Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2008 as part of a special edition dedicated to Oscar Hammerstein II.
Continuing with our focus on Oscar Hammerstein II this month, it seemed like a good time to dig up this oldie but goodie. “Hello Young Lovers” is among the more complicated lyrics Hammerstein wrote. It is sung by Anna in The King and I, and although she sings directly about Tuptim and Lun Tha, she’s really singing something of an autobiography about herself and Tom. As noted in our feature on Hammerstein II, he was the master (and really the first) to truly continue a show’s storyline through song lyrics.
Rodgers’ melody is terrific as well; the movement in “Hello Young Lovers” enables artists to restyle and make this song their own. Perry Como had the first chart hit; Mr. Smooth didn’t need to change much to fit his relaxed but precise style. Guy Lombardo hit next with a capable vocal by Kenny Martin but generally forgettable record. Bobby Darin did an up-tempo version; it was so good that Paul Anka recorded a version that out-Darined Darin and hit the charts in the early 1960s.
The most compelling version, of course, came in 1965 when Frank Sinatra released his landmark September of My Years album. Highlighted by “It Was a Very Good Year,” the album featured a title track written by Sinatra pal Jimmy Van Heusen, and a few numbers penned by the underrated Gordon Jenkins, who also prepared the arrangements and conducted the orchestra. Sinatra also covered a Harold Arlen tune, and added a version of “Hello Young Lovers” with a drastically slower tempo. It fit the introspective song perfectly. For a time this slower tempo was more familiar to most Americans than Rodgers’ original!
All together September of My Years was a masterpiece, and rightly won a Grammy for best album. It beat out some tremendous competitors, nominations included: Help! by The Beatles, My Name Is Barbra by Barbra Streisand, My World by Eddy Arnold, and coincidentally, The Sound of Music film soundtrack. In retrospect it almost seems unfair that NARAS couldn’t give Grammys to each of those LPs.
Would Sinatra have won without his incredible version of “Hello Young Lovers”? Considering the competition, probably not. One album that was not nominated was the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, which arguably has been the most influential album released in 1965. We can continue to wander off-topic for a moment and think back to some other landmark albums released during 1965: The Strangers by Merle Haggard, Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash Sings Ballads of the True West, any of which are Grammy-worthy. Sinatra provided his own stiff competition with a terrific LP called Sinatra ’65.
As for our forgotten gem, it begs the question of which is more important, the music or the lyrics? The answer most musicologists will give, naturally, is that Richard Rodgers melodies make the songs. Indeed they are fabulous, but our point this month is that these songs would not nearly be as memorable — in some cases hardly memorable at all — without Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics.
Consider Rodgers’ work with Lorenz Hart. Wonderful yes, but not as compelling as his work with Hammerstein. To study Richard Rodgers on his own we have Victory at Sea. This is one of the important works of the 20th Century, but it doesn’t hold a candle to some of the songs the Rodgers & Hammerstein partnership resulted in for some of their big five musicals. Some may regard it as “more important,” but that’s just artifice. One line alone from “Hello Young Lovers”:
You walk down the street
on the chance that you’ll meet
and you meet…
not really by chance
…does more for the song than any hook Rodgers created. Without the storyline from The King and I, or Sinatra’s treatment, or Darin’s energy — is the melody really all that memorable? It’s good, no question, but there are thousands of songs from the early 1950s with fun melodies that have since been lost to the ravages of time. In fact, we’re doing this tune a disservice by calling it a forgotten gem…it’s hardly forgettable.