September Song

Walter Huston, Decca DU 40001, 1945 (?)

Kurt Weill had a special knack for intriguing, alluring melodies, and was able to find lyricists to partner with whose words added to the effect rather than taking anything away. Weill’s songs are so strong that quite a few non-singers have done a little magic with them. Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya was not so much a singer as an actress, but her recordings of Weill songs from his German as well as his American musicals are considered definitive. She originated the role of Polly Peacham in Weill’s best-known work, The Three-Penny Opera (lyrics by Bertolt Brecht), which introduced “Mackie Messer”—known in the US as “Mac the Knife.” Her “Surabaya Johnny” (from Happy End, with lyrics by Brecht), sung in German, is chilling, even if you don’t understand German.

Also worth finding is Burgess Meredith singing “Johnny’s Song” from a 1956 recording of the songs from the 1936 musical Johnny Johnson (lyrics by Paul Green), Weill’s first American show after leaving Germany. The Penguin wasn’t a singer, but he acts his way through Weill’s complex melody, and it works.

Not so great was Lou Reed’s take on “September Song,” from Hal Willner’s Weill tribute album Lost in the Stars. Croaker Marianne Faithfull and growler Tom Waits are both suited to the material and make out better than Lou, who gives the exquisitely melodic Kurt Weill the Velvet Underground monotone treatment. (Hal Willner’s tribute projects are all uneven but provocative, and three of his choices of composers to salute are three of my favorite songwriters—Weill, plus Thelonious Monk, with That’s the Way I Feel Now, from 1984, and Nino Rota, with Amarcord Nino Rota, from 1981.)

Walter Huston is best-remembered for his role as the old gold-panner who puts Bogart’s character in his place in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. If you’re only familiar with the actor from this role, you may be unable to imagine him crooning emotional ballads. This record presents that other side.

Huston wasn’t a singer, but there is so much feeling built into “September Song”’s melody and lyrics (by Maxwell Anderson) that a great actor can wring a lot of emotional response from it. I’d enjoyed Walter Huston’s version of “September Song” on a cast album for Knickerbocker Holiday, and was thrilled to find it on shellac. He comes through, delivering a big emotional punch, and then does it again on the B-side.

I had no idea Walter Huston had done a version of “Lost in the Stars,” which was the bonus I discovered on the flip side of this record. Of all of Kurt Weill’s beautiful melodies, “Lost in the Stars” (from the musical of the same name, also with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson) is probably the most haunting. Huston’s version doesn’t top Tony Bennett’s version with The Count Basie Orchestra, but it is poignant and, in its own way, beautiful. These two recordings seem to be absolutely ideally suited to the 78 rpm format; I can’t really imagine listening to them any other way.

There is a mystery about the recording that I haven’t yet solved. The musical Lost in the Stars was completed in 1948 and debuted in 1949. I can find no mention of the title song existing prior to the collaboration of Weill and Anderson. Yet everything I can find regarding this recording states it was made in 1944. Since Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s book upon which the musical was based, wasn’t published until 1948, my guess is that the info about the recording date is wrong. But I suppose it’s possible that Weill and Anderson collaborated on the song before they knew where they’d put it. As deliberate as Weill was, though, and as perfect the song is in the show, I doubt that was the case.

Is That All There Is?

Peggy Lee, Capitol, 1969, #11 Pop and #1 Adult Contemporary

A song I put in the “Inventorying Life from the Perspective of The Golden Years” category (a growing category in my collection, alas) is the rich and strange late-career hit for Miss Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” This song of disillusionment gave me chills whenever I heard it on the radio in the late ‘60s.

A happily-accidental confluence of disparate characters, topped off by Miss Peggy, led to the strangest hit of 1969.

I was unfamiliar with Peggy Lee, except as the voice of the dog Darling, singing “He’s a Tramp” in Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp. When I saw her on a television variety show, looking so jaded in her platinum-blonde flip-up wig and her blue-tinted glasses as she sang “If that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing,” I was mesmerized. I don’t think I ever watched The Lady and the Tramp again.

Back then, I hadn’t parsed the song’s elements; I just responded to its cumulative effect. It was only years later that I discovered and appreciated the creative contributors who’d helped Miss Peggy Lee make such a powerful record. The songwriters were Leiber and Stoller, the class clowns who wrote so many Coasters comedy classics, like “Charlie Brown” and “Poison Ivy.” (On the 45’s label, Leiber’s name is spelled the way I, a German student in high school, always want to spell it—Lieber, but he spelled it with the e-i.) They took quite a diversion from their usual fare for this one. An as-yet-little-known Randy Newman, doing journeyman work for Warner Brothers, crafted the eerie string arrangement, a sound for which he would later be lauded on albums like Sail Away and soundtracks like Ragtime. Randy Newman’s arrangement owes more than a little to Kurt Weill’s German theater period. A happily-accidental confluence of disparate characters, topped off by Miss Peggy, led to the strangest hit of 1969.

The record did lose its charm for me for a few years in the nineties. While processing books and records in the backroom of the Half Price Books main store, employees got to play music on an ancient stereo. A co-worker and I came across a 45 of the song and put it on. We were so captivated by it that we played it again and again, until our fellow employees ganged up on us and banned “Is That All There Is?” from backroom play forever. Now, years later, I can play it in my home whenever I want to, which is about twice a year, on Saturday evenings as the sun goes down.

Gordon Jenkins and Frank Sinatra (and songwriter Ervin Drake) were responsible for a similar fine sixties song about growing old, the unlikely pop hit “It Was a Very Good Year.” It appeared on the September of My Years album. Sinatra was fifty years old at the time. (Fifty is September? I think that’s still July, or maybe even June).

When, as a kid, I heard “It Was a Very Good Year” on the radio, it was haunting. Even though the lyrics are more wistful than melancholy, the Jenkins string arrangement, which got him a Grammy, joined Sinatra’s stark delivery to set a very somber tone. (That tone was pastiched to great effect in the 1971 TV special Diana! by a pre-teen Michael Jackson, who sashayed out, coat slung over his shoulder, fedora at a tilt, and sang, “When I was six years old / It was a very good year.” He also managed to throw in a “ring-a-ding-ding.”)

Michael only made it to fifty. The September of his years. Kurt Weill, who wrote the music for Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song” lyric “But the days grow short, when we reach September,” died at the age of fifty.

Miss Peggy Lee made it to the age of 81 and performed, though in poor health and sometimes confined to a wheelchair, into her seventies. You can find a video clip of her at age 64, being interviewed by Merv Griffin on his show in 1984. She wears all black, including a bolero hat and a veil, and she doesn’t get up from the couch when she performs “Is That All There Is?” The camera pulls back at one point to show her seated alone at the end of the big couch. Merv sits at his desk and leans toward Miss Peggy, chin on knuckles, mesmerized by the performance, truly a rarity on variety/talk show TV.