Two of the team’s best-known songs were introduced in Bob Hope vehicles—“Buttons and Bows” in The Paleface and “Silver Bells” in The Lemon Drop Kid.
World War II came soon afterwards, of course. Jay was inducted, but Ray was kept out of the service because of an old football injury. In 1943, from his post at Ft. Ontario, New York, Jay was sufficiently surprised at hearing a Syracuse radio station play their song “Hello There”—a followup to “G’bye Now” that hadn’t come close to matching its success—that he was inspired to put pen to paper. “These small stations play a lot of BMI music all day, and that explains where our performance royalties are coming from,” Livingston wrote his partner. “The last check wasn’t bad.” (He added, “You better drown your troubles in sex as long as you have that place to yourself.”)
Jay was out of the service by 1944. Songwriting prospects were sufficiently thin for the team that they took Ole Olsen up on an offer: if they would drive his car from Chicago to Los Angeles, they could stay at his house on the Coast for a while. At first, amazingly and depressingly enough, LA felt like a reprise of their worst New York days, albeit with sunnier skies and some positive interactions with top Hollywood songwriters. Ray wrote in his diary about meeting Finian’s Rainbow composer Burton Lane (“He was very nice”) and Al Dubin (lyricist for 42nd Street and the Gold Diggers movies), who “told us many anecdotes of old timers and lore of Hollywood. When he first heard Larry Hart’s lyrics and it was the only time he felt discouraged—then Hart asks Mr. Dubin if they were okay.”
Not so encouraging was their interview with Nat Finston, the head of music at the most prestigious studio of all, MGM. First, he kept them waiting for an hour. “Almost went crazy sitting there,” Ray wrote that night in his diary. “But, finally he came and turned out to be good-natured but eccentric. He seemed to be surprised that we weren’t members of Ascap, if we were ‘amateurs,’ what were we looking for etc.” Whatever they were looking for, they didn’t get it at MGM.
Ultimately, however, a chain of events led inexorably (or so it seems in retrospect) to the night when they heard their names called out as Oscar winners. The medley went something like this:
After months of scrounging and living in a five-dollars-a-week room in the Hollywood Hills, Ray and Jay were hired by a low-rent movie studio, PRC, to write songs for some low-rent pictures: Secrets of a Co-Ed; I Accuse My Parents; Crime, Inc.; Swing Hostess; and Why Girls Leave Home. (“The violent, unvarnished truth about the scores of thousands of young girls who recklessly toss away home ties for a life of dangerous thrills!”) The star of a couple of the movies was the former Benny Goodman singer Martha Tilton, who …
Recorded for Capitol Records. One of the heads and founders of Capitol was the great songwriter Johnny Mercer and through Tilton (as Ray wrote in his diary), “We went to see Mercer. Surprise of surprises, we saw him and he was very enthusiastic about ‘Cat and Canary.’ It won’t mean anything except his getting to know us a little better. But, it sure buoyed us up to have something favorable on the horizon.” Mercer did in fact like their song “The Cat and the Canary” …
And ended up singing it, as well as some other Livingston and Evans tunes, on his radio show, The Johnny Mercer Chesterfield Music Shop—mentioning their names each time. A few months later…
Capitol called Jay and Ray asking if they had any songs for a new Betty Hutton record. The label took one, a swinging tune called “Stuff Like That There.” Billboard said of the disk in characteristic lingo, “Here’s a cinch for jukes. It’s lady Hutton at her best … It’s definitely big-time. Once it catches on, it should go like a house-a-fire.” The song reached No. 4 on the charts, and shortly afterwards…
Hutton was making a movie for Paramount called The Stork Club, and Johnny Mercer recommended Ray and Jay as songwriters. In August 1946, they auditioned for producers Louis Lipstone and Buddy de Sylva, who took one of their songs, “A Square in the Social Circle.” About two weeks later…
And here Ray Evans picks up the story (he’s quoted in Gene Lees’ biography of Mercer, Portrait of Johnny): “We got a call from Louis Lipstone. He said, ‘I’d like to see you in my office. We need someone to write songs for the shorts and things like that. We can’t pay you very much, two hundred a week. But if you like it, it’s a nine-to-five job.’ We said, ‘Of course!’ He said, ‘Okay, we’ll give you a contract.’ On our way out of his office, Jay said, ‘Is it two hundred each or two hundred for both of us?’ It was two hundred each.”
