Ink Spots 3When we saw Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall in November, he recalled—again—how he was having a beer after a gig in Chicago when he was approached by a young man who wanted Arlo to listen to a song. Arlo grudgingly agreed. The young man was Steve Goodman, the song was “City of New Orleans,” and rest is—well, never mind the cliche.

It’s one of those “near miss” stories. If Arlo had told Goodman to buzz off, who knows how history would have been altered?

The same goes for Jack Lawrence—or so it seems. There are differing accounts of this event, but according to Marv Goldberg in his book More Than Words Can Say: The Music of the Ink Spots, Lawrence made a cold-call visit on January 12, 1939 to the Decca Records recording studio in Manhattan where The Ink Spots were about to cut “Knock Kneed Sal,” and offered his own composition, “If I Didn’t Care.”

Jack Lawrence

JACK LAWRENCE

The Ink Spots, whose membership evolved over the years, had been around since the early 1930s and by the middle of the decade were popular in the United States and abroad. They continued performing into the mid 1950s, although other groups peddled themselves as the originals for many years after that.

“If I Didn’t Care” was the first studio recording in which The Ink Spots used a style that would become the group’s trade mark. The lead vocal was sung by tenor Bill Kenny, and a spoken bridge was provided by bass Hoppy Jones.

Kenny, who is often cited as a forerunner of Johnny Mathis, sang with a precise, elegant diction and a remarkable high register. Jones would recite the bridge in a colloquial drawl, improvising on the original lyrics and peppering them with terms such as “darlin,” “honey chile,” “doggone,” and “askaird.”

Ink Spots 1I recently bought a double-CD collection of 50 of The Ink Spots’ recordings, the preponderance of them delivered in this fashion. I was familiar with The Ink Spots because my parents were fans of theirs, and there were some of the group’s Decca records around our house. But until I listened to the collection I just bought, I didn’t appreciate the effect created by the contrast between Kenny’s refined phrasing and Jones’s down-home style.

Besides Kenny’s purported influence on Mathis, The Ink Spots are regarded as ancestors of  the R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and doo-wop groups of later generations.

“If I Didn’t Care” never got higher than No. 2 on the pop charts, but it sold 19 million copies, making it the tenth best-selling single of all time. Their numerous other hits included “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” “My Prayer,” “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” and “Lovely Way to Spend an Evening.”

Ink Spots 2My favorite among their recordings is “Whispering Grass,” written in 1940 by Fred Fisher and his daughter, Doris Fisher. Perhaps it appeals to me because the lyric seems to have been inspired by Kahlil Gibran: “If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.” You can hear “Whispering Grass” by clicking HERE.

You can hear “If I Didn’t Care” by clicking HERE.

Ink Spots 5

Billy Bowen, Bill Kenny, Hoppy Jones, and Bernie Mackey at the Club Zanzibar in New York City, October 18, 1944. Hoppy Jones died that same day.

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.

THE INK SPOTS

THE INK SPOTS

Whatever may be wrong with the age we live in, it has this advantage: Anything can pop into your head and you can find it on line. The Ink Spots, for instance. The other day I noticed an obituary for Huey Long – not the Kingfish from Louisiana, but the Texan who was among the legitimate members of the Ink Spots singing group.

One has to qualify members as “legitimate,” because successful singing groups often have a kind of pseudo-life that goes on and on long after the original DNA has sputtered and died. Anything “legit” about the Ink Spots had disappeared by the early ’60s, but today there are still guys billing themselves under the group’s name.

By some counts, there were eleven men who could call themselves Ink Spots without  running afoul of the criminal code, and Huey Long, who died last week at the age of 105, was one of them.

HUEY LONG AT 103

HUEY LONG AT 103

Reading about Huey Long’s death put a song in my head — “If I Didn’t Care.” This song is one of my earliest musical memories; I remember hearing it on the radio that was on all day in our house when I was growing up. Also, my parents had several of the group’s Decca recordings. I looked around on line and soon found a video of the real Ink Spots singing that song. They approached many of their songs in the same way: the tenor sang the melody and a bass then recited either the same lyric or the bridge, embellishing it with terms like “honey chile’ ” and “darlin’ .”

One of my favorites among the Ink Spots recordings is “Java Jive,” which I found at http://www.archive.org/details/JavaJive . I think that song was original with them. The only rendition I like as much as theirs is Christopher Lloyd  as Jim Ignatowski, singing it in the Sunshine Cab Co. garage on “Taxi,” but that’s a whole other thing. I also like the Ink Spots recording of “My Prayer” by George Boulanger and Jimmy Kennedy — which was the number 3 record in the country for a while in 1939. It’s been recorded by at least 40 different artists, ranging from the Platters to the Mantovani Orchestra. The Ink Spots version is at http://www.last.fm/music/The+Ink+Spots/_/My+Prayer