Tonight You Belong to Me…a song history

My friend Alice Moore sent me this adorable video, which had reached 13 million views before I caught up with it. I think it’s racked up so many views because of this adorableness, (not to mention the precocious ear and enthusiasm of its star) but the underlying song, “Tonight you Belong to Me,” is lovely, and familiar. It sent me on one of my obsessive morning quests to find out the back story, detailed below.

Benjamin J. Ames and his 4 year old daughter are covering the version found in the movie “The Jerk,” as performed by Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters….down to the solo. It’s the sweetest moment in the movie. In fact, there are gazillions of covers since this movie that follow more or less this template: Usually a couple of indie/hipster stars with a ukulele: There is an Eddie Vedder/Cat Power uke version, a Zooey Deschanel + some dude version, a Josh Ritter + some gal version. They are all covering “The Jerk.” One pictures the song coming out of some bygone era. But….which era?

If we go back to the earliest recording of the song, Irving Kaufman, 1926, we might be shocked:

The original is QUITE different. The past they are evoking in “The Jerk” is, to my ears, a vastly preferable past to this reality. The song was written in 1926 by Billy Rose (lyrics) and Lee David (music). It was a hit several times over in 1927, and each version is a slow, drippy waltz. The biggie was by Gene Austin, and personally, I can barely take 3 minutes of it; especially given how much I like what the song became. (And understand….I’m a guy who loves a lot of old recordings.) The end is lovely, I’ll give it that.

The song seems superficially to be about a last affair with an old lover…though the singer could be detailing a dream, which will vanish when he wakes. It’s unclear. It’s both. Good lyric, Billy Rose! And so pretty-sounding, its content sneaks right by.

So. Then, it appears the song was sort of forgotten until 1952, when Frankie Laine covered it…..perhaps the first time it was in 4/4 time, instead of a waltz. Now, I have barely heard Frankie Laine, but I am astonished that we don’t hear about him more often as a major influence on Elvis Presley. I mean….geez….when Elvis does ballads, he’s basically just doing this guy!! And apparently Elvis even covered his songs a bunch.

But even that version isn’t much like the one everyone sings now. This song turns out to be, as with “Wimoweh/The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a situation where arrangement additions made over a span of decades became part of the composition as performed. In this instance, the change came in 1956: Someone came up with a gorgeous, rising counter-melody that was so good that everyone who has covered it since has used it. One could argue that this counter-melody was influenced by the horns in the opening of the Frankie Laine version, but that’s a stretch.

The one that we are hearing a LOT in this decade, in television ads and on American Horror Story, is the version by teens Patience And Prudence. Their father, Mark McIntyre, was a band leader and songwriter who had worked with Frank Sinatra in the 1940s. He produced this extremely successful recording (a #4 hit.)

This song was a phenomenon in this year. According to the book “Who did it first?” by Bob Leszczack, of the 1956 versions, those McIntyre sisters did it first. The Lennon Sisters, backed by Lawrence Welk, had their first hit in 1956, too, with a very similar but far slicker rendition, a mere month later. There are several other 1956 duets that follow this vocal idea.

So. The song, as everyone does it now, is the 1970s Steve Martin/Bernadette Peters ukulele softening of the 1950s pop/rock vocal version of the 1952 4/4 resetting of an overwrought 1926 waltz.

Somewhere in there it went from dated-sounding to “timeless.”

Posted in music history

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