Tag Archives: Johnny Mercer

Nostalgia For a Lost Love

Autumn-Leaves
The Beatles’ 1965 song Yesterday may be the most recorded song according to The Guinness World Records, but Autumn Leaves has to rank up there pretty high, as evidenced by the number of recordings in this post. And these recordings are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Originally, Autumn Leaves was a 1945 French song entitled Les Feuilles Mortes (literally “The Dead Leaves”) with music by Hungarian-French composer Joseph Kosma and lyrics by French surrealist poet Jacques Prévert. The Hungarian title is Hulló levelek (“Falling Leaves”).

Movie poster for the film Les Portes de la Nuit

Movie poster for the film Les Portes de la Nuit


The Italian born, French singing idol Yves Montand introduced the song in the 1946 film Les Portes de la Nuit, a gloomy urban drama set in post World War II Paris. Scriptwriter and poet Jacques Prevért and director Marcel Carné had been responsible for a string of films spawning the French “poetic realism,” a genre upon that the American film noir movement was based. Although Les Portes de la Nuit was a commercial failure, it fared much better when released in the United States several years later under the title Gates of the Night.

As the 1940’s waned, so too did the public’s appetite for the Tin Pan Alley style ballad. With decreasing demand for his sophisticated talents, lyricist Johnny Mercer found himself penning words for instrumentals. In the case of Les Feuilles Mortes, Mercer would not have thought twice about renaming what was literally “The Dead Leaves” to “Autumn Leaves.” “The Dead Leaves” may have been an appropriate song title for the somber Les Portes de la Nuit, but it would not do for an American popular song.

Initially the public showed little interest in Autumn Leaves. Jo Stafford was among the first to perform the Mercer version. Autumn Leaves became a pop standard and a jazz standard in both in French and English, both as an instrumental and as a vocal number. There is also a Japanese version called Kareha sung by none other than Nat “King” Cole!

On December 24, 1950, French singer Edith Piaf sang both French and English versions of the song on the radio program The Big Show, hosted by Tallulah Bankhead. The Melachrino Strings recorded an instrumental version of the song in London in August, 1950.

In 1955, however, all that changed. Pianist Roger Williams recorded a million-seller, number-one hit rendition of the song that stayed on the Billboard charts for six months. Williams’ recording is the only piano instrumental to ever reach the number one position on the Billboard chart. Williams’ success opened the door for a second spate of covers by Steve Allen, Mitch Miller, Jackie Gleason, Victor Young, and the Ray Charles Singers. All of these versions charted on Billboard’s chart. These covers would be followed by hundreds of renditions in subsequent decades.

In 1956, Columbia Pictures produced a film entitled Autumn Leaves starring Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson. It is a generally well-reviewed tale of a spinster marrying a young man who has mental problems as a result of his ex-wife’s (Vera Miles) affair with his father (Lorne Green). Nat King Cole once again sang the song (this time in English) during the credits.

Frank Sinatra included a version of the song on his 1956 album Where Are You? Andy Williams released a version of the song on his 1959 album, Lonely Street. Raquel Bitton recorded a version in 2000 that appears on her album Raquel Bitton sings Edith Piaf. Jerry Lee Lewis released a version that is a real surprise. This version is from the unissued Caribou sessions from 1980, produced by Eddie Kilroy while Jerry Lee Lewis was with Elektra. Around forty tracks were taped at the Caribou ranch in Colorado in November and overdubs were made in 1981 and 1982, but no tracks were officially released. Listen to it and see what I mean.

In 1962, Serge Gainsbourg wrote a song entitled La Chanson de Prevert. This is a song about a song, for it is about Les Feuilles Mortes and how its power to revive memories kept dead loves alive. References to Verlaine’s Chanson d’Automne hint at its relation to classical French literature.

Greek-Cypriot recording artist Alexia Vassiliou recorded the song for her first 1996 album, In a Jazz Mood. The song also appears on Iggy Pop’s 2009 album Préliminaires as the opening track. A version by Eva Cassidy is one of the highlights of her seminal live album Live at Blues Alley (1996). The Electronic duo Coldcut recorded a cover of the song for their 1993 album Philosophy, featuring guest vocalist Janis Alexander on vocals.

And finally in the Pop field, British blues/rock guitarist Eric Clapton recorded a cover of Autumn Leaves in 2010.

