69. MISS OTIS REGRETS – Ella Fitzgerald

If I had been aware of this song, and I probably was, I don’t remember being really aware of it until I heard it in a really odd setting: some guy  – sorry, no idea of his name – who ‘opened’ for Ralph McTell at a concert in the 1980s (St David’s Hall, Cardiff) included this song in his small set.  It was his speciality, I think, taking old Great American Songbook standards, and singing them in an semi- folkie setting, to an exquisitely handled acoustic guitar.  So, behind the song, the guitar work was all minor sevenths and ninths etc; he brought all the melancholy he could from it; and it was beautiful.  And then I heard Ella Fitzgerald’s version of it.

I’m not sure that I would have liked Cole Porter.  I’m not even sure where I’ve picked up these impressions, that I have the feeling that he was all urbane wit, cleverness and musical talent sold to glittering slick city hedonism, etc. (Envious, moi?)  And, just gleaning bits of myth and trivia from various websites about the origin of this song, one story goes that in one of these very same high class uptown society party soirees, someone challenged Cole Porter to come up with a song employing these random words ‘miss Otis regrets’; a more credible variant of the story suggests that he was challenged to write off the cuff a kind of parody of a popular country and western style song .  Whatever, it’s quite weird to think of the genesis of this song as something a bit show-offy, improvisational, almost throwaway.  Because, however it started, it has certainly become something else.

How far Cole Porter influenced the development and evolution of the song’s popularity, who sang it and when, I don’t really know.  Let’s forget about him for a moment and just think of the song.  It’s interesting that the best versions of it have been by black singers: no, that’s naive –it was inevitable, because the persona of the song is understood to be of the servant class –inevitably Afro American in the 1930s ‘society’ America.  Porter (sorry, I said I wouldn’t mention him) put the song in the mouth of a black butler in one of his lesser known musicals.  In 1934 Ethel Waters recorded a still poignant version of the song.  Ella didn’t record her version until two decades later, and it is part of her classic ‘Cole Porter songbook’ recordings.  More about this in a moment.

When I say ‘interesting’, perhaps I’m thinking of the fact that some of the strange and incongruous resonances of the song have more startling poignancy coming from African-American lips .  The premise of the song, perhaps hilariously comic in the original cocktail-fuelled setting of that Manhattan dinner party, is that the seduced and wronged woman driven to jealous murder is not some simple country girl from a cowboy story, but –we assume –some sophisticated high society lady; the sordid tale is not blazed as society scandal, but modestly narrated by a faithfully formal servant as ‘excuse’ for the lady’s non-appearance at a social engagement (!); and the punishment for her crime is not some expensive legal battle fought on her behalf by city attorneys, but an ignominious lynching.  And there, of course, in that particular incongruity resides the particular potency of hearing these words from a black American female voice. ‘Strange Fruit’ in an affluent white society setting.

It’s become fashionable, I reckon, to regard Ella Fitzgerald’s voice as just a little bit too controlled; I hear people suggesting that Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holliday are far more ‘authentic’ jazz voices, but I’m OK with Ella’s ‘control’ –it’s a thing of beauty –she could scat-sing with the best of them when she wanted to, but she brought an extraordinary sensitivity to some songs that not everybody could have done.  Like this one – and while most of her Cole Porter recordings have sumptuous orchestral accompaniments, this one has a single piano, as if somehow to accentuate its dark charm –those few simple, repetitive verses, the ’spareness’ of the tragic tale in its ‘formal’ narrative. That’s all. Madam.

24. THE FOLKS WHO LIVE ON THE HILL – Peggy Lee

I still really miss Benny Green’s Sunday afternoon radio programme.  Some weeks, especially if, after church and after lunch I’ve gone out for a drive towards the Brecon mountains and reservoirs for some scenery and a little stroll, I stupidly try to twiddle the dials to Radio 2, hoping to still find him there.

His program was quite unique, and –like John Peel, from another context –introducing me to things I might not have heard anywhere else; his knowledge of the ‘great American songbook’, particularly, was encyclopaedic –but he also got you appreciating the context in which there were written, with anecdotes about the composers and the performers, the creative partnerships or business collaborations which had produced these songs.  He got me listening to lyrics in a new way – I remember when he shed light on ‘Paper Moon’, seemingly a throwaway romantic ditty –describing how it deftly proposes the idea that love can give validity and substance to otherwise superficial and insubstantial scenarios.  Something like that.  Anyway, Benny Green wasn’t above repeating favourites on his playlists, from what I (at least imagine) I remember,  this extraordinary beautiful Peggy Lee song seemed to get more than its fair share of Sunday afternoon plays.

It’s a Jerome Kern – Oscar Hammerstein number: in essence, I suppose it reflects the generic dream of every young couple –a home, their own living space, independent house ownership (and ‘location, location, location’).  And the aspiration of building a family together in an idyllic setting, before eventually settling to enjoy the living space in post-childrearing comfortable old age.  I have to ‘hold lightly’ to these lyrics, or I will get very cranky about how hard it is now in the UK for young couples to gather the money for a deposit, especially while still paying off a student loan, to get the simple ‘foot on the mortgage ladder’, let alone get the capital to build a house on a hill!!!

Still, the romance of dreams and songs.  Hammerstein’s lyric is simple and economical –three verses (one: building and living, two: family and extensions, three: on their own again) and a playful little ‘middle eight’ –‘our veranda/will command a/view of Meadows green/the sort of view/that seems to want to be seen…’ In the third verse, Peggy Lee apparently didn’t want to sing ‘Darby and Joan’ (who used to be Jack and Jill) –perhaps she didn’t understand it –so she sings ‘baby and Joe’ (?) Doesn’t matter; still sounds nice.

