My Pop Life #176 : Luck Be A Lady – Ian Charleson

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Luck Be A Lady  –  Ian Charleson

They call you Lady Luck – but there is room for doubt : at times you have a very un-ladylike way of running out.

You’re on this date with me, the pickings have been lush, and yet before this evening is over you might give me the brush

You might forget your manners, you might refuse to stay,   And so the best that I can do is pray….

There are two extremely well-known versions of this song by two extremely famous people, but I choose them not.   Now read on dot dot dot.   This hard-to-find version was the one I sang at auditions in 1982 and 1983, an aspiring thespian with a paper-thin resumé and a hopeful willing heart.  I knew nothing, and very few people were explaining things.  Normal life in other words.   A keen, inexperienced, hungry young soul.  By which I mean that I really don’t feel as if I’ve been here before AT ALL, and thus all my wisdom – such as it is – has been hard-won this time around.   And I had very little aged 24, 25, 26.  Choose me !  I’d probably just about got my Equity Card via Moving Parts Theatre Company and done a cracking John Godber-directed production of A Clockwork Orange at Man In The Moon theatre in the King’s Road which secured me an agent.  Earlier that year my girlfriend Mumtaz and I had been to The National Theatre one night to see Guys and Dolls, the Frank Loesser musical based on Damon Runyon‘s slang-crackling low-life characters, wise guys & lippy girls, gamblers, hustlers, tough guys and dames.  It was a brilliant production, directed by Richard Eyre and a real eye-opener.  Starring Bob Hoskins as Nathan Detroit, Julia McKenzie as Adelaide, Ian Charleson as Sky Masterson, David Healy as Nicely Nicely and Julie Covington as Sister Sarah, and my old friend Jim Carter.  It is without exaggeration one of my best nights out in the theatre ever, and it had a profound effect on me, cementing my desire to be an actor, inspiring me to think song-and-dance, and causing me to realise, finally, that film actors and stage actors can crossover into each other’s arenas and triumph.  It was simply quite exhilarating.

So much so that – gasp – we bought the soundtrack LP in the foyer with these classic tunes on it : Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat, Adelaide’s Lament, Take Back Your Mink, If I Were A Bell, Sue Me and Luck Be  A Lady, the latter sung by Ian Charleson.

What a song.  The show was also my introduction (along with my Billie Holiday LP), to The Great American Songbook, a loose collection of jazz-pop songs usually written for stage musicals and films between 1920 and the early 50s, by the all-time great songwriters Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, George & Ira Gershwin and others. Songs like Summertime, The Way You Look Tonight (My Pop Life #162 ), Cheek To Cheek, Fly Me To The Moon, Bye Bye Blackbird, I Get A Kick Out Of You, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Pennies From Heaven, Someone to Watch Over Me and on and on, all covered by all the major singers of the time, and many more since then.

Guys and Dolls premiered on Broadway in 1950, and was a massive hit.  A film adaptation followed in 1955 with Marlon Brando singing Luck Be A Lady poorly and wearing a shit-eating grin to compensate opposite Jean Simmons as Sister Sarah.  Below : the movie trailer fronted by Ed Sullivan reading an autocue with glimpses of the lead characters, including Vivian Blaine from the original Broadway production who UNUSUALLY got to play the same character in the movie (mainly because Marilyn Monroe wasn’t available).

Frank Sinatra played Nathan Detroit in the film but later he made Luck Be A Lady his own signature tune along with Come Fly With Me and Under My Skin.  His version is below too.  It’s brilliant, magnificent even, but it’s not the version that I used to sing at auditions.

My generation was one of the last who had to present a Shakespeare speech and sing a song to get a job.  Not at the same time.  But nearly.  Certainly to get a place at a drama school or work at one of the regional Repertory Theatres.   I think I used to do Richard the 2nd, but I can’t really remember.  I had secured an offer for the Drama Studio in Ealing early in 1982, but I couldn’t get a grant and couldn’t afford the fees.  I’d already had a grant from East Sussex to study for a Batchelor of Law at the LSE, so why should I get a post-grad one year change-of-career hand-out?  My generation were gilded by that grant system, and the accompanying soundtrack of punk, funk, reggae and disco.  But there I was – out the other side, changing horses, wasting my education.  What a rebel!    I was out there on my own, learning Shakespeare speeches and singing Luck Be A Lady along to Ian Charleson in our attic flat in Finsbury Park.  Buying the sheet music, making sure it was in the right key so I could give it to the pianist in the audition.  I guess musical auditions still operate like this – I haven’t done one for over 30 years.  But I’m sure the pianist usually knows the score.

The song has a dramatic opening, in common with many American Songbook pieces – Stardust for example (see My Pop Life #100) – a whole section in a different key which sets the song up.  This one really appealed to me.  You’re walking into a gambling salon in your finest threads talking to your dice.  I had no idea what those dice did – not blackjack which I had played with my Grandad, but ‘craps’ which still baffles me to this day.  On my Las Vegas trips I have always concentrated on roulette, and occasionally the other type of blackjack (the card game) but not dice.  But that didn’t put me off the song, where Sky is singing to Lady Luck, and imagining that she is an actual dame.  A hackneyed yet brilliant conceit :

A lady doesn’t wander all over the room and blow on some other guy’s dice 

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Frank Loesser..