In the jazz genre, this tune took almost ten years to catch on as a jazz number, and 1957 saw three excellent recordings. There were versions by Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington.

The Ellington version, taken at a very slow tempo, and featuring Ray Nance on violin is a delight. Nance’s violin playing represented almost the total opposite of his trumpet playing, and he is at his soulful best on Autumn Leaves, where he plays an exquisite, emotional solo; he then fills along with vocalist Ozzie Bailey. The album, Ellington Indigos, offered a different, more sentimental side of the Ellington ensemble and has rarely been out-of-print since it was released.

Singer/pianist Patricia Barber mesmerizes with her version of Autumn Leaves. With her rendition, the song is refurbished with a torch singer’s touch.

The 1958 Cannonball Adderley recording of Autumn Leaves has inspired generations of jazz players. The arrangement, commonly credited to Miles Davis (who is also featured on trumpet here) actually comes mostly from Ahmad Jamal. Nonetheless, this is a recording that really caught on. The following year, Bill Evans made his recorded debut with his groundbreaking trio alongside bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. Their version of Autumn Leaves is comparably influential to the Adderley version and offers an essential look at the interplay of these three musicians.

Finally, Autumn Leaves has been included in at least these films: Les Portes de la Nuit (1946, Yves Montand), Autumn Leaves (1956, Nat King Cole), Hey Boy! Hey Girl! (1959, Keely Smith), Addicted to Love (1997, Stephane Grappelli), Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil (1997, Paula Cole), and Sidewalks of New York (2001, Stan Getz)

LYRICS
Autumn Leaves [Les Feuilles Mortes]
Music: Joseph Kosma
French Lyrics: Jacques Prévert
English Lyrics: Johnny Mercer

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sun-burned hands I used to hold

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall

C’est une chanson, qui nous ressemble
Toi tu m’aimais et je t’aimais
Nous vivions tous, les deux ensemble
Toi que m’aimais moi qui t’aimais
Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s’aiment
Tout doucement sans faire de bruit
Et la mer efface sur le sable les pas des amants désunis

THE RECORDINGS

1. CHARTED VERSIONS [1955]
Roger Williams
Steve Allen/George Gates
Mitch Miller
Jackie Gleason
Victor Young
Ray Charles Singers

2. OTHER RECORDINGS
Jo Stafford
Nat King Cole [Japanese Version]
Edith Piaf
The Melachrino Strings
Serge Gainsbourg: La Chanson de Prévert
Frank Sinatra
Andy Williams
Raquel Bitton
Jerry Lee Lewis
Alexia Vassiliou
Iggy Pop
Eva Cassidy
Coldcut [Janis Alexander, vocals]
Eric Clapton

3. JAZZ VERSIONS
Cannonball Adderley
Bill Evans Trio
Coleman Hawkins
Dizzy Gillespie
Duke Ellington
Patricia Barber

4. MOVIE VERSIONS
Yves Montand Les Portes de la Nuit (1946)
Nat King Cole Autumn Leaves (1956)
Keely Smith Hey Boy! Hey Girl! (1959)
Stephane Grappelli Addicted to Love (1997)
Paula Cole Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil (1997)
Stan Getz Sidewalks of New York (2001)

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Size Matters!

curvy4

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Well, the guy in the song Huggin’ And Chalkin’ must agree with that sentiment. While very amusing, and bringing smiles to faces, Huggin’ And Chalkin’ is a perfect example of validating plus size women and men as evidenced by the lyrics below.

Huggin’ And Chalkin’ (also known as A-Huggin’ And A-Chalkin’) was a hit novelty song in the mid-1940s for Hoagy Carmichael. The song is just one of many “nonsense songs” written during and after World War II to relieve stress, worry, and soften the pain of losses. The song was so characteristic of the style of other Carmichael songs that most people mistakenly thought that Carmichael wrote the song. But such was not the case.

That honor belongs to another person – Kansas-born Clancy Hayes, who grew up singing and playing both the piano and banjo in jazz bands around San Francisco. In 1946, he collaborated with New Yorker Kermit Goell on Huggin’ And Chalkin’, an upbeat novelty piece that sings the praises of a sweetheart by the name of Rosabelle McGee (some versions have the name as Rosabelle Malone), “who tips the scale at three-oh-three.”

Clancy Hayes

Clancy Hayes

Hayes recorded the song with Bob Scobey’s Frisco Jazz Band sometime in the 1950s and while it did not make the Billboard charts, if Carmichael’s version had not been so successful, this would easily be the definitive version. Hayes’ light baritone singing is relaxed, unmannered and marked by a perfect sense of rhythm that allowed him to attack phrases at just the perfect instant. But Hoagy Carmichael’s version is the version to have of this song. Carmichael recorded the song for Decca with “The Chickadees” as backup singers and a band led by Vic Schoen. The recording was a hit and stayed on the Billboard charts for fifteen weeks, including two weeks at the number one spot.

Johnny Mercer also recorded the song about the same time for Capitol, backed by Paul Weston and his Orchestra. It, too, was very popular. Many people even thought that Mercer had written the song, perhaps in collaboration with Carmichael. To this day, there are people who still refuse to believe that neither Carmichael nor Mercer had any hand in creating Huggin’ And Chalkin’.

Other recordings that charted include versions by Kay Kyser and Herbie Fields.

THE LYRICS
HUGGIN’ AND CHALKIN’ (1946)
Words and Music by Clancy Hayes and Kermit Goell
I gotta gal that’s mighty sweet,
With blue eyes and tiny feet.
Her name is Rosabelle Magee,
and she tips the scales at three o three.

Oh! Gee – but ain’t it grand to have a girl so big and fat
That when you hug’er, you don’t know where you’re at
You have to take a piece of chalk in your hand
And hug a ways and chalk a mark to see where you began.

One day when I was a huggin’ and a chalkin’ and a chalkin’ and a huggin’
a way.
When I met another fella with some chalk in his hand,
Com-in’ around the other way – ’round the mountain.
Comin’ around the other way.

Nobody ever said I’m weak.
My bones don’t ache and my joints don’t creak.
But I grow absolutely limp,
Ev-‘ry time I kiss my baby blimp.

Oh! Gee – but ain’t it grand to have a gal so big and fat
That when you hug’er, you don’t know where you’re at
You have to take a piece of chalk in your hand
And hug a way and chalk a mark to see where you began.

One day – I had a yen for someone leaner,
She was meaner than a mink in a pen.
So I left her, now I’m happy as a fella could be
Huggin’ and chalkin’ once again ’round my Rosie,
Huggin’ and chalkin’ once again.

Oh! Gee but ain’t it grand to have a girl so big and fat
That when you go to hug ‘er
You don’t know where you’re at, you
Have to take a piece of chalk in your hand
And hug a way and chalk a mark to see where you began.

One day – I was a huggin’ and a chalkin’
And a beggin’ her to be my bride
When I met another fella with some chalk in his hand
Comin’ around the other side ’round the mountain,
Comin’ around the other side.

curvy2

THE RECORDINGS

Hoagy Carmichael (backing vocals: The Chickadees), Vic Schoen’s Orchestra Huggin’ And Chalkin’
Kay Kyser and his Orchestra (vocals by Jack Martin and the Campus Kids) Huggin’ and Chalkin’
Johnny Mercer, Paul Weston and his Orchestra Huggin’ And a-Chalkin’
Herbie Fields and his Orchestra (vocals: Herbie Fields) A Huggin’ and a Chalkin’
Bob Scobey’s Frisco Jazz Band, featuring Clancy Hayes Huggin’ And a Chalkin’

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But She’s Only a Dream – Or Is She?

Portrait of Gene Tierney used in the film, Laura

Portrait of Gene Tierney used in the film, Laura

Laura is both a popular song title and the title of a Hollywood film. It is impossible to speak of one without the other.

So let me begin with the song.

Laura is a 1945 popular song composed by David Raksin, with lyrics written by Johnny Mercer It has since become a jazz standard with over four hundred known recordings. In 1945, five separate recordings of Laura appeared on the Billboard pop charts with the Woody Herman and His Orchestra’s rendition reaching #4 and becoming a million-seller hit. Other versions include Johnnie Johnston (#5), Freddy Martin and His Orchestra (#6), Jerry Wald and His Orchestra (#8), and Dick Haymes (#9). Six years later, Stan Kenton saw his version of the song featuring Bud Shank’s alto sax, reach #12.

