Gonna be some truly epic excerpting here, by way of warning. But this just might be the best Steyn music post ever, so if you like these anything like as much as I do you should definitely stick with it.
Song of the Week, marking the death one hundred years ago of a composer whose name you may not know but whose best known composition you certainly will – even if you only know it in various pop iterations from Elvis and Dino and others. When actor-director-singer-author-sculptor-goodfella Paul Sorvino and his wife Dee Dee dropped by The Mark Steyn Show, I was surprised to discover that, of all the thousands of singers who’ve sung this song, Paul has a unique connection to it, as we’ll hear.
Eduardo di Capua was born in Naples in 1865 and died there exactly a century ago – October 3rd 1917. He was a Neapolitan who wrote Neapolitan songs, some of which traveled a long way from Napoli – “O Marie” was a hit for Louis Prima and others, and, retooled as “It’s Now or Never”, today’s song became a worldwide smash for Elvis Presley. But it took a long and tortuous path before it fell into the hands of the King in Graceland. “It’s Now Or Never” has its origins in …go on, take a wild guess.
Close. The Ukraine.
Now, I hardly ever watch online videos of any kind, I have to admit. Who knows why, I just very seldom do. But I watched the one embedded in Steyn’s post, featuring Sorvino explaining his family connection with Capua and Capurro’s immortal classic, and I’m glad I did. After the vid, Steyn digs down deep:
Charles W Harrison recorded the first English-language version in 1915, but the anglophone lyric never really caught on. Half a century after Giovanni Capurro wrote the original text and several thousand miles west, three savvy Tin Pan Alleymen figured there might be a market for a real English lyric – not just a translation, but an authentic Anglo-American pop song. Al Hoffmann was a potent hit maker and king of the novelty song: His catalogue includes “Mairzy Doats (and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey)”, “Hot Diggety (dog ziggety boom! what you do to me)”, “Gilly, Gilly, Ossenfeffer, Katzenellen Bogen By The Sea”, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”, “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba”, “Papa Loves Mambo”, “Bear Down, Chicago Bears”, “Black-Eyed Susan Brown”, “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d’ve Baked A Cake (Howdja do? Howdja do? Howdja do?)”, etc, etc. But he also wrote that beautiful Sinatra ballad, “Close To You”. Leon Carr and Leo Corday are best remembered for their TV jingles, such as Dinah Shore’s longtime theme song, “See The USA In Your Chevrolet”. But in 1949 Hoffman, Carr and Corday came together to transform “O Sole Mio” into one of the first of an entire series of big arioso Italiano love songs that proved solid Hit Parade fodder through the Fifties. The big balladeer who cleaned up with the song was Tony Martin…
Not long after, Freddie Bienstock, his music publisher back in the States, flew over to see Elvis, and the young soldier told him that he really loved “There’s No Tomorrow”. He was looking ahead to getting discharged and back to the music business, and asked Bienstock to get somebody to write him some new lyrics for the tune. “Why don’t you just record the Tony Martin lyrics?” the publisher asked. Elvis said he didn’t like ’em. So Bienstock flew back to America and to the offices of Hill & Range Music. He might have run into some of the company’s other staffers, such as Ben Weisman, Ben Wise and Dolores Fuller, writers of “Rock-A-Hula Baby”. But, as it happens, the only guys who were around that day were Wally Gold and Aaron Schroeder. Gold was a former sax player and member of the vocal quartet the Four Esquires who’d decided to try his hand at songwriting (he would go on to compose Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party”). As for Aaron Schroeder, his career goes back to “At A Sidewalk Penny Arcade”, the song he wrote for the B-side of Rosemary Clooney’s first solo record. In the decades that followed, he discovered Gene Pitney and teamed him up with Bacharach & David for “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, and he helped launch Barry White’s career after White, languishing in prison for stealing tires, heard an Aaron Schroeder song that he claimed changed his life. But, to be honest, if I had to name my own favorite Aaron Schroeder song it would be a goofy novelty number written with Guy Wood (composer of that luminous Sinatra ballad “My One And Only Love”) that got tricked out in a wild Nelson Riddle arrangement complete with swingin’ soundbites from “La Marseillaise” and transformed into a zany single for Frank in 1958:
If you turn me down once more I’ll join the French Foreign Legion
Bet you they would welcome me with open arms
First you love me, yes; then you love me, no
I don’t know where I stand
Do we march together down the aisle
Or do I march that desert sand?
