Irvin Berlin, Bing Crosby and a White Christmas

Irving Berlin was an American composer and lyricist, widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history. Born in Imperial Russia he arrived in the United States at the age of five and published his first song, “Marie from Sunny Italy”, in 1907.  He received 33 cents for the publishing rights!  Four years later – in 1911 – he had his first major international hit – “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” – and that sparked an international dance craze in places as far away as Berlin’s native Russia.  Over the years he was known for writing music and lyrics in an American uncomplicated, simple and direct style with the stated aim to “reach the heart of the average American,” whom he saw as the “real soul of the country”. 

He wrote hundreds of songs, many becoming major hits, which made him famous before he turned thirty. During his 60-year career he wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, including the scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films.

It was in 1942 when words and music came from Irving Berlin and a response came from on Bing Crosby.  That response was because Bing had heard ‘White Christmas’ and wanted to use it!  However – it didn’t stop Berlin fretting about the song in the first few months of its life.  The often brash and always insecure Irving approached each new song as if his life depended on it.  He insisted on being in the room with Crosby to hear it for himself – but to make sure he got a genuine reaction, he stayed out of sight until he heard Crosby’s favorable comments.  Berlin had originally based White Christmas on his own memories of spending Christmas in the Beverly Hills’ sunshine, among the palm trees, longing to be with his family in snowy New York.  In an original draft the song dealt with

White Christmas” is a 1942 Irving Berlin song reminiscing about an old-fashioned Christmas setting. The version as sung by Bing Crosby is the world’s is recorded as being the best-selling single with estimated sales in excess of 100 million copies worldwide.  Other versions of the song, along with Crosby’s, have sold over 50 million copies.

Accounts vary as to when and where Berlin wrote the song. One story is that he wrote it in 1940, in warm La Quinta in California, while staying at the La Quinta Hotel, a frequent Hollywood retreat also favored by writer-director-producer Frank Capra, although the Arizona Biltmore also claims the song was written there. He often stayed up all night writing—he told his secretary, “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written—heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!”

The first public performance of the song was by Bing Crosby on his NBC radio show ‘The Kraft Music Hall’ on Christmas Day, 1941. He subsequently recorded the song with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers and for Decca Records in just 18 minutes on May 29, 1942, and it was released on July 30 as part of an album of six 78 rpms discs from the musical film ‘Holiday Inn. At first, Crosby did not see anything special about the song. He just said “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.” The song established that there could be commercially successful secular Christmas songs – in this case, written by a Jewish-American songwriter.

The song initially performed poorly and was overshadowed by Holiday Inn‘s first hit song: “Be Careful, It’s My Heart”. By the end of October 1942, “White Christmas” topped the ‘Your Hit Parade’ chart and remained in that position until well into the New Year. It has often been noted that the mix of melancholy—“just like the ones I used to know“—with comforting images of home—”where the treetops glisten”—resonated especially strongly with listeners during WW2. A few weeks after the attacks on Pearl Harbour, Crosby introduced “White Christmas” on a Christmas Day broadcast. The Armed Forces Network was flooded with requests for the song. The recording is noted for Crosby’s whistling during the second chorus.

In 1942 alone, Crosby’s recording spent eleven weeks on top of the Billboard charts. The original version also hit number one on the Harlem Hit Parade for three weeks, Crosby’s first-ever appearance on the black-oriented chart. Re-released by Decca, the single returned to the No. 1 spot during the holiday seasons of 1945 and 1946 (on the chart dated January 4, 1947), thus becoming the only single with three separate runs at the top of the U.S. charts. The recording became a chart perennial, reappearing annually on the pop chart twenty separate times before Billboard magazine created a distinct Christmas chart for seasonal releases.

The version most often heard today on the radio during the Christmas season is the 1947 re-recording. The 1942 master was damaged due to frequent use. Crosby re-recorded the track on March 19, 1947, accompanied again by the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers, with every effort made to reproduce the original recording session. The re-recording is recognizable by the addition of flutes and celesta in the beginning.  Although Crosby dismissed his role in the song’s success, saying later that “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully,” he was associated with it for the rest of his career.

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In 1941 people were asking ‘How About You’.

