Steyn's Song Of The Week
by Alec Wilder

In the pithy summation of Terry Teachout, Alec Wilder “spent his life looking for cracks to fall through”. That’s to say, if you tried to look for him in your average record store, he doesn’t quite fit the pop bins or the classical bins or the jazz bins. Which is why, if you’re hung up on categorization, it’s easier to leave him out the store altogether. As he himself acknowledged, his compositions “were gunned down by the jazz boys because they had a classical flavor, and they were gunned down by the classical boys because they had a jazz flavor.” Still, discriminating persons at each end love Alec Wilder. To give you a sense of his range, I rummaged through my record collection and here’s a random dozen of the many albums containing Wilder’s music:

The Very Best Of Dinah Washington: Dinah Washington
Music For Winds And Brass: The Lawrence University Wind Ensemble conducted by Robert Levy and by Gunther Schuller
Hi De Ho Man: Cab Calloway
Folk Buddha’s Path To Enlightenment: The Berea Castoffs
Percy Faith Plays Romantic Music: Percy Faith and his Orchestra
C.K.: Chaka Khan
I Dreamt I Dwelt In Harlem: The Delta Rhythm Boys
Neurotic Goldfish: The Manhattan Chamber Orchestra conducted by Richard Auldon Clark
When I’m Alone I Cry: Marvin Gaye
An American And Paris: The New York Woodwind Quintet
Swinging In A Latin Mood: George Shearing
Engelbert Swings For Lovers: Engelbert Humperdinck

…plus of course:

Frank Sinatra Conducts The Music Of Alec Wilder: The Columbia String Orchestra conducted by Frank Sinatra

- which is a great Sinatra album, and he doesn’t sing a note on it.

Alec Wilder was born one hundred years ago – February 16th 1907 – into a prosperous and prominent banking family from Rochester, New York. His father died when he was six and he was raised by his mother, whom Alec described as “a belle who had been spoiled by her family and by men”, which was his way of saying she was a bit of a lush. He was unhappy at school and, while still a teenager, hired an attorney and more or less divorced his family, obtaining a handsome financial settlement. Aside from the dough, he inherited two other things from his mom – a fondness for the Algonquin Hotel, at which he and his mother would stay on his childhood trips to New York City, and her prodigious capacity for alcoholic intake. The former became the nearest to a permanent residence he ever had - he lived out of a small single room there for over half a century – and the second fueled many a night at the Algonquin’s Blue Bar and Rose Room, with Wilder picking up the tab for a coterie of pals from the music world. In between, he rode the rails, not in the boxcar but up front: he loved trains, and he was a genuinely solitary man. That’s to say, he was lonely not because he could find no-one to love him (Lorenz Hart’s predicament) but because he genuinely preferred being alone for long, long stretches of time. “Music was the constant factor, the dominating compulsion,” he wrote, “but never to the exclusion of my love of railroads, of reading, of spending time in strange communities. I say ‘strange’ because, in spite of my love for a few people, I still preferred to spend most of my time alone and I was happier in towns where I knew nobody, had no fear of the phone ringing, no threat of appointments or dinner dates.”

If you did have a dinner date with him, he was prone to bits of funny business. A friend once told me a story about Wilder having lunch at a Rochester hotel when he spotted a rather grand young lady he knew at a nearby table. He discreetly poured the pitcher of water into his hat and then sauntered over to her. “Hellaire, Alexahnder,” she drawled. He put his hat on his head and, as the water cascaded down his face, murmured, “Awful weather we’re having, isn’t it?” Perhaps it was the drink, or the shyness, or just a fondness for introducing humor in situations where it’s largely eschewed: his early “serious” works bear titles such as “Sea Fugue Mama”, “Bassooner Or Later”, and “Jack, This Is My Husband”, which would be a potentially rewarding title for a Mabel Mercer cabaret ballad but sounds a little fey for a woodwind octet.

