Hello there! This is another entry in our continuing series, Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies. This week’s entry is Blue Moon. This was initially a popular tune from the 30s, composed by Richard Rodgers with lyrics by Lorenz Hart.
The song had a fascinating history, which we will review. We will then show a clip from the movie Manhattan Melodrama where Shirley Ross performs a song with the tune of Blue Moon, but different lyrics.
We will then review a cover of Blue Moon popularized by the doo-wop group The Marcels; and finally, we will discuss a “retro” version of the song performed by Rod Stewart.
Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and The History of Blue Moon:
The “Great American Songbook” actually refers to a number of different books that contain lists of important pop and jazz songs from the 20th century.
Regardless of who publishes such lists, Richard Rodgers will be prominently featured in every songbook, and generally with two different lyricists. His first long collaboration was with Lorenz Hart, and his second was with Oscar Hammerstein.
The photo below shows lyricist Lorenz Hart (L) and composer Richard Rodgers.Embed from Getty Images
Richard Rodgers was born in 1902 and began composing while an undergraduate at Columbia. He joined forces with fellow Columbia undergrad Lorenz Hart, and the two of them began writing songs for musical revues (what we now know as the “Broadway musical” was, to a considerable degree, defined by Rodgers himself over the years).
The first couple of Rodgers-Hart attempts were sufficiently unsuccessful that Rodgers seriously considered retiring as a composer, and making a living selling children’s underwear. However, Rodgers and Hart hit it big with a 1925 Theater Guild benefit show called The Garrick Gaieties, and after that first success they never looked back.
In 1933, Rodgers and Hart were signed to a film contract by MGM Studios. Their first assignment was to write a series of songs for an MGM musical spectacular to be called Hollywood Party. That movie was never produced, so a Rodgers & Hart song titled “Prayer (Oh Lord, make me a movie star)” and intended for Jean Harlow was registered for copyright as MGM Song#225, an unpublished work.
Here are the lyrics to Song #225. To the best of my knowledge, the song was never recorded, but the tune is that of Blue Moon.
If you ain’t busy up there
I ask your help with a prayer
So please don’t give me the air.
Oh, hear me, Lord,
I wanta see Garbo in person
With Gable when they’re rehearsin’
While some director is cursin’.
I wanta open up my eyes at seven
And find I’m standin’ in the Golden Gate
And walkin’ right into my movie heaven
While some executive tells me I’ll be great.
Rodgers and Hart were then assigned to work on a film called Manhattan Melodrama. Since Rodgers was extremely fond of the tune to Song#225, Hart re-wrote the lyrics for a song called “It’s Just That Kind of Play.” That song was cut from the picture, but here are the lyrics (again to the tune of Blue Moon).
You gulp your coffee and run;
Into the subway you crowd.
Don’t breathe-it isn’t allowed.
The boss is yelling at you;
You feel so frightened and cowed.
Don’t breathe-it isn’t allowed.
The rows of skyscrapers are like a canyon,
The sun is hidden ‘neath a stony shroud,
Eight million people and not one companion:
Don’t speak to anyone-it’s not allowed.
However, MGM included a nightclub scene in Manhattan Melodrama, so Hart re-worked the lyrics for yet a third time to produce a song called The Bad In Every Man. In the movie that tune is sung by Shirley Ross. We will feature that song and its lyrics in the next section of this post.
Following that movie, Lorenz Hart was pressured to re-write the lyrics one final time.
After the film [Manhattan Melodrama] was released by MGM, Jack Robbins—the head of the studio’s publishing company —decided that the tune was suited to commercial release but needed more romantic lyrics and a punchier title.
Not surprisingly, Lorenz Hart was reluctant – after all, he had already written three different lyrics to the same song! However, Robbins promised to provide a publicity blitz if Rodgers and Hart came up with the right set of lyrics.
With his arm twisted, Hart came up with the final version, for a song titled Blue Moon.
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own.
You knew just what I was there for
You heard me saying a prayer for
Someone I really could care for.
