Most of us instantly think of Nat King Cole when “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” is mentioned. His 1964 version set the template which pretty much everyone who covered the song since has used.
But in 1964, “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” was already 30 years old.
Irving Berlin had written it as long ago as 1936. It was originally composed for the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie “Follow The Fleet”. To be fair to Fred Astaire, he was a much better dancer than he was a singer, but he warbled his way through “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” respectably enough.
Brits of a certain age may also remember Nat King Cole’s version of “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” from a very popular series of TV commercials for an insurance company in the 1990s. Nat King Cole’s 30 year old track even made it into the UK Singles Chart in 1994, so popular were those commercials.
This was the golden age of great song choices for TV commercials and the concept of “you don’t know what trouble might lie ahead, so now is the time to plan for the unexpected” lent itself nicely to a number of amusing 30-second insurance-based vignettes.
Of course, Fred Astaire wasn’t singing to Ginger Rogers about the need to get her financial planning done.
In “Follow The Fleet” Fred Astaire’s character was seizing potentially the last moment with Ginger Rogers for quite some time, having gone AWOL from the Navy to be with her. Before the Navy caught up with him, he was determined to have that one last dance for old time’s sake, no matter the consequences.
When all is said and done, “Follow The Fleet” was really just an excuse for Irving Berlin to write some beautiful songs for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to dance to. Which ticks all the boxes for “great film” in my book.
Of all of the songs in the film, though “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” is the most fondly remembered today, thanks largely to Nat King Cole, I suspect.
There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s moonlight
And music and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance
Nat King Cole is best known today as a singer, but he was also a talented pianist. While playing piano in nightclubs he was called upon to sing from time to time and his evident talent led to a lot more singing and, sadly, a lot less piano playing.
However his skills on a keyboard would come in useful when “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” was recorded, as Nat King Cole is credited as the organist for the instantly recognisable Hammond Organ solo on the track.
Nat King Cole’s first big success was with “Sweet Lorraine” in 1940 and he ended up recording a series of songs which have since become standards between then and his untimely passing in 1965.
Alongside “Let’s Face The Music And Dance”, songs like “Unforgettable”, “Mona Lisa” and “Stardust” are almost impossible to hear without imagining Nat King Cole’s voice in your head.
His versions of those songs are every bit as iconic as, say, Frank Sinatra’s versions of “New York, New York”, “Come Fly With Me” or “My Way”.
Irving Berlin was an unusual songwriter for his time. Most of the great songs of his era were written by a double act — one person wrote the music, the other wrote the lyrics. But Irving Berlin did it all himself.
And he had a gift for telling a story in his lyrics that was every bit as good as the top lyric writers of the day, even thought he had to come up with the music as well. Irving Berlin was a talented guy.
The second verse of “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” illustrates this nicely. Looking forward in time to the inevitable end of the evening, when Fred Astaire would end up being sent to the brig and Ginger Rogers would have to get by without him for a while, Irving Berlin dreamed up this neat expression…
Before the fiddlers have fled
Before they ask us to pay the bill
And while we still have a chance
Let’s face the music and dance
He didn’t say, let’s have a dance “before the orchestra goes home”. He said “before the fiddlers have fled”. It’s a great line.
And, in the circumstances being portrayed in the film, weaving the idea of having to “pay the bill”, ie account for his actions, is nicely done too.
Although the movie “Follow The Fleet” has largely faded from our collective memory, both the song “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” and the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance routine which accompanied that song in the film remain all-time classics to this day.
Both are peerless performances by masters of their respective crafts, as was Irving Berlin’s wonderful work in writing the song in the first place. For the Nat King Cole version, we should also recognise the not-inconsiderable talents of Billy May as arranger and conductor for the “Let’s Face The Music!” album from which the track came.
In his field, Billy May was as much of a superstar as Irving Berlin was for songwriting, Nat King Cole was for singing and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were for dancing. He acted as producer and arranger for many of Frank Sinatra’s classic tracks, but also worked with Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby, Matt Munro, Bobby Darin and many other top stars.
To enjoy every aspect of “Let’s Face The Music And Dance”, I’ve linked to both the original “Follow The Fleet” version with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, and Nat King Cole’s version below. And…for Brits of a certain age…there’s a reminder of those old insurance commercials thrown in for good measure too.
In the challenging times we live in, maybe the message of “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” is even more relevant than usual. None of us knows what tomorrow might bring, so instead of worrying, perhaps we just need to learn to live for the moment and let tomorrow take care of itself.
Here’s Irving Berlin, Nat King Cole, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers to show you how…