Given that he spent his entire adult life alone and living out of three suitcases, it’s remarkable that he wrote any songs at all. After all, he seems never to have done any of the things popular songs sing about – fall head over heels in love, settle down in a cottage for two, wake up to find it’s quarter to three and you’re nursing the blues in the night, etc. Yet he wrote music and (for many numbers) lyrics to popular(ish) songs all his life – in defiance of William Engvick’s opening couplet of one of his most enduring tunes:

Songs are made to sing
While We’re Young…

“Sing” sits on a super-tonic minor seventh: Irving Berlin might have written it but wouldn’t have known it; Alec Wilder did. His formal education consisted of some uncompleted studies at Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, but he made some soon-to-be-influential friends there, including Goddard Lieberson, who went on to become a senior exec at Columbia Records and one of Wilder’s biggest boosters, and Mitch Miller, presiding genius of all the most idiotic novelty songs of the 1950s but before that a gifted oboist who loved Wilder’s concert music. As for “While We’re Young”, Peggy Lee recorded it – at midnight and with a modified ending after the bridge (the middle section). Wilder didn’t care for the change and sent her a note: “Next time you come to the bridge, jump.”

Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra and a handful of other champions are the reason we know Wilder’s work today. Sinatra recorded Wilder’s songs from his earliest days at Columbia in the Forties - “Just An Old Stone House” – to his last great studio album in the Eighties, She Shot Me Down, which includes the last two songs the composer ever wrote. Frank called Alec “The Professor” and Alec called Frank “Thin Lou”. Sinatra had heard the “serious” compositions, too, and, when he left the Tommy Dorsey band and launched his solo career, he started talking up Wilder’s woodwind pieces with the Columbia bosses. “These should be recorded,” he told Manie Sachs, who rarely turned down the singer but made an exception on the grounds that it was wartime and they didn’t have enough shellac even for their big-selling artists. That’s when Sinatra offered to conduct the pieces himself, and Columbia figured that, goofy as the idea of the bobbysoxers’ pin-up releasing a non-vocal album through their classical division might be, at least nobody was going to lose money on it. So Frank walked into the recording session and stepped up to the orchestra: “Listen, I don’t know the first thing about conducting. But I know this music and I love it, and if you’ll work with me, I think we can get it down.”

They did. It’s a great album. I once had a conversation with my colleague Jay Nordlinger, music critic of The New Criterion and The New York Sun, and I suggested that his concert works sounded like a “jazzier Delius”, which Jay thought wasn’t a bad précis. There’s a lot of that in the songs, too. But the most popular and most recorded has a breathtaking simplicity. It came to Wilder in a taxi cab in 1942, heading across Baltimore to take a trolley to Annapolis. Just a title: “I’ll Be Around”.

He liked that, pulled an envelope out of his pocket, scribbled it down and forgot all about it. “Quite by accident, I spotted it as I was crumpling up the envelope some days later,” he recalled. “Since I was near a piano, I wrote a tune, using the title as the first phrase of the melody. I remember it only took about 20 minutes. The lyric took much longer to write.” They usually do. The tune has a wonderful muscular clarity, its leaping intervals audacious but utterly natural. It’s very hard to find words that do justice to such an uncluttered melody. Wilder took as his theme the discarded lover and addressed it very straightforwardly:

I’ll Be Around
No matter how
You treat me now
I’ll Be Around
From now on…

The stroke of genius is in the rhyme scheme: in choosing to pair the second and third lines, Wilder gives a sentiment expressed in ordinary monosyllabic words a kind of precise, unsparing honesty. He repeats the trick in the second section:

Your latest love
Can never last
And when it’s past
I’ll Be Around
When he’s gone…

The symmetry of the melody matches the emotional confidence of the lyric, even in despair. I don’t know whether that’s what the Mills Brothers liked about it, but one way or another the song found itself on a 78, the flip side of the biggest hits in the history of American pop music:

I’m going to buy a Paper Doll that I can call my own
A doll the other fellows cannot steal
And then those flirty flirty guys
With their flirty flirty eyes
Will have to flirt with dollies that are real…

Boy, that’ll teach ’em.  Within a few months, Wilder had made more money out of “I’ll Be Around” than everything he’d written up to that date added together, even though it was mainly as an accidental beneficiary of the boffo success of a song he considered one of the most bone-crushingly stupid ever written. “A ‘thing’ called ‘Paper Doll’,” he sniffed. “Not something to listen to unless you’re 20, a sailor or a drunk”. There must have been a lot of them around:

I’d rather have a Paper Doll to call my own
Than have a fickle-minded real live girl.

