Saturday, June 9, 2018

We're After the Same Rainbow's End

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century, Part V:
"Moon River" (Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, 1961)

Sometimes you just get lucky: The original title of "Moon River" was "Blue River," until lyricist
Johnny Mercer realized there was already a song by that title. Forced to find a new name, needing a long vowel sound in that first syllable, Mercer came up with "Moon River," which is miles better. Aside from the occasional Chicago River on St. Patrick's Day, most rivers are somewhat blue, so the modifier doesn't add much in that case. But a "Moon River," you can only imagine at night, with a big full yellow moon reflected in its ripples. That simple switch makes the whole title - the whole song - so much more evocative. "Blue River" is not and would never be a classic song. "Moon River" almost instantly is.

It's also an instant classic after those first three notes, nearly replicating that octave leap we were just discussing in "Over the Rainbow." Composer Henry Mancini supposedly took a month to write those first three notes, but once he had those in place, the rest of the song took a half an hour.

Mancini knew he was writing the song for Audrey Hepburn to sing in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Hepburn wasn't much of a singer, with a range of about an octave, so those initial two notes pretty much proscribed the song's breadth. It's also in the key of C, with no sharps or flats, which I guess would make it easier to sing, but I don't really know. I can't sing.

The film's producers initially asked that someone else to dub Hepburn's voice for the performance in the movie. Then after the first screening, a producer demanded the song - with Audrey plucking a guitar out on her fire escape - be cut. Audrey herself insisted that it stay in, famously declaring, "Over my dead body."

Soon after Breakfast at Tiffany's was released, in the fall of 1961, Henry Mancini released an almost-instrumental single version of the song, with a chorale coming in on vocals about halfway through the record. Jerry "the Iceman" Butler also released a surprisingly unsatisfactory version, where his vocals stayed persistently behind the orchestra for the whole record. It's kind of annoying. Nevertheless, both versions were hits, peaking at an identical number 11 spot on the Billboard charts, with the Iceman's getting there two weeks before Mancini's. (Both records also peaked at No. 3 on the Adult Contemporary charts, then known as the Easy Listening chart.)

One name you haven't seen so far in this article is Andy Williams, even though "Moon River" became his signature song. In early 1962, he released an album called Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes. Although his version wasn't issued as a single, it was well-received enough that Andy was asked to perform the song at the Academy Awards in April of 1962, where it was up for Best Original Song (it won).

"Moon River" was never a single for him, although it didn't really need to be. Williams titled his autobiography Moon River and Me, and more significantly, called his theater in Branson, Missouri, the Andy Williams Moon River Theater. The stage was wider than a mile.

Since 1961, "Moon River" has been covered by literally hundreds of artists, from Frank Sinatra to Frank Ocean.  R.E.M. used to cover it live, back when Michael Stipe still had a voice; it was quite nice: