Posts Tagged ‘Frank Sinatra’

The much-acclaimed 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis spins the tale of a St. Louis family from summer 1903 to spring 1904. A posh production helmed by Vincente Minnelli, it’s at once nostalgic and not, dreamy and dour, with most of the songs dating to the early 1900s or before. However, the film is spiced by a handful of new tunes by songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine: “The Boy Next Door,” the Oscar-nominated “The Trolley Song” and a song that’s since become a seasonal classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

This NPR/Fresh Air page delves into the song’s history; this Wikipedia page does, too. But if you choose not to click through, what you really should know is this: Martin’s and Blaine’s first version was rejected by Judy Garland, co-star Tom Drake and Minnelli. As Martin explained to Fresh Air host Terri Gross in 2006, “The original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, ‘If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they’ll think I’m a monster.’ So I was young then and kind of arrogant, and I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry you don’t like it, Judy, but that’s the way it is, and I don’t really want to write a new lyric.’ But Tom Drake, who played the boy next door, took me aside and said, ‘Hugh, you’ve got to finish it. It’s really a great song potentially, and I think you’ll be sorry if you don’t do it.’ So I went home and I wrote the version that’s in the movie.”

Garland’s rendition was released as a single and, though it only rose to No. 27 on the pop charts, became a hit with U.S. service members fighting in World War II. It’s easy to hear why; she captures the nuances of the lyrics, which are simultaneously hopeful and yearning, cherishing the days that used to be while wishing to forge similar memories again: “Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow/So have yourself a merry little Christmas now….”

Here she is performing it on the radio in 1944:

In 1957, Frank Sinatra – who first covered it in 1948 – asked Martin to change the line “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” to something a tad more upbeat, as he wanted to re-record it for his A Jolly Christmas LP and found that line depressing. As a result, it became “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” It zaps some of the song’s strength, I think.

In the years since, it has joined the Great American Songbook and been performed by hundreds upon hundreds of artists; SecondHandSongs lists 1575 recorded renditions, for example, and that’s likely an undercount. Simply put, it tugs at the heartstrings like few others; and, in some respects, could well be the theme song for Christmas 2020. In any event, here’s a Song Roundup of renditions that have captured my ear through the years and also this morning…

Ella Fitzgerald sings it from her 1960 Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas LP. Note that she sticks with the “muddle through” line…

…while Lena Horne, on her 1966 album titled Merry From Lena, does not.  

The a cappella jazz vocal ensemble Singers Unlimited perform the “highest bough” version song on their 1972 Christmas LP.

In 1987, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders deliver a stirring rendition of the Sinatra version for the A Very Special Christmas CD compilation. (Interesting to note, but it was after this record that the song’s popularity jumped into hyperdrive.)

In 1992, the Stylistics put their soulful spin on it and make it sound brand new, though they, too, sing the “highest bough” line.

Linda Ronstadt also “hangs a shining star” on her 2000 A Merry Little Christmas album. 

In 2004, Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight joined together for this moving rendition, which appeared on Warwick’s My Favorite Time of Year album; they actually make me not mind when they sing “highest bough” line. 

Also in 2004, Chris Isaak channels his inner Sinatra for this version from his Christmas album, but sings the original “muddle through” line.

In 2011, She & Him (aka Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) covered the Sinatra version for their A Very She & Him Christmas set.

First Aid Kit shared their beautiful version, which they performed on BBC Radio 2, in 2017. They, too, “muddle through.” 

Finally, the rendition that ignited this journey: Malin Pettersen and Darling West, who shared their cover a few weeks back. As I said at the time, it’s a hauntingly beautiful rendition of a haunting beautiful song. (And, note, that they also sing the original “muddle through” line.)

Opening in 1958 New York City, the Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a remarkable comedy-drama about housewife-mother Miriam “Midge” Maisel’s metamorphosis into a stand-up comic. To share more would be to spill spoilers, I think, so I’ll just say that it’s one of the freshest, funniest and emotionally honest dramas of the past few years. (If it’s spoilers you want, and/or just more context, this Vulture article should do the trick while this New York Times Magazine piece fills in the blanks on Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Midge.)

The brainchild of Gilmore Girls mastermind Amy Sherman-Palladino, the series recreates the era’s Upper West Side scene to a proverbial T. And while there are a few timeline flaws within the storyline – such as when Bob Newhart’s classic The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart comedy LP was released – they’re not important. What is: the story, characters and the snappy verbal volleys, which are often wickedly funny – especially when Midge’s nascent manager, Susie (Alex Borstein), is involved.

