It’s All in the Game/Dawes’ Melody

Editor’s Note:  This article was originally published in October, 2008.  

With the November elections looming, it might be appropriate to discuss the role of politics in American Popular Song. Then again, it might not be…so rather than get everybody politically charged up and angered about this or that, we decided to look for another political connection to pop music. The connection is interesting, and as you might expect, the songwriter fanned a few political flames in addition to heating up the charts.

Songwriter/Vice-President Charles G. Dawes is the answer to two trivia questions, one from pop, one from politics.

From politics, the question would be, which Vice-President created the most controversy during his time in office? The answer, as we already stated, is Charles G. Dawes, who was VP under Calvin Coolidge from 1925 – 1929. Dawes already had a long, successful career in banking and politics, having served as Comptroller of the Currency under President McKinley. Coolidge and Dawes, however, clashed frequently on political issues. Dawes gave an inflammatory inaugural speech that overshadowed Silent Cal’s, then Dawes announced that he wouldn’t attend cabinet meetings. Later, Dawes promoted a farm relief bill, triumphing it through the Senate, only to have it vetoed by Coolidge. The relationship was stormy to say the least.

During Dawes’ term as VP, bands around the nation would welcome his appearances by performing a song called “Melody in ‘A’ Major.” This, of course, is why Dawes is the answer to the popular song portion of our trivia quiz:

Which Vice-President wrote a number one hit song?

Dawes was an avid music lover who enjoyed playing the flute and piano. He composed “Melody” in 1912, and performed it for a friend, who in turn took the song to a music publisher. The song was published with Dawes’ semi well-known visage on the front, and sold moderately well. As his prominence increased a dozen years later, the song was revived and became known as “Dawes’ Melody.” The melody was catchy enough that it remained popular with bandleaders long after Dawes’ term as VP ended, and was especially popular during the Big Band era of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

So how did this “Melody in ‘A’ Major” top the pop charts?

Legend has it that Dawes grew to despise the song. From what we can glean from his writings and anecdotal information, it’s likely that he considered his musical efforts “amateurish,” and also likely that he identified his own song with his troubled vice-presidency. Fact is Dawes was probably quietly proud of his little ditty. But he did claim that he didn’t care for it.

Hall-of-fame lyricist Carl Sigman, on the other hand, thought quite highly of the song. In 1951 Sigman wrote some extremely insightful lyrics on the subject of courtship, and married them perfectly to a slightly modified “Melody in ‘A’ Major.” Slightly modified, because supposedly the song was simply beyond the capability of all but a few rare singers with a massive range of octaves. Sigman called the new song, “It’s All in the Game.”

Dawes had passed away just prior to Sigman’s revamped creation, and it’s likely that the news caused him to ponder the possibilities of “Melody in ‘A’ Major.” It is believed that Sigman had a lyric concept in mind, and decided Dawes’ melody would do nicely.

Carl Sigman was no stranger to success in the popular song ranks. He penned the words to quite a few number one hits over the years, including “Pennsylvania 6-5000” which he co-wrote with Glenn Miller of course. Other top hits he provided lyrics for were Vaughn Monroe’s “Ballerina” in 1947, and Guy Mitchell’s “My Heart Cries For You” which topped the Cash Box charts in early 1951. Near the end of his career, Sigman wrote the lyrics for a more recent standard, “Theme from Love Story (Where do I Begin).” Sigman was also a talented composer, a good example is “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later than You Think)” which went top ten for Guy Lombardo, in 1950. Doris Day had a moderately successful version as well. Herb Magidson was lyricist for that song.

“It’s All in the Game” was a reasonably successful song when first released, but it would be awhile before it became one of the top standards of all time. The early 1950s were still the days of cover records and competing records — after a song hit the charts, each major label and regional label would have someone from their stable of artists rush to record an alternate version of the song. The competing regional versions sold simply because the hit version might not have reached their local store; competing national versions sold because the buyer may have heard the competing artist sing the song on a popular radio broadcast.

Dinah Shore may have recorded it first, but we can’t be certain. Sammy Kaye put out a “male” version; both of these sold admirably. But it was Tommy Edwards’ “black” cover version that sold best of all. It usually worked the other way; a black artist would have a minor hit and then find their sales stifled by a white cover. Edwards’ version went top 20 in some markets, but that’s about it. Successful, but not overwhelmingly so.

During the ensuing years, Nat “King” Cole recorded a marvelous version, as did Louis Armstrong, but neither version gave any indication of what was in store for Dawes’ melody.

Tommy Edwards’ career limped along after this early hit. According to the charts, his best effort after “It’s All in the Game” was “Now And Then, There’s A Fool Such As I,” which reached #24 in 1953, long before Elvis did his magic. By 1958 Edwards was regarded as a has-been by MGM Records, who chose not to renew him. The story goes that he had a single recording session remaining to fulfill his contract with MGM, and with no other songs in mind, producer Harry Myerson suggested revisiting “It’s All in the Game” but with a newer, more rock-and-roll feel to it. The recording was made, the record released, and the rest is history.

Oddly enough, the new arrangement was done by bandleader Leroy Holmes, who had also done Edwards’ earlier version. Although it’s hardly rock-and-roll by todays standards, “It’s All in the Game” hit the charts with a vengeance in September, 1958. It sold millions of copies, and stood at the top spot for six weeks in a year that saw a plethora of all-time hits, which makes it all the more remarkable. The song is generally regarded as one of the biggest pop standards of all time, despite what the original composer thought of it.

Edwards, as you might’ve guessed, got a new contract from MGM.