Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century, Part IV:
"Over the Rainbow" (Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, 1939)

The octave leap at the opening of the chorus of "Over the Rainbow" is maybe the most significant combination of two notes in the entire American songbook. The contrast between the two notes perfectly captures the sense of yearning and escape the song conveys. We'll hear that octave leap on two other songs in this series, neither of which I chose for that reason and both of which were written after this one, so we'll give "Over the Rainbow" the bulk of the credit. That same motif also shows up in David Bowie's "Starman," which I guess is a spoiler that "Starman" isn't going to end up on this list.

The octave leap is not technically the opening of the song, though. Like many of the songs of the 1930s, "Over the Rainbow" has an introductory verse that is usually dropped in modern renditions of the song. Indeed, Judy Garland doesn't even include the verse on the version she sings in The Wizard of Oz.

To back up for a second, "Over the Rainbow" was composed by Harold Arlen, nee Hyman Arluck, who already had a stunning string of songs behind him - "Stormy Weather," "Let's Fall in Love" - when producer Arthur Freed asked him and lyricist Yip Harburg to whip up a batch of songs for The Wizard of Oz. ("Yip" wasn't really a nickname, by the way - Harburg's middle name was Yipsel.) The two of them made $25,000 on a contract that lasted 14 weeks.

The pair had already completed "We're Off to See the Wizard," "The Merry Old Land of Oz," and "Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead," when Arlen decided to focus on a big ballad for Judy Garland to sing. Harold and his wife were driving down Sunset Boulevard to Grauman's Chinese Theater when the melody struck him, and he pulled out a pad of paper and wrote it down right there in the car: "It was as if the Lord said, 'Well, here it is, now stop worrying about it!'" (In 1981, Harburg was killed in a car wreck on Sunset Boulevard.)

When Arlen played it for his lyricist the next day, Harburg didn't care for it, finding the melody too grandiose for a young girl from small-town Kansas. Arlen turned to Ira Gershwin for a second opinion, and when Gershwin liked it, Harburg grudgingly wrote lyrics for it. 

"We have this little girl, a girl yearning to be out of this little damn little place, this Kansas," Harburg said shortly before his death in 1981. "She wants to get somewhere, anywhere. Where shall it be? Kansas is a dry, arid place, and the only colorful thing in her life is a rainbow. The rainbow was good enough for Noah, and it's good enough for me."

The song was nearly cut from the film, as the studio felt it made the Kansas sequence drag on too long, but Freed and Arlen fought to keep it in. There was supposed to be a reprise of the song, sung by Dorothy in the witch's castle to remind her of being home in Kansas, but people felt it was too sad. Both Garland and the crew cried when she recorded it.

The Wizard of Oz came out in August 1939, and Garland's single version of "Over the Rainbow " was released that September. There weren't pop charts yet, but by all accounts, the song was a huge smash from the beginning, and it's never gone away. It was named the greatest song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts, and who am I to disagree?

"Over the Rainbow" also lived on in a classic story told by Pete Barbutti on The Tonight Show, one of the few jokes about a song that pivots on the melody rather than the lyrics: 


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Long Distance Information

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century, Part III
"Memphis, Tennessee" (Chuck Berry, 1958)

"If I had to name the best short story in the form of a song lyric, I suspect the winner would be Chuck Berry’s 'Memphis, Tennessee,' first released as a B-side in 1959," wrote Verlyn Klinkenborg in 1999.  At the very least, in my estimation, "Memphis, Tennessee" has the greatest twist-ending of any song in what Casey Kasem liked to call the rock era.

The song would work fine on its own without the twist, if it were merely the story of a man struggling to get in touch with Marie, the woman who broke his heart. The details are indelibly rendered: "hurry-home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye," "my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall."

But the song's ending flips the whole thing over, turning the narrator into a loving father who can't stop thinking about his little girl. There's no cheating it, either - every detail in the story that we thought was about a lost romance works perfectly for the lost daughter. Chuck knows exactly what story he's telling here; there's no chance of getting lost in the weeds, like you do in "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia."

As Klinkenborg alludes to, "Memphis, Tennessee" was originally the B-side to "Back in the U.S.A." It never charted for Chuck, but people noticed it, and almost immediately began covering it. The Beatles played it at their audition for Decca Records on January 1, 1962; Pete Best's drumming probably ruined whatever chance they had on that day.

Anyway, here we have one of the greatest lyrics ever to appear in a rock song. But what makes "Memphis, Tennessee" so remarkable is that even if you strip out its greatest strength, it's still a hit. The blues guitarist Lonnie Mack recorded an instrumental version, titled simply "Memphis," in 1963. Without that classic lyric, the song still went to Number Five on the Billboard pop chart.

That's really something, isn't it? It's as if someone recorded a spoken-word version of "Boogie Oogie Oogie," and made a hit out of it. That would kind of give you more respect for "Boogie Oogie Oogie," wouldn't it?

The biggest hit version of "Memphis" was the one recorded by Johnny Rivers in his quasi-live style, which hit Number 2 in 1964. The country singer Fred Knobloch (most familiar to me as the author of "Killin' Time") took his own version to the Top Ten of the country charts in 1980.  

Buck Owens and Roy Orbison both cut it as well. The Beatles played it FIVE TIMES on their BBC Radio show, one of which was included on their monumental Live at the BBC box set. I wonder if they ever did it as an instrumental.