So, for today’s Top 5: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – as in, songs from the show’s stellar soundtrack. As with the storyline, there are some timeline issues (Barbra Streisand didn’t release “Happy Days Are Here Again” until 1963), but the tunes perfectly accent the scenes.

1) Peggy Lee – “It’s a Good Day.” This classic song, cowritten by Peggy and her then-husband Dave Balbour, made it to No. 16 on the charts.

2) Dinah Washington – “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” From the jazz vocalist’s 1954 album, After Hours With Miss D, which AllMusic calls “one of the best jam sessions ever recorded.”

3) Frank Sinatra – “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” The title song to Sinatra’s 1955 long-player, In the Wee Small Hours, the single reached No. 2 on the charts; and the album is considered a classic.

4) Barbra Streisand – “Happy Days Are Here Again.” In 1963, Streisand was still and up-and-coming Broadway performer and singer. Here she is on the Dinah Shore show in May of that year…

5) Julie London – “Cry Me a River.” Long before her Emergency! days, Julie was a well-known singer, and this torch song – which hit No. 9 on the pop charts in 1955 – may be her best. This performance is from a 1964 Japanese TV special.

Fifty years ago today, everything was as groovy as it had been 20 days earlier. It was a Saturday, so 13-year-old Valerie S. of South Pasadena was able to join her mother on a gift-buying excursion for her older sister, whose birthday was the following day – but not before sleeping until about 10am. She also “watched” her hair.

As she says at the end of her diary entry, she had a good day.

Sixteen-year-old Wendy D. of suburban Pittsburgh also went shopping with her mom this day – but for herself. She picked the Barron’s SAT book to prepare for the exam, which was scheduled for the following month, plus a study guide for Wuthering Heights. But the day wasn’t a total scholastic-related enterprise. She also bought a pair of loafers. It may seem like a hum-drum life, and it was for her just now – but that would change in the coming months.

I share their experiences for a reason: Yesteryear was not as different from today as we sometimes make it out to be. The 1960s are oft-romanticized because of the music, drugs, free love, social movements and Vietnam War, and assassinations, but – just as today – the reality that most people experienced wasn’t anywhere near as dramatic as what is portrayed in the movies or TV, or even in the news accounts of the day. Discrimination and prejudice were much more pronounced, no question, but – regardless – most men and many women went to work every weekday morning, and worried about the mortgage, bills and kids. And life unfolded for most teens much as it does, still: They slept late on weekends, went shopping with parents, worried about and studied for school, and hung out with friends. Most didn’t run away from home or descend upon Haight-Asbury (though they may have worn flowers in their hair).

What has changed: instant communication. Instead of trading texts, instant messages and Snapchats, as is common now, kids traded notes in class and called each other at night, if at all; and instead of turning to YouTube or Spotify for their music needs, they turned on the radio. Here’s Wolfman Jack doing his thing on XERB-AM, the Big 1090, sometime late this April (or possibly early May – Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” can be heard at the end, and that wasn’t released as a single until April 29th):

Anyway, enough of the preamble. Here’s today’s Top 5, pulled from this week’s charts from Weekly Top 40. (It’s not a straight countdown, but a hop, skip and jump through the chart.)

1) Frank & Nancy Sinatra – “Something Stupid.” For the second week in a row, this fun father-daughter duet held the top spot.

2) The Monkees – “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” Jumping from No. 5 to No. 3 in its fifth week on the charts is this Neil Diamond-penned pop song.

3) Tommy James & the Shondells – “I Think We’re Alone Now.” In its 11th week on the charts, this classic single climbed from No. 7 to No. 4.

4) The Supremes – “The Happening.” The title song to the flop movie of the same name is this fun little number, which clocked in at No. 11. It was the last single released prior to the group being renamed Diana Ross & the Supremes; and the last Supremes single with Florence Ballard.

5) The Platters – “With This Ring.” If you listened to the Wolfman Jack air check above, you already heard this single, which peaked this week at No. 14. It sounds like was airlifted in from 1959. (Side note: A movie could and should be made of this group due to its ever-churning lineup.

And two bonuses:

6) The Easybeats – “Friday on My Mind.” Jumping from No. 46 to. No. 30 this week is this classic ode to the weekend that was written by band members Harry Vanda and George Young. Here’s a piece of trivia: Young is the older brother of AC/DC’s Malcolm and Angus Young, and co-produced (with Vanda) many of their early albums.

7) The Young Rascals – “Groovin’.” New to the charts, at No. 79, is this signature song from the Rascals, which would hit No. 1 on May 20th.