Shortly after the film Laura was released, Abe Olman of Robbins Music asked songwriter Johnny Mercer to write lyrics for Raksin’s theme. Although Mercer had seen the film, he confessed that he really did not remember the tune. Olman provided Mercer with the music and advised him that the title had to be Laura. After a few weeks, Mercer grew to love the song and completed the lyrics. When Olman asked Mercer to add lyrics to Laura, Mercer was faced with a double challenge. He would not only have to write quality lyrics for a complex and established song, but also pen words that would perpetuate the weighty intrigue of a character with whom the public was already acquainted. Mercer created what many feel is an example of his finest work, immortalizing a tune that might otherwise have drifted into obscurity.

Johnny Mercer’s lyrics extend the feeling of mystery and intrigue in the introductory verse (that hardly anyone ever sings), and subsequently by describing Laura through a series of elusive attributes: a “face in the misty light,” “footsteps down the hall,” “a floating laugh on a summer night,” and as a woman on “a train that is passing through.” With no variations and just a sixty-two-word refrain, the lyrics are handled economically as well as effectively. Here are Mercer’s lyrics:
You know the feeling of something half remembered,
of something that never happened, yet you recall it well.
You know the feeling of recognizing someone
that you’ve never met as far as you could tell, well. . .

Laura is the face in the misty light,
footsteps that you hear down the hall.
The laugh that floats on a summer night
that you can never quite recall.
And you see Laura on the train that is passing thru.
Those eyes, how familiar they seem.
She gave your very first kiss to you.
That was Laura but she’s only a dream

Now to the film.

Movie poster for the film, Laura

Movie poster for the film, Laura

But Laura is more than a popular song. It is also a classic film. According to United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, Laura is a film worthy of preservation because it is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Laura was produced in 1944 and directed by Otto Preminger. The film stars Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price and Clifton Webb. The screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt was based on the 1943 novel of the same title by Vera Caspary. Vera Caspary wrote her story first as a play, Ring Twice for Lora, in 1939, then adapted the play into a novel entitled Laura. The novel was serialized in Collier’s (17 October-28 November 1942), under the title Ring Twice for Laura. Publicity for the film at the time promised: “Never has a woman been so beautiful, so exotic, so dangerous to know!” and Gene Tierney (in her signature film role as Laura) delivered with exquisite elegance and sublime, breathtaking beauty the role of the untouchable “work of art.”

The film is a stylish murder mystery in the film noir genre. Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Hollywood’s classical film noir period is generally regarded as extending from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography. Many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Great Depression.

I will give you enough of the film plot to whet your appetite. At the outset of the film, it is established that the title character, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), has been murdered. Clifton Webb’s voice offers a narration off-screen that begins, “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For with Laura’s horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her, and I had just begun to write Laura’s story when another of those detectives came to see me. I had him wait. I could watch him through the half-open door. . .”

Tough New York detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the killing, methodically questioning the chief suspects: Waspish columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), wastrel socialite Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), and Carpenter’s wealthy “patroness” Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). The deeper McPherson gets into the case, the more fascinated he becomes by the enigmatic Laura, literally falling in love with the woman’s painted portrait. (A piece of trivia: The portrait of Gene Tierney as Laura appeared in two other films, On the Riviera (in color) co-starring Danny Kaye, then later in Woman’s World starring Clifton Webb. In Woman’s World, the painting hung on a wall amid portraits of several other women who were supposed to have been former romantic interests of Webb’s character. The portrait of Tierney/Laura is, in fact, a photograph of Tierney done over with oil paint.) As McPherson sits in Laura’s apartment, ruminating over the case and his own obsessions with her, the door opens, the lights switch on, and in walks none other than Laura Hunt, very much alive! Well, that should be enough to make you go out immediately and either buy or rent the film if you have not already seen it.

Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) gazes at the portrait of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) in a scene from the film Laura

Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) gazes at the portrait of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) in a scene from the film Laura

This adaptation of Vera Caspary’s suspense novel was begun by director Rouben Mamoulien and cinematographer Lucien Ballard, but thanks to a complex series of backstage intrigues and hostilities, Otto Preminger was ordered by his bosses at 20th Century Fox to take over the troubled production of Laura. Preminger had wanted to use Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady as a musical motif for Laura, but composer David Raksin felt it did not suit the character. Raksin was then given the weekend to come up something new. By Sunday, with nothing satisfactory on paper, he read a “Dear John” letter from his wife, and the haunting melody seemed to write itself. Raksin came back Monday with the Laura theme and Preminger not only liked it, but also used it extensively throughout the movie as the idée fixe for the mysterious title character. Raksin’s theme and variations are played throughout the film and, with a few exceptions, constitute the soundtrack. The music lends a haunted, nostalgic, regretful cast to everything it plays under, and it plays under quite a lot in the film. Indeed, the Laura theme became virtually the only music used in the film, appearing in numerous orchestrations and arrangements throughout the movie. For example, in a self-conscious gesture, the film’s characters even refer to the soundtrack theme. When Detective McPherson enters Laura’s apartment with her mentor Waldo Lydecker and her fiancé Shelby Carpenter, McPherson turns on the phonograph and plays – you guessed it – Laura.

When it was released, the film was a moderate success, but the Laura theme, with lyrics added later by Johnny Mercer, became one of the most popular movie themes of all time.

To listen to a version of the song, click on the song title. To download a song, right click on the song title, then right click on Save target as
Woody Herman and his Orchestra, vocals by Woody Herman Laura
Johnnie Johnston, Paul Baron and his Orchestra Laura
Freddy Martin and his Orchestra (instrumental) Laura
Jerry Wald and his Orchestra, vocals by Dick Merrick Laura
Dick Haymes, Victor Young and his Orchestra Laura
Stan Kenton and his Orchestra, (Bud Shank, alto sax; Maynard Ferguson, trumpet; Shorty Rogers, trumpet) vocals by the band Laura

EXTRA BONUS
Laura Theme
David Raksin (from the film soundtrack) Laura (From “Laura”)

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How sweet it is!

sweets
It would be great if we could have a sumptuous dessert and not have to worry about the calories. We would then be able to satisfy our “sweet tooth” yearnings as well as solve the obesity problem that plagues this nation today.

Alex Kramer, Mack David and Joan Whitney solved that problem back in 1944 with their song, Candy. Songs about sweets were not new, of course.

One of the earlier “sweets” song was introduced by Shirley Temple in 1934. The song was entitled On the Good Ship Lollipop. The song became child-star Shirley Temple’s signature song, and while it may be a bit dated, how could anyone resist a song that talks about
. . .Where bon-bons play
On the sunny beach of Peppermint Bay.
Lemonade stands everywhere.
Crackerjack bands fill the air.
And there you are
Happy landing on a chocolate bar.

Now that is a ship I am willing to take anytime! Pipe me aboard, Captain!

Another “sweets” song, A Marshmallow World is usually sung around Christmas-time, even though it has nothing to do with that particular holiday, either in the religious or in the secular sense. The song does refer to winter, however. Since Christmas comes in the winter (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), I guess that is the connection. The song speaks of winter as a time for “marshmallow clouds,” and further talks about “a whipped cream day,” sugary dates, and “a yum- yummy world made for sweethearts.” I am starting to droll just contemplating these delectable words.

Still another song in this same genre is Lollipop, a favorite song among many who perform barbershop music and it became a world-wide hit by the Chordettes, a popular female singing quartet, who usually sang a cappella. This “sweet” tune comes from a time when songs about candy and other sugary food items were a lot more innocent than their modern counterparts. The lollipop is a candy classic, and this ode to the sweet treat temptation complete with a fun “POP!” near the end never seems to get old.

Other songs that come to my mind and fall into this category include Big Rock Candy Mountain by Tex Ritter, Sugar by Peggy Lee, Cotton Candy by Al Hirt, Sugartime by the McGuire Sisters, Honeycomb by Jimmy Rogers, Tutti Fruitti by Little Richard, Candy Kisses by George Morgan, Candy and Cake by Mindy Carson, and, of course, my all-time favorite, I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For Ice Cream by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians.

You would think that listening to songs about such sweet things might give you diabetes, but in most cases these songs are not actually about food at all.

The Alex Kramer, Mack David and Joan Whitney song, Candy is no exception to that statement. Just read the lyrics and you will see what I mean.
Candy, I call my sugar Candy
Because I’m sweet on Candy
And Candy’s sweet on me

She understands me
My understanding Candy
And Candy’s always handy
When I need sympathy

I wish that there were four of her
So I could love much more of her
She has taken my complete heart
Got a sweet tooth for my sweetheart

Candy, it’s gonna be just dandy
The day I take my Candy
And make her mine, all mine
As you can see from these lyrics, even in the innocent days of the 1940s, it was not a morsel of candy that the singer longed for and sang about, but rather the one he or she loved.