Let’s be honest, what’s most gorgeous about this is the sound, just the sound – from the first intriguing, haunting sweep of strings, and the single trumpet that enters, quickly augmented by other woodwind instruments taking up the introductory phrases and overlapping before Ms Lee slides in with one sultry, simple word ..’Someday..’ So many beautiful ingredients to this song –as well as the silky allure of the voice, and the sensitive orchestration, there’s a kind of wonderful leisureliness to the phrasing and the pace of the whole song, so that, yes, Mr. Green, it bears many a repeated listen.

Funny thing, I can’t take too much Peggy Lee all at once.  We’ve got ‘Fever’ on our jukebox, of course, but that’s something else –a clever little minor classic, a paeon to sexual chemistry –but a whole album of Peggy Lee?  Hmmm, maybe like overdosing on cream.

A final word on the lyrics: perhaps too they tap into another part of the aspirations of  romantic dreamers –to be acknowledged as a recognized unit (an ‘item’ as we say these days) with its own established identity –‘And we’ll be pleased to be called/what we have always been called/the folks who live on the hill…’ And…  given our geographical location, and our relative marital longevity, I suppose this could be said to be what Susan and I have become.

20. MOUNTAIN GREENERY by Mel Torme

‘Funny thing’ I said to the woman behind the Oxfam counter, as I handed over this CD and the 60p to pay for it, ‘I just don’t remember Mel Torme as being this attractive!’ She smiled politely. ‘Would you like a bag…?’  The song under discussion comes from a completely different disc –though this Moon-themed one is worth the 60p just for ‘Moonlight in Vermont’; but this little incident from last week at Hay both tickled me, and has become my way in to remembering my first Torme disc, ‘Live at the Crescendo’, a December 1954 recording (5 months after my first birthday).

So..that recording sends me to a brief window in my life where I lived technically alone –  I suppose, without checking it out, that must be the two or three years after the various house-sharings and prior to my marriage i.e. the early 1980s.What was I listening to back then the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s?  -nothing ‘contemporary’, I think.  For much of the time I was attempting to educate myself into enjoying Beethoven; and so to Kelly’s Record Exchange (upstairs in Cardiff indoor market) I went many a Saturday with dispensable contemporary folk (bye bye Carly Simon et al) and I came home with rather tattered-sleeved secondhand discs of the symphonies, the Emperor Concerto and piano sonatas.  But of course, I also listened to Joni, Bob and the Fisherfolk.

A couple of times a year at that stage in my life, and particularly in the pre-Christmas run-up, I’d take a trip to London for some mild browsing and shopping, and always called in to the used record stores around Charing Cross Road and Soho Market.  There was one particular shop I loved, where the vinyl was just crammed in –not always with any perceptible notion of order –and their basement stock contained classics, easy listening, jazz, swing/crooners and humour.  I found myself often drawn to picking out quirky things with which I was only modestly familiar.  On one visit I brought home a Flanders and Swann LP (with its sleeve in a very sorry condition) –I played it to death and loved it.  On another occasion a Noel Coward compilation, on another the double album of Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter songs –even today this is among my most prized series of recordings –have it now in CD of course.  On yet another occasion, I came home with this live Mel Torme LP.  What did I know of him?  Why did I choose it?  Did I notice perhaps that it contained the ‘Christmas Song’ (‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire…’) and did I notice on the liner notes that he was in fact its composer?  Did I feel it might be a nice seasonal sound to take back home to my funny telly-less little terraced home?

If that was what I’d imagined, I wasn’t wrong.  I have warming, perhaps slightly romanticised, memories of me nearing Christmas, enjoying my homely solitude, the fire banked up with coal, spreading on the floor all the Tear Fund/Traidcraft items which I had bought as gifts (working out what would fit whom), listening to this album on repeat, no doubt singing along.  There couldn’t possibly be a voice that more comfortingly combines silk and huskiness, and the live performance takes us not only through Christmas Song, and another of his own compositions ‘County Fair’, but a couple of Rogers and Hart songs – the lovely ‘Blue Moon’ and this one under discussion; the Gershwins’ great ‘Love is Here to Stay’, a couple of Cole Porters, and several others, all with a genuine, winning charm.

‘Mountain Greenery’ was track one on side 2, I seem to recall –and I’d probably known the song from childhood days – Forces’ Favourites on the radio, perhaps –but to discover it again was very nice indeed.  It’s a Rogers and Hart song, such a neat, playful construction both melodically (that fun climbdown on ‘greenery’ and the climb back up on ‘scenery’) and, particularly, lyrically, with jokey and inventive rhymes throughout –‘your lover let…/coverlet’; ‘planned which is…’/’sandwiches’ etc.  Some great couplets: ‘How we love sequestering/Where no pests are pestering’, and ‘Beans could get no keener re/ception in a beanery’- clearly one madcap lyricist was Lorenz Hart! And I should mention the very inviting song-introduction which encourages us alluringly to a real recklessness –‘spring is here so blow your job/Throw your job away’ and ‘now’s the time to trust/to your wanderlust.’ So there’s much to delight in, while you’re sitting on the floor wrapping presents.  And of course,it’s the old pastoral, Romantic idyll, the lure of the rustic retreat, the sweet scent of freedom and travel, the promise of places of perpetual peace and freshness.. shared of course romantically, this time with a small r, though the playful wit gives it a tongue-in-cheek urbane archness.(A bit like Marlowe’s ‘Come live with me and be my love..’, now I come to think of it!)

Admittedly, it’s also very much a song of its time, and not beyond mild sexism – inviting the beloved out into the country so that he could sit and watch her cooking beans –if I hear it correctly!  I’ve heard Ella doing this song too on her own Rogers and Hart song book collection- it’s nice, but this version for me, by Mr Torme, is still the quintessential.