A Great American Songbook Song for My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor: “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” by Cole Porter, Sung by Virginia Bruce to Jimmy Stewart in Born to Dance (MGM 1936)

I’m warning you, bonny John (and take it from someone with experience in such matters): Don’t ever again let your baton write a check your heart won’t cash.

Virginia Bruce Jimmy Stewart

I’d sacrifice anything come what might
for the sake of having you near
In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night
and repeats and repeats in my ear
Don’t you know little fool, you never can win
Use your mentality, wake up to reality
But each time I do just the thought of you
makes me stop before I begin
‘Cause I’ve got you under my skin

A Great American Songbook Song for My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor: “Where Or When” by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart from Babes In Arms (1937)

When you’re awake
The things you think
Come from the dreams you dream
Thought has wings
And lots of things
Are seldom what they seem

Where or When

Another love song to you, John Wilson my darling, my bonny, my Tyneside lad. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Warner Bros 1974), Scorsese’s fourth feature, my favorite actress in the world Ellen Burstyn plays Alice Hyatt, a New Mexico housewife suddenly widowed and left without means of support, who decides to try to return to her childhood home of Monterey, California and make a go of it again as a professional singer.

Weak and breathy as her voice is, she keeps the tune and the beat throughout the entire song—Scorsese has her sing the entire song, with intro—and something about the way Edna Rae (Burstyn’s original name) sings appeals to me so much I come back to this scene again and again. Maybe it’s that her through-line is surprisingly strong. By the way, you do notice the sheet music for Oklahoma! on the piano…

A Great American Songbook Song for My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor: “All the Things You Are” by Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II from Very Warm for May (1939)

Everything I want to sing to you, John Wilson, Conductor, flame of my heart, my bonny, my love. The most beautiful song ever written (at 49:28), sung in the classiest concert of The Great American Songbook ever televised, Broadway Originals (PBS, 1993), played by the Boston Pops and conducted by the sweetest musical theater restorer-preservationist who ever lived, John McGlinn, who discovered Kern’s “lost” score and died far too young at 55. Hosted by the most glamorous hostess on the Eastern Seaboard, Kitty Carlisle Hart. Orchestration of this Jerome Kern classic by Robert Russell Bennett. Milton Babbitt, that champion of musical theater and Stephen Sondheim’s teacher, wrote an illuminating analysis of this song; find it here.

All the Things You Are

You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song
You are the angel glow that lights a star
The dearest things I know are what you are

A Great American Songbook Song for My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor: “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter from Jubilee (1935)

BBC’s resident singer/interviewer Claire Teal welcomes Proms stalwart and all-around “shouty scary” (her description) conductor John Wilson to the studio to talk about his new CD album Cole Porter in Hollywood and his orchestra’s 2014 tour, as well as spin a few swing platters, none of which we hear in entirety. Toward the end of the interview John’s mate and orchestra drummer, Matt Skelton, rips through “Begin the Beguine”.

John and ClaireClaire Teal and Conductor John Wilson, 28 September 2014.

“Begin the Beguine” is a song written by Cole Porter (a song is music with WORDS John, you know?) who composed it at the piano in the bar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. The beguine comes from the Caribbean; it’s a combination of French ballroom dance and Latin folk dance and was popular in Paris at the time Porter was writing.

The song is notable for its 108-measure length, departing drastically from the conventional thirty-two-bar form. Where a typical standard popular song of its time was written in a fairly strict 32-measure form consisting of two or three eight-measure subjects generally arranged in the form A-A-B-A or A-B-A-C, “Begin the Beguine” employs the form A-A-B-A-C1-C2 with each phrase being sixteen measures in length rather than the usual eight. The final C2 section is stretched beyond its 16 measures an additional twelve bars for a total of 28 measures, with the twelve additional measures providing a sense of finality to the long form. The slight differences in each of the A sections, along with the song’s long phrases and final elongated C2 section at the end, give it unique character and complexity. The fact that the song’s individual parts hold up melodically and harmonically over such a long form also attests to Porter’s talent and ability as a songwriter.