This “sweet” song was recorded by a large number of artists. No less than five different versions charted on the Billboard charts. Among the most popular version of the song was the recording by Johnny Mercer and Jo Stafford. Their recording first reached the Billboard Best Seller charts on 24 February 1945 and lasted nineteen weeks on the charts, peaking at #1.

A recording by Dinah Shore was released by RCA Victor Records and reached the Billboard Best Seller charts on 10 March 1945 at #5, and stayed on the charts for eleven weeks.

Johnny Long and his Orchestra, with Dick Robertson doing the vocals also charted on the Billboard charts. Long’s recording debuted on the Billboard charts on 5 May 1945 and peaked at #8, lasting eight weeks.

Still another charted version was made by The Four King Sisters (a family vocal group from Salt Lake City, consisting of Alyce, Yvonne, Donna, and Louise Driggs. “King” was their father’s middle name, which they used professionally). The quartet’s version reached the Billboard charts on 31 March 1945, peaking at #15, and staying on the charts for two weeks.

Jerry Wald and his Orchestra, with Kay Allen handling the vocals was the fifth charted version of the song. This version came on to the Billboard charts on 19 May 1945, and stayed on the charts for one week, peaking at #18.

In England, Joe Loss and his Orchestra recorded the song with Harry Kaye on vocals. The recording was made on 15 June 1945 and was released by EMI on the HMV Records label. This version did not chart in the United States and there were no recording charts in England at the time.

To listen to the songs, click on the song title; to down load a song, right click on the song title, then click on Save target as.

Johnny Mercer and Jo Stafford, Paul Weston and his Orchestra Candy
Dinah Shore, Al Sack and his Orchestra Candy
Johnny Long and his Orchestra, vocals by Dick Robertson Candy
The Four King Sisters, Buddy Cole and his Orchestra Candy
Jerry Wald and his Orchestra, vocals by Kay Allen Candy
Joe Loss and his Orchestra, vocals by Harry Kaye Candy

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Pos-i-tive-ly!

optimism

In recent years, hundreds of academic papers have been published studying the health effects of expecting good things to happen, a trait which researchers call “dispositional optimism.” They have linked this positive outlook on life to everything from decreased feelings of loneliness to increased pain tolerance.

Oddly enough, a mere thirty years ago, the outlook for research on optimism did not look that optimistic at all. But then, in 1985, Michael F. Scheier and Charles S. Carver published their pivotal study entitled “Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies” in Health Psychology, the official scientific publication of the American Psychological Association. Researchers immediately embraced the simple hopefulness test that Scheier and Carver included in the paper and their work has now been cited in over three thousand other published works. Just as importantly, by testing the effect of a personality variable on a person’s physical health, Scheier and Carver helped to bridge the gap between the worlds of psychology and biology. After Scheier and Carver’s groundbreaking paper, scientists had a method for seriously studying the healing powers of positive thinking.

In 1952, three decades before the Scheier and Carver study, a Protestant minister by the name of Norman Vincent Peale, originated the term “positive thinking” in his most popular book entitled, The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and was pastor of the prestigious Marble Collegiate Church in New York City from 1932 to 1984. There he gained fame for his sermons on a positive approach to modern living. The church had six hundred members when he arrived as pastor in 1932; it had over five thousand by the time he retired in 1984. Peale’s work came under criticism from several mental health experts, one of whom directly said that Peale was a con man and a fraud. I won’t comment on that statement, but I will say this: Norman Vincent Peale is quoted as saying, “Drop the idea that you are Atlas carrying the world on your shoulders. The world will go on even without you. Don’t take yourself so seriously.” Maybe it is just me, but that statement is not the utterance of a deceitful scammer, but rather of a counselor who speaks the truth, no matter how difficult hearing the honesty of that truth may be.

It is no wonder that Peale’s book was popular. American culture, after all, is known for its optimistic quality. I believe that only an American (Oscar Hammerstein) would write a song entitled A Cockeyed Optimist. I further believe that only an American (Dorothy Fields) could write these words:
Nothing’s impossible I have found,
For when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off,
And start all over again.

