Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bad Lyric to Great Music: GREAT ESCAPE MARCH

A Christmas tradition in the U.K. is the annual televised screening of "The Great Escape." Just why this is, nobody quite knows. Scotland's American citizen and late night talk show star Craig Ferguson believes it's nostalgia over World War II, "when Great Britain showed its greatness."

Elmer Bernstein's plucky little theme song for "The Great Escape" turns up again and again in the film, no doubt inspired by the "Colonel Bogey March" in "Bridge Over the River Kwai."

Did you know it had lyrics? Really, really lame ones? John Leyton knows. The Ellen Degeneris look-alike sang 'em on a 45 rpm that has rarely been dug up since it escaped from EMI over 40 years ago.

Rather than portray a war, lyricist Al Stillman's words are about a piece. Mabel is her name. Let your download serve as a terrible surprise as to Johnny's interest in her.

When I first heard the tune, not noticing the credit on the label, I expected to blame some no-name numbskull for the hack job. Instead, I'll just say it was an off-day for the usually reliable Al Stillman. Lyricists on deadline can often fail. Think of Johnny Mercer's rotten lyrics to "Moon River," which calls some reeking fish-loaded stream a "huckleberry friend." Mercer didn't do much better with "Charade," and nobody remembers what came after "The days of wine and roses..." Still, those Henry Mancini tunes could lull most anyone to sleep before anyone had a chance to really listen to those lyrics. Not so here.

Stillman's inspiration may have been the inane lyrics soldiers often used to sing along to a "cadence count," in this case, marching along while thinking of the girl (or girls) left behind. Perhaps it was slightly preferable to the horror that could've been...having the movie's stars, Garner, McQueen, even Leyton himself, whistling while they worked, and singing, "Tunnel, we've built a tunnel! Did it with fork and spoon and funnel..."

Al Silverman (1906 - 1979) was a New York City kid who wanted to change his luck and so he changed his name to the same as a successful family of bankers. As Al Stillman he was soon banking checks for his lyrics, supplying them to Percy Faith, Arthur Schwartz, George Gershwin and Ernesto "The Breeze and I" Lecuona.

His regular writing partner was Robert Allen. You don't know the team of Stillman-Allen, but you've heard the hits: "Chances Are" and "It's Not For Me To Say" for Johnny Mathis, and "(no place like) Home For the Holidays" for Perry Como. Stillman had a regular gig writing special material for Radio City Music Hall shows, including an endless bunch of skating productions such as "It Happens on Ice,""Stars on Ice" and the beloved "Icetime of 1948."

Restless Stillman knocked out lyrics for some 40 years, in some cases being one of many trying to polish a tune into a hit. "I Believe," the classic from Frankie Laine, has four names associated with it, so it's hard to tell if Al wrote the lyric's first draft or came in to fix it up.

Astute collectors of vinyl have squinted at the A. Stillman credit on all kinds of tunes, including:
The Alley Cat Song, Andalucia, Anything Can Happen, The Apple of My Eye, The Barking Dog, Battle of the Little Big Horn, Before We Say Goodbye, Big Bad Wolf, Big Broad Smile, Brazilian Nuts, A Breath of a Scandal, Bye Bye Be Seein' You All, Bzzzz, Callaway Went That Away, Can You Find It In Your Yeart, Can You Stop the Rain, Candy Bar Boogie, Cat's Serenade, Christmas Sweet Christmas, Ciribiribin, Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakaka, Coming From You, Cornish Rhapsody, Dance My Trouble Away, Dancing to the Rock Rolla, A Day in My Life, The Devil's Brigade, Don't Burn Your Bridges, Don't Make Me Laugh, Dreams Never Grow Old, Every Time I Dream, Eyes of God, For No Good Reason At All, Forty Eight States, The Girl I Left Behind Me, Goodbye Jonah, Goona Goona, Got any Gum Chum, Habanera, Happiness Comes Happiness Goes, Happy Christmas Tree....

Ho Ho Kus New Jersey, How D'ya Do Do Do, Humming Waters, I Don't Regret a Thing, I Feel Much Better Now, I Love My Argentine, I Must be Going to the Dogs, I Saw Mommy Do the Mambo With You Know Who, I Want a Boy with a Hi Fi System, I'll Never Be Alone, I'm a Rhymer, I'm Up a Tree, If You Should Leave Me, In God We Trust, In Spain They Say Si SI, In the Middle of a Dream, In the Middle of May, Jack the Bellboy, Jelly Fish, Jingle all the Way, Juke Box Saturday Night, The Key to Your Heart, Kiss for Christmas, The Kissing Dance, Let My Conscience Be Your Guide, Let's Rub Noses, Little Jack Frost, Little King of Toyland, Ma I Don't Want a Sweater, The Man With No Name, Marguerita, Marilu, Meet Me in the Moonlight, The Moon Was Dreaming, Moscow Nights, My Bridal Gown, My Heart is Dancing, My Heart's a Violin, Never Tease Tigers, No Words of Mine, Now and Forever, Oh Say You Can Swing, Orchid Moon, Overworked and Underpaid....

The Pirate Parrot, Plenty More Fish in the Sea, Preach Brother Preach, Puschart Pete, Rosie the Redskin, Santa from Santa Fe, Sawing a Woman in Half, Shabby Old Cabby, She Had a Crush on an Usher, Smiley the Lion, Son of a Gondolier, Spic and Spanish, Take Me Dreaming, Thanks for the Kind Words, There Ought to be a Law To Make You Mine, There's Only One Of You, Three D Sweetie, Toward the End of the Day, Turn Off the Moon, Twenty One Guns for Susie, Viva Roosevelt, We're Gonna be Photographed, Weach for the Wafter Santa, What Happened Baby, What's On the Penny, Where is My Wandering Boy, Whistlin' Otto, Worst Darn Winter in Years, You Know What To Do, You Never Know Til Monday, You're the One Who Knows
And that's hardly all. Just thinking up titles like those was quite a feat, huh? Typing them up was, too, but no Paypal donations, please. This blog is for sharing, not profit, and it's the artists who really did all the work. Writing all those song lyrics may not have been a feat equal to tunneling out of a stalag, but think of all the times Al Stillman reached for a rhyme and had to dig himself out of a hole.

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