This interview appeared in “Brother, Can You Spare A Rhyme?”. (Details are in the Books section of this website.) I loved re-reading it: this guy was just so interesting, full of unique opinions and observations. I was so privileged to meet him.
Sammy Cahn is a superb example of the Tin Pan Alley songwriter, writing to order and producing, for the most part, first class work. He is a contender for the lyricist of the century and I was very pleased to interview him when he came to London in 1987 to present his anecdotal show, “Words And Music”, at the Duke of York’s.
The two hours that I spent with him represents two of the best hours of my life. The interview was condensed to a one-hour special for BBC Radio Merseyside and, outside of a few extracts, it has never appeared in print. It is entirely fitting that the whole text of the interview should appear in “Brother, Can You Spare A Rhyme?”, which is essentially about the best-crafted songs of the 20th century.
It’s a familiar story – the poor Jewish kid from the New York slums who makes good. Indeed, most of the key Tin Pan Alley songwriters were the sons of immigrant parents. The fact that their parents had to learn a new language might have rubbed off on them and so they became very adept with the English language and its rhymes and phrases. None more so than Sammy Cahn.
Sammy Cahn was born into a Polish immigrant family in on the Lower East Side in New York on 18th June 1913. His mother encouraged him to play the violin and now, in his stage show, he plays the piano. In his teens, he played violin in a theatre orchestra and wrote his first song, “Like Niagara Falls, I’m Falling For You”, at the age of 16. He collaborated with the orchestra’s pianist, Saul Chaplin, and they had their first success in 1935 with “Rhythm Is Our Business” for Jimmie Lunceford.
In 1937 the Andrews Sisters topped the US charts with “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” and from then on, Sammy Cahn has written hundreds, if not thousands, of songs. Many were written with Jule Styne, starting with “I’ve Heard That Song Before” in 1942 and including the Oscar-winning “Three Coins In The Fountain” (1954).
The story behind this song is Sammy’s first act finale and includes his poignant line, “You ask which comes first, the words or the music. I will tell you, the phone call.” Because of studio deals, he says that when you hear “Make it mine, make it mine, make it mine”, remember that only one-third of the song is his.
Another major collaborator was Jimmy Van Heusen and their many songs for Sinatra include “All The Way” (1957) and “High Hopes” (1959), both Oscar winners, as well as the title songs for the albums, “Come Fly With Me”, “Come Dance With Me” and “No One Cares”. They also won an Oscar for the song, “Call Me Irresponsible” in 1963.
Sammy Cahn has also written with Nichos Brodsky (“Be My Love”, “Because You’re Mine”, both for Mario Lanza), Gene DePaul (“Teach Me Tonight”) and many others. I had the feeling that if I’d said to Sammy, “I write music”, we would have written a song on the spot.
Sammy Cahn’s singing voice is rudimentary, but he is a splendid raconteur with a flair for self-promotion, whether on stage, on TV (with Michael Parkinson) or in print (his autobiography, “I Should Care”). He loves telling his carefully-honed anecdotes and if you’ve heard some of the stories in our conversation before, it doesn’t matter. They are still great stories and they offer a tremendous insight into how the great popular songs of the 20th century were written.
It’s a long interview but there’s so much more that I would have liked to have asked him. Indeed, when I met up with again, briefly, after his show at the Duke of York’s, he said, “You like Elvis. I should have told you about writing the comeback special for him and Frank in 1960.” Indeed.
I think this interview reads well. I’ve never known an interviewee to sing so much – he appear to be able to recall every lyric he’s written! – and I cherish the “special lyrics” that he kept singing. Sammy Cahn died in his 80th year on 15th January 1993 and I can imagine that his idea of heaven would be talking, endlessly talking, about his songs and, of course, writing new ones.
Would you like an ID?
“Hello, this is Sammy Cahn. And I am on With Spencer Leigh For BBC”
– so, you see, it all rhymes.
I’d like to talk about your background first. You heard Jewish music in your youth and I wonder if that influenced your songwriting.
I wouldn’t think so, but Cole Porter said to me one time, “I envy you where you were born. Had I been born there, I would have been a true genius.” If you listen carefully to Cole Porter’s melodies, they are often Hebraic in the minor tones. (Sings) “I love Paris in the springtime, I love Paris in the spring”, “What is this thing called love?” They are both beautifully and melodically constructed on the minor chords, so if you want to write a really lovely melody with great passion, you could try the deep minor chords, the Hebraic tones.
You’re a lyricist, but have you used them yourself?
Not regularly. The only one I can think of was “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon”, which was totally on the minor chords. (Demonstrates) I went to the Apollo Theatre and heard two black boys singing “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” in the original Yiddish. (Laughs) I wrote the English lyric.
That was in 1937, but you’d had a few successes before that.
Oh yes, I’d had “Until The Real Thing Comes Along”, I’d had “Please Be Kind”, and I’d had a song for Louis Armstrong called “Shoe Shine Boy”. I also had another song for Louis Armstrong called “You’re A Lucky Guy”.
