Larry Gelbart, author of Tootsie and the TV series M*A*S*H and much else, had a famous crack that, if Hitler’s still alive, he hopes he’s on the road with a musical in trouble. Exactly three-quarters of a century ago – March 1946 – two great songwriters, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, knew exactly what he was getting at. They were trying out a show on which everything that could go wrong was going wrong, and then some.
It started with a successful novel, Arna Bontemps’ St Louis Woman. Bontemps and another admired writer of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen, adapted it as a play. And a Hollywood producer thought it would make a smash all-black musical on Broadway and persuaded MGM not only to back it but to loan the show one of their leading ladies, Lena Horne.
And then it all went south. The book (the script of a musical) was a mess, and then Countee Cullen dropped dead at the age of forty-three, leaving only Arna Bontemps, who knew even less about musicals than Cullen did. The deceased co-author possibly died from the stress of working on the show, in which he went in nothing flat from a respected Harlem literary figure to a peddler of insulting Negro stereotypes. Well before opening, Walter White, the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had denounced the show for “roles that detract from the dignity of our race”. So Lena Horne quit the production, and with a devastating parting shot:
St Louis Woman sets the Negro back one hundred years.
Now there’s a line to slap on the marquee. Demonstrations at the theatre were announced. The choreographer was dumped. The director was replaced, and the new guy, Rouben Mamoulian (who’d directed Oklahoma! and Porgy and Bess), took charge by firing Lena Horne’s replacement as leading lady. So the cast went on strike until the sacked actress, Ruby Hill, was reinstated. Which she was. But the now ousted replacement’s replacement, Muriel Rahn, demanded full salary for the entire run of the production, which didn’t help the bottom line.
So, barraged from all sides, the show flopped.
But enough of the NAACP and the fled star and the restored replacement and the original choreographer: what of the songs? To the end, Johnny Mercer ranked the failure of St Louis Woman as one of the major disappointments of his life. Still, he did manage to retrieve a few songs from the rubble: one was “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is A Home”, which has become a minor standard, and another is this week’s Song of the Week. Here’s how it was introduced to the world, by Ruby Hill and Harold Nicholas, one half of the glorious Nicholas Brothers:
With a better story to hang it on, would that song have worked on stage? Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer were a brilliant songwriting team who could do anything – except write musical plays. Arlen had some passable success on Broadway with other writers, from Yip Harburg to Truman Capote, and certainly Wizard Of Oz is one of Hollywood’s great musical dramas. But Mercer, boundlessly talented in any number of other areas, had no great knack for writing to character or plot-point within a two-act play. He could do it within the confines of a song – there’s plenty of character in “One For My Baby” and plenty of plot in “Laura” – but give him an actual libretto to work with and it all fell apart. And by 1946 the new school of Rodgers & Hammerstein musical play had made it even more difficult for those songwriters who were not, at heart, dramatists.
But who cares? “Come Rain or Come Shine” has outlasted St Louis Woman by seventy-five years, and gotten bigger and bigger. Here’s B B King and Eric Clapton doing that celebrity-duet thing:
Harold Arlen wrote the music, Johnny Mercer wrote the words …with a bit of help from Mr Arlen. They were over at the composer’s pad in Beverly Hills, and Arlen had played a phrase to Mercer – really just a repeated note that falls a major third and then rises a minor third. And almost immediately Mercer responded with:
I’m gonna love you
Like nobody’s loved you…
And then he looked blankly at his composing partner – and Arlen said:
Come hell or high water?
Mercer laughed. “Of course!”
And suddenly they had a song.
It’s a 32-bar song, but not in conventional A-A-B-A eight-bar sections. Instead it has a four-bar main theme, repeated (with one modified note), then an eight-bar middle, back to the four-bar main theme, and a closing 12-bar extension of it. So you might diagram it as A-A-B-A-C. That’s not the most unusual thing, not for Arlen. Some composers like their repeated notes, but Harold Arlen wasn’t one of them. Yet, for this song he decided to use repeated notes, and then, having made that initial decision, decided further to pile up more repeated notes than almost anyone has ever done ever, certainly for any jazz standard. Right from the get-go:
I’m gon-na love you
Like no-bo-dy’s loved you
That’s thirteen notes, all exactly the same. In the original key, thirteen A naturals one after the other:
A A-A A A
A A-A-A A A
And then, having given us three notes (“or come shine”) that aren’t A, what does Arlen do next?
High as a mountain
And deep as a river
He’s done it again:
A A A A-A
A C A A A-A
I don’t know what that C’s doing in there. A mistake by the copyist? Arlen returns for another parade of A naturals after the release on “You’re gonna love me/Like nobody’s loved me/Come rain…” and then for the next section:
More As? Oh, perish the thought:
Of course, it doesn’t sound as boring as it looks on a vocal part because of the harmonic underpinning, the unsettled tonality shifting between major and minor. But still, you’d think it would be pretty tedious for a singer:
“So whaddaya need from me?”
