I Cover the Waterfront: Steyn's Song of the Week :: SteynOnline
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I Cover the Waterfront: Steyn's Song of the Week :: SteynOnline

Jul 29, 2023

by Johnny Green and Edward HeymanJuly 30, 2023


For the second week running, this weekend's Song of the Week comes by way of breakfast on the Adriatic. As many readers are aware, I remain on my sick bed in Trieste, which, as sick beds go, could be a lot worse. Every once in a while, I'm pronounced healthy enough to travel five miles over the border and enjoy the perambulations of as many Slovene lovelies as my bum ticker can stand. The rest of the time I sit in my Italian accommodations and enjoy the view of one of my favourite seas anywhere in the world. I can watch the port, and always hope that one morning the Mark Steyn Cruise ship will return and Dominique, Raisa, Snerdley, Leilani and the rest of the gang will disembark to tell me to hop aboard right now because we're off on another voyage.

So I'm - oh, what's the expression? - covering the waterfront. And there's a lot of waterfront to cover. My view doesn't include the leisurely coastal road into town from the rest of Italy, which is probably just as well: There's no real beach - just the sea, and a sidewalk to separate it from the incoming traffic. But a surprising number of the ladies are wont to spread a towel and sunbathe topless thereon. My town back in New Hampshire has no raised sidewalk, but, even if it did, I can't see the North Country gals besporting themselves in similar fashion. In the Granite State, most boards of selectmen would surely insist on re-covering the water fronts pretty sharpish.

What was I talking about? My train of thought seems to have jumped the tracks. Oh, yeah: I cover the waterfront. Here's Miss Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics:

"I Cover The Waterfront" is the song of the film of the book of the newspaper beat. Before they became a wasteland for the antiseptic prose of insipid J-school eunuchs to the Sultans of Woke, American newspapers were - hard as it is to credit - actually readable. Really. Even the bad ones. The San Diego Sun was generally regarded as a third-rate paper in what was then a competitive market, but it had a reporter called Max Miller, whose beat was the waterfront. He never came in to the paper, but instead worked out of a room down at the docks, above the tugboat office, shared with a publicity agent. His brief was waterfront life in all its manifestations - fishermen and stevedores, smugglers and spies, visiting celebrities and passing con-men, sailors on leave and the ladies who cater to them. Miller wrote about them all, from Lucky Lindbergh to the hermit on an outlying island who made periodic visits to town solely to visit Mrs Morgan's Boarding House for Girls, "boarding" being a careless misspelling for "bawdy".

After a few years in the job, Miller figured he had enough material for a book - a string of vignettes of waterfront life. It's a lively read, right from the first sentence of the opening chapter, "The Damned and the Lost":

I have been here so long that even the sea gulls must recognize me. They must pass the word along about me from generation to generation, from egg to egg.

Former friends of mine, members of my old university class, acquaintances my own age, have gone out to earn their 6,000 a year. They have become managers, they have become editors, they have become artists. Yet here am I, what I was six years ago, a waterfront reporter.

The final paragraph's pretty good, too:

I have written as much of a book as I can write.

Which turned out to be prophetic. He turned out a book a year for the next three decades and never matched the success of this first one. Miller called it I Cover The Waterfront, and in 1932 it got rave reviews and became a big bestseller. And suddenly its odd, declarative title was in the air, and United Artists decided to turn it into a picture staring Ben Lyon. Instead of hard-boiled, hard-living, hard-drinking reporter Max Miller of The San Diego Sun, the movie's hero was hard-boiled, etc, reporter Joe Miller of The San Diego Standard. After five years in the job, Joe, like Max, is tired of the waterfront beat and wants to go back east and marry his Vermont sweetheart. But he's asked to investigate a guy who's running a human trafficking racket smuggling Chinese immigrants into the country illegally (an oddly topical subject in today's America), and he winds up falling in love with the smuggler's daughter - Claudette Colbert. This was a pre-Hays Code movie, so the boarding house that's really a bordello stayed in the picture.

When you've got a hit book and a hit movie, a hit song can't be far behind. The fellows who got the assignment were Johnny Green and Edward Heyman. John Waldo Green wrote a small number of truly excellent songs and then spent much of his time conducting and arranging and scoring pictures. He was the longtime music man at MGM, where he played a huge part in creating that big instantly recognizable MGM sound on films such as Easter Parade, An American in Paris, High Society, all the way to the movie version of Oliver!