Optimism is in the American DNA. The common stereotype that contrasts the positive, optimistic American sensibility with the darker, world-weary European awareness is not without validity. At one level, optimism is an important American “natural resource.” That resourcefulness inspired the development of one of the world’s first modern democracies and provided a haven for immigrants fleeing lives of persecution, oppression and poverty in their homelands. Ideally, America is the land of equal opportunity – a classless society, where hard work allows anyone to lead the type of lifestyle that was once reserved only for the privileged aristocracy.

As much as Norman Vincent Peale captured that theme with his sermons and his books on “positive thinking,” so, too, Johnny Mercer described it in his song, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive, a song that was featured in the 1944 film Here Come The Waves, starring Bing Crosby and Betty Hutton. The song was written during World War Two, when a victorious outcome of that conflict was by no means all that certain. Writing the song in collaboration with composer Harold Arlen, Mercer’s lyrics were written in the style of a sermon, and explained that accentuating the positive was the key to happiness. In describing his inspiration for the lyrics, Johnny Mercer has said, “I went to hear Father Divine and he had a sermon and his subject was ‘you got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.’ And I said ‘Wow, that’s a colorful phrase!’”

Who was this man who spoke such colorful phrases? He was Father Divine, an African-American spiritual leader from about 1907 until his death in 1965. He probably went by the name of George Baker around the turn of the twentieth century and worked as a gardener in Baltimore, Maryland. In a 1906 sojourn in California, however, the man who became known as Father Divine was introduced to the ideas of Charles Fillmore and the New Thought Movement, a philosophy of positive thinking that would inform his later doctrines. Among other things, this belief system asserted that negative thoughts led to poverty and unhappiness.

One can see how Father Divine’s sermon and “colorful phrases” may have inspired Johnny Mercer’s lyrics for his song. Consider his lyrics:
Gather ‘round me, everybody
Gather ‘round me, while I preach some
Feel a sermon coming on here
The topic will be sin
And that’s what I’m agin’
If you wanna hear my story
Then settle back and just sit tight
While I start reviewing
The attitude of doing right

You got to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive
E-lim-i-nate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with mister in-between

You got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
And have faith, or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene

To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark,
What did they do, just when everything looked so dark?

Man, they said, we better
Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive
E-lim-i-nate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with mister in-between.

Mercer recorded the song with the Pied Pipers and Paul Weston’s Orchestra on 4 October 1944. The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on 6 January 1945 and lasted sixteen weeks on the charts, peaking at Number One.

Within a matter of weeks, several other recordings of the song were released by other well-known artists: Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters made a recording on 8 December 1944. The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on 3 February 1945 and lasted twelve weeks on the charts, peaking at Number Two.

A recording by Artie Shaw was released by RCA Victor Records and first reached the Billboard magazine charts on 20 January 1945 and lasted five weeks on the charts, peaking at Number Five.

The last song to chart during this period was Kay Kyser’s recording on 21 December 1944, with Dolly Mitchell and a vocal trio. The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on 24 February 1945 and lasted two weeks on the charts, peaking at Number Twelve.

Over the years, many artists have recorded this song. Among the more familiar names are Connie Francis, who added the song in 1960 to her Swinging Medley (sometimes also referred to as Gospel Medley), in which she combined it with three other songs: Yes, Indeed, Amen, and Lonesome Road; Ella Fitzgerald, who included this song on her 1961 double album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook; Perry Como, who recorded the song twice: once on 19 February1958 and later in July, 1980; Aretha Franklin, “The Queen of Soul,” who recorded it for her The Electrifying Aretha Franklin album in 1962; Sam Cooke, who recorded it for his Encore album; Sir Cliff Richard, who recorded the song on his album Bold as Brass; and Sir Paul McCartney, former Beatle, who covered it on his 2012 charming album, Kisses on the Bottom.

That is not too shabby for a “sermon in song,” so I will end this piece on that positive note and simply add, “Amen.”

To listen to the song, click on the song title.

Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers, Paul Weston and his Orchestra Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive
Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Vic Schoen and his Orchestra Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive
Artie Shaw and his Orchestra, vocals by Imogene Lynn Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive
Kay Kyser and his Orchestra, vocals by Dolly Mitchell and a vocal trio Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive

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