Saturday, May 28, 2011

Moon Tunes

As a teacher, I like to start my day by commemorating "this day in history." I always share an anniversary with my students and then tie in some video. This week marked the 50th anniversary of JFK's address to Congress in which he challenged the American people to make it to the moon by the end of the decade.

Funny thing was, I was listening simultaneously to a collection of moon songs that Mel Torme recorded only a year previously to JFK's address. I have been grooving on this CD much more deeply since, and I'd like to share my enthusiasm for this project as well as for Frank Sinatra's 1965 effort on the same theme.

First to Mel Torme. I admire him so much as a singer. My word, how this guy put it together! Besides being as supple a song interpreter, he was also a terrific drummer in his own right. (He was good friends with Buddy Rich.) Mel loved to swing, and never is it more evident than in this effervescent collection.

Torme was a songwriter too (you know, "chesnuts roasting on an open fire"?), so the man appreciated clever wordplay. He kicks off this set with his own composition, "Swingin' on the Moon". All I can say is, dig these lyrics!

Are you tired of summer nights in Maine?
Do you yawn when they speak of sunny Spain?
Could you live without seeing old Rangoon?
Then come with me, and let's go swingin' on the moon

Have you had enough of London fog?
New York snow and California smog?
Would you say arrivederci to Rome in June?
Then fly with me and let's go swingin' on the moon

Let's have a honeymoon on the moon, honey
Far from the bustle of the crowd
And if your mother asks "why the moon, honey?"
Just tell her your feller has gone interstellar

Grab your hat and we'll head up in the blue
In a little rocket built for two
Baby we're goin' to blast off and before we're through
We'll leave the cares that we know
On terra firma below
While we go singin' and swingin' on the moon

Let's have a honeymoon on the moon, honey
Far from that noisy Earth below
And if your folks ask about our house, honey
Tell mater and pater we live in a crater

We're really going to enjoy a life of ease
Livin' on moonlight cocktails and green cheese
Mr. and Mrs. Space Commuter, if you please
And in a few years we might
produce our own satellite
while we go singin' and swingin' on the moon

As the song closes, Torme fades out by singing out every song title on the album to follow. Ah, the virtuosity! Then it's on to another song redolent of Mad Men and the spirit of that specific period of time. It's called "Moonlight Cocktail", and it's a dandy. Sit back and enjoy these lyrics. It's love 1960-style, baby! Roll out that cocktail wagon!

Couple of jiggers of moonlight
add a star
Pour in the blue of a June night
and one guitar
Mix in a couple of dreamers
And there you are
Lovers hail the moonlight cocktail

Now add a couple of flowers
A drop of dew
Stir for a couple of hours
Till dreams come true
As for the number the number of kisses
It's up to you
Moonlight cocktails

Cool it in the summer breeze
Serve it in the starlight underneath the trees
You'll discover tricks like these
Are sure to make your moonlight cocktail please

Follow the simple directions
And they will bring
Life of another complexion
where you'll be king
You'll awake in the morning
and start to sing
"Moonlight cocktails are the thing!"

The liner notes to this collection by Benny Green are precious. He rhapsodizes about the moon, citing sources as varied as Shelley, Byron, and Debussy. "The day that first rocket lands (on the moon)," writes Green, "these songs will become sociological curiosities. But I believe Torme's great skill in interpreting them will always commend them!"

Why, of course! But I can't agree on the songs. Much more than curiosities--as Will Friedwald recounts in Sinatra! The Song Is You, these songs have a rich pedigree. In his account of Sinatra's penultimate recording session with Nelson Riddle, 1965's Moonlight Sinatra, the author points out that many of the moon songs originated in Bing Crosby's catalog. ("Moonlight Becomes You", "I Wished on the Moon", "The Moon Got in My Eyes", and "The Moon Was Yellow")

On this 10-song set, Frank overlaps Mel four times. His additions to the theme are masterful: the album opens with his voice soaring as he renders the opening lines to "Moonlight Becomes You":

You're all dressed up to go dreaming
Now don't tell me I'm wrong
And what a night to go dreaming
Mind if I tag along?

Yep, you as a listener are gripped immediately as you tag along and nestle in the sumptuous Riddle arrangements and Frank's rich and warm baritone. I have sung along to the songs on this collection for years. It's a proverbial overlooked gem in the Sinatra oeuvre. A highlight includes lovely lyrics to Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade". Such beauty!

It's depressing to read in Friedwald's account how the relationship between Riddle and Sinatra degenerated after this project. Nelson still had around twenty years left in his career after Moonlight Sinatra but, after following it with Strangers in the Night the next year, he was done with his most famous collaborator. Although he and Frank worked again intermittently, they never released another complete project.

You can sense Friedwald's disappointment. I share the sentiment. Don't miss this account in his fine book, an indispensable reference book for any Sinatra lover.

If you'd like to luxuriate in some of the finest pop and jazz singing from the last half century, you are hereby encouraged to purchase these two outstanding collections. I promise that you'll be as moonstruck as yours truly!

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