december 2009

Field Notes From a Songwriter’s Centennial

A Son Remembers His Father

By Michael Sigman

Many a tear has to fall but it's all in the game...

sigmanSeptember 24th, 2009, was the centennial birthday of my late father, the songwriter Carl Sigman (1909-2000), who wrote nearly a thousand songs, including "It's All In The Game," "(Where Do I Begin) Love Story," "Ebb Tide," "What Now, My Love," "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)" and "Arrivederci, Roma." Herewith a son offers some fun facts and observations on the father’s life’s work.

Also born in 1909: Johnny Mercer, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Maybelle Carter, Burl Ives, Colonel Tom Parker and, absurdly, Eugene Ionesco.

Johnny Mercer, the genteel Georgian who would become one of the greatest American songwriters, lived down the street from my dad in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, and became his mentor. Johnny would show up at the Sigman apartment most nights around dinnertime to enjoy generous helpings of kreplach, blintzes and chopped liver on rye bread, courtesy of my grandmother. Carl's first published song, 1937's "Just Remember," was a collaboration with Mercer. Returning the favor, Carl gave Johnny the famous line "Or am I breathing music into ev'ry word" for the immortal "And The Angels Sing."

Carl's first monster hit—"Pennsylvania 6-5000" by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra in 1940—referred to the phone number of big band hot spot the Hotel Pennsylvania, which you can still reach by dialing that number.

‘Pennsylvania 6-5000,’ Glenn Miller and His Orchestra perform Carl Sigman’s first monster hit

As part of his contribution to World War II, Sgt. Sigman wrote "All-American Soldier," still the theme song of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Some funny song titles from the early years: "I Left The One I Love On One Of The Thousand Islands, But I Can't Remember Which One," "The Big High Mountain With Nothing On The Top," "Our Horses Are Falling In Love." And who can forget that ode to the hot dog, "Pickle In the Middle and the Mustard on Top"?

The lyrics for the bridge to "Crazy He Calls Me"—a late '40s ballad made famous by Billie Holiday and later recorded by Tony Bennett, Linda Ronstadt, Sam Cooke, Rod Stewart et al.—came to Carl when he pictured a sign from the wartime Army mess hall that read, "The difficult I'll do right now; the impossible will take a little while."

In 1947, Carl had the top two songs on Your Hit Parade. No. 2 was Sigman-Hilliard's (Hilliard being Bob Hilliard, one of Carl's favored collaborators) "Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)" by Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters, while Vaughn Monroe's "Ballerina" topped the chart. Carl wrote the melody for "Ballerina"—Bob Russell contributed the lyric—and at least a half dozen of his friends swore he composed it on their pianos.

In 1948, Carl married Louis Prima's gal Friday, Eleanor (Terry) Berkowitz, whom he met in the Brill Building while writing songs for Louis. But the Sigman-Hilliard collaboration didn't miss a beat—Bob was there when my dad proposed, and accompanied my parents on their honeymoon.

"Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)," a New Year's Eve perennial and still my mom's voicemail message, has been assayed by Bing Crosby, Doris Day, reggae immortal Prince Buster, ska stalwarts The Specials, alt-country great Todd Snider, the apparently stoned-out-of-their-minds Wingless Angels—produced by Keith Richards—and, just last month, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.

Carl and his friend the composer/orchestra leader Percy Faith wrote "My Heart Cries For You" at the race track. It took ten minutes. Guy Mitchell brought it to the top of the charts in 1951, and Elvis Presley and Ray Charles are among the hundreds who've covered it since.

My dad's biggest hit—"It's All In The Game"—began as classical violin solo composed by Charles Dawes, making it the only No. 1 song to have been co-written by a vice president of the United States. (Dawes served under Calvin Coolidge.) In addition to Tommy Edwards' classic 1958 chart-topper, it's been a country hit for Merle Haggard and an R&B hit for the Four Tops. Other interpreters include Louis Armstrong, Liberace, UB40, Jackie DeShannon, Cliff Richard, Elton John, Johnny Mathis, Barry White, Nick Lowe, Isaac Hayes, Bob Dylan, Keith Jarrett and my personal fave, Van Morrison.

Carl Sigman’s ‘It’s All In the Game,’ a superb—and commercially unreleased—1965 recording by Lesley Gore, then in the midst of her unstoppable run of teen heartbreak hits. In this arrangement (produced by Quincy Jones, who was then steering all of Ms. Gore’s session while on staff at Mercury), Gore renders the number as a torch song, accompanied only by a piano. This is not as surprising as it may seem on the surface. As a 13-year-old hitmaker, her debut album included—in addition to her first two mega-hits “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry”—solid, bluesy treatments of “The Party’s Over” and “Cry Me a River,” far more sophisticated than you might expect from one so young.

