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Tracks Unwrapped

I Could Write A Book



If they asked me, I could write a book
About the way you walk and whisper and look
I could write a preface on how we met
So the world would never forget

Rodgers and Hart's song might make us think of Sinatra's recording and of the film Pal Joey, but the story doesn't actually start there. Yes, the song was written for Pal Joey, but it was a stage show before the film, and a series of stories before the stage show. We all see Sinatra as Joey, hat pushed back, jacket over shoulder ... and here is the clip from the film where Joey Evans sings the song to Kim Novak's Linda English. Frank Sinatra in his prime and seen as charismatic, handsome and a bit of a rascal. Hollywood. Hollywould.




Joey asks about Linda who is dancing in the chorus line: 'Hey, who's the mouse with the built?' Today, some of the dialogue and action might be challenged as disrespectful, but my guess is that in 1957 when the film came out, it was not a major concern. The reaction to the stage show was a different story. Which takes us to the origins of Pal Joey, a series of stories by John O'Hara in The New Yorker about a worthless 'heel' and his wealthy mistress. It was O'Hara that suggested to Richard Rodgers that the stories Pal Joey postermight be turned into a musical and it was agreed that Rodgers and Hart would write the songs if O'Hara wrote the book. Pal Joey was first staged in 1940.

It was here that the true nature of Joey Evans was written. He was depicted as a totally immoral, ambitious song and dance man who dumps his girlfriend for a wealthy widow, Vera Simpson. Vera is happy to spend a great deal of money on Joey, buys him expensive clothes, a posh apartment and sets him up in a night club. But Joey is Joey, and in time he gets restless and looks for new conquests. Eventually, Vera leaves him and Joey runs into trouble with blackmailers. At the end of the play he is left alone and broke. No happy ending here.

The production ran for 374 performances and received varying reviews. In his book Broadway's Greatest Musicals, Abe Laufe writes: 'The combination of sex, blackmail, frank lyrics, and an unromantic plot made for "adult theatre", as some critics called it, praising the production because it differed radically from standard musical fare. Pal Joey, however, was too far ahead for its time. Audiences were not yet ready to accept an unpleasant story that contained not a hint of romance, and in which the only wholesome character, Linda, was also the least colourful .... Since the story dealt with shoddy affairs, Rodgers and Hart restricted any semblance of a love song to one number, I Could Write A Book. Even this could not be interpreted as a true love song, for Joey's fickleness negated any belief audiences might have had in his sincerity.'

Despite being 'ahead of its time' the stage show starred Gene Kelly as Joey and it brought him stardom as it did for another character, Van Johnson who was in the chorus and Gene Kelly's understudy. As for the songs, I Could Write A Book and Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered became popular classics.

The stage show was revived in 1952 and times had changed. 'The innuendos and frank lyrics that had shocked audiences and critics in Pal Joey Scenethe 1940s show now seemed more acceptable and more palatable.' The two popular songs were also now well known and a draw for audiences. The play was named 'Best Musical Of The Year' by the Critics Circle. Harold Lang played Joey and Vivienne Segal was again Vera, the part she had played 12 years earlier.

What were these 'frank lyrics'? If we look at two songs we can see that they are hardly 'frank' compared with some lyrics today. Click here to listen to What Is A Man? sung by Vera and which contains the lines: 'What is this thing called man? Hello Jack can't keep the appointment, have an awful cold [sneeze]. Hello Frank have to meet my husband. So long, please don't scold. Hello-Hello-love. What is a man? is he an ornament? Useless by day and dear by night. Nature's mistake since the world begun. All have one trick one that is slick. What is this thing called man?'

Or here is Our Little Den Of Iniquity sung by Vera and Joey with 'We're very proper folks you know, We've separate bedrooms comme il faut. There's one for play and one for show'.