Porter reportedly once said of the song, “I can never remember it—if I want to play I need to see the music in front of me!” Alec Wilder described it in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950 as “a maverick, an unprecedented experiment and one which, to this day, after hearing it hundreds of times, I cannot sing or whistle or play from start to finish without the printed music”.

“Begin the Beguine”
Ella Fitzgerald, Vocals
Buddy Bregman & His Orchestra
Verve Records, 1956

When they begin the beguine
It brings back the sound of music so tender
It brings back a night of tropical splendor
It brings back a memory ever green

I’m with you once more under the stars
And down by the shore an orchestra’s playing
And even the palms seem to be swaying
When they begin the beguine

To live it again is past all endeavor
Except when that tune clutches my heart
And there we are, swearing to love forever
And promising never, never to part

What moments divine, what rapture serene
Til clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted
And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted
I know but too well what they mean

So don’t let them begin the beguine
Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember
Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember
When they begin the beguine

Oh yes, let them begin the beguine, make them play
‘Til the stars that were there before return above you
‘Til you whisper to me once more
Darling, I love you

And we suddenly know what heaven we’re in
When they begin the beguine
When they begin the beguine

The Story So Far, with Conductor John Wilson

Cantara, former ASCAP solfeggist and 70s porn actress turned screenplay writer, has fallen hopelessly in love with a man at the other end of the world, an English, middle-ranking orchestra conductor—who plays, on the side, Golden Age of Hollywood music and The Great American Songbook—by the name of John Wilson.

John Wilson Proms.jpeg
The Goddess smiles on you, John.

Not because he’s a fellow creator (he doesn’t create, but reconstructs, orchestrates and arranges the music of others)—not because of his looks (he’s peaky, scrawny, blinky; his gray-green eyes lack luster; he’s got a facial tic, lousy posture, enormous feet, the limbs of a stick insect and the hands of a hod carrier; his nose is an equilateral triangle; his famous cleft chin, supposedly his best feature, always looks slightly askew; his ultra-short mousy hair can’t conceal the fact he’s already going gray; he sweats like a stevedore on the podium; and for the past few years he’s taken to wearing geek glasses)—and certainly not for his intellect (his fatuous pronouncement about the needlessness of lyrics in The Great American Songbook makes me want to smack the back of his head like the whippersnapper he is and send him home with a note).

So what is it about him?* I’ve only been aware of his existence since 30 April and in love with him since 4 May, 2018; since then my feelings have been an insane mixture of compassion, gratitude, annoyance, and lust. The compassion I can understand: I’ve been in Hollywood long enough to understand the position he’s in… As far as gratitude, read my posts about “The Trolley Song”. Even the raging lust I get.

But whenever John gets himself in the way of the music it drives me nuts. It’s crystal clear to me the times he does this because I’m in love with him, dammit, and because whenever I’m in love with a musician I pay attention to the music. (This has happened only once before in my life, actually.) Truth to tell, the only times John really gets himself in the way are when he’s conducting his own hand-picked group which is dedicated mostly to music from Golden Hollywood & The Great American Songbook, and cannily named The John Wilson Orchestra.

Whether he gets himself in the way indeliberately or on purpose I cannot entirely tell, but I’m starting to. With a little patience he isn’t that hard to read, my bonny John Wilson. After countless times listening to his recordings and broadcasts; pouring over his interviews; watching him conduct (in video clips, mainly from the annual BBC Proms); watching him conduct other orchestras besides his own (ditto); and, most important, learning to separate the showman from the musician, I’m starting to understand his type of intelligence and his musical capability, which is actually pretty sizable. His ear (the way he hears things, not his purported perfect pitch) is intriguing and his industriousness is admirable. I am definitely not buying into the PR excess—he is not “a superstar”, “a guru(!!!)”, “charismatic”, “legendary” or, God help us, as proclaimed by Brass Bands Monthly, a “conducting icon” (at 46!?). But his musicianship at times is kiiind of brilliant.

Part Two below or here.

* Update 10 August 2019: Actually, I’ve just determined what it is about him and I’ve got science to back me up. It’s John’s fault.