“Just sound your A. And then sound it again. And again. I’m going out for a smoke. I’ll be back before we get to that C on the second page.”
But as the composer and musicologist Alec Wilder would write:
It is a superb ballad which could never be so great unless the device of those repeated notes was the principal single element in the melody. The second section is without them, providing an essential contrast. The third and fourth sections continue to use them, interrupted twice by the most apt and satisfying octave drops.
They are immensely satisfying after all those repeats:
Days may be cloudy or sun-ny
We’re in or we’re out of the mo-ney…
Johnny Mercer may not have been a great musical dramatist for the Broadway stage, but he knew about what he called “mood” and that, once you got the mood of a song right, everything fell into place. “The thing about it is recognizing it when you think of it,” he said. “You say, ‘That’s right for this tune.'”
With “Come Rain or Come Shine”, “the right mood” was no more or less than “a really simple way of saying ‘I love you’ …the way a guy in a saloon would feel it.” And that “I’m gonna love you/Like nobody’s loved you” fits the insistent drive of the tune. Notice too how the song has few rhymes, which would risk over-underlining all those repeated notes. In fact, Mercer doesn’t rhyme at all until the release, when he slips in a triple:
I guess when you met me
It was just one of those things
But don’t ever bet me
‘Cause I’m gonna be true if you let me…
And then back to:
You’re gonna love me
Like nobody’s loved me
Come Rain Or Come Shine…
It was Arlen’s joke – “Come hell or high water” – that led Mercer to his title. But he’d used a variant of it a couple of years earlier, in a movie song he wrote with Jerome Kern, “Dearly Beloved”:
Nothing could save me,
Fate gave me a sign
I know that I’ll be yours
Come shower or shine…
Actually, “Come rain or come shine” would have fit there, but in 1942 Mercer preferred alliteration. By 1946, he’d evidently decided to prioritize symmetry. Outside the show, “Come Rain Or Come Shine” attracted pop recordings by Helen Forrest and Dick Haymes, in a rather bland duet, and somewhat more successfully by Mercer’s protégé at Capitol Records, Margaret Whiting. It’s a fine record, especially the end:
Days may be cloudy or sunny
We’re in or we’re out of the money
But I’m with you always
I’m with you rain or shine.
You’re supposed to do that “shine” as one long note. Years ago Miss Whiting told me that she was so carried away by the song that she sang that last word as “shi-i-ine”. Mercer came charging through the studio door yelling, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” – with Arlen right on his heels saying, “No, no, leave it. That’s how I should have written it.” And how most singers have opted to do it in the years since.
Sinatra loved it from the moment he heard it, and sang it on the radio a few times in the late Forties. More remarkably, on May 27th 1950, he chose to perform it on his television debut – for a Bob Hope NBC special. It was a bad time for Frank and, ever after, he would credit that Hope guest-shot – the music and the comedy (he played Bing Crosby in one sketch) – as playing a crucial role in his eventual comeback: The entire industry was watching, he later told Ed Murrow, to see if he could “so to speak, get off the canvas”. But, if that much was riding on it, why do a song he’d never recorded?
Perhaps because, in the spring of 1950, everything he did record he was faintly embarrassed by: Following the Bob Hope show, his next two Columbia sessions produced “Goodnight, Irene” (a folkie cash-in), “Dear Little Boy Of Mine” (a mawkish superannuated parlor ballad from the First World War), and “Life Is So Peculiar” (a surreal novelty for which he had no flair).
“Come Rain Or Come Shine” represented at that point the career he’d like to have.
I can’t lay my hands on that 1950 video, but here he is a couple of years later and (as you can see around a minute-and-a-half in) with Harold Arlen himself at the piano:
Why didn’t Frank do it at Capitol? Well, he and Nelson Riddle had plenty of other fish to fry. But that meant Ray Charles had a straight shot at it on his 1959 album The Genius of Ray Charles. No argument on that title from Sinatra: he famously described Charles as “the only genius in our business”. However, that ’59 recording gave Ray rather than Frank the distinction of being the guy who revealed the possibilities of the song for male vocalists:
Two years later, Sinatra was wrapping up a busy first year at his own label, Reprise Records. He’d done an album with old friend Billy May, another with his Tommy Dorsey pal Sy Oliver, a swingin’ set with a brand-new arranger Johnny Mandel… But what about the ballads? Why not try another new arranger – Don Costa?
“I believe I had something to do with that,” said Sinatra’s longtime pianist Bill Miller. “It was a toss-up between Costa and Gordon Jenkins. I had mentioned Don to Frank, you know, ‘Frank, you’ve already recorded with Gordon. Take a shot with Don, it could be great.’ As it turned out, it was.”