How About You? was a popular song composed by Burton Lane, with lyrics by Ralph Freed that was introduced in the 1941 film ‘Babes on Broadway’ by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.  Now the lyrics of the song are often changed depending on the recording artist but in its original form it was a humorous romantic duet, though rarely has it been recorded that way!

Certain lyrics, especially those with topical references, are often changed based on the time of the performance’s release. For example, the line “Frank Roosevelt’s looks give me a thrill” was changed to “James Durante’s looks” in a 1950s recording by Sinatra, though he did sing it in its original form with Dorsey back in the 1940s.

Burton Lane is said to have approached song writing ‘the way a carpenter approaches cabinet making’!  In doing some digging on the matter I find that he had dropped out of school at the age of 15 and was found playing the piano in an Atlantic City hotel where he was heard by George Gershwin’s mother Rose.  The tune that he was playing at the time was ‘S’wonderful’ by George Gershwin.  Rose allegedly said to him, ‘Not only do you play like George, you look like him’. Lane idolized Gershwin, so that was praised indeed.  Burton Lane later claimed that it was George who had encouraged him to start writing popular songs.   They certainly remained close friends for the rest of George’s short life – he died on 11th July 1937 just 39 years old.

A 1941 song that asked the question ‘How About You?’

How About You? was a popular song composed by Burton Lane, with lyrics by Ralph Freed that was introduced in the 1941 film ‘Babes on Broadway’ by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.  Now the lyrics of the song are often changed depending on the recording artist but in its original form it was a humorous romantic duet, though rarely has it been recorded that way!

Certain lyrics, especially those with topical references, are often changed based on the time of the performance’s release. For example, the line “Frank Roosevelt’s looks give me a thrill” was changed to “James Durante’s looks” in a 1950s recording by Sinatra, though he did sing it in its original form with Dorsey back in the 1940s.

Burton Lane is said to have approached song writing ‘the way a carpenter approaches cabinet making’!  In doing some digging on the matter I find that he had dropped out of school at the age of 15 and was found playing the piano in an Atlantic City hotel where he was heard by George Gershwin’s mother Rose.  The tune that he was playing at the time was ‘S’wonderful’ by George Gershwin.  Rose allegedly said to him, ‘Not only do you play like George, you look like him’. Lane idolized Gershwin, so that was praised indeed.  Burton Lane later claimed that it was George who had encouraged him to start writing popular songs.   They certainly remained close friends for the rest of George’s short life – he died on 11th July 1937 just 39 years old.

My music of choice for 1940

Rodgers and Hart were an American song writing partnership between composer Richard Rodgers (1902–1979) and the lyricist Lorenz Hart (1895–1943) that worked together on 28 stage musicals and more than 500 songs from 1919 until Hart’s death in 1943.  My favorite one is “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” – a show tune and popular song from 1940.   The song was first introduced on stage by Vivienne Segal on 25th December 1940. It was during Act I, Scene 6, and again as a reprise in Act II, Scene 4 during the Broadway production of Pal Joey.

The story was full of proper and literate rhymes as it explored a single moment of pure emotion without offering any psychological insight into the actual character.

‘I’m wild again; Beguiled again; A simpering, whimpering child again’

It was – it is – classic Lorenz Hart.

The story was actually based on a novella by John O’Hara about a night-club singer and the stage show was true to the spirit of the elegiac book.  The book was also felt to be a natural subject for Frank Sinatra and he bought the movie rights.

Now we can read a book!

It was Monday 6th September 1852 that saw the opening, in Manchester, of the United Kingdom’s first free lending library.

On Wednesday 8th the Taunton Courier & Western Advertiser reported that:

‘The opening of the Manchester Free Public Library has been looked forward to with a good deal of interest, and it will not be a matter of surprise that great anxiety was manifested by the public to be present on the occasion. The ceremony took place in the spacious room in which are stored the volumes designed as a library for reference, whilst the distinguish visitors intending to take part in the proceedings were received in a room of corresponding proportions on the first floor, containing the books which form the public lending library. At twenty minutes past eleven o’clock, when the noblemen and gentlemen invited to take part in the proceedings had taken their seats in the upper room, there were nearly a thousand persons present, a great portion of who were ladies. Sir John Potter presided, and the following noblemen and gentlemen took their seats on either side of the chair’. Here is not the place to list them all but a Mr Thackery and a Mr Charles Dickens were amongst the gathering. The latter was –‘received with the most cordial cheering and gave an introductory speech which provoked laughs and cheers’.

