August 31, 2015
Johnny Mercer was going for a rhyme. Little did he know that that lyric, which he wrote around 1952, would presage an environmental phenomenon to occur six decades in the future: the vanishing firefly.
We became aware of this on a recent night when we were sitting on our backyard deck after dark, admiring the moon—a natural wonder that has suffered relatively little, so far, from human activity. There is a swath of lawn maybe thirty feet wide between the deck and a thick patch of woods; when we first moved here about 14 years ago, fireflies would flit around in that space on summer nights. As I sat there the other night, I remarked that I hadn’t seen a single firefly this summer. A little research on the iPhone turned up the fact that the firefly population all over the world has been sharply diminished. Those with knowledge of the subject speculate that the factors in this melancholy situation are overdevelopment, which destroys the firefly’s habitat and natural prey; artificial light, which interferes with the mating rituals of fireflies—that’s what those little flashes are all about; and pesticides.
There are some places in the world in which fireflies are so numerous—or have been until now—that they constitute a tourist attraction. I also read about one river in Asia on which they are considered an aid to navigation as their thousands of winking lights along the shore outline the course of the water on dark nights. And, of course, fireflies have been among the charms in the lives of uncounted children.
The firefly was an inspiration to the prominent German composer Paul Lincke, who included a song called “Das Glühwürmchen”—”The Glow Worm”—in his 1902 operetta “Lysistrata.” A lyricist named Lilla Cayley Robinson translated that song into English, and it was used in the 1907 Broadway musical “The Girl Behind the Counter.” But its permanent place in the popular songbook wasn’t sealed until Mercer got a hold of it and put his own spin on it for the Mills Brothers, who recorded it in 1952 as “Glow, Little Glow Worm.” It was the number-one song in the country for three weeks that year, and it was on the charts for twenty-one weeks.
Whoever thought that song might be all we’d have left.
You can see and hear the Mills Brothers sing this song on the “Nat King Cole Show” by clicking The Mills Brothers sing “Glow Worm” .
September 19, 2012
Taylor Teagarden’s major league baseball career hasn’t amounted to much yet. As of yesterday, he had appeared in only 136 games in five seasons. He has shown a flair for the dramatic on a few occasions—last night being a notable example—but he hasn’t yet become the Jack Teagarden of the diamond.
Jack was another story altogether. As soon as I heard of Taylor T., I wondered if he and Jack were related. Naturally a guy would wonder that, what with the unusual last name and the fact that both of these Teagardens were from Texas.
Well, I say “naturally.” It was natural for me, because of a 78 rpm record that belonged to my parents. I loved that record when I was a kid, and I still do. It’s a rendition of a 1941 Johnny Mercer song, “The Waiter, the Porter, and the Upstairs Maid,” sung by Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, and Jack Teagarden. It’s one of those witty, sophisticated lyrics that Mercer wrote best. You can hear and see that trio singing Mercer’s song at this site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0e1DF4TUYY. Or you can come over Saturday afternoon, and I’ll play it for you on the Victrola. If you don’t know what a Victrola is, you probably already stopped reading.
Jack Teagarden, who came from a family loaded with musical talent, was in heady company with Crosby and Martin, and he was a very good crooner himself, as well as a composer and bandleader. Among the highlights of his memorable career were his vocal turns with Mercer and Louis Armstrong. But he made his most indelible mark as an innovative jazz and blues trombonist. He is often referred to as “the father of jazz trombone.” You can learn a lot about this important figure in American cultural history at www.jackteagarden.info.
Although it’s a lot easier than it was in the pre-digital age to answer such questions as, “Is Taylor Teagarden related to Jack?”, I have had trouble finding out. Until I wrote this post, I had found only one reference, buried in an non-authoritative web site, reporting that the catcher thinks he might be the great great nephew of the musical genius. But my friend Brian VanderBeek, a sports writer with the Modesto Bee, responded to this post by reporting that he had met Taylor Teagarden in 2007 when Taylor was playing for Bakersfield in the California League and Taylor, on that occasion, confirmed that Jack Teagarden was his dad’s great uncle.
Taylor is with the Orioles now, and his season got a late start due to a back injury. It remains to be seen if he will leave in baseball a footprint like the one Jack Teagarden left in music, but Taylor has already taken advantage of baseball’s unique capacity for providing even the most obscure player with opportunities for heroics.
He came up with the Texas Rangers in 2008, and his first major league hit was a sixth-inning home run off Scott Baker of the Minnesota Twins. Baker had not given up a hit up to that point. And Teagarden’s homer produced the only run in what turned out to be a 1-0 game. When he came off the disabled list for the Orioles on July 14 of this year, he hit a two-run homer that broke up a 6-6, 13-inning tie with the Tigers.
Last night, Taylor got to play Mr. Clutch again as he pinch hit a single in the top of the 18th inning, driving in the winning run as the Orioles beat the Seattle Mariners and pulled into a virtual tie with the Yankees for first place in the American League East. No matter how the rest of his career goes, Taylor T. can always say with another lyricist, Ira Gershwin, “They can’t take that away from me.”
November 28, 2009
One of my Facebook friends — and a former newspaper colleague — remarked today that she likes to start sentences with “and” and “but,” an indulgence we share. In fact, I make a point of telling my students that while they shouldn’t use a coordinating conjunction to begin a sentence while they are in the stifling atmosphere of academia, they should have at it once they’re writing on their own.
This got me to thinking about song lyrics that begin with “and,” only because four popped into my head immediately.
