“Manhattan” — Ella Fitzgerald
I’d only opened the concert programme a moment previously. Now I was ready to burst.
You see, what the programme described as “A song by Richard Rodgers” wasn’t that at all. Only the music was written by him.
The bit that made it a song…those all-important words…were written by the completely un-credited Lorenz Hart.
I’d love to be a great lyric writer…although I think that ship may have sailed some time ago… but I always wonder why the contributions made by some of the greatest lyric writers the world has seen are so frequently uncredited to the geniuses who wrote them.
How many times have you heard someone talk about an Andrew Lloyd Webber song, but not acknowledge one of our finest living wordsmiths, Tim Rice? Without him Andrew Lloyd Webber would just have a few nice tunes to his name.
Just about every Elton John song you can sing along to contains lyrics written by Bernie Taupin (and nearly all of the handful that weren’t had their lyrics written by the aforementioned Tim Rice).
And now, in the semi-darkness as I glanced through the programme waiting for the concert to start, the lyricist I admire more than any other, the great Lorenz Hart, had been consigned to invisibility.
Inside I was screaming…
I’d be the first to accept that writing music is no walk in the park.
I never got beyond Grade 5 Piano myself. So I understand that the technical skills of a top-flight composer lie far beyond those of ordinary mortals.
People admire composers. Composers are feted, celebrated, honoured.
Don’t they just scribble a few lines on the back of a napkin and, work finished, spend the rest of the day downing industrial quantities of booze at the Groucho Club?
Well, if I’m perfectly honest, that was, more or less, exactly Lorenz Hart’s lyric writing process. But hear me out…
Plenty of musicians boast about composing a hit record in 10 minutes on the guitar. What do they get called? “Geniuses.”
But a lyricist doing the same thing? “Meh, it’s just a few scribbled words on the back of a napkin. I could do that…I bet my Nan could do that, in fact.”
Take it from me. I’ve tried to write song lyrics. It’s several orders of magnitude harder than everyone thinks.
It might have been Winston Churchill…or perhaps Mark Twain, I can’t remember…who said “I’m sorry I had to send you a long letter. I didn’t have time to write you a short one.”
Conveying emotion, telling a story, and giving you something to sing along to all at the same time is every bit as challenging as writing Churchill’s “short letter”.
Very few people really do have a Nan that can do that.
Which brings me back to Lorenz Hart, sadly un-credited at the concert I attended.
Together with Richard Rodgers, he wrote big chunks of the Great American Songbook… “The Lady Is A Tramp”, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”, “My Funny Valentine” and many others.
The genius of Lorenz Hart was his outwardly cheerful and upbeat lyrics which were packed…only just out of sight…with acidic social commentary and devastating put-downs.
For example, “The Lady Is A Tramp” roundly mocks the back-biting, social-climbing crowd who sneer at a decent human being just because she eats dinner early and thinks it rude to barge into a theatre after the show has started.
But Lorenz Hart didn’t just have a way with words. He had a gift for creating intricate rhymes that was rare enough back in the 1920s, and virtually unknown today, such is the brilliance and complexity of his technique.
Good lyricists try to get a rhyme at the end of each line. Lorenz Hart shot for complex rhyming patterns within each line, as well as at the end of them.
In fact, the word ‘complex’ doesn’t begin to do him justice. Lorenz Hart painted pictures in a succession of witty, keenly-observed, scathing in-jokes told in multi-syllabic rhyme.
And as Lorenz Hart’s lyric writing goes, you’ll find few songs more deserving of the descriptor ‘brilliant’ than “Manhattan”, for which Richard Rodgers wrote the music.
Oh, there may be songs that were bigger hits. There are certainly songs that have won more awards. And plenty of songs that get played more often on the radio.
But for me, there’s no song more brilliant than “Manhattan”.
A measure of its brilliance is that only singers of formidable quality can pull it off. The control required to deliver its complex rhymes right on target is tough for even the most gifted singers.
And any singer who even thinks of trying this song for size has got to consider how their performance would compare with Ella Fitzgerald’s definitive version. Few professional singers are willing to take that risk.
“Manhattan” might be one of the foundation stones of the Great American Songbook, but it doesn’t get sung very often, except on old recordings by Ella Fitzgerald.
In “Manhattan”, Lorenz Hart pulls a really neat trick which makes me chuckle every time. It takes some degree of boldness and self-confidence to try this, but he pulls it off perfectly.
The trick is this — Lorenz Hart’s lyrics mean the exact opposite of the words you hear.
It’s a phenomenally clever way to tell a story without appearing overly-critical or snide.
When you hear:
It’s very fancy
On old Delancy
Street, you know
…you can be pretty sure that Delancy Street in 1920s New York was anything but fancy.
And even today, if you use any big city’s transport system, you know these lines are probably not to be taken at face value:
The subway charms us so
When balmy breezes blow
To and fro
By all accounts, Lorenz Hart’s personal life wasn’t a happy one.
He lived with his widowed mother and was in the habit of disappearing on drink-fuelled binges for days at a time. He felt unloved and, more tragically, undeserving of love. He never married. One of the best lyricists the world has ever known spent most of his life feeling inadequate.
In a great article in the New York Times, Stephen Holden said:
“In his lyrics, as in his life, Hart stands as a compellingly lonely figure. Although he wrote dozens of songs that are playful, funny and filled with clever wordplay, it is the rueful vulnerability beneath their surface that lends them a singular poignancy.”
That’s it exactly. “Rueful vulnerability” is what powers Lorenz Hart’s lyrics.
Lorenz Hart drank himself to death in 1943, shortly after the death of his mother.
Richard Rodgers wrote some great tunes. I’m not disputing that. But let’s not forget the man who made those great tunes into great songs.
The world would be a poorer place if Frank Sinatra had never sung his rousing, iconic version of “The Lady Is A Tramp”.
Or if Nat King Cole had never recorded the sweet and tender “My Funny Valentine”.
Or, heaven forbid, Ella Fitzgerald had never picked up the sheet music for that slice of 1920s New York in “Manhattan”.
The charming, bittersweet, scathing social commentary that Lorenz Hart so cleverly wrapped up in his complex, multi-syllabic rhymes stands proud to this day as a lyric writing masterclass, no less masterful today than it was back in 1925 when “Manhattan” first saw the light of day.
Surely the least we can do is print Lorenz Hart’s name in the programme alongside Richard Rodgers, next to the famous songs from the Great American Songbook he wrote the lyrics for.
For Lorenz Hart at his satirical best…with music by long-time collaborator Richard Rodgers…here’s Ella Fitzgerald with one of the most astonishingly clever songs ever written, and one my very favourite songs of all time. It’s “Manhattan”…