For this last round of the Song Draft, I decided to zig while others zagged. And actually zig while I was going to zag, doing a song I hadn’t even considered until this morning. While several people have looked to fine new songs from newish or up-and-coming artists, I decided to go back. Way back to the 1920s and give a nod to “Someone To Watch Over Me.”
I got the idea while writing about Paul McCartney. He was the third recipient of (and first non-American to win) the Gershwin Prize, an award given out by the Library of Congress to composers or performers, for lifetime contributions to popular music, recognizing the “profound and positive effect of popular music on the world’s culture.” Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder were the two artists who preceded McCartney in its honor role, pretty good company to keep! But it’s worth noting the award was named after brothers George and Ira Gershwin, the roaring ’20s version of Lennon & McCartney. The brothers wrote a number of great pop songs and even entire musicals that live on to this day. There was even a musical written to showcase their music – Crazy for You. I went to it in Toronto in the 1990s, mainly to have a classy date for a gal I was trying to impress. To my surprise, I loved the show. I can’t tell you a great deal about the storyline now, but remember it looked great with vintage props and the music was excellent. All those old songs that somehow I knew. That didn’t seem all that old. “Someone to Watch Over Me” was the one which stood out the most.
The song was written in 1926 with George Gershwin composing and Ira penning most of the lyrics, with a little help from songwriter/MGM ad-man Howard Dietz, who may have contributed one important thing – the title. It was for a musical they were putting together for Broadway entitled Oh Kay!, and was sung by an actress in a maid’s costume holding a little ragdoll she sang to. The New York production actress was an English lady by name of Gertrude Lawrence, who recorded the first version of it. Since then some 1800 other artists have followed suit, perhaps most importantly by Lee Wiley in 1939. Her contribution was to slow the song down a little and make it the “torch song” we know it as now. Others to try their hand at it include Frank Sinatra on his very first album, Ella Fitzgerald (whom some consider the ultimate version), Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt and even Willie Nelson. More recent versions include ones by Amy Winehouse, Rod Stewart and Susan Boyle. Along the way it’s shown up in TV shows from The Simpsons to Glee to Star Trek and movies like Mr. Holland’s Opus and Manhattan. There’s a reason it would appeal to film-makers ranging from Woody Allen to Matt Groening… it’s simply a fine song. It has a great tune, and the lyrics are ones almost anybody can relate to. Sure, the idea of a woman needing a man to look after her is out of step with our times, but the underlying theme – wanting someone special in our lives to care about and be cared for by – is still universal. As is a lot of great pop music.
“Someone to Watch Over Me” reminds of how a lot of our pop culture today came about by casting a backwards glance to the entertainment of the past. And it reminds us too of how pop music, at its best is anything but “disposable.” The Library of Congress says so for goodness’ sake!
This wraps up my part in this event, so I’d like to thank Hans for inviting me to be a part of it and for the work he put into getting it together, day in, day out, for all of our enjoyment. And, if he’s of the mind to…I still have another ten (or ten dozen!) songs I could share with others down the road.