Louis Armstrong had always been like a myth to me, a voice on a record that you listened to late at night, and he was the most astonishingly inventive singer and instrumentalist. When I was called one day and told that I was going to do the Cotton Club Revue, I said, “Who am I writing for?”, and I was told, “Louis Armstrong”. I said, “Louis Armstrong!” The Cotton Club was then on 47th Street on Broadway, which later became the Latin Quarter, and I walked into his dressing-room.
The first thing he said to me was, “When were you born?” I said, “June 18th.” He had a book full of birthdays and on the page for June 18th were all the celebrities who had been born on that day. He said, “Here. Sign your name.”
It’s said that Louis Armstrong didn’t know when he was born so he picked July 4th 1900 for himself as it sounded perfect.
I didn’t know that, but I started to work on his Cotton Club show and by a happy coincidence, the orchestra backing him was led by Jimmie Lunceford. The Jimmie Lunceford band was for me the single best band in all of music, and I say this with the knowledge that there was also Chick Webb, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
The single best band both to watch and to listen to was Jimmie Lunceford’s. It had Sy Oliver’s arrangements, and Tommy Dorsey was bright enough to take Sy Oliver, an incredibly talented man, away from Jimmie Lunceford. The Sy Oliver arrangements had a vast, vast effect on the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
I know Sy Oliver, I know Tommy Dorsey, but I don’t know Jimmie Lunceford.
Well, you listen to his records! I wrote their theme song, (Sings)
“Rhythm is our business,
Rhythm is what we sell,
Rhythm is our business,
And business sure is swell.
If you want rhythm on your radio,
Write in and let us know,
Rhythm is our business,
Rhythm is what we sell.”
Crawfie [Jimmy Crawford] plays on those drums in the band, and Willie Smith was singing. You know, one of the greatest arrangements of all-time is the Sy Oliver arrangement of “Ain’t She Sweet” for Willie Smith and the Lunceford band. If you play these things, you will find that they are just priceless. When he went to Dorsey, he had a tremendous effect with his trumpet challenges. I loved him. At the Cotton Club, we had a song,
“You’re a lucky guy,
When you consider
The highest bidder
Can’t buy the gleam in your eye,
You’re a lucky guy.”
Ted Lewis, the man who used to say “Is everybody happy?”, used to do a song called “Me And My Shadow”, and his shadow was a little black boy. We wanted to have a little black boy in the show with Louis Armstrong and we said, “How do we get a little black boy in there?” At the end of the show, a little black boy came walking through the tables and went up to the stage where he said, “Shine, Mr Armstrong”, and that’s when Louis sang,
“Shoe shine boy,
You work hard all day,
Shoe shine boy,
Got no time to play,”
And this stamps the period of the song:
“Every nickel helps a lot…”
A nickel for a shine!
Were you working with a collaborator at that stage in your career?
Oh yes, all those songs were written with Saul Chaplin. This was my rhythm period – I wrote “Rhythm Is Our Business”, “Rhythm In My Nursery Rhymes” and a whole lot more. (Sings)
“I could learn my ABC’s
Bring home A’s instead of D’s,
And my mom and dad I’d please
If I had rhythm in my nursery rhymes.”
Just recently I got a call from Tommy Tune who is doing a Broadway show called “Steppin’ Out” and he wanted to use an old tune of mine in his show called “Wrap Your Cares In Rhythm And Dance”. I said, “That’s fifty years old. Can’t I interest you in something else? Saul Chaplin and I wrote a rhythm song that might be useful. (Sings)
‘I could be a great singer,
But I haven’t a chance,
Cause every vocal teacher I go to,
Tells me I ought to dance.’
I said to him, ”Why don’t you use that?” He said, “No, we’d like to use ‘Wrap Your Cares In Rhythm And Dance’.” So I went to see “Steppin’ Out” at the Golden Theatre in New York City. The song wasn’t in the first act, but in the interval, I heard Harold Nicholas, one of the two Nicholas Brothers singing. They were in a lot of those tremendous 20th Century Fox musicals. They did “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and they were just incredible. Anyway, during the interval, I hear him singing:
If you’re feeling lowdown
‘Cause the skies are grey
Just wrap your cares in rhythm and dance
And dance your cares away.
I thought, “This is amazing. Did they buy this song just to have him sing it in the interval? What is going on?” Of course they hadn’t and at the end of the show, I found that the finale was “Wrap Your Cares In Rhythm And Dance”
You’re known for all the songs that you wrote for Frank Sinatra. Were you a friend of his before you wrote for him?
Yes, my relationship with Frank begins with Axel Stordahl, who was an arranger alongwith Paul Weston for Tommy Dorsey. Having written “Rhythm Is Our Business”, I was established as a band writer, so Axel took me round to meet Tommy Dorsey and I met him and likewise, I met Frank Sinatra.