Tommy Edwards’s 1958 chart topping version of ‘It’s All In the Game.’ His 1951 version of the song, with a beautiful string arrangement worthy of Nelson Riddle, went to #18, but the upbeat ’58 arrangement took him to #1 for the only time in his career.

My father never "went to work." Instead, the meditative calm of the golf course often served as his muse. From a very young age I'd reply to the question, "What does your father do?" with, "He plays golf." If someone asked what he did in the winter, I'd say, "He bowls."

"Ebb Tide" was Carl's personal favorite of all his songs. In his acclaimed memoir Chronicles Bob Dylan writes, "I used to play the phenomenal 'Ebb Tide' by Frank Sinatra a lot and it had never failed to fill me with awe. The lyrics were so mystifying and stupendous. When Frank sang that song, I could hear everything in his voice—death, God and the universe, everything." Lest we get swept away, my parents, my brothers Jeff and Randy and I laughed till it hurt the first time we heard Jerry Colonna's "Ebb Tide" send-up, where he drowns before his passion is consummated.

Frank Sinatra, ‘Ebb Tide’—‘When Frank sang that song,’ said Bob Dylan, ‘I could hear everything in his voice—death, God and the universe, everything.’

Carl wrote all kinds of songs. He collaborated with jazz greats Duke Ellington ("All Too Soon") and Tad Dameron ("If You Could See Me Now"), added lyrics to the vintage ragtime tunes "Fidgety Feet," "Panama" and "Sensation," wrote folk songs for Burl Ives—"River Of Smoke," "(O-Lee-O) The Bachelor's Life"—and even came up with a protest song for lefty activist Tom Glazer, "Money In The Pocket."

For the '50s TV series Robin Hood, my father wrote words and music to the theme song, which began with the memorable lines "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Riding through the glen." It’s worth noting that the hit recording of "Robin Hood" was produced by "fifth Beatle" George Martin and sung by Martin's friend Dick James, who later became the Mop-Tops' publisher. What's more, Monty Python—the Beatles of comedy—parodied the song in "Dennis Moore," a famous sketch from Flying Circus season three.

My dad shunned publicity, sometimes with a deft assist from my mom. When I was around 10, a strange woman, daughter in tow, came to our door and asked if her little girl could watch my dad write a song. Mom's deadpan reply: "He does most of his writing on the john."

When my dad awoke to the '60s, it dawned on him that the times they were a-changin'. Determined to keep writing hits, he got in on the girl-group craze with The Angels' heavenly "Till" and had a Top 5 smash with Brenda Lee's heart-wrenching "Losing You," produced by Nashville legend Owen Bradley.

In 1964, at the height of Beatlemania—by which time songwriters who didn't smoke pot and perform their own material were becoming an endangered species—Beatles producer George Martin conjured a U.K./U.S. chartmaker with 21-year-old Liverpudlian Cilla Black's (nee Priscilla White!) stirring recording of Carl's "You're My World," one of my all-time favorite tracks. Helen Reddy's tepid reprise of the song was a tepid hit 13 years later.

Cilla Black, ‘You’re My World,’ a wonderful performance by the then-21-year-old Liverpudlian on a Carl Sigman song produced by George Martin

What do Mel Torme, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Pussycat Dolls have in common? Skipping decades from the '60s through the '80s to 2005, they all recorded "Right Now," my dad's collaboration with jazz great Herbie Mann.

A friend recently sent me three sublime CDs comprising 28 versions of Van Morrison performing "It's All In The Game" live in various stages of inspiration and inebriation.

Frank Sinatra committed over a dozen of my dad's songs to vinyl, and sang at least another half dozen in recorded radio broadcasts. His versions of "I Could Have Told You," "A Day In The Life Of A Fool" and "The World We Knew" are definitive.

Frank Sinatra, ‘I Could Have Told You,’ recorded for Capitol Records in 1953

But even Frank didn't always get it right. His swingin', finger snappin' interpretation of Carl's most despairing song, "What Now, My Love"—in which the singer pleads, “Now that you've left me how can I live through another day?”—isn't quite, well, suicidal enough. You're better off listening to Sonny & Cher's jangly 1966 hit, or heartfelt versions by Shirley Bassey, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland or Miss Piggy.