Delightful as that is, it’s not a song to rest your royalties on. So today Aaron Schroeder’s reputation as a writer rests mainly on the five Number One hits he wrote for Elvis Presley – “A Big Hunk O’ Love”, “Good Luck Charm”, “I Got Stung”, “Stuck On You”, and the biggest of the lot:
It’s Now Or Never
Come hold me tight
Kiss me my darling
Be mine tonight…
Those five Number Ones were some of Elvis’s very best, and among my own personal favorites.
It was Elvis’ biggest hit, selling some 25 million copies worldwide, Number One for five weeks in the US and for eight weeks in Britain. For the rest of his life it was Presley’s personal favorite out of all his records. And it was “It’s Now Or Never” that spurred Barry White’s Pauline prison conversion from a life of crime to a life of heavy-breathing luuuuuurv ballads.
“We were the only ones sitting in the office,” recalled Wally Gold of the day Freddie Bienstock commissioned the song. “We jumped in a cab to go back to Aaron’s studio. We got the title in the cab, the melody was already written, and in half an hour we knocked off the lyric.” Considering that the only reason they needed a new lyric was that Elvis didn’t like the old lyric, you can’t help noticing that the new text is basically the old text cranked up a notch, but starting with the same central idea.
By 1960, “O Sole Mio” was out of copyright in the United States so any Tom, Dick or Harry was free to write a new lyric to it. Under British Commonwealth and European law, however, the original was still protected by copyright, and a legal dispute held up the release of “Now Or Never” through the summer and early autumn. By the time the song was released in November, demand was so huge that it entered the British charts at Number One and stayed there for two months. It was the fastest-selling single ever, and on the first Saturday of its release some London record stores were so overwhelmed that they closed their doors to all customers except those wanting the Elvis record.
Which is pretty odd when you think about it. There’s not a whiff of pre-army Presley – of “Jailhouse Rock” or “Heartbreak Hotel” – in “It’s Now Or Never”. It’s a cha-cha-flavored ballad. But Elvis had always wanted to be Dean Martin, and it’s interesting that, in one of the few instances where he didn’t merely sing what was shoved in front of his nose, he insisted on a reworking of a Dino ballad.
Not so strange really, if you know and understand that Elvis’s most compelling ambition was to be not merely a hip-shakin’ rock and roller but a serious singer of The Great American Songbook. Which makes his career all the more remarkable,starting with his original innovative blending of blues and country into rockabilly, which expanded in the RCA years into a more accessible and complex thing we now just refer to as rock and roll. He moved on from there to explore gospel, more-modern country and even a little pure honky-tonk, later putting his ever-evolving stylistic stamp on pure pop, sweeping ballads, movie-soundtrack fluff, and even show tunes.
He went on to duet with Sinatra, who had long made no secret of utterly despising both Elvis and his music, and easily held his own.
Yes, Elvis lost his way going into the 70s, both artistically and personally, for a variety of reasons. He wound up a sad mockery of his former self, a show-biz joke eclipsed first by the British Invasion and then the evolution of “rock and roll” into “rock” towards the end of the 60’s. But that dimishes his earlier achievements not one whit: the man was a true popular-music colossus, and the mark he made on the world cannot be erased. There has simply never been anyone like him, and there never will be.
Incredible as it no doubt seems, there’s even more to the O Sole Mio story yet, my profligate excerpting notwithstanding. As I said, if you dig Steyn’s music posts like I do this one’s a real pip, and you’ll want to read it all.