Steyn's Song Of The Week
by Carl Fischer and Frankie Laine

Frankie Laine sang in exclamation points. Even if they weren’t there in the sheet music, they were there by the time they came blasting through the radio at you:

If ever the devil was born!
Without a pair of horns!


Night and day you torture me!


Mule tra-ain!
Mule tra-ain!
Clippetty-clopping over hill and plain…

And of course:

Move ’em on, head ’em up!
Head ’em up, move ’em on!
Move ’em on, head ’em up, Rawhide!
Count ’em out, ride ’em in!
Ride ’em in, count ’em out!
Count ’em out, ride ’em in, Rawhide!
H’yah! H’yah!

H’yah h’yah indeed. Big exclamation points, invariably followed by a whip-crack - or, if not, a hog-call. Frankie Laine provided much of the soundtrack for that strange era between the big bands and rock’n’roll: in the early Fifties, he had the biggest hits, the million-sellers, the ones that were Number One for weeks and months on both sides of the Atlantic. He sang country songs and movie themes and novelty duets and religious ballads and showtunes, and, when Elvis and the Beatles showed up and put a crimp in his “bum-freezer jacket” (as Fleet Street dubbed his tailoring), he kept going with Vegas and r’n’b and weird rock remakes of his blockbusters. And every now and then he struck gold all over again. In the Seventies, he got a call from some guy he’d never heard of who was making a western and figured it wouldn’t be the real deal unless he had Frankie Laine for the theme song. After all, Laine had sung over the titles of Gunfight At The OK Corral, 3.10 To Yuma, Bullwhip and The Hanging Tree, not to mention Rawhide on TV week after week. So Laine went into the studio and sang:

He rode a blazing saddle
He wore a shining star
His job to offer battle
To bad men near and far…

That’s such a lovely American rhyme – “saddle” and “baddle”. And made for Frankie Laine, who in “High Noon” was famously torn between “doody” and his “fair-haired byoody”. The guy Laine had never heard of was a fellow called Mel Brooks. When I asked him about the song a few years back, he told me he wrote it with Frankie Laine in mind but that he never told him the film was a comedy. That’s what makes it such a great performance – Laine’s singing this thing for real:

He conquered fear and he conquered hate
He turned dark night into day
He made his blazing saddle
A torch to light the way…

And, given some of the lyrics he had million-selling blockbusters with, why would Laine ever have suspected the above might have been pastiche? These days, if you hail him for breaking new ground, Mel Brooks will demur and claim no more than that he broke new wind. In fact, Blazing Saddles, like many Brooks movies, breaks a lot of old wind: the one fragrant exception is Mel’s musical moments. In Saddles, as in Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety and even Space Balls, the truly dotty comic inspiration is in the songs. I pointed out that “saddle/baddle” pairing and Brooks told me he did it to sound authentically western: it's the kind of detail you find in Mel's songs rather than his scripts. There’s a big lesson in Frankie Laine’s performance of the theme: the funniest comedy is always deadly serious.

For me, that’s what redeems Laine’s blockbusters. The Fifties was the heyday of the novelty song – “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?”, “She Wears Red Feathers”, “Where Will The Baby’s Dimple Be?”, huge hits that managed to shrink whoever sang them. After he struck gold with Laine’s “Mule Train”, Mitch Miller managed to find songs that matched the size of his singer's voice – a “foghorn with lips”, as Bob Hope called him. There was more to him than that, but at the end of his life Al Jolson still couldn’t figure out the appeal of soft mike-caressing crooners like Sinatra and the only one of the newer guys he thought worth a damn was Frankie Laine. By then Laine was the only singer who could do what Jolson did: fill a theatre and belt a number to the back of the balcony without a microphone.

But he appealed to the coming generation, too. Mort Shuman, who wrote “Save The Last Dance For Me” and “Teenager In Love” and “Mess O’ Blues”, told me years ago about the impact Laine made on him:

I always found showtunes too effete, too prissy, too Park Avenue and too Long Island. They said nothing to me. When I was a kid in the early Fifties, I remember hearing Frankie Laine’s ‘Cry Of The Wild Goose’ and it was so exciting:

My heart knows what the wild goose knows
And I must go where the wild goose goes…

But at the same time you had Jo Stafford singing sweetly ‘You Belong To Me’. You know – ‘See the marketplace In old Tangiers…’ What’s that mean to a boy growing up in Brooklyn? Even today, I don’t go for the Tangiers marketplace school. I’m still a wild goose man.