And then there suddenly appeared before me
The only one my arms will ever hold
I heard somebody whisper please adore me
And when I looked the moon had turned to gold.
It is quite amazing that Blue Moon, one of the greatest popular songs of the 20th century, became a beloved classic only on the fourth attempt!
Let’s face it, the lyrics to the first two versions stink. Once we get to The Bad In Every Man, the lyrics to are strictly OK – but in Blue Moon they are truly inspired and timeless.
Jack Robbins made good on his promise. He licensed Blue Moon to a radio show, Hollywood Hotel, and they used it as their theme song. And the song Blue Moon subsequently appeared in at least seven MGM movies.
In 1949, two different versions of Blue Moon made the pop charts. The first version was by Billy Eckstine and the second by Mel Torme. Elvis recorded Blue Moon in 1956, and Frank Sinatra recorded a classic cover in 1961 with backing from the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. However, in this post we will discuss covers by The Marcels and by Rod Stewart.
The Movie Manhattan Melodrama:
Manhattan Melodrama was a 1934 movie that was produced by MGM Studios, directed by W.S. Van Dyke, and starred Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy.
The story centers around two boys named Blackie Gallagher (Gable) and Jim Wade (Powell) – the young boys are portrayed by child actors, one of whom is Mickey Rooney. At the beginning of the film, the boys are orphaned when a ship sinks in the East River and their parents drown.
The boys are saved by a priest, Father Joe, and they are raised by a man whose son drowned in the same ship disaster. Jim is a top student, earns a law degree and is eventually elected DA. Blackie chooses a very different path, and becomes the owner of a prosperous illegal casino.
Blackie’s girlfriend Eleanor (Loy) pleads with him in vain to give up his dangerous and illegal lifestyle. She eventually leaves him after he refuses to reform.
Here is a film clip from Manhattan Melodrama. It begins with a brief scene where Jim and Eleanor are chatting in a taxi, on their way to a Harlem nightclub. At this time, Eleanor is still Blackie’s girl. Jim and Eleanor continue to talk at the nightclub, while the singer (Shirley Ross, made up to look as though she is African-American) sings The Bad In Every Man.
In this song, Ms. Ross bemoans the fact that she is constantly falling for men, only to discover that each lover has defects that prove fatal to a permanent relationship.
Oh, Lord, what is the matter with me
I’m just permitted to see
The bad in every man.
Oh, hear me, Lord, I could be good to a lover
But then I always discover
The bad in every man.
They like to tell you that they love you only
And you believe it, so you’ll know you’re wrong
A little hall room can be awfully lonely
And the night can be so very long.
As you can see, this is the distinctive melody of Blue Moon, but the lyrics are completely different.
Some time later, Eleanor and Jim begin a relationship and get married. In the meantime, Blackie has killed a gambler, Manny Arnold, who owes him money. Although Jim suspects Blackie for the crime, it goes unsolved.
Later, Jim runs for governor. However, Snow, one of Jim’s former assistants threatens to claim (falsely) that Jim had covered up Blackie’s murder of Arnold. Upon encountering Blackie, Eleanor reveals that Jim is being blackmailed. Blackie then kills Snow in an attempt to assist Eleanor and Jim.
However, a witness identifies Blackie. Jim has no recourse but to try Blackie for the murder. Blackie is convicted and sentenced to death. Eleanor pleads with Jim to commute Blackie’s sentence, but he refuses, so she leaves Jim.
Jim finally decides that he will get Blackie’s sentence commuted. He rushes to Sing Sing prison where Blackie is scheduled for execution. There Jim meets Blackie and the prison chaplain, who by amazing coincidence is Father Joe. Jim offers to commute Blackie’s sentence, but Blackie refuses and Father Joe escorts him to the electric chair.
Jim then calls a special session of the state legislature, where he admits that Blackie’s murder of Snow helped him get elected governor. He also reveals he tried to commute Blackie’s sentence, and he resigns as governor. When Jim leaves the session, Eleanor is waiting for him and the couple re-unite.