Absolutely. The resulting album, Sinatra and Strings, is a magnificent piece of work with many stand-out tracks, including the verse of “Stardust” and the great swirling currents of “Yesterdays“. These ballads aren’t as torchy as Wee Small Hours, or as bleak as Where Are You? or as hopeless as Only The Lonely. As the title suggests, they’re not thematically about anything more than the lushness of the string section. But “Rain or Shine” has a slightly different texture from the others – romantic strings but with a hint of bluesiness Frank seems to have picked up from the Ray Charles version (along with the horns in the intro), and then, in the instrumental break, the gorgeous swank of that slow swing. By comparison with the rest of the arrangements, it’s a strange combination of concert hall and saloon that Sinatra pulls together through the passion and sincerity of a powerful vocal.
On November 22nd 1961, at United Recorders in Hollywood, it was the first number up on what would be a busy session:
And, after all those repeated notes, they moved straight on to the verse of “Night and Day” – and another bazillion repeated notes:
Like the beat-beat-beat of the tom-tom…
“Night And Day” and then “All or Nothing at All”, ballad treatments of two songs from the dawn of his career – and afterwards the A- and B-side of a single, a couple of Cahn & Van Heusen trifles scored by Nelson Riddle to round out the evening. But that first song, in that Don Costa arrangement, was the one he’d never stop singing – and more and more as his book of working arrangements shrank in his final years. Sinatra loved Arlen & Mercer’s bluesy ballad, and, for a third of a century, wherever he was playing around the planet, you could pretty much guarantee that this would be on the set list. The Dominican Republic, 1982:
This next song is a marvelous song written by two of the great songwriters, I speak of Harold Arlen and Mr Johnny Mercer. And they wrote many many wonderful songs together. This one is special to me…
Sometimes you got the feeling that if Frank had to pare the act down to one song, it would have been this one. Sometimes he near said as much: “One of the finest pieces of popular music ever written,” he announced to a Vegas crowd in 1993. “I like this song,” he told a Japanese audience in 1985, “almost more than any other song I have ever sung.”
When he returned to the studio for the Duets album in 1993, “Rain Or Shine” was obviously going to be on the list – if only because the project wasn’t much more sophisticated than getting the songs Frank was out singing night after night on stage down on tape and then editing some ghastly pop star du jour into half the lyric. Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer got lucky: Their duet fell into the hands of Gloria Estefan, who has since made the inevitable standards album (so inevitable in her case that it’s actually called The Standards Album) but who had never previously betrayed, publicly, any instinct or feeling for this kind of music. For a then techno-dependent Latina dance diva, her voice blends very well with Sinatra’s, and she’s genuinely simpatico:
Frank must have liked the result because the next time he was playing Miami they went out to dinner together.
Is it really, as Sinatra appeared to feel, the greatest song ever? I think it all goes back to Mercer’s observation – that what matters in a song is “the mood”. In this case, the mood – a declarative love song pledging you’re in it for keeps whatever life throws at you – is just perfect for this singer, for the “Night and Day”/”All or Nothing at All” Sinatra. The singer and his arranger must have been thrilled at the end of that 1961 session, and yet there would be no sequel to Sinatra and Strings. Throughout a career cut far too short, Don Costa scored a lot of kiddie-pop, from Paul Anka and Trini Lopez to Donny and Marie Osmond. There’s no disgrace in that: some very gifted arrangers have a feel for it (Quincy Jones) and others don’t (Nelson Riddle). So by the end of the Sixties Don Costa was Frank’s go-to guy for the poppy stuff – sometimes spectacularly successfully, as with “My Way” and “New York, New York”; but often less so, on innumerable bits of soft-rock schlock that were beneath both of them. And so “Come Rain or Come Shine” would never come again, rain or shine.
But a one-off masterpiece is still a masterpiece, as Don Costa understood. “Sinatra and Strings was and always will be the hallmark of my existence,” he told Stan Britt in the Seventies. As for “Come Rain or Come Shine”, after hearing Sinatra sing it at Caesars Palace, Costa commented: “That’s still the best chart I ever wrote.” His vocalist knew it too, right to the end. And a decade after Costa’s sudden death in 1983, Sinatra was still out there, rain or shine, good nights or bad – hell or high water, as Harold Arlen had said half-a-century earlier – and, having outlived composer, lyricist and arranger, still doing his best by all three of them:
We’ll be happy together
And won’t that be fine
Days may be cloudy or sunny
We’re in or we’re out of the money
But I’m with you always
I’m with you rain or shine…
Rain or shine…
The composer liked it. Sinatra sent a demo copy round to Harold Arlen with a handwritten note: “Play it loud!”
That’s still good advice.
One for the road, as Arlen & Mercer would say. Here’s a newish performance by Renée Zellweger from a year or so back in my old chum Laurence Myers’ Judy Garland biopic – with Miss Zellweger channeling late Judy (almost too well) over a driving Nelson Riddle arrangement, come hell or high water:
~There’s lots more Sinatra, Arlen and Mercer in Mark’s Johnny Mercer centennial podcast: You can find Part One here, and Part Two here. You can read the stories behind more Sinatra songs in Mark Steyn’s American Songbook, and Steyn’s original 1998 obituary of Frank, “The Voice”, can be found in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore – and, if you’re a Mark Steyn Club member, don’t forget to enter your promo code at checkout for special member pricing.
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