Saturday, December 05, 2015

Steyn on Sinatra: The Lady is a Tramp



"Lady and the Scamp: Frank Sinatra serenades Rita Hayworth in Pal Joey"

Re-posted by Nicholas Stix

The Lady is a Tramp
Sinatra Song of the Century #91

By Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Steyn's Song of the Day
December 4, 2015
Steyn Online

I wonder how many of us, had we chanced to acquire tickets for the Shubert Theatre on April 14th 1937, would have recognized by the end of the evening that we had just attended a major expansion of the standard songbook. That April night was the opening performance of Babes In Arms, the original hey-kids-let's-do-the-show-right-here show, with a slight plot enacted by a cast of young unknowns. Would the undernourished story and callow players have diminished the power of the score? April 14th 1937 was the night that introduced to the world four-and-a-half major standards. The half is "Johnny One Note", which is a much recorded song but not top tier. "I Wish I Were In Love Again" was a highlight of Sinatra's album A Swingin' Affair, but didn't surface much in later years. The remaining three, however, remained in his act all the way to his celebrity Duets CDs in the Nineties: "My Funny Valentine", "Where Or When" and "The Lady Is A Tramp" - all from one show at the Shubert Theatre six decades earlier. Of the trio, this is the one most indelibly associated with him:

She gets too hungry for dinner at eight

She loves the theatre but never comes late

She'd never bother with people she'd hate

That's why The Lady Is A Tramp...

Rodgers & Hart wrote a sophisticated score for their cast of neophytes, and none more so than this one. It was introduced by Mitzi Green, who is a lady herself and thus sang it first person - "I get too hungry for dinner at eight..." And that's why she's a tramp - because she doesn't do any of the things that the smart set do - like arriving late at the theatre, going slumming in Harlem wearing furs, being all alone when she lowers her lamp. All that and more is why the lady is a tramp.

Lorenz Hart dashed off his clever lyric in a day. It's a catalogue song, which means a laundry list, an accumulation of examples that all go to prove a singular point - that "You're The Top" or "Anything Goes" or "These Foolish Things" remind me of you. But in this instance the singular point is hard for contemporary audiences to grasp - that enjoying prize fights that aren't fixed and hating California because it's foggy and damp makes one a tramp. Yet neither its somewhat obscure premise nor a multitude of period references have dented its popularity. One reason is Richard Rodgers' terrific swinging tune. As Sinatra pal and musicologist Alec Wilder wrote:

The opening phrase is very provocative, and so much so that the listener is hooked. I'm particularly pleased by a harmonic progression I've never come across before or since, that from C major in the first measure to C-minor seventh in the second.

Many years ago, for a radio show, I asked various experts to check this proposition of Wilder's and it appeared to hold up. Suffice to say, that opening phrase - especially the low note of "din-ner at eight" - is very arresting, and what follows matches it and makes the song, as Frank used to say, a "gasser". Familiarity has perhaps bred contempt or at any rate led us to take for granted the ingeniousness of the two-note boxing jabs that conclude the release:

She's broke

It's oke

I'd love to know where Rodgers came up with that.

Tommy Dorsey picked up the number three years before the young Sinatra joined the band and recorded it with a vocal by Edythe Wright. Sophie Tucker, Bernie Cummins, and Midge Williams and her Jazz Jesters also cut it. But the geniuses who bought the film rights relegated it in the screen version of Babes In Arms to mere background music, and it sputtered along through the Forties until Lena Horne sang it in the Rodgers & Hart biopic Words And Music. As you can discern from that list of interpreters, up to the Fifties it was a girl's song.

Mel Tormé and, I believe, Carl Perkins were the first male vocalists to give it a whirl, early in 1956. And then on November 26th that year Sinatra went into the studio with Nelson Riddle. It was originally intended to join "I Wish I Were In Love Again" on the Swingin' Affair album,but Frank had signed to do the film version of another Rodgers & Hart hit, Pal Joey, and decided to reserve it for the soundtrack LP. There are purists who would quibble about this screen adaptation, but it has Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak and all the rest is details. The film's director George Sidney observed that "about billing, Frank was smart enough to say, put Rita first, and then me, and then Kim. Because here we had the big star, Rita, and then we had the new one coming up, Kim, and Frank in between the two. Every man in the world, whether he'd like to admit it or not, he says, 'Gee, I would like to be that fella...' What a sandwich!" Or, as Nancy Sinatra said of the misses Hayworth and Novak, they were Hollywood's "most beautiful bookends".

