by Alix Cohen
Author, raconteur, and media expert Jim Jimirro is Creator and Founding President of The Disney Channel and Walt Disney Home Video, but it’s his passion for music and lyrics, creators and performers with which he’s regaled audiences for twenty years. Active in a number of organizations centered on The American Songbook, Jimirro appears to have encyclopedic knowledge of his chosen territory. He not only knows the when, where, how and why of a song, but often adds anecdotal context, and then appreciatively deconstructs it. This afternoon, in his series at the 92 Street Y, we’re looking at several well known numbers.
Frank Sinatra was twice a star of television’s Your Hit Parade performing the country’s most popular songs. The first time around “pop music was quite good,” Jimirro tells us, but when old blue eyes returned in 1947 (offered a considerable amount of money and partnering with Doris Day), he was stuck with “Feudin’, Fussin’ and Fightin” and “The Woody Woodpecker Song.” Fortunately, there was also today’s selection, James F. Hanley’s “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart.”
We listen to Sinatra sing a jazzy arrangement by Johnny Mandel followed by band leader/ trumpeter Les Elgart’s version. The American Bandstand theme was written and performed by Elgart and his band. Jimirro points out musical allusions, rare contractions- twas, twill, and a wry, punctuating chime after “I can never carry a tune.” Happy brass rules the first, while the second is jitterbug. Our host snaps his fingers, gestures on the downbeat, and almost conducts.
“There are a lot of songs that say I’m not doing well right now, but I’ll get better. Many of these have to do with seasons- “Spring is Here,” “The Summer Wind” …” Jimirro’s example today is Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh’s “Come Summer” as performed by the very fine Randy Graff who said he was the best vocal coach she ever had. “This song will break your heart.” Our host points out deft lyrics …watch this April Cinderella/Toss away her grey umbrella…It’s a lush 11 o’clock arrangement rife with strings.
Next is “Bye Bye Baby” out of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Jule Styne/Leo Robin). The show made a star of Carol Channing before Hello Dolly. Styne, we’re told, was a classical piano prodigy before having a drill press accident. No longer able to play classical, he turned to other forms of music.
In the film that preceded the musical, Marilyn Monroe sang this number. Today, Jimirro has chosen-wait for it- a Jerry Lewis interpretation. After he broke up with Dean Martin, the comedian backed his own LP. Phrasing is, in fact, good, though an innate rasp makes Lewis sound like a 17 year old from a Mickey Rooney film. Rhymes of “care, declare and square”; “gloomy and to me” are noted. There’s a soft shoe parenthesis and an evocative dance break.
Lyricist Bert Kalmer aspired to be a vaudeville dancer before a knee injury. Composer Harry Ruby wanted to play professional baseball. “The two went into default position as songwriting collaborators.” “I Wanna Be Loved By You” is one of their memorable numbers. In the biopic, Three Little Words, the partners were played by Fred Astaire and Red Skelton.
“A Kiss to Build a Dream On“, written by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby and Oscar Hammerstein II in 1935, was recorded and popularized by Louis Armstrong in 1951. Jimirro tells us about Hammerstein’s 6 successive 1930s flops (An ad the lyricist took in Variety listed the shows and then “I did it before and I can do it again”) and the night Times Square was blacked out for his death.
Our host enthuses about Louis Armstrong and the recording we’re about to hear. “I’m gonna just say it- he invented swing…His personality masked his importance to music…” He suggests we’re especially attentive to the first 12 seconds of arranger Sy Oliver’s instrumental break. “If you feel swing in your heart, you say, that’s it!” It’s terrific, of course.
Along the way, there are historical notes, biographical tidbits, and even apt jokes. Jimirre’s infectious love of the art form buoys the room.
On hiatus over the summer, Jim Jimirro will be back at the 92 Y in October. Check your catalogs.
All quotes are Jim Jimirro.