What are perhaps the finest songs in the Johnny Green catalogue both have lyrics by Ed Heyman - although back in the Eighties Green denied to me that either song was anything special, and suggested that neither of them compared to his "Song of Raintree County". Oh, well. The first Green/Heyman masterpiece is one of the most recorded and performed songs of the last hundred years - the all-time great torch ballad:

My heart is sad and lonelyFor you I sighFor you, dear, onlyWhy haven't you seen it?I'm all for youBody And Soul...

Three years after "Body and Soul", "I Cover The Waterfront" posed a different kind of challenge for Green and Heyman. The phrase was the opposite of a vernacular expression; it's not clear anyone on the planet other than Max Miller had ever uttered those words. But it was deemed to be a hit title, and so Green and Heyman were tasked with fleshing it out for a hit song:

I Cover The WaterfrontI'm watching the sea...

Yeah, but that's the San Diego reporter's news beat. Can't get a universal pop tune out of that, can you?

Will the one I loveBe coming back to me?

And hey presto! A phrase for a guy who hangs out among the lowlifes on the rotting wharf in search of scoop and scandal is transformed into a phrase for a guy who hangs out among the lowlifes on the rotting wharf in search of his lost love. From May 1933, here's the first recording - Abe Lyman's orchestra with vocal refrain by Gracie Barrie:

I Cover The WaterfrontIn search of my loveAnd I'm covered byA starless sky above...

Heyman's premise is that his protagonist is covering the waterfront looking for a love whose ship has sailed. Green, without getting too literal, is also anxious to convey a sense of locale. The verse is certainly brooding:

Away from the city that hurts and knocks,I'm standing alone by the desolate docksIn the still and the chill of the nightI see the horizon, the great unknownMy heart has an ache...

Billie Holiday, who played a big part in keeping the song alive after the book and film had been forgotten, sang the verse and made it work for her - because she sounded like the kind of woman who'd be left standing on the dock by some no-account who passed in the night:

Musically speaking the most arresting part of the song is the middle section of the chorus with its alternating high lines and low lines. I've bolded the lower-register lyric:

Here am IPatiently waitingHoping and longingOh, how I yearnWhere are you?Are you forgetting?Do you remember?Will you return?

What's going on there will all those octave leaps up and down? It's like a call-and-response with your own insecurities. If the verse conveys the loneliness and desolation, the still and chill, the emptiness of the great unknown, then the middle section captures the restlessness, the waiting, the pacing, up and down the dock, up ("Here am I"), down ("Patiently waiting"), up ("Hoping and longing"), down ("Oh, how I yearn"). Or am I getting a bit too over-interpretative here?

At any rate, Green's use of triplets and Heyman's sensitivity to them (I'm assuming the tune came first) makes this an exemplary match of words and music. I always like the way the release gets back to the key of the main theme very neatly through the simple expedient of stepping down half--a-tone from the "-ber" of "Do you remember?" to the "will" of "Will you return?" (C# to C on the original sheet). It has an oddly calming effect, as if the protagonist has decided "Enough with the pacing!" and turned back to contemplate the vast inky black still of the sea and night:

I Cover The Waterfront...

Whoops, there I go getting all over-interpretative again.

Frank Sinatra was undoubtedly familiar with Billie Holiday's treatment of the song and, as a great admirer of Holiday, would have appreciated its quality. But he also knew a bit about covering the waterfront. Frank was variously a singer, actor, conductor, sometime dancer, occasional songwriter, album producer, film producer, record-company owner... But these were all activities he enjoyed. Did he ever work in the sense that most of us have to do at some point in our lives? The shift you have to get up for, the grinding drudgery, punching the clock, in and out...

Well, yeah. He was sixteen years old, had dropped out of high school in Hoboken, and an uncle got him a job at the Teijent & Lang shipyard. He hung over a four-story-high shaft and caught white-hot rivets until, on the third day, he miscalculated his swing (not something he ever did with Nelson Riddle) and one of them crashed down on him. "I couldn't handle it," he said. "I was hanging on to that rope and that burning hot rivet went by me like a bullet, singeing my shoulder." He quit in terror.

Tote dat barge, lif' dat bale? Frankie abandoned the barge life and turned to lifting bales - or actually crates, of books, for Lyons & Carnahan on 16th Street across the river in Manhattan.

But that bored him, too. So he went back to the docks, and took a job with United Fruit Lines, for whom he had to crawl inside the condenser units and unscrew tubes so that they could be pulled out and cleaned. When he quit that job, his dad, to his surprise, threw him out, albeit rather politely and matter-of-factly: "Why don't you just get out of the house and go out on your own?"