Actually, the marketplace was in Algiers. And, in fairness to Jo Stafford, she was Frankie Laine’s most frequent duettist in the Fifties (“Hey, Good Lookin’” was a smash for them). But it was the wild energy of Laine that inspired a youngster like Shuman, and eventually the cry of the wild goose led him to take a gander at the music biz. When I quoted his “I’m still a wild goose man” line in the papers years ago, Mort called me up to arrange a lunch and began his phone message, “Wild Goose Man here”. The Frankie Laine of the early Fifties was a mélange of styles. He did Tin Pan Alley love songs very bluesily. On the other hand, he did a great Broadway ballad like “Woman In Love” in martial tempo. And on “Granada” his snarl sounds positively menacing. But a lot of this material trembles on the brink of self-parody anyway. Think of that overwrought tango, “Jealousy”:

Night and day you torture me!
I sometimes wonder
If this spell I’m under…

Howard Dietz, writer of “Dancing In The Dark”, was once bet that he couldn’t come up with an instant lyric to “Jealousy” and improvised on the spot:

Cyd Charisse!
Up there on my mantelpiece
You’re such a shock there
We need a clock there…

I had just one conversation with Frankie Laine, about a decade ago. He’d recorded a brand new song called “Wheels Of A Dream” from a recently opened musical based on the novel Ragtime. The score was like a lot of others on Broadway these days, neither serious enough to be serious music nor popular enough to be popular music but wandering wanly in a purgatory all its own. Yet Laine had thought enough of this song to go out and record it. And, when I asked him about it, he talked about a lot of new numbers that appealed to him. He was over eighty, still working, still looking for material. His last recording was a fundraising single after 9/11, with proceeds going to the New York Fire Department.

But before the goldmine of “Mule Train” there was another Frankie Laine – not the “talentless hack” the critic Will Friedwald dismissed him as in his book Jazz Singing, but a fine if idiosyncratic interpreter of the great American songbook who made some splendid records in the late Forties. And Laine had another distinction, too: he was also a songwriter. A real songwriter, that is. Most of the time when singers like Jolson, Crosby or Sinatra get a credit on a song, they’re the third name on there – a clue that perhaps they weren’t doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Yet Laine was a competent lyricist who wrote songs with some of the very best composers – among them Duke Ellington, Matt Dennis, Mel Torme and the guy who gave him his lucky break after catching his act at a Los Angeles nightclub in 1943, Hoagy Carmichael. His regular songwriting partner was Carl Fischer, who became Laine’s pianist in 1944. The following year they wrote a truly magnificent ballad:

No tears
No fears
Remember there’s always tomorrow
So what if we have to part?
We’ll Be Together Again…

That’s a fabulous first eight bars. That pair of two-note phrases at the top – the E/C followed and intensified by the B flat/G – are so confident, and Laine was a skilled enough lyric-writer to understand the value of their boldness. In the second eight, he follows the “no tears/no fears” symmetry with:

Your kiss
Your smile…

And in the final section:

Some day
Some way…

Carl Fischer was a very likable chap and a skilled accompanist but the ache and yearning in this tune seem to come from out of nowhere. Musically, it has one of the most organic middle-eights of any pop tune, based essentially on an echo of the seventh-bar (the phrase “We’ll be together again” sits on) but extending it beautifully:

Times when I know you’ll be lonesome
Times when I know you’ll be sad
Don’t let temptation surround you
Don’t let the blues make you bad…

Isn’t that a great line? Gene Lees, who wrote the English words for “Quiet Night Of Quiet Stars” and a bunch of Jobim bossa nova biggies, calls Laine’s text an “excellent – and overlooked – lyric” but says that with that marvelously dark phrase he “touched the ground”.

It wasn’t a hit for him in the Forties. He had to wait for “That’s My Desire” to kick-start the record sales. But after a while Billie Holiday sang it, and Doris Day and Louis Armstrong and Anita O’Day and Johnny Hartman and Carmen McRae and Tony Bennett (with Bill Evans). And Stan Getz made a brooding recording of it, including the comparatively unsung verse. And most of these and hundreds of others were never heard by their composer. Carl Fischer died in 1954 - still Frankie Laine’s pianist and gamely sticking with him through the whipcracking Jezebels.

Two years later, Sinatra recorded “We’ll Be Together Again” on Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, with a Nelson Riddle arrangement and really terrific trumpet work by Harry Edison. And that pretty much planted the song in the repertoire permanently. A slew of current singers perform it, and I’ll bet in recent years the biggest individual source of income for Frankie Laine was not from sales of any of his own “Greatest Hits” compilations but from Rod Stewart’s recording of “We’ll Be Together Again”. A standard always outlasts a hit. “Jezebel” and “Mule Train” will fade in time, and, when they’re gone, Frankie Laine’s unique contribution to the American songbook will still be here - as (he told me) he'd always hoped it would. In the Fifties, he used to close his TV show with it – the title was too apt not to use:

Some day
Some way
We both have a lifetime before us
For parting is not goodbye
We’ll Be Together Again.

A big balladeer who wrote one great big ballad: Rest in peace.
STEYNONLINE, February 12th 2007

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