..had a classical upbringing in New York, but he broke away from his parents’ ambitions to write for Tin Pan Alley  – and he struggled for years before getting published. Probably his best known song is the peerless Baby, It’s Cold Outside which he used to sing with his wife Lynn Garland at supper club parties to end the evening, then irritated her by selling the song to MGM.  It won him a best song Oscar and was subsequently covered by every famous duet partnership you can think of, most brilliantly I think by Ray Charles & Betty Carter in 1960.   Loesser also wrote, among 700 others, Praise The Lord & Pass The Ammunition during the 2nd World War,  Let’s Get Lost, Thumbelina and The Ugly Duckling and the lyrics to Hoagy Carmichael’s Two Sleepy People and Heart & Soul.

Weirdly, the musical Guys and Dolls cropped up again that year of 1982 on Elvis Costello‘s brilliant Imperial Bedroom sessions (see My Pop Life #124) in the exquisite song Heathen Town (which inexplicably ended up on a later B-side rather than on the album), where, instead of singing

and the devil won’t drag you under by the sharp lapels of your chequered coat – sit down sit down sit down sit down, sit down you’re rockin’ the boat

which is from the Guys and Dolls musical, Elvis sings

cos the devil will drag you under by the sharp tailfin of your chequered cab – and I can’t sit down I’m going overboard in this heathen town

which is both a brilliant twist on the original lyric (Runyon’s sinners in the Sally Army praising the Lord) and a confession that New York City (the heathen town) is swallowing him alive and he’s loving it.    They used to call it Sin City now it’s gone way past that…  Honestly someone could do a phD thesis on Elvis Costello’s lyrical and musical quotations so rich and varied they are.   Don’t look at me !  I’m doing broad church brushstrokes, not digging down into one particular speciality.  Butterfly mind moves on.  Anyway, maybe Costello went to the NT show too, not so mysterious…

I never was in Guys and Dolls or any other big musical.  No no, please don’t pity me, it’s a whole other type of person who usually does that kind of thing.  I’m a camera actor. Usually.  Bob Hoskins bless him was a collector’s item and showed me that it could be done.  It’s more usual in the USA for actors to sing and dance on camera and onstage (the triple threat) and even write and direct too.  They encourage it in fact.  In the UK we are encouraged to specialise, not to dilute the craft by trying to do it all.  The narrow approach.  The suspicious approach of anyone who steps outside of their box.

Bob Hoskins & Ian Charleson onstage in Guys & Dolls

Ian Charleson was a Scottish actor who trod the boards playing Shakespeare including Hamlet twice, before famously portraying Eric Liddell in Chariots Of Fire and Charlie Andrews in Gandhi in 1981 and 82.  Despite both films winning Oscars, he didn’t move to Lala Land but rather his next move was appearing onstage in the National Theatre’s production of Guys & Dolls as Sky Masterson and he got glowing reviews.  In 1986 he was diagnosed with AIDS and he died in 1990 aged 40.   I have heard better performances of this great Frank Loesser song than his, but not many.   Sinatra’s is better – it’s jazz.  But Brando’s isn’t, it’s just terrible, lacking drama, energy or feeling, so un-Brando.   Alex Harvey could’ve sung it.  Fee Waybill.  David Bowie.  Rufus Wainwright.  Or me, maybe.

Ian Charleson NY OST :

https://archive.org/details/luckBeALadyianCharlesonOntc

for contrast, Brando’s strange weak delicate take on it :

My Pop Life #100 : Stardust – Nat King Cole

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Stardust   –   Nat King Cole

…And now the purple dusk of twilight time

…steals across the meadows of my heart…

High up in the sky the little stars climb

always reminding me that we’re apart

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Such a melancholy yet beautiful lyric on such an unusual, strange and compelling melody.

Featured imageHoagy Carmichael wrote the melody to Stardust when he was 28 years old in Bloomington Indiana, imagining as he composed it that one day his hero – cornet player Bix Beiderbecke – would play the tune.  The way the song winds and swerves through different keys is a challenge for any singer – but originally Stardust was an instrumental.    A jazz instrumental.    The saxophone player Bud Freeman once said ‘Carmichael’s songs are the only songs on which you don’t have to improvise much, because the improvisation is already in them‘.  So Hoagy recorded the instrumental and it was played by Ellington, Calloway and others until in 1929 Irving Mills decided the tune needed lyrics and asked young Mitchell Parish to write some.

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The resulting ballad (first performed by Isham Jones in the form we know it today)  is simply the most exceptional combination of words and music that I know of, my favourite song of all time, and the song which was covered more than any other (over 1500 covers to date) up ’til McCartney dreamed up Yesterday (covered over 3000 times).