The York Herald later told us that ‘the total cost of the building, in its present state, with its fittings and furniture, was £6,963 6s 2d. The extent of shelving already provided would accommodate from 6,000 to 7,000 additional volumes. The number of volumes purchased to date is 18,028 and their aggregate cost was £4,156 – or about 4 shillings 7 pence per volume on the average. In addition to the books thus acquired, 3,292 volumes have been presented to the library. The number of volumes at present contained in the library of reference is 16,103’.

I just love the specific publishing of data in the newspapers of the time.

To Which We Serve

There are times when ‘doing what you plan to do’ gets done – and there are also times when ‘what you planned to do’ didn’t get done – and today I am not sure which of these apply – so I’ll leave it to you to decide!  It’s a part of our ‘Music for Ragtime to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ story – but doesn’t specifically contain either!  Last week our 1942 story had two new singers on the scene. This week we are all at sea with the story of HMS Kelly- a K-class destroyer of the British Royal Navy and the flotilla leader of her class. She had served through the early years of the Second World War in Home Waters, off Norway and in the Mediterranean. Throughout the ships service it was commanded by Lord Louis Mountbatten. The vessel was lost in action in 1941 during the Battle of Crete.

In 1942 a British patriotic war film, directed by Sir Noël Peirce Coward and Sir David Lean, with the assistance of Britain’s Ministry of Information, came on screen.  It was called ‘In Which We Serve’ with a screenplay inspired by the exploits of Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten.  In the Box Office the film was the second most popular movie at the British box office in 1943 and was one of the most successful British films ever released in the US, earning $1.8 million in rentals.  Noël Coward had composed the music as well as starring in the film as the ship’s captain. The film also starred John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson and Richard Attenborough – it was Richard’s first screen role. ‘In Which We Serve’ also received a full backing by the Ministry of Information which offered advice on what would make good propaganda.  The film remains a classic example of wartime British cinema through patriotic imagery of national unity and social cohesion within the context of war.

However – there were ‘responses’. 

A New York Times writer observed, “There have been other pictures which have vividly and movingly conveyed in terms of human emotion the cruel realities of this present war. None has yet done it so sharply and so truly as In Which We Serve… For the great thing which Mr. Coward has accomplished in this film is a full and complete expression of national fortitude … Yes, this is truly a picture in which the British may take a wholesome pride and we may regard as an excellent expression of British strength.”

Variety called the film “a grim tale sincerely picturized and splendidly acted throughout” and added, “Only one important factor calls for criticism. It is that all the details are too prolonged. The author-producer-scriptwriter-composer and co-director gives a fine performance as the captain of the vessel, but acting honours also go to the entire company. Stark realism is the keynote of the writing and depiction, with no glossing of the sacrifices constantly being made by the sailors.”

Despite largely positive reviews by audiences and critics alike, the film was not well received by some within the Admiralty who dubbed it “In Which We Sink“.  None-the-less – on Christmas Eve 1942 in New York, the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures honoured the film as the ‘Best English Language Film of the Year’ citing Bernard Miles and John Mills for their performances.  The film was nominated in the 1943 Academy Awards but lost to ‘Casablanca’ for Best Picture and ‘Princess O’Rourke’ for Best Original Screenplay. However, Noel Coward was presented with an ‘Academy Honorary Award for “his outstanding production achievement.”   In 1943 ‘In Which We Serve’ also won the ‘New York Film Critics Circle Award’ for Best Film’, beating Casablanca’, and the ‘Argentine Film Critics Association Award for Best Foreign Film in 1943.