Once, at a dinner party, a woman remarked that Carl's love songs were so deep they could only have been inspired by his wife, Terry. Carl, who could never ever tell a lie, replied, "No. Actually, they're just songs."
In the '50s Carl wrote "Answer Me, My Lord," and Frankie Laine quickly took it to No.1 in the U.K. But the U.S. publisher thought the lyric was too religious, so my dad substituted "Love" for "Lord." The resulting charttoppers by Vaughn Monroe and Nat Cole on these shores paved the way for the song's 56-year journey from croon (Bing Crosby) to pop (Petula Clark) to doo wop (Harptones) to country (Marty Robbins) to R&B (Impressions) to rock/soul (Johnny Rivers) to art rock (Bryan Ferry) to jazz (Pharaoh Sanders). Opera superstar Renee Fleming even recorded it a couple of years ago and sang it last season on Elvis Costello's cable TV show, Spectacle, with Bill Frissell on guitar.

Renee Fleming, ‘Answer Me, My Love,’ with Bill Frissell on guitar

And two of the greatest popular music geniuses of our time have included "Answer Me" in their repertoires: Bob Dylan often performed it in concert in the early '90s—playing the entire melody on guitar before singing a note—and Joni Mitchell gave it a lush, gorgeous treatment in 2000.

Carl Sigman-Peter DeRose's "A Marshmallow World" has been a Christmas/winter perennial for decades and still gets new recordings every year. Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Brenda Lee sang it early on and Darlene Love knocked it out of the park for the Phil Spector Christmas Album in 1963. In recent years, Los Straitjackets, Regis Philbin/Steve Tyrell, The Cheetah Girls, Kristin Chenoweth/John Pizzarelli and Raul Malo have added their voices, and last season even conservative commentator Mark Steyn joined the snowball fight with an affectionate take.

Darlene Love, ‘Marshmallow World’ from The Phil Spector Christmas Album, 1963

Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra knock ‘Marshmallow World’ out of the park

A friend of my parents would tell music directors on cruise ships he was Carl Sigman, whereupon my dad's songs would get played and the faux Carl would take the bows and soak up the kudos.

When Phil Spector's wall-of-sound treatment propelled the Righteous Brothers' "Ebb Tide" to the Top 5 in 1965, my high school social life turned a corner: several cheerleaders actually became aware of my existence. When Lenny Welch sang it at my senior prom two years later, he either called me up to the stage or didn't, depending on whom you ask and what substances they'd consumed. I prefer to think he did, but couldn't swear to it.

Lenny Welch, ‘Ebb Tide’

Inexplicably, hundreds of German and Eastern European rock bands have produced note-for-note covers of Louis Prima's gloriously demented rendering of "Buona Sera," which floored my dad, who thought he'd written a sweet, simple love song.

Louis Prima’s gloriously demented rendering of ‘Buona Sera’

Paramount chief Bob Evans nixed my father's original lyric for the movie theme from the 1970 weeper Love Story because he thought the last two words in the line, "A moment's richness in the mystery of time Jenny came" were too, uh, sexually suggestive. Livid, Carl paced the living room floor of our Great Neck home, unable to come up with an alternative. In frustration, he turned to my mom and said, "Where do I begin?" She recognized the perfect fit of those words with the opening notes of the melody, and you know the rest.

Told he needed to rewrite his original lyrics to ‘Love Story’ because they were too sexually suggestive, a livid Carl Sigman paced the floor of his home, unable to come up with an alternative. In frustration he turned to his wife and said, ‘Where do I begin?’ She recognized the perfect fit of those words with the opening notes of the melody, and you know the rest.

When both were in their 80s, Carl got a call from the aforementioned Frankie Laine, who was convinced that all the "Festival of the Bulls" theme needed to become a smash hit was a Carl Sigman lyric. My dad's immediate reaction was pure Michael Corleone: "Just when I think I'm out of it, they pull me back in." He relented and wrote a pretty decent lyric, but Frankie's dream of a four-legged bookend to his classic "Mule Train" hasn't yet materialized.

As 89-year-old Carl was wheeled into a Long Island operating room for heart surgery, he quipped, "Aorta be in pictures."

Not long before he died, my father awoke from a dream in which he had written lyrics to Frederic Chopin's immortal "Revolutionary Etude." After breakfast, he sat down at his desk and transcribed the words to "Unmask Your Heart." (Note to Mr. Buble or Ms. Keys: I have a nice demo...) And that was his swan song, a collaboration—across the oceans and the centuries—with as gifted a tunesmith as this world has seen.

Writer/editor, media consultant, music publisher Michael Sigman is a regular Huffington Post blogger in the site’s Entertainment section.

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