Transcript 110–Blue Moon

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and I’m hunkered down in a different space this week, so apologies if I sound a little weird.

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Here’s some video trivia for ye today:

What do the videos, or if you prefer, promotional films, have in common? They are:

Foolish Heart by Steve Perry

Don’t Give Up by Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel

Stay by Lisa Loeb

Wannabe by The Spice Girls

And When I Think of You by Janet Jackson.

What do the videos for those five songs have in common? Want one more? OK. Let’s go with Subterranean Homesick Blues by Bob Dylan.

I’ll have that answer to that question near the end of the show.

So I know I said that I was going to talk about Peter Frampton this week, but I’ve scrapped that one for a little while, for a couple of different reasons. Instead we’re going to look at the song “Blue Moon,” which most fans of the oldies will remember as a big hit by The Marcels in 1961, and in that respect you’d be right. But if that’s all there was to it, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you about it, now would I?

“Blue Moon” goes all the way back to 1934, and a movie called Hollywood Party. Now, I’m going to talk about Hollywood Party in a little bit, but first I want to talk about “Blue Moon’s” composers, because maybe you’ve heard of them.

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart met in 1919 when they were both attending Columbia University and were asked to work on an amateur club show. From that collaboration it was only a couple of years to their first successful Broadway musical in 1925, a show called The Garrick Gaieties, which is mostly known nowadays as the source of the song “We’ll Take Manhattan.”

[WE’LL TAKE MANHATTAN]

Now, if you’re originally from the New York Metro Area, and a little bit older, you may notice that the melody of the song’s title sounds like a certain radio station’s jingles, and you’d be correct. And before I get further sidetracked, I’m going to leave it at that.

So it wasn’t long after that, that Rodgers and Hart moved to Los Angeles and started working on films. In 1933 they got a contract with MGM and began writing music for them, and that’s where we get to Hollywood Party.

Hollywood Party was one of those MGM films that was little more than a series of short scenes, all written and directed by different people, and loosely connected by a framing device of some kind. In this case it was Jimmy Durante playing a Tarzan-like characer, in search of new lions for his movie, because the ones he has are “worn out.” The plot is ridiculously thin, as so many of those films were, but what these movies did have was a lot of star power behind them, so they were usually pretty successful. Unfortunately, that wasn’t so much the case for Hollywood Party, which was both a box office and a critical failure.

Now, if you’re a film aficionado, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute…that song wasn’t in Hollywood Party,” and you’d be correct, because ultimately the scene was cut from the finished script—that is to say, it wasn’t even recorded or filmed.

The song written for that film also had a different set of lyrics. See, the scene that was to feature the song had Jean Harlow in it as an innocent young girl saying her prayers. Or, I guess it would be more accurate to say she was singing her prayers. So at that point, the first verse went,

‘Oh Lord, if you’re not busy up there,

I ask for help with a prayer

So please don’t give me the air …’

It’s actually a pretty cute song, and you can find a couple of YouTube videos of people singing the full lyric. Anyway, because it went unrecorded, MGM marked it as “MGM Song 225” and then, in parentheses, “Oh lord, make me a movie star”, essentially copyrighting it as an unpublished work in 1933.

So in 1934, Lorenz Hart wrote a new set of lyrics in order to create a title song for the film Manhattan Melodrama. This time, the first verse went,

Act One:

You gulp your coffee and run;

Into the subway you crowd.

Don’t breathe, it isn’t allowed.

And AGAIN, the song was cut from the movie, and registered as an unpublished work. But then the studio asked for a nightclub number for the film, so Hart wrote a THIRD set of lyrics. Now the song was called “The Bad In Every Man.” And the good news here is that the song actually made it into the film, sung by Shirley Ross:
[THE BAD IN EVERY MAN]

Despite being produced quickly and cheaply, Manhattan Melodrama was a huge hit for MGM and is notable for being the first pairing of Myrna Loy and William Powell, and one of Mickey Rooney’s first roles, playing a child version of Clark Gable’s character.

In the wake of the film’s success, the head of MGM’s music publishing company, Jack Robbins, decided that the song was worth releasing commercially but thought that it needed a different title…and different lyrics. Specifically he thought it needed to be a more romantic song. Lorenz Hart was, to be sure, reluctant to come up with a fourth set of lyrics for the song, especially inasmuch as he and Rodgers had moved to Paramount by then, but eventually he was talked into it when Robbins promised to promote it nationwide. Robbins, in turn, kept that promise by leasing the song to a national radio program called Hollywood Hotel, which was the inspiration for another film with the same name, a few years down the road. It doesn’t appear as though a lot of those shows were recorded, but here’s one from 1937:

[HOLLYWOOD HOTEL]

And now that I think about it, while that fanfare is pretty standard now, it does have an echo of “Blue Moon” in it. Am I crazy?

[FANFARE]

Eh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m overthinking this one. But: it brings me around to the melody side of this song, and a specific detail about it. Because “Blue Moon” may be the first instance of what musicians nowadays call the “50’s progression” in a pop song.

Now, this is one of those areas where I’m getting just a little out of my depth, but the 50s Progression is a specific chord pattern that became more popular in the 1950s, as the name implies. It’s also known as the “Heart and Soul” chords, the “Stand by Me” changes, and in some cases the “ice cream changes.” There are some variants in this progression, but if you listen you can hear the pattern in lots of pop songs, and not just from the 50s. But let me provide you with the basic sample here, which comes from a YouTube channel run by a fellow named Bill Tyers, who was kind enough to give his permission for me to use it here. Here’s the basic 50s Progression:

[DOO WOP PROGRESSION]

Got that? Now, I’m not going to play a hundred other clips, but listen for it next time you hear “Bohemian Rhapsody,” or “Duke of Earl,” or more recently, Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” And let me repeat that “Blue Moon” isn’t THE first use of this chord sequence—in fact, it goes back at least to the 1600s—but it’s certainly one of the first in a popular music song.

