Evans and Livingston photographed at the Oscars with Paleface co-star Jane Russell—and their Oscar statuettes for “Buttons and Bows.”
In the Ray Evans Collection are three typed documents called “Act Number One,” “Act Number Two,” and (you guessed it), “Act Number Three.” They consist of the notes and script to a dog-and-pony show he and Jay performed in their later years, for example on a Princess/Rotterdam cruise. It has shorthand cues for a collection of anecdotes that they had pulled out of their pockets so many times, the sheen was almost blinding. Here’s one:
“JAY: Writing the song for O.S.S. Title changed to AFTER MIDNIGHT. Wanted title song, had to do it. Title changed to CAPTAIN CAREY, U.S.A. Got MONA LISA back. If title not changed, MONA LISA would never have existed.” (That is, in 1950, they wrote song called “After Midnight,” for a movie of the same name. But then the movie title got changed to Captain Carey, U.S.A., and not even the thickest studio executive would demand a song named that. “After Midnight” became “Mona Lisa,” Nat King Cole scored one of the top-selling records of all time, and Livingston and Evans copped their second Oscar.)
The story that got the biggest laugh was about their own biggest seller, a song that has been recorded by John Denver, Destiny’s Child, Neil Diamond, Fats Domino, Mike Douglas, The Duke Ellington Orchestra, Dulcimer Dan and The Blue Skies Band, and Bob Dylan—that’s just some of the Ds—and that Ray once called their “annuity.” In 1951, their bosses at Paramount directed them to write a Christmas song for a Bob Hope picture called The Lemon Drop Kid. Jay picked up the tale more or less like this (with kibitzing from Ray):
We knew we couldn’t write a Christmas song because they sing the same ones every year. We went up front to the suits and ties, and we said, “Let us write something that could be popular.” They were very adamant that they wanted a Christmas song. So we went back to the office very unhappy about the whole idea, and we wrote “Tinkle Bell” about the tinkle bells you hear at Christmas from the Santa Clauses and the Salvation Army.
Ray: There was a little bell on our desk and that gave us the idea.
Jay: So we went with “Tinkle Bell.” I went home that night and my wife said, “What’d you do at school?” as she usually said, and I said, “I wrote a song called “Tinkle Bell.” She said, “Do you know what ‘tinkle’ means to most people? You can’t have a song called ‘Tinkle Bell.’”
And that’s how “Silver Bells” got written.
In the ship’s cozy theater, they talked about how, in 1956, Alfred Hitchcock came to them and asked for a song for his upcoming film The Man Who Knew Too Much, one that a mother would sing to her child in a crucial moment of the plot. The tune they came up with, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” not only won them their third Oscar, but was a big pop hit for the star of the movie, Doris Day. (And don’t ask about the title song they wrote for one of Hitchcock’s follow-up films, Vertigo).
Nineteen fifty-six was also the year that the popular music world—and the world in general—were shaken by Elvis Presley and rock and roll. Ray saved a letter written to the boys that year by Harry Ruby, the old-school songwriter of “Three Little Words,” “Everyone Says I Love You,” and other standards:
Last Saturday when I heard “THE STREET WHERE YOU LIVE” on the Hit Parade—and another little ditty, entitled: “WHATEVER WILL BE, WILL BE,” I wanted to shout. When such songs can be on top, it proves that, as I have always said, the public does not get mad when someone writes a real song—the kind of song that’s here to-day and will be here tomorrow. Which reminds me that I have not heard “CEMENT MIXER” lately.
But that was whistling in the dark. Rock wouldn’t go away, and prospects started to look bleak for Ray and Jay’s kind of song. In a joint 1958 interview, Jay said, “The kids are being shortchanged, cheated out of a part of culture. They won’t have anything to be nostalgic about. How are they going to be able to look into each other’s eyes and sigh, ‘They’re playing our tune,’ when the radio’s blaring ‘Raunchy.’”
Ray chimed in: “And 10 years from now, who’s going to remember a 1958 top hit—‘Short Shorts’?”
Jay: “Professional writers can’t and won’t write rock and roll, so it’s being done by the amateurs. In rock and roll, it’s the noise on the record that counts, not the music.”
Rock wasn’t the only culprit. In the late Fifties, the men who composed film scores collectively flexed their muscles and decided that they wanted to write movie songs, too. That squeezed out old-school tunesmiths like Jay. From that point on, he doubled up with Ray to write lyrics for Henry Mancini (“Dear Heart,” “Wait Until Dark”), Neal Hefti (the theme from Harlow), David Rose (“Never Too Late”), Percy Faith (“Love Me Now,” from The Third Day), and Maurice Jarre (“Paris Smiles,” from Is Paris Burning?). With the exception of “Dear Heart,” all of the songs sank with barely a ripple.
In the 1950s and 1960s, such Hollywood songwriters as Frank Loesser, Jule Styne, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, and their old friend Burton Lane found a comfortable home on Broadway. Livingston and Evans did write the score for two Broadway shows in the late Fifties and early Sixties, Oh Captain! and Let It Ride. But both closed after relatively short runs.
The two great successes of the later years of their career, at least as far as numbers of eardrums reached, were the themes for the TV shows Bonanza and Mr. Ed. Fun facts: the person singing “A horse is a horse, of course, of course” is none other than Jay Livingston. And Ray originally penned a set of lyrics to the “Bonanza” song. They start off: “We chased lady luck, ‘til we finally struck Bonanza./With a gun and a rope and a hat full of hope, planted a family tree. /We got hold of a pot of gold, Bonanza./With a horse and a saddle, and a range full of cattle, how rich can a fellow be?” Wisely, producer David Tortort decided to scuttle them.
By the late Sixties, it was clear that their musical world had come to an end. A 1968 Billboard article, headlined LIVINGSTON AND EVANS LEAVE COAST CLEAR FOR ‘MODS’, announced that the team would “leave the contemporary-oriented record area.” A quote attributed to both men summed up the dismal state of affairs: “There are no rules in writing songs today. All the rules used by traditional songwriters are being broken.”
Even so, they would keep on writing songs until Livingston’s death in 2001; a few of them even got recorded. There were some abortive theater pieces, and periodic personal appearances like the and-then-we-wrote act on the Rotterdam/Princess cruise line. But mostly it was a long and pleasant retirement for both men. It was a remunerative one, too, as they were reminded each December, when at every point in every day, “Silver Bells” was playing on a radio somewhere.
Ben Yagoda G’91 teaches journalism at the University of Delaware and is working on a book about post-World War II popular music. His website is www.benyagoda.com.
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