As is the way with Hollywood, the score was bulked up by interpolations - additional Rodgers & Hart songs from other shows, including "Tramp", sung by Sinatra to Miss Hayworth as a wealthy widow he hopes to inveigle into setting him up in his own nightclub. Frank performs it in the film with a smaller jazzier combo in what presumably is one of those one-take performances he favored for his screen appearances. But the vocal benefits from the eight months he's lived with the song since the studio recording. By comparison, the studio vocal is a little less freewheeling. It would have fit well on Swingin' Affair, and left the film version for the Pal Joey soundtrack LP. As it is, "Lady Is A Tramp" is one of those Sinatra staples that was neither a single nor part of a great album.

He didn't exactly make it a man's song, but his embrace of the song led to Buddy Greco's chorus-upon-chorus-upon-chorus hipster epic, with Larry Hart retooled for Vegas after hours:

The food at Jilly's is great no doubt

But she doesn't understand what my motel room's about...

It sold a million, which Frank's version on that Pal Joey soundtrack album certainly never did.

One of the best things on that original Sinatra recording is Bill Miller's piano up at the front. Miller is justly acclaimed as Sinatra's great saloon-song accompanist on the likes of "One For My Baby" but his support on the swingin' stuff is also vital. Yet as the years went by Frank chose to dispense with that terrific rhythm intro for the orchestral punch of a new, harder swingin' arrangement by Billy Byers. Byers was a skilled arranger and conductor who worked with everyone from Count Basie and Quincy Jones to Lalo Schifrin and Frank Zappa. He was never one of Sinatra's regulars, like Riddle and Costa, or even a semi-regular, like Quincy Jones or Neal Hefti, but three of his four charts for Frank stayed in the singer's book for decades: "Get Me To The Church On Time", "Where Or When" and this one. "Frank said he needed a 'hipper' arrangement," Byers told Will Friedwald, "although he said, 'Make sure that the last two bars are the same because I have my choreography.' He used to like to give a little kick with his foot at the end."

The old "Tramp" was a classic Riddle chart: It built and built - from Miller leading the rhythm section at the beginning, then adding strings, horns, Harry "Sweets" Edison's trumpet mute... The new "Tramp" comes in with everything it's got swingin' as hard as it can, and you think it's got nowhere to go. But it does. Occasionally on stage Frank would fail to recall who arranged the chart and, when informed that it was Billy Byers, profess not to know who he was. But he did, and he was enormously appreciative of the job Byers did on the number.

There are any number of additional sets of lyrics to this Rodgers & Hart laundry list but Sinatra eschewed them. For the second chorus, he'd simply sing the first one Frankified. First time round:

She won't play crap games with barons and earls

Won't go to Harlem in ermine and pearls

Won't dish the dirt with the rest of the girls...

Second chorus:

She won't play crap games with sharpies and frauds

Won't go to Harlem in Lincolns or Fords

Will not dish the dirt with the rest of those broads...

I was once with the great harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler when the above lyric came over the speakers. "Ugh!" he said, speaking as a man who'd known Lorenz Hart. We're not in try-a-little-tenderness territory here. As Ted Gioia observed in his book The Jazz Standards, nothing is rarer than an understated interpretation of "Lady Is A Tramp".

But as a piece of stage business it worked more and more effectively for Sinatra as the years went by. If you saw him live, you'll recall him literally punching along - "pow! pow! pow!" - to the brass stabs that punctuate the first two main sections in Byers' second chorus. And the release got more outré as the years went by. On the original record:

She loves the free fresh wind in her hair...

On stage:

She loves the free fine wild cool knocked-out koo-koo groovy wind in her hair...

Sinatra streamlined Hart's premise: This lady is an iconoclastic chick who does what she wants. That's all you need to know.

For a performance slightly closer to the Rodgers & Hart original, check out Frank and Ella on TV in 1967. No Sinatra version of "Tramp" other than this includes the verse. Frank doesn't sing it, but he sits in as Ella does it:

I've wined and dined on mulligan stew

And never wished for turkey

As I hitched and hiked and grifted too

From Maine to Albuquerque

Alas, I missed the Beaux Arts Ball...

