Livingston And Evans:
Anatomy Of A Christmas Carol
From The Halls Of Christmas Past Comes One Of The Most Successful Songwriting Duos Of All Time Who Saw Christmas Songs As A Way To Possibly Have A Hit Each And Every Holiday Season
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special For Modern Times Magazine
Dec. 16, 2014 — The Golden Age of popular song writing was brief, flowering roughly from the 1920s through the 1950s. Most of the composers and lyricists who filled the ranks of that elite fraternity and wrote for Broadway and Hollywood are gone now. However, as Irving Berlin once vamped, “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.”
Sixty-plus years later the immutable words and melodies of men like Gershwin, Kern and Porter are still being rediscovered by a whole new generation. Singers like Elvis Costello, Michael Buble and Lady Gaga have gone “back to the basics” and struck gold with new recordings of old standards. Others, like Tony Bennett, have never strayed.
Over the years we interviewed several Golden Age songwriters about their particular creative process – how they wrote the songs.
To Sammy Cahn, lyric writing was “A miracle; a gift.”
To Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, it was a “nine-to-five job.”
But they all seemed to share one thing in common: the music and lyrics they wrote, that so completely chronicled the highs and lows of the American experience, didn’t come from conservatory study and advanced degrees. They came from a more private place, nearer the soul.
We interviewed Livingston and Evans in 1994. Sitting on Livingston’s grand piano in his Bel Air, Calif., home were three Best Song Oscars given to him and his partner Evans for “Buttons and Bows,” “Mona Lisa” and “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).” Ironically, their biggest hit of all, “Silver Bells,” written in 1951, never won a statuette.
“No regrets,” said Livingston. “It has sold more than 140 million copies. It’s our annuity.” (Livingston died in 2001, Evans in 2007.)
“Silver Bells,” written for the Bob Hope film, The Lemon Drop Kid, came about almost by accident.
“We were told to write a Christmas song for Hope’s film,” Livingston said. “We both thought that a holiday song was doomed to fail, but the studio brass was intractable.”
Fortunately, sitting on Evans’ desk at the time was a small silver bell that provided inspiration to the two songwriters.
“Ray and I stared at the bell and wrote a song we titled ‘Tinkle Bell,’” Livingston said. “We thought they’d insert it into the film and never hear it played again.”
If they had kept that title, their prophecy might have come true. It was Livingston’s wife who questioned the appropriateness of the song’s title.
“She thought we were crazy for titling a song, ‘Tinkle Bell,’” he said. “She pointed out the fact that ‘tinkle’ has a bathroom connotation. It was a revelation to us!
“The next day Jay came into the office and said we had to change the title. Our eyes finally focused on the silver bell on my desk and we changed the title. We never changed a word of the song except that ‘Tinkle Bell’ became ‘Silver Bells.’”
More than creating a lasting legacy, Livingston said that composing a timeless Christmas song, “assures a hit record every year. Not many songwriters can lay claim to that.”
The team won their first Oscar for “Buttons and Bows,” from another Bob Hope comedy, The Paleface.
“I was so nervous the night of the Oscar ceremony,” Livingston said. “I drank half a pint of whiskey on the drive over there. I did it every time we had a nominated song.”
According to Evans, a song’s real immortality, however, hinges on how it touches the ‘average Joe.’
“I once heard a guy singing ‘Que Sera, Sera’ as he washed the windows of a castle in Salzburg, Austria,” said Evans. “That’s more thrilling, any day, than hearing it played on the radio.”
Two songs perhaps best exemplified the solid underpinnings of Livingston and Evans’ lifelong collaboration. From the sublime to the ridiculous, they were: “Mona Lisa” and the theme song the television sitcom Mr. Ed.
“We chased Nat King Cole around for a year before he recorded ‘Mona Lisa,’” Evans said. “He had never done a song quite like it before and he was a bit squeamish.
“Paramount pulled some strings and we saw him at his house,” Livingston added. “I was trying to sing him the song, all the while this little girl is running around the room bugging the hell out of me – that was Natalie. We couldn’t have known then that the song would have a wonderful rebirth on her Unforgettable album a quarter-century later.”
Great songs, drudge assignments, it never mattered to Livingston and Evans.
“We’ve had serious arguments but no real separation,” Livingston said. “When you have a winning team, you don’t break it up.”
Evans added: “Jay writes the music, but since both of us work on the lyrics, we’ve learned the art of compromise. After all, two heads are better than one.”
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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