Frankie, a bit surprised, packed a small case and moved to New York.

There was one more job the teenage Sinatra held before gigs such as "singing waiter" gave him his first semi-rung on the music ladder. His mother prevailed upon his godfather, Frank Garrick, who was circulation manager at The Jersey Observer. "He worked at flinging bundles of newspapers onto the delivery trucks," the widow of the city editor recalled, "but he was so frail that my husband gave him a job inside."

So Frankie became the office boy, the gofer. One day a sports reporter was killed in a car crash. Frank Garrick told Sinatra biographer Anthony Summers that his godson "sat down at the dead boy's desk and acted as if he had the job". Maybe he could have done it, but instead Garrick fired him - and, as he told it, Sinatra never spoke to his godfather again until his mother's death almost fifty years later.

So we have a guy who worked a bit on the docks... and in the newspaper business... and then started singing love ballads. Hmm. Is there any kind of song for that kind of work?

Well, it was round about the exact time Frankie was laboring at Teijent & Lang and United Fruit Lines that Johnny Green and Edward Heyman wrote:

I Cover The Waterfront...

That's the newsman's beat: not a sportswriter, but a reporter who covers the waterfront.

I'm watching the sea...

Making sure all those Teijent & Lang and United Fruit Lines vessels have their rivets in place and their condenser units shipshape?

Will the one I loveBe coming back to me?

And there's the love song.

In 1957 Sinatra selected "I Cover the Waterfront" as one of the tracks for his first Capitol album without Nelson Riddle. So far he'd used Riddle for both swingers (Songs For Swingin' Lovers, A Swingin' Affair) and ballads (In The Wee Small Hours, Close To You), but for the songs of loss on Where Are You? he was looking for something a little bleaker in the storytelling, and turned to Gordon Jenkins. As we discussed last week, Jenkins is not to every Sinatra fan's taste, nor to every Sinatra orchestra member's taste, but he delivered some magnificent arrangements for this album. If Riddle's Small Hours are stark, Where Are You? finds its answer in a kind of luxuriant melancholy, with some of Jenkins' most haunting string writing. On April 29th 1957, he and Sinatra went into the studio at Capitol in Los Angeles and recorded four tracks: "I Cover The Waterfront", "Lonely Town", "Laura" and "Baby, Won't You Please Come Home?" I would rank the first three as primo Sinatra masterpieces, and the fourth as a very close runner-up. All in a night's work.

Frank chose not to sing the verse, perhaps sensing that it places the material too close to Billie Holiday and makes it too specific. Which the situation undoubtedly is - I mean, honestly, how many of us have gone down to prowl the docks for a lost love? But he comes as close as he can to universalizing the situation.

I Cover The WaterfrontI'm watching the seaFor the one I loveMust soon come back to me...

Must she? Jenkins' inclination to grandiosity didn't always suit his material, but you can see why Frank chose him for this number. The strings chart the vastness and emptiness all around, and at the heart of it a solitary figure lost in his loneliness:

Only a famous instrumental performance - from Lester Young and his sax - comes as close to opening up the darkness of the song:

For the one I loveMust soon come back to me.

Did the lyric evoke memories of a skinny kid from Hoboken a quarter-century earlier? Dodging the rivets at Teijent & Lang? Unscrewing the tubes at United Fruit Lines? Frank Sinatra found something he was better at.

As for the creators of "I Cover The Waterfront", songwriters who worked in Hollywood in the heyday of the theme song used to joke about having to turn any old film title into a love ballad - Gone With The Wind, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, whatever. But Green and Heyman actually pulled it off! It was written merely to promote the film rather than to feature in it, but it was so good the producers then had the picture re-scored on the eve of release to get it in there - and missed the entire point, by only using it instrumentally. True, the title makes it just a wee bit too special to ever be a blockbuster universal love song up there with "The Way You Look Tonight" and "The Very Thought Of You", but, as that Annie Lennox version demonstrates, the vivid if eccentric specificity of the number speaks to singers, and they love the evocative atmospherics of the verse:

It's a very great song - as Johnny Green, when he'd finished talking up "The Song of Raintree County", surely knew. Not long before he died, Green spoke to me about his various accomplishments, on Broadway, in Hollywood, on the concert stage, in the recording studio. There were a few lows, but an awful lot of highs, including "I Cover The Waterfront". He chuckled contentedly to me and recalled an old pal. "As my friend Alan Jay Lerner said, 'Modesty is for those who deserve it.' And I don't."

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