was well-stocked and organized. He built his own Ping-Pong table, for chrissake, and it’s still standing. Unfortunately, I take after his son, my dad. I am a complete mechanical idiot. (It’s an anomaly – my offspring and other relatives can function pretty well in reality.)

Oh, I tried to reform. We had Boy Scout handbooks, and books on craftsmanship and woodcraft for boys. I don’t really know what girls did back in those days – hemstitching, playing the spinet, and waiting for inevitable impregnation? I used up a lot of wood, and nails, and saw blades, creating a lot of Cubist-looking sailing vessels that were promptly lost down Ralston Creek. But following instructions?

With apologies to authors Buchanan and Peskowitz, whose book is actually a godsend for young women who, quite rightly, know that DIY fun and adventure is no longer the province of boys only –

“Perfect for car trips and rainy days, this ancient logic game is surprisingly easy to make, but difficult to master.”

If you have seen this triangular brain teaser before, you know the gist of it. 15 holes, 14 golf tees. Jump the tees over each other until only one is left. Or you’re dumb. Twenty minutes with one of these and I am ready for a conniption fit. These litter the tables at Cracker Barrels nationwide. I have found golf tees in my food there.

In fact, I didn’t realize the playing pieces were golf tees until I played golf for the first and last time. “Hey,” I said, “why are you putting your golf ball on that triangular game board piece?”

In the car, the pieces keep getting lost and resurface stuck to, or into, your heinie. Now that we have roaming data plans, the only way this game is going to be used in the car is if you’re in a dead wifi spot, or to batter a hitchhiker to death with. Rainy days, same thing – I prefer to kill hitchhikers on rainy days, anyway. It’s more romantic.

“Needed: one flat board 6” x 6” (at least one inch thick is a good size). Any shape is fine; it doesn’t have to be triangular.”

Oh, lord, I see a glimmer of light! I had the saw out and was just thinking about how, when I cut in any direction save the grain, the saw shudders, rocks, bolts, and the blade silently and swiftly takes off extra pounds in seconds. Whew.

I now have a random chunk of wood. Next:

“14 fluted dowel pins, 5/16” x 1 1/2”. Available at any hardware store.”

Oh, really, smartass? Have you been to my local hardware store lately? It’s not the place where everyone has matching aprons. It’s run by Bob, a non-recovering alcoholic with memory problems. There are no “departments,” or “signs,” or “aisles.” This makes every quest for a specific part a kind of stream-of-consciousness spelunking expedition. Fluted dowel pins? Fluted dowel pins. They sound expensive.

“Ruler” Wow. Now . . . you’d think, since my children have to buy a new ruler each every September, as they can’t of course hang on to them (are they helicoptered with glee out the bus windows on the way back from the last day of school?), that we – would – have – a – RULER in this house! All right. All right. Breathe. I have a 3” x 5” card, I’ll fake it.

“Power drill, with a 5/16” bit.” You really don’t know anything about me, do you? Sigh.

“Make a dot at the top of the board for your starting point.” What is the top? Are there guidelines on what constitutes the top of a chunk of wood? Is it my call? These profound metaphysical questions can often crowd out the task at hand, leaving me contemplating silently until it gets dark outside and I am brought in.

“Lightly draw one diagonal line and then another, marking your triangle on the wood.” AHA! So they want you to make a triangle anyway! I get it. Clever. They totally styled me by not making me use a power saw.

“In addition to the top dot, mark four dots down one side of the triangle, four along the other side, and three dots along the bottom.”

Yeah, yap, I’m doing it. This might work!

“Draw dots for the middle holes, too. Use your ruler so everything lines up.” Meh.

“Drill a ½” hole right where you have drawn each dot.”

Oh, the hell with it. Say, would you call 911, please? I need to go lie down. 

Tune in next time, when I go to the Burn Ward after making fudge.

Friday, October 2, 2015

On Interpretation: Zappa Plays Zappa

Dweezil Zappa and ensemble at the Boulder Theater last night. No, I didn't get any closer. I could hear just fine where I was.
How many recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are there? Thousands. Why? Haven’t they gotten it right yet?

When Dweezil Zappa hit the stage with his cover of his father Frank’s 1975 One Size Fits All album (the 10th and last official Mothers of Invention product – Zappa went solo after) at the Boulder Theater last night, it was standing room only – with a fairly large contingent of people my age and older, grandparent-y-looking freaks in disguise. When the house lights went down, a Trinity Site-size- and –shaped mushroom cloud of dope smoke ascended, rolling and roiling, breaking in silent tsunami against the lofty Art Deco ceiling.

It got loud fast. We stayed well back on the left, but got to observe all kinds of aisle action – security going after the blatant smokers, trippers waving their fingers in our faces. It got hot.

Zappa was an affable, laid-back host, a gentle curator who slayed it, playing the seemingly unlearnable solos his father composed and played. He was backed by an amazing quintet – Kurt Morgan on bass, Chris Norton on keyboards, Joe Travers on drums, Ben Thomas on trumpet, trombone, harmonica, guitar, and what else comes to hand; and the ball of fire Scheila Gonzales, who worked the keyboards, and flute, and sax, ripping out an amazing horn solo on a cover of “The Grand Wazoo” later in the evening.

Ben Thomas handled the lead vocals, too. (The vocal mix got blown out, and was pretty incomprehensible. I had to go back to the lyrics sheet later to refamiliarize myself.) It seemed odd that Dweezil would relegate this duty – but maybe not. It must be odd to play your dad’s albums for screaming crowds.

Or not. This definitely wasn’t the kind of note-for-note replication that bands such as Dark Star Orchestra perform. And is that what we want? The Eagles reportedly strove to make every concert “sound like the record.” Dweezil and Company kept substantially to the songs, but opened them out as well, developed them, extended them through their own experience and understanding.

And maybe that’s the best way to keep this music alive. Like Mercer Ellington and Sue Mingus, Dweezil Zappa has a mountain of material to work with – Zappa released 62 albums in his lifetime, sometimes five a year – a confounding mix of juvenile comedy, rock, soul, jazz, orchestral, R & B (who doesn’t love Cruisin’ with Ruben and the Jets?), collage, experimental pieces, all jammed together in an ever-exploding matrix of Weird.

Dweezil gets that and makes it work for him, demonstrating that the work has a much longer half-life than most people think it does. Frank Zappa was a notorious perfectionist, but even music as challenging and idiosyncratic as his will only survive if people take it, play it, and by playing change it. As the Borges story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” story illustrated, even the most rigorous attempt to recreate a creative experience is doomed and blessed to be something new and different.

We accrete cultural layers everywhere we go. We track our past, our mind, our style in with us, always, like mud on our shoes. Even when playing the unplayable, or bringing the unreproducible back to life, we are keeping it alive, and adding a little of our DNA to it as well. It’s Dweezil Zappa’s unique privilege to point out some gems to us and put new luster on them.