Frank shook his head - tch, tch, tch - at this appalling faux pas. Who remembered the Beaux Arts Ball in 1967? Who remembers it now? It was held in 1931, and famous architects came dressed as their buildings. And then the coup de grâce, a super-audacious rhyme even by Hart's standards:

...and what is twice as sad

I was never at a party where they honored Noël C'ad...

And then they took off on what, for Sinatra, was a rare excursion into Hart's second chorus. Frank and Ella's mutual respect and admiration for each other shines through, but without crippling the performance. Another TV duet, with Leslie Uggams a decade later, is not as adventurous, but also a lot of fun.

And then there was the duet from Duets. The Duets project is a problematic business for hardcore Frankophiles, in which classic Sinatra solos were turned into unpersuasive double-acts with whoever happened to be big that month: "Summer Wind" fell to Julio Iglesias, which necessitated changing it from a love song to a buddy number - "Two amigos and the Summer Wind". "The Lady Is A Tramp" was Track One on the first Duets album, and the first of the finished songs to be brought to Sinatra for his approval. Luther Vandross expressed his skepticism about the project to Phil Ramone: "Why, Phil? He's never heard of me."

Nevertheless, when Sinatra heard it, he said: "That's wonderful." The conductor, Patrick Williams, had broken up Billy Byers' two choruses with an interlude in which Luther Vandross got to show off his chops his way with a bit of sh-duh-duh-do-be-do, climaxing with:

No matter what they lay on her

She only does what she wantsta

And that's why they call the girl a tramp...

I could have done without the false rhyme, especially in the middle of a Lorenz Hart lyric. I mean, how hard is it to sing..?

No matter what they lay on her

She only does what she wanna...

But still: it was different, it was novel, it distinguished this "Tramp" from previous Sinatra "Tramps".

Billy Byers didn't care for it. I ran into him not long after Duets came out and asked him whether he was pleased to be included. "Who needs it?" he said, and started complaining how bad the mix was and that the band couldn't swing. In the end, when you want to hear "Lady Is A Tramp", you go to Sinatra sans duettist - either with Riddle or Byers.

I used to think the first line of "Tramp" was as famous as any phrase in the English language. But then, back in the Nineties, my Spectator colleague Geoffrey Wheatcroft found himself having to dictate his column to a young copy-taker. A passing allusion he'd made appeared in print a few days later as:

She gets two hundred for dinner at eight...

The sad, lonely Larry Hart would have appreciated that. His apartment was filled with freeloaders. One day he invited an old acquaintance to dinner. "Thanks very much," said the chap. "About seven?" "Hell," said Hart, "bring as many people as you want."

~Part Two of Mark's conversation with longtime Sinatra conductor Vincent Falcone, discussing "The Gal That Got Away", "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry" and many other songs, can be heard here. And don't forget Steyn's audio special with Celeste Holm on the Sinatra screen hit High Society. Mark's original 1998 obituary of Frank, "The Voice", can be found in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe, while you can read the stories behind many other Sinatra songs in Mark Steyn's American Songbook. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.

~Elsewhere, as we head toward December 12th, the Pundette is counting down her own Sinatra Hot 100 and is up to hit sound Number Six, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's "The Song Is You". The Evil Blogger Lady has a delightful medley from Frank and one of his dearest friends, the great Dinah Shore. There's more Sinatra with Rodgers & Hart in the very first track of the very first album on Bob Belvedere's Top Ten Sinatra Albums.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm a little young to have witnessed Sinatra's peak years and can't say I'm really a Sinatra fan like you but I do recognize his talent and greatness, though there are moments in his career that impact me deeply. I remember stumbling on Pal Joey as a late night feature movie and was blown away by how much I liked it. Sinatra ability to project gravitas and flip humor gave him the ability to walk that fine line between dramatic and comedic actor, no small feat for any actor, especially one that is really a singer turned actor. The music was so wonderful I found myself completely absorbed in every number, Particularly, Lady is a Tramp, which over the years that has remained in my top ten songs of all time and I'm a rock fan more than a swing era music fan. IMHO, Pal Joey is one of the greatest musical soundtracks ever.
While on the surface Lady is a Tramp seems like a lyric written by male chauvinists mocking women it's really a satire about class distinctions in Hollywood and how they manifest in the cattiness between women in Hollywood. As musically rich as it is lyrically I never get tired of hearing different interpretations of it, but Frank's performance in Pal Joey remains the gold standard. Jerry pdx