Perhaps it was inevitable that Pal Joey became a movie, but many changes were made. Sinatra, a singer rather than a dancer, was cast as Joey and this time the happy ending saw him become a nice guy - (Sinatra won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor). Rita Hayworth played Vera, now a wealthy widow hiding a past as a stripper and in the movie it is she who performs the 'strip' number Zip (although Jo Ann Greer sang for Hayworth, and Kim Novak, now playing Linda, had Trudy Erwin singing her part). Rather than being Vera's 'toy boy', Sinatra was actually older than Rita Hayworth and there were 'new' Rodgers and Hart songs - The Lady Is A Tramp (originally from Babes In Arms) and There's A Small Hotel (originally written for Billy Rose's Jumbo and On Your Toes). Nevertheless, as we have seen, I Could Write A Book stayed firmly in place.


And the simple secret of the plot
Is just to tell them that I love you a lot
Then the world discovers, as my book ends
How to make two lovers of friends.

Since then it has become a 'Standard'. One of the classic jazz interpretations comes from 1956 and the Miles Davis Quintet's album Relaxin' : Miles Davis (trumpet); John Coltrane (tenor sax); Red Garland (piano); Paul Chambers (bass); Philly Joe Jones (drums).




In the summer of 1955, Miles had played at the Newport Jazz Festival and was offered a contract by Columbia Records if he could form a regular band, so he put together his first regular quintet for a gig at the Café Bohemia in July. It had Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone, Red Garland, piano, Paul Chambers, bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums, but by the autumn, Rollins had left because of his heroin addiction. Miles replaced Sonny with John Coltrane - a partnership that lasted for five years and resulted in one of the legendary jazz combinations.


On the website Cafe Songbook, it is argued that Lorenz Hart was known for his acerbic wit and irony, so what was he doing writing a lyric for I Rodgers and HartCould Write a Book that is imbued with simplicity, directness and innocence, especially for a show sporting a cynical point-of-view like Pal Joey? His partner Richard Rodgers explained:

'Throughout our score for Pal Joey, Larry and I were scrupulous in making every song adhere to the hard-edged nature of the story. Taken by itself, "I Could Write a Book" is perfectly straightforward and sincere in the context of the plot, however, Joey, who had probably never read a book in his life, sang it for no other reason than to impress a naive girl he had just picked up on the street.'


Rodgers and Hart (Lorenz Hart on the right)


Cafe Songbook says: 'One cannot be certain that Hart would completely agree with his partner's assessment. Seemingly ironic, Hart himself is on record as stating that "I Could Write a Book" is his favorite song from the show. One can be sure he doesn't like it so much for its romantic sentiment but much more likely for its irony, which not everyone, apparently including Rodgers, picks up on. It comes in Hart's line, "And the simple secret of the plot / Is just to tell you that I love you a lot." Joey is referring to the "plot" of the book he could supposedly write about his feelings for Linda, whereas Hart is referring to the plot of Pal Joey, which is not simple at all, but complex just as Joey (and Hart himself) is'.


And the simple secret of the plot
Is just to tell them that I love you a lot
Then the world discovers, as my book ends
How to make two lovers of friends.


Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and many others have sung the lyrics. Ella's version includes lyrics from the stage show we don't always hear:





To explain these verses, Cafe Songbook again, describes the setting for the original stage show:

Pal Joey Pet Shop scene


'The scene is set in front of a large picture window looking in on a pet shop. Joey is admiring a puppy in the window when he spies Linda who is doing the same thing. Joey doesn't lose a beat before he is regaling Linda with how he had a puppy just like this one when he was a little boy and how it was killed when the family chauffeur, Chadwick, backed the car over it. Joey continues with the tale seeking to extract every ounce of pity he can from Linda. The audience is intended to see what Linda doesn't, that this is a line and an effective one. It is so effective that Linda is immediately taken with Joey, which leads to them singing, as a duet, the only love ballad in the show "I Could Write a Book."