Manhattan Melodrama had a fascinating history. First off, it was not expected to be a hit – it was written and filmed quickly and cheaply. After the film became a surprise blockbuster, William Powell and Myrna Loy were teamed up in 14 subsequent films.
The best-known of the Powell-Loy movies was the wildly successful “Nick and Nora” series. Nick and Nora Charles were fictional characters created by author Dashiell Hammett for his 1934 novel The Thin Man.
Powell and Loy played Nick and Nora, a married couple who solve crimes in their spare time while exchanging witty banter and constantly mixing and drinking alcohol. Some of their snappy repartee is also featured in Manhattan Melodrama.
Most-wanted criminal John Dillinger was watching Manhattan Melodrama at Chicago’s Biograph Theater when federal agents were tipped off that he was at the movie. When Dillinger left the theater he was gunned down by FBI agents. MGM used the notoriety of Dillinger and his death to hype their film, much to the dismay of some of the cast.
The Marcels and Blue Moon:
“Bomp ba ba bomp ba bomp ba bomp bomp, bomp ba ba bomp ba bomp ba bomp bomp, ve-dang a-dang dang, va-ding a-dong ding Blue Moon.” For anyone who has heard Fred Johnson’s bass intro to the Marcels’ cover of the Rodgers & Hart song Blue Moon, the song will never again be the same.
The Marcels were a doo-wop quintet that formed in Pittsburgh, home of many of the early doo-wop groups. Their name was a reference to the “marcel wave,” a hair style popular at the time.
Here is a photo of The Marcels taken in 1961.Embed from Getty Images
In addition to Fred Johnson on bass, the group included lead singer Cornelius Harp, Gene Bricker, Ron Mundy and Richard Knauss. The group recorded Blue Moon in 1961 when they needed three songs to finish taping an album.
The “bomp ba ba bomp …” bass intro was taken from a song that The Marcels were already using in their act. Apparently their version of Blue Moon was recorded in two takes.
A tape of the recording was given to New York pop DJ “Murray the K” Kaufman. Murray played it repeatedly on his influential show on New York’s WINS radio.
The Marcels’ Blue Moon became a smash hit. It raced up to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and also claimed the top spot on the U.K. Singles chart. Here is the audio of Blue Moon by the Marcels.
What a great doo-wop song! Fred Johnson’s booming bass solo grabs you, and the song then segues to Cornelius Harp’s lovely lead vocals. The song has an infectious beat and impressive harmonies from the rest of the Marcels. In addition, it also features a standard doo-wop falsetto ending.
All in all, The Marcels’ Blue Moon became a rock ‘n roll classic. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame chose it as one of their 500 Songs That Shaped Rock ‘n Roll. I agree – and it claims a place as one of my top five “singing in the shower” songs.
One person who was NOT a fan of this cover of a popular classic was the composer, Richard Rodgers. Rodgers so disliked the Marcels’ doo-wop treatment of his melody that he took out advertisements in trade publications, urging people not to purchase the record!
Well, The Marcels were sort of “two-hit wonders.” They had one more top 40 hit, a song called Heartaches that eventually sold more than one million records.
As you can see from their photo above, The Marcels were a biracial group. Unfortunately, the group encountered significant hostility while touring in the Deep South because they had both black and white singers. At that time, the ensemble’s two white members Gene Bricker and Richard Knauss quit the group.
The Marcels then experienced a number of personnel changes. However, in 1999 all of the surviving members re-formed for the PBS Special Doo-Wop 50 (Gene Bricker had passed away in 1983).
So here are the Marcels in a live performance of Blue Moon at the 1999 concert Doo-Wop 50.
For a bunch of old performers, these guys can still bring it! Fred Johnson continues to belt out the iconic bass lines, while Cornelius Harp’s lead vocals are impressive.
The Marcels are clearly a big hit with the crowd, and it was nice to see that they were able to re-unite all of the surviving members. A perfect song to commemorate the 50th anniversary of doo-wop music!
Rod Stewart and Blue Moon:
We discussed Rod Stewart in an earlier blog post on Tim Hardin’s song Reason To Believe. So here we will briefly review Rod Stewart’s life and career.
