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During the movie Same Time, Next Year, which was the topic of my last post, Alan Alda’s character sits down at a piano a few times, and one of the songs he plays is “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake.” I don’t think I’ve heard anyone perform that song in decades, but I do remember when it was a big hit. That was in 1950, and in that era, novelty songs, as they were called, often made it to the charts and sometimes in a big way.

The one Alda played was written by a committee: Al Hoffman, Bob Merrill, and Clem Watts (a pseudonym for bandleader Al Trace). Like many popular songs, it was an expansion of an expression, the title, that already existed in popular culture. The lyric went, in part:

If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake
baked a cake, baked a cake
If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake
Howd-ya do, howd-ya do, howd-ya do
Had you dropped me a letter, I’d a-hired a band
Grandest band in the land
Had you dropped me a letter, I’d a-hired a band
And spread the welcome mat for you

Oh, I don’t know where you came from
’cause I don’t know where you’ve been
But it really doesn’t matter
Grab a chair and fill your platter
And dig, dig, dig right in.

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The first and iconic recording of this song was made by Eileen Barton. The tune arrived on the Billboard magazine chart in March 1950 and stayed for 16 weeks, peaking at No. 1. A recording made that same year by Georgia Gibbs was on the Billboard chart for six weeks. The best-known performance of the song, with good reason, was by Ernie in an encounter with the Cookie Monster in 1969 during the first season of Sesame Street. You can see that scene by clicking HERE.

Another of Al Hoffman’s collaborations, this one with Jerry Livingston and Milton Drake, was the nonsense song “Mairzy Doats,” which the trio composed in 1943. The song has been recorded, and has charted, many times. The Merry Macs, a popular harmony group, took it to Number 1 in March 1944. According to Drake, the inspiration for the song was an English verse he heard his young daughter singing: “Cowzy tweet and sowzy tweet and liddle sharksy doisters.” (Cows eat wheat and sows eat wheat and little sharks eat oysters.)

You can hear the Merry Macs’ hit recording by clicking HERE. This song was a particularly good fit for the wack-a-doodle bandleader Spike Jones, and you can hear his recording by clicking HERE.

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STEPHEN COLBERT

Stephen Colbert, in his recent irreverent commentary on the new English translation of the ritual of the Roman Catholic mass, said something to this effect: “For the record, consubstantial is now Istanbul.” For the benefit of the uninitiated, consubstantial is a technical term in the Nicene Creed that expresses something we Catholics and many other Christians believe about the nature of God. In the translation in use from around 1970 until Nov. 27, the Latin phrase consubstantialem Patri was rendered “of one substance with the Father,” but in the new rendition it reads, “consubstantial with the Father.”

Anyway, that was the occasion for Colbert to make that play on words.

JIMMY KENNEDY

That had the unintended result of reviving in my brain the memory of a song written in 1953, with lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy and music by Nat Simon, namely “Istanbul (Not Constantinople”). I don’t know how historically accurate Kennedy was trying to be, but the song in general refers to the fact that in 1930, the government of the relatively new Republic of Turkey declared Istanbul to be the one and only name of a city that had had many names — sometimes more than one at the same time — over its very long history. Istanbul was not a new name in 1930. Far from it, the name was known in some form since at least the tenth century.

Things like that used to interest song writers, and Kennedy turned out a lyric that, in part, went like this:

Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it’s Turkish delight on a moonlit night

Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
So if you’ve a date in Constantinople
She’ll be waiting in Istanbul

Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can’t say
People just liked it better that way

So take me back to Constantinople
No, you can’t go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks.

The ‘fifties being what they were, that was a big hit for the Four Lads.It was played on the radio again and again, and it was bored into my subconscious mind, where it rested happily until Colbert summoned it from the tomb.Kennedy, incidentally, was a very talented guy who wrote several standards, including “South of the Border,” “The Isle of Capri,” and “Red Sails in the Sunset.” Nat Simon and Charles Tobias teamed up in 1946 to write “The Old Lamp-Lighter.”

But Kennedy’s best-known work may be the lyrics he wrote in 1939 for “My Prayer,” which had been composed in 1926 by violinist Georges Boulanger. Glenn Miller and the Ink Spots had big hits with that song, but its most popular interation was the 1956 recording by The Platters.

“Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” has been recorded by many performers, including Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, Caterina Valente, Bette Midler, and They Might Be Giants.

You can hear the Four Lads’ version by clicking HERE.