The boys placed songs in a couple of Paramount films, notably Bob Hope’s Monsieur Beaucaire. But they were not setting the world on fire, and were painfully aware that their contract had an option, which Paramount could renew at its pleasure. Not long before the telltale date, the studio’s publicity department had the bright idea to create a song called “To Each His Own,” the title of one its forthcoming movies. The song wouldn’t be in the film, which was already in the can. The hope was that it would get recorded, receive airplay, and thus provide free advertising for the picture. The flacks started at the top of the songwriting pecking order and went down the line. Everybody turned them down. Evans later recalled that “Victor Young, who had written the movie’s score, said, ‘I won’t write a song with that dumb title.’” But he and Jay, at the very bottom, couldn’t afford to say no.
Frankly, 65 years after its creation, “To Each His Own” does not impress. Its melody is singsongy (though admittedly not uncatchy), its lyrics sentimental and just this side of banal: “Two lips must insist on two more to be kissed/Or they’ll never know what love can do./To each his own, I’ve found my own/One and only you.” But it appeared at a sentimental and in some ways simple time, and for whatever reason it struck a nerve. Close to a dozen orchestras and singers recorded the song; the most successful, Eddy Howard’s, topped the Billboard charts for eight straight weeks. Needless to say, Paramount renewed Livingston and Evans’ contract. By the following March—according to a Los Angeles Daily News article in the scrapbook—“To Each His Own” had sold 4 million records and 1 million pieces of sheet music, and had earned its writers $30,000. The article did not specify if that was $30,000 each or $30,000 for both of them.
More so than its financial success, “To Each His Own” would have a profound effect on Livingston and Evans’ career, and on Hollywood music more generally. In the words of a 1946 Billboard headline, ‘TO EACH’ CLICK MAY CUE MORE TITLE TUNES. Translation: all the studios started taking a page from Paramount’s book and commissioning songs to play under the credits of their films; if it had the same title as the picture, so much the better, but there was definitely no need for it to have anything to do with the picture. Ray and Jay became the go-to guys for this subgenre. Over the next five years, they wrote title songs for the films Golden Earrings; Easy Come, Easy Go; The Big Clock; Beyond Glory; Copper Canyon; Song of Surrender; and When Worlds Collide (“When worlds collide and mountains tumble, I’ll stop loving you”). Ray later said that the only title-song assignment they ever turned down was Desert Fury. One wonders why.
In contrast to their early days in Manhattan, when they created whatever came into their heads, this was a pure work-for hire situation, for good or ill. The good was the paycheck. The ill was having to write songs like “When Worlds Collide” or the 1956 “The Mole People.” (“The mole people,/They live in a hole, people.”) That is an oversimplification. Livingston and Evans had sufficient talent, experience, and drive that, as often as not, they could take an assignment on a Friday—the title often non-negotiable—and by Monday have crafted an honorable piece of work.
One day at Paramount, a producer on a forthcoming Bob Hope film came to their office, ordered up a song … and left the title up to them! In an interview years later, Ray remembered that the producer said, “Why don’t you write a song about Bob being a tenderfoot in the Wild West, way out of his element? And he wishes he were back East where life is civilized.” Out of that came “Buttons and Bows,” a small gem of a character song. (It, as well as every other Livingston and Evans song that exists in recorded form, can be heard at the superb website devoted to their work, www.rayevans.org).
Dinah Shore got hold of the sheet music and made a record; it shot to the top of the charts in September 1948 and stayed there for 10 weeks. Sensing a potential waste of good publicity, Paramount speeded up release of the Hope picture, The Paleface, and featured “Buttons and Bows” in every bit of advertising. Reviewing the movie in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote:
The historic thing about “The Paleface” is that in it is tucked away, as though it were a thing of no consequence, the sensational “Buttons and Bows.” This song, which, our seasoned sources tell us, is now the all-time all-time hit, is brushed off in one casual chorus by—of all people!—Mr. Hope. Twiddling a concertina and comically mouthing the words, Mr. Hope tosses off the number and indifferently leaves it lie. Nobody picks it up later. That’s all they originally thought of it when “The Paleface” was put together more than a year ago.
The great things in human progress—and in art—usually happen this way. “The Paleface” deserves primarily a marker as the birthplace of “Buttons and Bows.”
Three months later, the boys picked up their Oscar.
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