A fairly well-known (now obscure?) pop song from 1951 is the text for my mellow sermon for today:
This ten-inch Decca recording — more than fifty years old now — which I guard tenderly — is the music of my childhood that has never disappointed me.
And just because the photograph of Louis and Gordon turned up on eBay ( I know nothing about the photograph below it) here it is once again:
Since my dear friend Ricky Riccardi is in New Orleans for the 2015 Satchmo Summerfest, I asked his permission and checked with his legal staff and was allowed a one-time exception to create a Riccardi-style posting which, of course, is not up to his standards . . . but he’s about half my age. More energy.
Let’s begin where it all began — Charles G. Dawes’ MELODY [or sometimes, MELODY IN A]. Dawes is the most unlikely composer I can think of, a Brigadier General who had taught himself piano and composition, a banker who became Calvin Coolidge’s Vice President, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925. Dawes lived a long time — 1865-1951, and wrote this piece in 1911. Here is a 1924 recording with Fritz Kreisler, violin; Carl Lamson, piano:
The opening phrase — a simple ascent and descent — is what we call a hook now, although that phrase wouldn’t have applied in 1911. It’s in 6/8, and it seems as far as one could get from a danceable pop tune in 1924 and later. But wait.
In 1940, Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra recorded LET ME DREAM, “adapted” from Dawes — I don’t think the melodic emendations are improvements, and I note that on the Decca label no lyricist is listed. Bob Eberly sings it pleasantly enough, but the lyricist may have wanted to remain anonymous:
Two years later — perhaps as part of the famous Dorsey rivalry, perhaps in an attempt to find non-ASCAP material — brother Tommy recorded what I consider the first truly beautiful “modern” version, on a Red Seal Victor label which meant it was (loosely) a classical recording:
I don’t know who did the string arrangement, but it is dreamily beautiful even before Tommy enters. And the trombonists in the audience (along with the rest of us) can marvel at Tommy’s tone and range.
I can’t find other recordings of this beautiful melody, but in 1951 Carl Sigman wrote lyrics for it and changed its name to IT’S ALL IN THE GAME. Whether he modified the high notes or an arranger did — somewhere — I can’t say. But this is the composition and performance I grew up with: Louis and Gordon Jenkins. Note: some listeners find the pairing of these two great artists unsatisfying; others make light of Jenkins’ sound, vocal and string arrangements. I won’t have it. If you want to write dismissively of this side, please refrain and come back tomorrow.
Incidentally, the personnel here is more than respectable in jazz players per inch, in addition to Louis and Gordon: Charles Giffard [misspelled as Gifford in all reference works: see below], George Thow, Bruce Hudson, trumpet; Eddie Miller, Dent Eckels, tenor saxophone; Charles LaVere, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Phil Stephens, string bass; Nick Fatool, drums . . . plus strings.
What you’ll hear is not just a 1951 pop tune orchestrated for jazz singer, small jazz band, and strings. It has a compositional density — Jenkins thought orchestrally, his work a beautiful offering of contrasts and similarities — and the listener who is attentive will hear beautiful sounds. I know: I’ve been listening to this record since perhaps 1959. I’m never bored with this 3:22 concerto.
I don’t know if the “new” IT’S ALL IN THE GAME has a verse or an elaborate introduction, so I am assuming that this one is Gordon’s creation. And what an oddly ominous one it is: the first fourteen seconds a variation on the ascending figure with accents from orchestra bells. It sounds to me as if a funeral is approaching, or (perhaps) a variation on the verse to WHEN DAY IS DONE — both unusual ways to approach a song that is ultimately redemptive. Sigman’s lyrics are not about death, but a beautiful escape from emotional death: the lovers have had a serious spat and all is / can be repaired — so that the end is a love-ecstasy. And the singer — in this case Louis — is beautifully asked to play the part of a gentle wise elder, counseling the young lover who is tearfully despondent: “It’s going to be all right. You just wait. I know,” which is advice all of us have needed at some time.
The minor mood gets slightly brighter when the strings enter, the top end of the violin section quite high, with beautiful shifting harmonies underneath — the most glorious waltz one could imagine.
Then, about a minute and a quarter in, one hears the jazz ensemble start to underpin the whole beautiful enterprise — the shift to 4 / 4 made clear by the addition of the rhythm section — and the horns and reeds create a simple echoing descending figure to change the key. But before we can take this in for long, Louis enters at 1:30. (Notice, please, that the recording is nearly half over before its Star comes on — which suggests that Gordon knew that Louis deserved the most wondrous buildup.)
The vocal is just sublime. All the people who dismissed Louis as a romantic singer, someone who made nonsense of words, “gravel in his throat,” might do well to listen to this. The horns play simple figures behind him and the rhythm section of LaVere, Reuss, Stephens, and Fatool — the best imaginable on the West Coast at that date) rock softly and with conviction. And Louis treats the simple words with the utmost respect. And close listeners well-versed in the Gospel of Louis will of course notice that Gordon’s figures are evocative of Armstrong licks. (A liner note writer for a CD issue of this material whose name I am choosing to ignore called this practice “blatant,” not understanding that it was both an in-joke and an expression of the deepest reverence: surrounding Louis with Louis, amen.)
