Tidbits: It's A Small World After All -- More Fun Connections

From time to time this column focuses on interesting "connections" between artists, songwriters and producers -- sort of a "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" for the world of American Popular Song. Because of a number of interesting connections and coincidences in Jimmy Van Heusen's career that did not fit the editorial thread of that article, yet another "connections" theme was spawned for this edition of Tidbits.

It is well established that Van Heusen's big break came in the form of a collegiate friendship with Harold Arlen's younger brother. After Van Heusen's songs were introduced to the older Arlen sibling, he got a few of those tunes published. The interesting twist on this is that during the Tin Pan Alley phase of Van Heusen's career, he composed three minor hits for lyricist Johnny Mercer. The most important of these songs was "I Thought About You," which reached #17 for Benny Goodman. All three collaborations between Mercer and Van Heusen represent Mercer's early attempts at lyrics that played on the romanticism of railroads. Mercer later perfected his train-related lyrical imagery with the massive 1940 hit "Blues in the Night." The music for that song, of course, was coincidentally composed by Van Heusen's earlier benefactor, Mr. Arlen.

Next is a little known factoid regarding one of Van Heusen's best known compositions, "Swinging On A Star." The song, which received an Academy Award for best song in a motion picture, included a number of young actors singing parts of various verses. As recorded for the film, the song is a bit disjointed and much better suited to the screen than to radio or record. So Crosby re-recorded "Swinging On A Star" in a record studio to create a better flowing record. The plan worked, and the revised recording rocketed to the top of the pop charts in 1944. Replacing the actors on vocals was a very polished group of singers known as The Williams Brothers -- which of course included young Andy Williams.

The song was one of many hits that the Williams Brothers performed on, and it is believed to be the first #1 song Andy lent vocals to. It was also the first of four Academy Awards that Van Heusen collected for Best Song. Interestingly enough, one of the songs that Van Heusen was later nominated for -- but didn't win -- was "Pocketful of Miracles" in 1961. The song that beat Van Heusen that year was Henry Mancini's "Moon River," which Williams performed at the Oscar ceremony and it of course became his theme song.

Williams of course recorded or covered a number of movie theme songs. One other Oscar winner that he directly had a hand in was another Henry Mancini song, "The Days of Wine and Roses," which came a year after "Moon River." Williams wasn't about to let other artists beat him to the punch the way they did a year earlier, and his version pushed an album of the same name to #1 on the Billboard charts. The following year, 1963, Van Heusen re-claimed the Oscar crown with "Call Me Irresponsible" from Papa's Delicate Condition.

To bring this all back together, it should be pointed out that "Moon River" and "The Days of Wine and Roses" had lyrics penned by Johnny Mercer. Mercer's first Oscar, by the way, was for "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," another song with the railroad theme that he first tinkered with in that brief collaboration with Van Heusen.

One last piece of trivia that is sort of connected to Van Heusen concerns Frank Sinatra's 1958 album Come Fly With Me, for which Van Heusen and Cahn composed the title track. Legend has it that Sinatra, who had by then regained his hit form, was shown a mock-up of Capitol's intended cover art out of respect. Sinatra was alleged to have been outraged by the design, saying that it looked like an advertisement for TWA! Frank was respected, but he was yet to ascend to his "Chairman of the Board"/Rat Pack status, because the cover was printed as designed. Interestingly enough, the cover helped launch the album into the stratosphere, and today remains an iconic cover from the period. It is in fact more recognizable to most fans than Sinatra's "sad clown" cover from Only The Lonely released later that year, a much more critically acclaimed painting that garnered a Grammy for best album art. The title track from that album was likewise a Van Heusen/Cahn effort.

Mary Travers

Music fans are of course aware of the recent passing of Mary Travers, the statuesque blonde vocalist of Peter, Paul & Mary fame. Although Travers is worthy of far more than a segment in PopularSong.org's "Tidbits" section, the editorial staff feels that recent published obituaries and memorials provide enough information for the average fan, and serve as a worthy testament to her outstanding career. For PopularSong.org readers, some of the lesser-known trivia might prove more interesting, and might put a better perspective on just how significant this 1960s folk trio was to the world of pop music.

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featured performance

Here's Peter, Paul & Mary with what was to be the most often heard version of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing." Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.

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For those who might shrug off the folk movement of the early 1960s as a forgotten footnote in American Popular Song, consider that without it, there would be no Bob Dylan, no John Denver, no Robbie Robertson, no Gordon Lightfoot, and no Kingston Trio. The influence from those artists and songwriters has affected everyone from Elvis Presley to The Eagles to Elton John to Sheryl Crowe and beyond. Consider that "jam bands" from The Grateful Dead to Dave Matthews Band all have some lineage from the folk era, and you see just how influential this was. In fact The Kingston Trio are still listed in Billboard's all-time top ten for most #1 albums, most consecutive #1 albums, and most top ten albums. They were the first group to have 4 LPs in the top ten at the same time, and still rank #6 for most weeks over a career with an album at #1.

For all of their success, however, the Kingston Trio were basically a one-dimensional act singing enjoyable folk songs. Nothing wrong with that, but the barroom sound needed to evolve before it would have any kind of lasting impact on pop music. In fact the group's founder, Dave Guard, quit the K3 at the height of their popularity in 1961 because he wanted to advance their sound while the rest of the group did not.

While the Kingston Trio was certainly at the commercial extreme, the other extreme dominated folk music at the time. The K3 were considered sell-outs by a majority of folk groups. These "folkies" were so political that their appeal was limited to quirky coffee house audiences, and their record sales matched. A man named Albert Grossman stepped into this scenario, recognizing that if the two sides of folk music could meet in the middle, they could be both successful and relevant. Grossman was trying to put together an attractive, witty folk group to fill this void. He wanted a statuesque blonde female singer, and recruited Travers, who could both sing and look the part.

By recording pop-flavored folk songs -- mostly by removing the folkie "edge" and adding additional instrumentation when appropriate -- Peter Paul & Mary were virtually an overnight success. With covers of "Lemon Tree" and "If I Had a Hmmer," their first album rocketed to number one, and stayed in the top ten until it was edged out by their second album. With the release of their third album, it returned to the charts. All together, Peter, Paul & Mary had an album in the top ten for 84 consecutive weeks, which puts them at #6 all-time in this category.

The important thing to remember about this group is how their recordings brought the folk sound into pop music, and how by doing so brought a number of important songwriters into the limelight. The most significant of these, naturally was Bob Dylan. His wandering vocals and rough instrumentation simply didn't catch on with a mainstream pop audience. But when PP&M recorded "Blowin' In the Wind" in 1963, the song spent five consecutive weeks atop the new "easy listening" charts -- which was the new home for traditional pop in the early 1960s. They were making a statement about society, but doing so with a style that made it approachable for a mostly conservative audience. In other words, without Peter, Paul & Mary, 50-year olds would not have heard Dylan's message.

As noted above, their first important hit was "If I Had a Hammer," penned by Pete Seeger. They also put Dylan on the charts for the first time with "Blowin' In The Wind." And in 1970, their last hit -- and their only #1 on Billboard's pop charts -- was "Leavin' On A Jet Plane," penned by a young John Denver. Thus Peter, Paul & Mary effectively covered three important eras in modern folk music -- the origins, represented by Seeger, the resurgence, represented by Dylan, and the future, represented by Denver. Indeed this group -- for which Mary Travers was the most visible member -- gave folkies the voice they needed for an entree into pop music.

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To revisit "Tidbits" from last month, which delves into the complex world of charts and chart hits, please click here.