The first was “My Way,” which begins: “And now the end is near, and I must face the final curtain.” Paul Anka wrote that lyric, and according to him, it was inspired by Frank Sinatra’s announcement that he was going to quit show business.
The melody was written by Claude Francois and Jacques Revaux for a French song. “Comme d’habitude,” which means something like “As is my habit.” Anka’s lyrics, I understand, have no relationship to the originals but were meant to go along with Sinatra’s mood at the time.
There have been notable covers of the song by Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious, and Dorothy Squires.
Another lyric in this category was written by Johnny Mercer for a popular version of “The Song of the Indian Guest” from the opera “Sadko” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. I mentioned this here recently in connection with Mercer’s centennial. Mercer’s version is known as “Song of India,” and it begins: “And still the snowy Himalayas rise in ancient majesty before our eyes ….”
Mario Lanza made a fine recording of that song, and Lanza also made a wonderful recording of “They’ll Never Believe Me,” which was written by Herbert Reynolds and Jerome Kern to help rescue an imported British musical, “The Girl From Utah,” in 1914. The refrain, which usually begins the song, starts: “And when I tell them how beautiful you are, they’ll never believe me ….”
The last song that occurred to me was “And I love her so,” which was written by Don McLean but is most widely associated with Perry Como.
And like that.
November 20, 2009
Yesterday was the centennial of Johnny Mercer, and I was too busy to take much notice of it. But it was on my mind, because Mercer is one of my favorite lyricists. I wrote here a couple of months ago about one of his lesser-known songs, “The Waiter, the Porter and the Upstairs Maid,” which is sophisticated and funny.
But Mercer was a poet. When his songs get stuck in my head, I don’t mind. It’s hard for me to talk about favorites, because I’m crazy about so many of his songs — such as “The Angels Sing,” which he wrote in 1939:
We meet, and the angels sing.
The angels sing the sweetest song I ever heard.
You speak, and the angels sing.
Or am I breathing music into every word?
Suddenly, the setting is strange.
I can see water and Moonlight beaming.
Silver waves that break on some undiscovered shore
Suddenly, I see it all change.
Long winter nights with the candles gleaming.
Through it all your face that I adore.
You smile, and the angels sing.
And though it’s just a gentle murmur at the start.
We kiss, and the angels sing.
And leave their music ringing in my heart.
I first heard that lyric when I was in my teens, and I was fascinated by the quality of Mercer’s writing.
I’m especially fond of the lyric he wrote to a classic melody, “Song of India.” I have an old RCA Victor Red Seal recording of that sung by Mario Lanza. It’s one of those cases in which I’d rather not hear anyone else sing it, so I hope the vinyl lasts as long as I do — which is becoming less of a challenge every day.
And still the snowy Himalayas rise / In ancient majesty before our eyes / Beyond the plains, above the pines / While through the ever, never changing land / As silently as any native band / That moves at night, the Ganges Shines / Then I hear the song that only India can sing / Softer than the plumage on a black raven’s wing / High upon a minaret I stand and gazed upon an old enchanted land/ There’s the Maharajah’s caravan, Unfolding like a painted fan / How small the little race of Man! / See them all parade across the ages / Armies, Kings and slaves from hist’ry’s pages / Played on one of nature’s vastest stages. / The turbaned Sikhs and fakirs line the streets / While holy men in shadowed calm retreats / Pray through the night and watch the stars. / A lonely plane flies off to meet the dawn / While down below the busy life goes on / And women crowd the old bazaars. /All are in the song that only India can sing. / India, the jewel of the East.
June 5, 2009
I had a phone conversation last night with Elaine Stritch concerning her upcoming appearance at the Paper Mill Playhouse in “The Full Monty.” Something in her conversation put me to mind of a song written by Johnny Mercer sometime around the time I was born. I’m crazy about Mercer’s stuff – and there’s a lot to be crazy about since he wrote about a thousand songs. His lyrics were so hip; I never get tired of listening to them.
The song I was thinking about last night was “The Waiter, the Porter, and the Upstairs Maid.” This was part of the lyric:
The people in the ballroom were stuffy and arty / So I began to get just a little bit frayed / I sneaked into the kitchen, I dug me a party / The waiter and the porter / And the second storey maid. / I peeked into the parlor to see what was a-hatchin’ / In time to hear the hostess suggest a charade / But who was in the pantry a-laughin’ an’ scratchin’ / The waiter and the porter and the upstairs maid.
There’s a great recording of this song by Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, and the Jack Teagarden Orchestra. The smart-alec lyrics were perfect for Crosby.
The reason I thought of that song last night was that Elaine Stritch was telling me about the sort of egalitarian social life she leads in which she is likely to talk to and even make friends with almost anybody. “I don’t know how I’d live,” she said, “if I couldn’t talk to the consierge when I get home after a performance or a rehearsal.”
I asked her what she meant by a remark attributed to her: “Being bored is the greatest sin.”
She said: “What is boring is spending your life with the same kind of people all the time. I avoid that. I reach out. I spent half of my life in kitchens. At parties, I would end up in the kitchen, having a ball. Or I’d be with the musicans; I l0ve to hang out with musicians.”
“But,” she said with a laugh, “I also had a lovelyevening with the Queen of England, so the hell with everybody.”
Mr. Mercer — on four:
If ever I’m invited to some fuddy-duddy’s / I ain’t-a gonna watch any harlequinade / You’ll find me in the kitchen applaudin’ my buddies / The waiter, the porter and the upstairs maid.