ALLAN JEFFERYS: Much Is Lost Since Days Of Classic Love Songs
Etta James said "At Last" was her song and criticized Beyonce for singing it at the Inauguration. Then Ms. James said she was just joking.
I chuckled at the "her song" claim because when "At Last" came out in the 1942 movie "Orchestra Wives," Etta James was about 4 years old. That's a bit young to own a song, unless you are Shirley Temple.
Just who does own a song? Bing Crosby can be said to own "White Christmas." He introduced it in a movie called "Holiday Inn" and reprised it in another movie called "White Christmas." Nonetheless, there are countless versions of it by any number of people. Personally, I think of it as Irving Berlin's song.
The same may be said for "God Bless America."
Although Kate Smith was long considered to be the definitive singer of a song many would prefer to replace "The Star Spangled Banner" as our national anthem, if for no other reason than how difficult the anthem is for the average singer.
A good song can sound fine sung by any one of dozens of good singers. "Over the Rainbow" is usually identified with Judy Garland, but we've all heard superb renditions of this classic by other artists. It is that good a song, even though it came close to being dropped from "The Wizard of Oz" because somebody at MGM thought it slowed the film down.
"At Last" is one of several hundred of what I call my favorite songs. I own four versions of it: The original Glenn Miller arrangement with Ray Eberle on the vocal, another by Doris Day, one by Nat Cole and a fourth by the Ray Anthony Choir.
Each has the artist's own stamp on it, yet each adheres to the way Harry Warren and Mack Gordon wrote it. There are no "oh yeahs" and no notes are bent.
I know, I'm dating myself back to the days when singers respected composers.
For most of my career, I was a hybrid. I broadcast and wrote gobs of news, conducted several thousand interviews, did all sorts of things in theater and had my own TV and radio shows in Atlantic City, Washington, D.C, and New York.
Music was an integral part of this career, climaxing in one of the last network radio shows to use live music.
It was called "Allan Jefferys in the Land of Music," and it aired for two hours nightly. It ran for almost five years and picked up some awards. This was a blend of live music and recorded music of Broadway, Hollywood and Main Street. The live musicians were some of the best in the world, who could play anything from sweet music on a celeste to breathtaking jazz.
Of all the people I met in those days, ranging from government leaders to actors and directors and celebrities from all walks of life, I suppose the ones who impressed me the most and whom I envied the most were the music makers -- the composers and lyricists who have given us mood memories for all occasions.
I never met George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or Oscar Hammerstein. Others I came to know quite well: Richard Rodgers ("Carousel", "Oklahoma!"); Harold Arlen ("Over the Rainbow," "Blues in the Night"); Burton Lane ("Finian's Rainbow"); Arthur Schwartz ("Dancing in the Dark"); Alan Jay Lerner ("My Fair Lady" and "Gigi"); and Jerry Herman ("Hello Dolly" and "Mame").
Note that I only scratched the surface in naming their works and that, although all of them are gone now, (except for Jerry Herman), not a day goes by without a song from each of them being heard.
Faced with such wealth of material and the scads of singers who have preceded them, it is probably natural that a Beyonce would want to do something different to stand out with her treatment of "At Last." Personally, I thought she did just fine at the Inauguration.
But others puzzle me. Why do so many of today's singers twist their faces in a visage of pain and rage when they approach a song? Why do they plant the microphone in front of their face so you can't see them? Is it to hide the seething anger?
Look back at the singers of yesteryear -- the Sinatras and Ella Fitzgeralds and Ray Charleses and especially the Doris Days and Dinah Shores and Perry Comos. Savor the looks of love as they caressed a tune. Music, after all, is designed as a language of love. It need not be punctuated with "yeah, yeah, yeah, baby."
All of which leads us back to a 68-year-old love song only recently returned to popularity:
At last, my love has come along.
My lonely days are over,
And life is like a song.
I sometimes wonder if we would not have a happier society if singers today sang with more joy and love on their faces.
Allan Jefferys, a former New York theater critic, entertainment editor and newsman, lives in Pinehurst. Contact him at email@example.com.
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