‘To Autumn’ by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;  conspiring with him how to load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; to bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, and fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; to swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells with a sweet kernel; to set budding more, and still more, later flowers for the bees, until they think warm days will never cease, for summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?  Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find thee sitting careless on a granary floor, thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind; or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook spares the next swath and all its twined flowers: and sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep steady thy laden head across a brook; or by a cyder-press, with patient look, thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,— while barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, and touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue; then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn among the river sallows, borne aloft or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; and full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft the red-breast whistles from a garden-croft; and gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

1942 sees two ‘new’ singers on the scene

The war was now across the whole world but the music of the US in 1942 brought a top five tracks that would last long after the conflict had ended.  These were:

At number 5 was ‘A String of Pearls’ by Glenn Miller while, at number 4, Jimmy Dorsey was telling the story of ‘Tangerine’ with Vaughn Monroe’s version very close behind.

Glenn Miller was also at number 3 – this time with ‘Moonlight Cocktail’ – with Paul Whiteman ‘Traveling Light’ at number 2.

At number 1 was Alvino Rey – or Bing Crosby – or Horace Heidt – or the Merry Macs – but, which ever we chose, all will tell us the same story – the story that was ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’!

Meanwhile in Britain, without any question, the most popular vocalist of the time and place was Vera Lynn“the forces’ sweetheart”.  She sang just about every well-known wartime song in her concerts and in her travels to the troops.  I remember my Dad sending a message back to mum and me at home saying they had enjoyed ‘Vera Lynn singing and talking to everyone out in the desert one afternoon – but he could not say where it had happened’. I know he also had two or three more ‘shows’ from Ms Lynn – but he never did say where they were!

There was, however, more than one side to all of this – and that came to the fore in February 1942 when bandleader Tommy Dorsey said of an singer:  ‘He’s a great singer, but ya know, you can’t make it without a band.  Every singer has got to have a band behind him’. Tommy was talking about a twenty-six-year-old singer who was riding the crest of phenomenal popularity.  Wherever this singer appeared with Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra he would be greeted with screams, sighs, and fainting spells from a faithful contingent of over-stimulated female bobby-soxers greeting his every phrase, motion, and intonation with loud and rapturous delight.

Having spent the previous seven years paying his musical dues – a tour with a Major Bowes’ amateur unit; a stint as a singing waiter, a year as vocalist with the struggling Harry James orchestra – one Frank Sinatra now felt he was ready for a solo career, even if his boss Tommy Dorsey said he was ‘a damn fool’ for considering it!

Francis Albert Sinatra was born on 12th December 1915 – an American singer, actor, and producer who would become one of the most popular and influential musical artists of the 20th century.  He became one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 150 million records worldwide and would find success as a solo artist after he signed with Columbia Records in 1943, becoming the idol of the “bobby soxers” when he released his debut album, ‘The Voice of Frank Sinatra’ in 1946.

Noel Coward and London Pride

Noel Coward wrote “London Pride” in the spring of 1941, during the Blitz. According to his own account, he was sitting on a seat on a platform in Paddington station, watching Londoners going about their business quite unfazed by the broken glass scattered around from the station’s roof damaged by the previous night’s bombing: in a moment of patriotic pride, he suddenly recalled an old English folk song which had been apparently appropriated by the Germans for their national anthem, and it occurred to him that he could reclaim the melody in a new song. The song started in his head there and then and was finished in a few days.

The song has six verses. The opening lines, repeated three times within the song, are:

London Pride has been handed down to us, London Pride is a flower that’s free.
London Pride means our own dear town to us, and our pride it forever will be.

The flower mentioned is Saxifraga x urbium, a perennial garden flowering plant historically known as ‘London Pride’. The song was intended to raise Londoners’ spirits during the Blitz. It was also circulated after the July 2005 bombings.

Coward acknowledged one of the traditional cries of London – “Won’t You Buy My Sweet-Smelling Lavender” as the starting-point for the tune, but he also pointed out the similarity with “Deutschland uber alles”, which he claimed was based on the same tune. It contrasts with many of the major-key, grandiose melodies used to celebrate patriotism, including God Save the King and Land of Hope and Glory. Its orchestration also contrasts with those anthems, employing muted strings and a celeste, rather than a pipe organ and a choir.

The words above – the story above – are an introduction to today’s story line. In an hour or so time the full words for London Pride will appear for you – just as it would had done so many years ago!