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Stardust is a song about a song about love.  Lost love – all that’s left is the song.  The star has gone, all that’s left is stardust.  The image of Star Dust (original title) is a powerful one and has been used many times – Bowie called himself Ziggy Stardust during 1972, and Joni Mitchell sang  “we are stardust we are golden” about the Woodstock generation.   The idea that music can contain in it the dust of a feeling, of a relationship, of a love is a very beautiful one, and of course it is also the idea behind this very blog.  So it seems fitting to me that as I reach the satisfying figure of 100 pieces of music written about, 100 feelings converted into stardust, that this song marks the auspicious occasion.

Featured imageI first became obsessed with Stardust around February 2008 – yes, quite specific…   And once again I am indebted to Kenneth Cranham for his musical guidance.    In a small-world twist of fate, he was now playing patriarch Max in Pinter’s The Homecoming at The Almeida Theatre – and my wife Jenny Jules had become the first black woman to ever play the role of Ruth in the same production.    Harold Pinter clearly fancied her in fact and would insist on sitting next to her at dinner and so on.   His wife Lady Antonia Fraser was terribly patient.    I walked home with Uncle Ken one day, probably after rehearsal, because he lives not far from the theatre round the back of Caledonian Road.   I had been cast in Richard Curtis‘ film The Boat That Rocked, playing late-night DJ Bob Silver, a kind of John Peel template, but with the difference that I was an old geezer in 2008 compared with Peel’s early 20s in 1966 on the pirate radio station Radio Caroline.   Uncle Ken being my musical guru I asked him, if I’d been 50 in 1966 then who would I have grown up listening to?   Apart from a reference to Muddy Waters there were no clues in the script.   A week later I was at rehearsal again, or maybe first night, and Ken thrust 3 whole C90 cassettes into my grubby paw.    I know.   It was 2008 and he was still making C90s.   They were completely brilliant.   “They’re all writer-based“,  Ken explained, “the first one is Ellington, with plenty of covers too, the second is Harold Arlen who wrote Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Stormy Weather, and the third is Hoagy Carmichael, and there’s even a track of Hoagy singing on that one”…

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The track of Hoagy singing was Stardust.  There were three other versions on the cassette – one I already had at home by Nat King Cole, probably purchased in the mid-eighties after a John Godber-directed show, (perhaps A Clockwork Orange at The Man In The Moon theatre on King’s Road in 1982).  John’s parents were addicted to Nat King Cole and some of John’s writing acknowledges his greatness as an artist, mainly as a crooner.   The other two versions were by Willie Nelson and The Mills Brothers.   Four of the best versions.   I could not stop listening to the damn song.   I started collecting covers of it.   There are a lot.   At the last count I had 57 cover versions of it – all different, most of them terrific.  They range from wild jazz instrumentals from the likes of Charlie Christian, Ben Webster and Oscar Aleman to staggering vocal journeys by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald or Bing Crosby.   Some odd ones – by The Shadows (it’s ace), The Mills Brothers – an instrumental version AND a sung version, but all done by their voices (amazing), and Frank Sinatra – only sings the introduction (!!).   He had a history of picking the bits he liked though, did Frank (see eg: Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park).   Then there’s Louis Armstrong‘s simply astounding cover which bounces along on the one & the three like a song possessed while the trumpet riffs above it – until Louis starts to sing and makes up the words, scats along, it is simply brilliant and probably the “best” version.  Unique, certainly.

Featured imageBut my favourite is Nat King Cole.  He had a long career as a jazz pianist playing some classic trio cuts before his vocal ability took prominence and he started to sing more – his version of The Christmas Song (“chestnuts roasting…”) in 1946 made him a superstar, (although the famous version still played today was the 4th time he recorded the song in 1961).  By 1956 he had his own syndicated TV show in America, the first black performer to do so.  In 1957 – the year I was born – he released his version of Stardust, his vocal melisma and jazz sophistication perfectly suiting the song’s temperament.  The string arrangement – can’t find out who it was – is beyond perfect – the opening violin swell is like someone breathing in and out it is so organic.    As Nat reaches the word at the end of the introduction “the music of the years gone by” the strings are clearly on the “wrong” note, but resolve with exquisite delay.

When our love was new, and each kiss an inspiration…

What a line – and don’t we all know that feeling ?  Now sadly gone but he has the song….

My stardust melody – the memory of love’s refrain

The lyrics are full of stars – in the sky reminding him that “we’re apart” and at the end again as he sits beside a garden wall

when stars are bright and you are in my arms…”

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To be honest there’s only so much you can write about a piece of music like this. Without getting overly muso – the use of semitone intervals – going up and down is extremely effective.  “Sometimes I wonder…” the first four notes are a semitone climb up that line of the first verse which leads you into the reverie.  Then later “Though I dream in vain…”  the last three words are semitone falls, perfectly in sympathy musically with the lyric.    I don’t want to go overboard at the deep end so I’ll just leave this here.   I will doubtless come back to other versions and covers in future posts.  And of course Hoagy wrote other songs too – Georgia On My Mind and many others.  But Nat King Cole sings Stardust and he wears the crown for My Pop Life #100.

Nat Cole :  LIVE !