On the one hand, a paper doll. On the other, a fickle-minded real live girl. Tough call. It wasn’t just that Wilder despised “Paper Doll”, he didn’t care much for the Mills Brothers’ take on “I’ll Be Around”, either. “At a record shop in New York,” Milford Fargo of the Eastman School recalled, “he listened to the record, broke it over his knees, threw it out on to the floor, paid for it and walked out, because, he said, those awful men changed his chord progressions and changed the melody, and he just hated the record.”

Of the later recordings, one always had a special place for the composer: “God bless Frank Sinatra for singing the definitive version of this song.” Sinatra’s take on Wee Small Hours has a gorgeous Nelson Riddle arrangement, but I’m not sure I agree with Wilder. It’s disfigured by a Frankism:

Goodbye again
And if you find a love like mine
Just now and then
Drop a line
To say
that you’re feeling fine…  

Compared to the songbook purists, I’m relaxed about Sinatra interpolations but that “that” he shoves in to me sticks out as a superfluous intrusion whose “t” sounds spoil the melt of the line.

Oh, well. If you don’t like Sinatra, there’s a thousand others from Billie Holiday to Tony Bennett to a broodingly jazzy take by Tierney Sutton on her recent album Dancing In The Dark.

If somewhat tentative about his own songs, Wilder was a great enthusiast for songs in general. In 1972, he produced a book called American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950, which is unlike anything written before or since: it’s a detailed analysis of almost every great song from the first half of the 20th century; very scholarly but also highly personal, not to say idiosyncratic. “I doubt,” he wrote of Cole Porter’s “All Of You”, “would have been quite so popular but for the dubious wit” of the lines:

 The arms, the eyes
 The mouth of you
 The east, west, north
 And the south of you…

“I may risk stuffiness,” sniffed Wilder, “when I say that I find this to be school-yard snickering, but that’s precisely how I feel.” Apparently the definite article preceding “south of you” is a bit of anatomical arrow-pointing. I’d say that criticism is, ah, below the belt. While one can certainly read that interpretation into it, I doubt one in a million who bought the song gave it a thought. And, in any case, according to the lyricist Gene Lees:

Songwriters pressed against the censorship of the radio stations and networks …and occasionally slipped something suggestive past the watchdogs, such as Alec Wilder’s ‘If You See Kay’. It was broadcast a number of times before some network executive got the point and bounced it off the air.

If “If You See Kay” isn’t “school-yard snickering”, I don’t know what is. I prefer Wilder writing for real, on odd angles of romance, lost, found and unrecoverable. A few years ago, Carly Simon made an album a couple of years ago called Film Noir, which didn’t really live up to the title. But, if you really want film noir on record, try the last number Wilder ever wrote, in 1980 with Loonis McGlohan, after Sinatra called up and said he needed a new “saloon song”. “A Long Night” more than delivers - Sinatra trudging down mean streets after dark in pursuit of a squandered love:

Long night, it’s a long night, my friend
The barrooms and the back streets, dead end…

A raw, bleak last hurrah to an unlikely four-decade musical friendship between “Thin Lou” and “The Professor”. You can find it on She Shot Me Down (1981), Sinatra’s darkest album from the cover (Frank hunched in leather, wreathed in smoke) to the last bar.

By the time it was released, Wilder was dead of cancer. He was eccentric and difficult and his own worst enemy in many ways. But “Long Night”, like “While We’re Young” and “Blackberry Winter”, is one of those slow-burn standards that grows year by year:

And when things go wrong
Perhaps you’ll see
You’re meant for me
So I’ll Be Around
When he’s gone.

He’s gone, but that song and a handful of others will always be around.
STEYNONLINE, February 19th 2007

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