The strings come in when the lyrics describe having “words with him” — interesting that the singer is speaking to an unhappy young woman. Singers, please pay attention to the rubato within “And your future’s looking dim!” — the phrasing there is worth a whole Jazz Studies degree. And, happily, after Louis sings “above,” the strings play — written — one of Louis’ most famous scat figures. I can’t imagine that Louis wasn’t dee-lighted to hear that.
A looser, warmer vocal conclusion follows, ending in “And your heart will fly away,” ending in a scat passage that is like a caress, like someone’s dear hand making the grief go away.
When I hear this recording, I have tears in my eyes, but they are tears of joy. Recovery is possible.
I didn’t know where in this post to place the more famous (how could this be?) recording of the song — by Tommy Edwards in 1958. It was an immense hit and sold three million copies. I think it is a descent from the heights, singer and orchestra, but you are welcome to enjoy it. Quietly, please. Use your earbuds:
If you want to understand the majesty of Louis and the gracious warm world that Gordon Jenkins created, though, go back to the penultimate version.
I will close with a little anecdote. In graduate school, one of my professors was Dr. Spencer — a tall woman who had been born in the UK and had retained a crisp manner of speaking. We were discussing some nineteenth-century love poem, and she said, “There was a hit pop song some years back called IT’S ALL IN THE GAME, and it referred to “the wonderful game that we know as love.” Taking her glasses off and looking at one impish and weary, she said, “Of course, love is a game. But you must be sure you know the rules of it, and always bring the right equipment.” Then she said, “I will see you on Thursday.” I’ve never forgotten that.
Postscript: one of the many wonderful things about having this blog is the people who write in — not to criticize, but to add information that is true and little-known. I bless Michael Sigman, son of lyricist Carl Sigman, for sending me this beautiful information about the song:
The most interesting story-behind-a-song saga in Carl’s career began with a phone call from a publisher. For years Carl had thought about writing a lyric for a tune he remembered from his classical training. “The Dawes Melody,” or “Melody In A Major,” was a classical violin and orchestra piece composed in 1911 by none other than Charles G. Dawes, later Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge.
Dawes composed the piece in a single piano sitting. “It’s just a tune that I got in my head, so I set it down,” he told an interviewer. He played it for a friend, the violinist Francis MacMillan, who liked it enough to show it to a publisher, and Dawes was officially a composer. The tune garnered some popularity when Jascha Heifetz used it for a time as a light concert encore.
Early in 1951, Carl decided to try and write a lyric to the theme, believing that it was in the public domain, as free of complications as an old Mozart melody. He knew the two-octave range would be a problem, but figured he could fool around with the melody, take out the high notes and make it more singable.
By sheer coincidence, Warner Brothers publishing exec Mac Goldman called one day to ask Carl to consider writing a lyric to “The Dawes Melody,” the copyright for which, it turned out, was owned by Warners.
Once Carl recovered from the news that the song was in fact already copyrighted, he rejiggered the tune and realized that a phrase from another song he was working on, a conversational phrase he’d plucked from the vernacular, was perfect for this tune. Once he plugged that title into its proper place, the lyrics to “It’s All In The Game,” to quote Carl, “wrote themselves.”
It’s All In The Game
Many a tear has to fall but it’s all in the game
All in the wonderful game that we know as love
You have words with him and your future’s looking dim
But these things your hearts can rise above
Once in a while he won’t call but it’s all in the game
Soon he’ll be there at your side with a sweet bouquet
And he’ll kiss your lips and caress your waiting fingertips
And your hearts will fly away
Carl also wrote this never-recorded intro, to be sung prior to “Many a tear…”
Where love’s concerned
At times you’ll think your world has overturned
But if he’s yours, and if you’re his
Unfortunately, the Vice President never got to hear the lyric. On the day Carl handed in the finished assignment, Dawes died of a heart attack, prompting Mac Goldman to quip, “Your lyric must have killed him.”
“It’s All In The Game” found its way to prominence in a prototypic version, in waltz time, by Tommy Edwards. That record made the top twenty in late 1951, and the song was quickly covered by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Dinah Shore and Sammy Kaye. Seven years later, Edwards, still recording for the MGM label, re-cut the song in the contemporary 4/4 tempo doo-wop mode, and it became one of the biggest hits of the fifties, staying in the top 10 for twelve weeks, six of them at #1.
During the summer of ’58, when “It’s All In The Game” was battling it out for the top spot with another classic, Domenico Modugno’s “Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu),” I was a nine-year old attending Kings Point Country Day Camp. As I changed into my baseball uniform in the locker room every day, I’d burst with pleasure when the radio played our song, and “boo” whenever “Volare” came on.
May your happiness increase!