OK, so based on the use of the song in the Hollywood Hotel show and the release of the sheet music, “Blue Moon” charted in the Top Ten for 18 weeks according to Variety magazine, making it to Number One during the week of January 26, 1935. But that wasn’t the song’s only visit to the charts, no sir-ree.

[ECKSTINE]

Swing jazz singer Billy Eckstine recorded and released his version in 1949, which peaked at Number 21 on the Billboard Juke Box chart that year.

[TORME]

Just a month later, Mel Tormé’s version of the song made it to Number 20 on the Billboard Best Seller charts as part of its five-week trip there.

[ELVIS]

But “Blue Moon’s” first crossover to rock and roll came through the King himself, Elvis Presley, who recorded it for his debut album…

This single only peaked at Number 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but it spent a total of 17 weeks on that chart.

Now, before I talk about what’s perhaps the best-known version of this song, I’m going to jump ahead to 1988, and this version by the Cowboy Junkies, called “Blue Moon Revisited”, subtitled “Song for Elvis”, which is a hybrid of the old song with a new one. This recording didn’t make it onto the original vinyl release of the Trinity Sessions album, but it was on the worldwide release in all formats a year later. This one didn’t chart because it wasn’t released as a single, but it’s one of my favorite versions, and it’s got that Elvis connection, so…I don’t know. Live with it, I guess.

So now, lets jump back again to 1961.

[MARCELS]

The Marcels were your basic vocal harmony group that was known for doing rock and roll versions—specifically doo-wop versions—of popular songs. They’d gotten a contract with Colpix records and were nearly done cutting their first album, when two things happened. The first was that producer Stu Phillips was told by his boss to quit wasting time on the Marcels and to spend his days working with other artists. Phillips complied, but he also reasoned that, if he couldn’t spend his days working with The Marcels, nothing said he couldn’t work with them at night. So when everyone went home, he sneaked the group in for a secret recording session. And here’s where the second thing came in.

They laid down three songs and they needed a fourth to finish the album. Phillips asked them if they knew any other songs, but he didn’t really like anything they suggested. The only thing he liked was another song that had the same chord changes as both “Heart and Soul” and “Blue Moon.” Phillips asked them if they knew either song, and one of them said he knew “Blue Moon.” So Phillips gave the group an hour to learn the song, and then they’d record it. And so they did, although there’s a goof in the lyrics in the bridge, but who cares.

And that leaves us with one last detail: this is the only version that has that heavy doo-wop break throughout. Where on earth did that come from?

I’m so glad you asked. Have a listen to this:

[ZOOM]

This is a song called “Zoom,” by The Cadillacs. Nowadays that group is mostly known for the song “Speedoo”, but “Zoom” was part of their act around that same time, in 1956, and The Marcels had it in their live act. So while it’s possible that this was where it came from, and some people think that’s the case, you need to listen to this, now:

[ZOOM ZOOM ZOOM]

This is a group called The Collegians, and a song called “Zoom Zoom Zoom”, and believe it or not there’s an interview with the group published in 1973, when The Marcels were attempting a comeback, wherein they say that this was the inspiration for the doo-wop breaks. And while it’s a more obscure record, it’s pretty clear to me at least, that this is the more likely of the two. So my thought is that people just confused the two similar titles and went with the group that had a bigger musical footprint.

Now, while “Zoom Zoom Zoom” didn’t really fit in with the theme of the rest of the album, it’s pretty clear that the chord changes are similar enough to those of “Blue Moon” that the two songs could easily be melded together, and at Stu Phillips’ suggestion, that’s exactly what The Marcels did, getting it done in two takes. A promotions man got a copy of the finished tape, and he leaked it to famous disc jockey Murray the K over at WINS, who called it an “exclusive” and played it more than two dozen times on his show.

This version of “Blue Moon” is the only one that went all the way to the Number One position, on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, not to mention the R&B chart, and it was also Number One in the UK as well, so it way outperformed any other version, chart-wise. However, I do have one final note about this recording, and it goes back to Richard Rodgers. He hated this version. Lorenz Hart was dead by this time, so there’s no opinion there, but Rodgers? He disliked it so much that he took out ads in the music papers urging people not to buy it.

And I have one last odd little bit of information about this song. In 2018 the New York Times printed an article about a woman names Liz Roman Gallese, who says that she has evidence that her father, Edward Roman, is the real composer of “Blue Moon.” She lays it all out on her website, and the story is a little convoluted but compelling enough to make you think. Whether she’s got a solid case, I’ll leave it up to you. I’ll link the New York Times story, and Ms. Gallese’s webpage, over at how good it is dot com.

And now, it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what the videos for a bunch of different songs had in common. The songs were:
Foolish Heart by Steve Perry

Don’t Give Up by Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel

Stay by Lisa Loeb

Wannabe by The Spice Girls

And When I Think of You by Janet Jackson. Plus, Subterranean Homesick Blues by Bob Dylan.

This one’s kind of fun, and not necessarily something you’d notice on the first viewing. But all of these videos were filmed in one continuous shot, or at least manufactured to look like one continuous shot. A couple of them do have cleverly disguised edits in them, but the overall effect is that the video appears to be a single shot. This isn’t an exclusive list by any means, so feel free to find some of your own.

And, that’s a full lid on another edition of How Good It Is. If you’re enjoying the show, please take the time to share it with someone, and maybe even leave a rating somewhere.

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Thanks, as usual, to Podcast Republic for featuring the show, and thanks again to Bill Tyres for the audio clip. You can find his stuff over at www.guitardownunder.com.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.