Thursday, 18 October 2012

When Irving met Mildred

[Unfortunately the YouTube clip I describe from the film On the Avenue is no longer available.] No, that's not Irving and Mildred in the clip; it's Dick Powell pitching ardent woo and singing You're Laughing at Me to a certain "Miss Hasenfeffer" in the 1937 movie On the Avenue. The Irving of my title is the songwriter, last name Berlin.

You're Laughing at Me is one of Irving Berlin's most ingenious creations. Despite its interesting features -- maybe because of them -- it's not among his most memorable or beloved songs, certainly less well-remembered than four other Berlin songs from the same movie: He Ain't Got Rhythm, This Year's Kisses, I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, and Slumming on Park Avenue.

The verse is simple, conventional, leading to the highly unusual opening phrase of the chorus ("You're laughing at me"). It begins on the sixth note of the scale, dips a half-tone, then rises four tones to three repeated notes, a forlorn little phrase leaving the first-time listener momentarily adrift, not knowing where it's headed next -- a fleeting moment of uncertainty suggesting the state of mind of a wooer unsure of where he stands vis-à-vis the wooee. The tonality is quickly clarified with the long phrase, "I can't be sentimental for you're laughing at me, I know," ending in a pleading, chromatic descent. Then a surprise: with the words "I want to be romantic, but I haven't a chance," the key-change sounds exactly like the bridge in a conventional A-A-B-A song, except that the B section has arrived eight measures too soon! Four bars later, another unexpected modulation ("You've got a sense of humor...") leading us back to a repeat of "You're laughing at me..." We've been fooled; turns out it's one of those "half-and-half" songs -- call it A1-A2 in form. Berlin's musical sleight of hand isn't cleverness for its own sake. The sudden shifts in tonality in bars 9 through 16 mirror Mr. Powell's inability to sustain a romantic mood in the face of heartless Hasenfeffer laughter. It's a brilliant example of form reinforcing meaning, as deft as it gets in melding words and music.

How this musically unschooled songwriter did such subtle things is one of life's great mysteries. On his compositional methods Berlin shed remarkably little light, hiding his creative struggles behind a matter-of-fact facade:

I get an idea, either a title or a phrase or a melody, and hum it out to something definite. When I have completed a song and memorized it, I dictate it to an arranger..... It's not a matter of inspiration with me at all. Generally I decide in a very prosaic way that I'm going to write something, and then I sit down and do it..... Writing both words and music, I can compose them together and make them fit.

Of You're Laughing at Me he'd probably say, "It just sounded right that way."

In his Victor recording of You're Laughing at Me, Fats Waller sings it with a light touch but surprisingly straight, in the original tempo, taking few liberties apart from some verbal asides (and, near the end, getting the lyrics wrong).

I can't imagine Mildred Bailey singing it at this tempo; apparently neither could she. Although she was capable of expressing great vulnerability in ballads (Mildred could sing any kind of pop song, superbly) she reinvents You're Laughing at Me as a medium-tempo swinger, stripped of all self-pity. Of course when it's 1937 and you're in a recording studio with Roy Eldridge on trumpet, Scoops Carry and Herbie Haymer on alto and tenor saxes, Teddy Cole, piano, and a rhythm section of John Collins, guitar, Truck Parham, bass, and Zutty Singleton, drums, swinging will be high on your agenda.

I don't know what Irving Berlin thought of Mildred's version, or if he ever heard it, but I doubt he'd be crazy about it. Most egregiously, from the songwriter's viewpoint, she changes the tempo. For Berlin, tempo and rhythm were of primary importance. What's more, she recomposes the first eight bars of his chorus, as well as the ending. Mildred's new melody line is streamlined, its predominant feature the descending chromatic phrase, which makes perfect dramatic sense in its own way. (It's also possible that, as written, the melody was too range-y for her.) Dispensing with the verse, the record is solid from the start, with Roy's muted trumpet leading the way. I like the feisty quality imparted to the song at this tempo, propelled by Mildred's marvelous feeling for time and the tasty figures played by the accompanying horns. One gets the feeling that the next time Mildred pitches woo and gets laughed at, she'll find herself a different catcher.

P.S. I recently learned, by accident and to my surprise, that Mildred's Says My Heart, recorded with the Norvo band and a particular favorite, was one of her biggest commercial successes, staying atop the pop charts for four weeks in 1938. I'm not sure why this should make me feel good 74 years after the fact -- a ton of junk records also were #1 -- but it does.


  1. It is SUCH a lovely song -- with Berlin's magical way of melding the commonplace phrase with the nearly-poetic in a manner that doesn't call attention to his cleverness (as opposed to the brilliance of Mercer, who sometimes wants the song to stop so we can applaud his wit) and that melody. It occurs to me that the Dick Powell -- and Whatshername -- tryst in the park is someone's version of Fred and Ginger, although Powell couldn't dance and had a far more powerful voice. There's a late version of this by Ruby and Ellis (reunited for the last time on record) for Arbors . . . I am going to play it now and see if it stands up. Mildred, though, is queen: sweet, serious but not too serious, wry. I think that she knew something about not being taken seriously in love. Perhaps? A wonderful posting: I had never seen this clip.

    1. Dear Has: Thank you for your comment. I'd love to hear what Ruby and Ellis do with this tune. On Mildred's record, Scoops Carry doesn't seem too comfortable with it as a vehicle for improvisation. I think the song isn't one of Berlin's most beloved because it's too difficult for the public to sing, or to whistle. You're right, it is a Fred & Ginger scene without Fred & Ginger. ("Whatsername" is, I think, Madeleine Carroll.) Berlin once said, "I'd rather have Fred Astaire introduce one of my songs than any other singer I know -- not because he has a great voice, but because his delivery and diction are so good that he can put over a song like nobody else." Berlin's favorite female singer of his songs: Connie Boswell. I'd appreciate your educated guess on this question: Who do you think made the nifty head arrangement for Mildred's "You're Laughing at Me"? Roy Eldridge? Herbie Haymer or someone else from the Norvo band? Dan Barrett? It sounds like Dan's handiwork, but somehow I don't think he was present at that session. I'm enclosing a self-addressed stamped envelope and hoping for your reply by return post. SABK

  2. Dear Kid, I would guess Roy -- if you hum the opening phrase of the YLAM record, it is a standard bluesy phrase that he might have played -- part of the common language of 1937. (Compare the issued Vocalions by his small band and the airshots once on lp.) But who knows what inspiration strikes at a record session? God bless Connee Boswell is all I can say. And those movies were so delicious precisely because they convinced us, for a few minutes, that everything was possible. You, too, could be formally dressed in a public park, have a powerfully beautiful voice, and have Madeline Carroll go from skepticism to nestling in the course of three minutes. How beautiful the fiction is! We wish we could be those people and be so happy (without the dry-cleaning bills). Thanks for the wondrous time-travel!