Rod Stewart was born in 1945 in North London. His father was Scottish, and Rod’s first passion was for Scottish football (or “soccer” as we know it). Stewart was apparently fairly talented as a soccer player, and earned a tryout with a third-division English FC team. Rod did not make the soccer team.
Like so many British Invasion artists, he was inspired by British skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan. Stewart then switched his affiliation to rock ‘n roll, after hearing recordings by Little Richard. His trademark raspy, gravelly vocals owe much to the influence of Little Richard.
In the early 60s, Stewart began performing as a vocalist and harmonica player. However, significant fame eluded Rod until 1967, when he became the lead vocalist for the Jeff Beck Group. At this time he also began writing his own songs.
Stewart’s unique vocal style gained him quite a following in Britain’s blues and soul circuit. A 1968 appearance at the Fillmore East auditorium brought him critical acclaim in the U.S. as well.
At this point, Rod met up with bass player and guitarist Ron Wood. They began an long and fruitful collaboration, and Ronnie Wood was closely connected with Stewart’s rise to fame. Below is a photo of Rod Stewart and his mate Ron Wood (L) .Embed from Getty Images
Stewart subsequently left the Jeff Beck Group and became the lead vocalist with The Faces, along with Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones. At the same time, Stewart began to issue solo albums backed by his own group of musicians.
Stewart’s big breakthrough came in 1971, when he released a cut from his first solo album Every Picture Tells a Story. However, the “B” side of that record, Maggie May, became a surprise boffo hit, rising all the way to #1 on both the US and UK pop charts.
Through the 70s Rod continued to produce a string of hits, some through his solo efforts and others with the Faces. His unique rough vocal style was effective over a wide range of tunes — blues-based songs, R&B, folk-rock efforts and the occasional ballad.
I was a big fan in the early days, but I jumped off the Rod Stewart bandwagon in the late 70s when he began dressing in spandex and singing disco songs – Do Ya Think I’m Sexy and Hot Legs, ugh! More recently, Rod Stewart has reached back to favorites from his childhood, songs from the Great American Songbook.
Here is a video of Rod in a live performance of Blue Moon. This is from his One Night Only! Rod Stewart concert in Royal Albert Hall in October, 2004. In this concert Rod presented a retrospective, ranging from his first hit Maggie May up to his most recent songs.
Stewart’s performance of Blue Moon includes an introductory verse. In the 30s it was common to include such verses at the beginning of a song. As it happens, few people nowadays include this beginning verse to Blue Moon, which goes:
Once upon a time before I took up smiling
I hated the moonlight
Shadows of the night that poets find beguiling
Seemed flat as the noonlight
With no one to stay up for I went to sleep at ten
Life was a bitter cup for the saddest of all men
On this occasion, Rod is backed by a full orchestra. The audience was very appreciative of every song that he performed at this concert.
Rod Stewart’s distinctive vocals are not quite as raspy as in his youth. This is partly because of his new affinity for older pop tunes, and in part because Rod had to re-learn how to sing after operations for thyroid cancer in 2000.
Although I’m not into Rod Stewart’s “disco” phase, it’s hard to argue with the career choices of a man who has sold upwards of 100 million records. Rod Stewart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Rod has led a very colorful life. In addition to his well-publicized love of soccer and his affinity for model trains, Stewart was nearly always in the company of actresses or other beauties. An affair with Swedish actress Britt Eckland in the mid-70s was followed by marriage to George Hamilton’s ex-wife Alana Hamilton.
While still married to Alana, Rod commenced a several-year affair with American model Kelly Emberg. Then in 1990 Stewart married super-model Rachel Hunter. Ms. Hunter, who was 24 years younger than Stewart, dumped him in 1999. For the past 11 years Stewart has been married to English model Penny Lancaster. Rod has fathered eight children (that we know about), by five different mothers.
Although Sir Roderick is apparently one of the wealthiest British musicians, it is alleged that he never carries cash and does not tip at restaurants. Just why was he awarded that CBE, anyway?