The premise of the song is that although neither of them did well in school, presumably at least with regard to writing, each now could "write a book / About the way you walk and whisper and look," not to mention "a preface on how we met / So the world would never forget." The romantic innocence expressed in the lyric is a good match for Linda's character but stands in powerfully ironic contrast to Joey's machiavellian approach to love and life.'




I never learned to spell 
at least not well.
I never learned to count
a great amount.
But my busy mind is burning 
to use what learning I've got.
I won't waste any time,
I'll strike while the iron is hot.



Use to hate to go to schoolI never craked a book;
I pleyed the hook
Never answered any mail;
to write I used to think was wasting ink.
It was never my endeavor
to be too clever and smart.
how I suddenly feel
a longing to write in my heart.


Dinah Washington's version from 1955 is quite different. She sounds more confident than an uneducated Linda might and the track carries some nice solos. Arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones it had Clark Terry (trumpet); Jimmy Cleveland (trombone); Paul Quinichette (tenor sax); Cecil Payne (baritone sax); Wynton Kelly (piano); Barry Galbraith (guitar); Keter Betts (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums).




There is an amusing, alternative angle on the idea of writing a book that was recorded by country singers Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson in their track I Could Write A Book About You from their album Heroes. 'But you don't have to worry; I ain't goin' to do it!' Perhaps, but there again, they also recorded Old Age And Treachery (click here), so who knows .....




Artie Shaw's big band recorded a 'hot' version of I Could Write A Book. The recording was made around 1945 and it must have been off the back of the stage show rather than the film as Artie Shaw retired from music in 1954. Artie's band had been at the height of its success during the 1930s and 1940s. When war came, Artie served in the US Navy during which time he led a band that toured the South Pacific. Following his discharge in 1944, he returned to lead a band through 1945 but then, when the band broke up, he began to focus on other interests and gradually withdrew from the world of being a professional musician.




He put it down to his expectations of himself, saying to a reporter: "In the world we live in, compulsive perfectionists finish last. You have to be Lawrence Welk or, on another level, Irving Berlin, and write the same kind of music over and over again. I'm not able to do that, and I have taken the clarinet as far as anyone can possibly go. To continue playing would be a disservice." Nevertheless, in 1984 he did put together another band with clarinettist Dick Johnson as bandleader. Artie appeared with the band for a year before handing everything over to Johnson.

In 1952, Artie wrote a book - The Trouble With Cinderella. It was subtitled 'An Outline Of Identity' and could be said to have been 'about the way you walk and whisper and look'. One reviewer sums it up: 'Shaw points out that people who were uneducated about music and about art and about literature were satisfied with the slickness that was part of entertainment. When an entertainer developed something people liked, he couldn’t move beyond it. People paid for their expectations. As an entertainer, he couldn’t develop as a musician. This is part of the trouble with Cinderella. Once you attain the prince, you can’t go any further.'

Harry Connick Jr. recorded a big band version of I Could Write A Book for the score of the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally - click here - people tend not to remember the soundtrack as much as they remember this scene in Katz's Delicatessen with Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal.




We leave this unwrapping with two more up-to-date videos of I Could Write A Book. The first is with pianist Francesca Tandoi at her Master's recital in 2015 with Frans Van Geest (double bass) and Frits Landesbergen (drums).




The other is from 2004. Unfortunately it has a couple of brief spots of interference but I think it is worth seeing. It is the Kelly Craig Sextet playing the number with Kelly Craig (trumpet / band leader), Brian Asselin (tenor sax), Nathan Cepelinski (alto sax), Brian Browne(piano), Don Johnson (dums) and Norm Glaude (upright bass).




My page was too white
My ink was too thin
The day wouldn't write
What the night pencilled in

I know she is coming
I know she will look
And that is the longing
And this is the book

Leonard Cohen from The Book Of Longing


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More Tracks Unwrapped:

Tracks Unwrapped Index
Jumpin With Symphony Sid
Bohemia After Dark
Big Butter And Egg Man

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