I have met each and every one of the band leaders – Glenn Miller, Glen Gray, Charlie Spivak, Harry James – but Tommy Dorsey was to me the most impeccably trained orchestra leader. I would go to the Paramount Theatre and see the pit rise, and Tommy Dorsey starting off (Wordless vocalising on “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You”) as the pit was coming up.
They would go into “Marie”, the Irving Berlin song, which again was down to the genius of Sy Oliver: Tommy Dorsey playing “Marie” and the band playing licks behind it. After that would come Connie Haines and then Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers. Then Dorsey would feature Ziggy Elman on trumpet, Buddy Rich on drums and himself on trombone. When all these showstoppers had finished, out stepped a young feller, thinner than my pinkie, and that was Frank Sinatra. He sang “South Of The Border” and he topped everything that had gone before. He was incredibly talented.
Did you immediately want to write for him?
Well, it wasn’t a question of me writing for him. I was writing for the Dorsey band and he was singing the songs. He was so important and if you ask me why I maintain an allegiance to him, listen to this. In 1944, when Frank made it to Hollywood to do a multi-million dollar musical, “Anchors Aweigh”, he walked into Louis B Mayer’s office and they asked him who he wanted to do the songs.
Did he want Rodgers and Hart? Did he want the Gershwins? Did he want Jerome Kern? He said, “None of them. I want Sammy Cahn.” They said, “We don’t mind hiring him, but who is he?” He said, typically, “Since you’re not going to sing the songs, don’t let it concern you. I know who he is and I want him to write for me.” This caused a brouhaha and the eminent Lou Wasserman of MCA said to me, “Sammy, tell Frank to lean back because if he insists on you, we’re going to blow this picture.”
I went to Frank and I said, “Look, Frank, yesterday nobody knew me and today they all hate me. Why not wait? There will be other pictures.” Frank said, “If you’re not there Monday, I won’t be there Monday.” And that is what separates Frank from the rest of them. I did the songs for “Anchors Aweigh” and the one I love the most is “I Fall In Love Too Easily”, which he sang at the Hollywood Bowl at the piano. I also love the song he does with Gene Kelly at the start of the film, “I Begged Her”, and then there’s “What Makes The Sun Set”.
Did Frank have an incredible range?
This was his violin period. He went from violin to viola to cello, (Laughs) and when he got to Nelson Riddle, he had his bass sound. It takes genius to project in front of the Nelson Riddle band blasting away, but Frank could do it. He’s an amazing feller.
You’re a master of rhyme, and I love the way you rhyme “time” with “I’m” in “Time After Time”.
Well, I have learnt all the feasible rhymes and I am not the first one to rhyme “time” with “I’m”. Ira Gershwin wrote, (Sings)
“I’m biding my time
’Cause that’s the kind of guy I’m.”
With Jule Styne the tunes came first most of the time. (Sings)
“Time after time
I tell myself that I’m
So lucky to be loving you”
I followed the musical line and the song leads me more than I lead it. (Sings)
“So lucky to be
The one you run to see
In the evening
When the day is through.
I only know what I know
The passing years will show
You’ve kept my love so young so new
So time after time
I tell myself that I’m
So lucky to be loving you.”
The song is writing me more than I am writing it. I’m starting at top and I don’t know where the lyric is going. Johnny Burke used to start from the bottom – he had his key idea and he would work backwards from that.
Did you go and sing your new songs for Sinatra?
To me, the greatest thrill of songwriting is the demonstration of the completed song. I always liked to do it myself. I would stand right in front of Sinatra and I would sing it to him. It was an amazing thing to be doing. When I sang to one singer,
“And when we kiss that isn’t thunder, dear,
It’s only my poor heart you hear
And it’s applause,
Because you’re mine”
he said, “How do you say ‘Thunder, dear’?”, but there was none of that was Sinatra. “Weatherwise, it’s such a lovely day” – he knew instinctively how to do it. It was very easy to write for Sinatra.
Have you any other examples?
When I sang “Come Fly with Me” for Frank, I sang,
“Come fly with me,
Let’s fly, let’s fly away.
If you can use some exotic views,
There’s a bar in far Bombay.”
I said “views” instead of “booze”. When he had finished recording, I said, “When you sing the song in Vegas or a night club, you should sing ‘booze’.” He said, “Call the band back, I want another take.” Jimmy Van Heusen was angry with me as he thought that the word “booze” would get the record banned, which gives you an idea as to how far censorship has moved. But that’s what makes Sinatra different. He said, “No, I’m going to sing ‘booze’.”
Do you have a favourite session with Frank Sinatra?
Yes, I loved demonstrating the songs for “Our Town” with him. It was a TV production with Paul Newman as the boy and Eva Marie Saint as the girl. It was at twilight at his home in Carrowood Drive, Hornby Hills, California. He just sat there and we sang,
“You will like the folks you meet in our town,
The folks you meet on any street in our town.
Pick out any cottage, large or small,
You’ll find they’re appealing
With that lived-in feeling.”