|MY MELANCHOLY BABY by Ernie Burnett and George A Norton|
Song of the Week #202
24 Oct 2011
One hundred years ago this month - October 31st 1911 - a husband and wife from Denver, Colorado registered a song with the US Copyright Office. A century on, we still sing the husband's tune, but not (quite) the wife's lyric. Oh, and the title has gotten a little extended since it was initially copyrighted under the single word "Melancholy". Just melancholy in general? No,in this case highly specific: a melancholy baby. More to the point, " My Melancholy Baby":
Come to me, My Melancholy Baby
Cuddle up and don't be blue
All your fears are foolish fancy, maybe
You know, dear, that I'm in love with you...
The story of how "Melancholy" by Ernie Burnett and Maybelle Watson became "My Melancholy Baby" by Ernie Burnett and George A Norton is a convoluted one that's wound up in court a couple of times over the years and has been further confused by divorce, post-combat amnesia, and various bouts of melancholy for those on the wrong end of the royalty disputes. But the Copyright Office deals only in facts and so we can say for certain that this month is the official one hundredth birthday of one of the earliest enduring standards in the 20th century American Songbook - and of the origin of the maudlin barfly's perennial call to the pianist, "Play 'Melancholy Baby'..."
Ernie Burnett was born Ernest Mario Bernaditto in Cincinnatti in 1884, and had a formal conservatory music education in Germany and Italy. Big deal. He came back to America in 1901, and the only gainful employment he could find was as a vaudeville pianist. After a few years on the road, he and his wife Maybelle settled in Denver, and one day in 1911 he wrote the tune and she wrote the words for a verse-and-chorus number called "Melancholy". After registering it for copyright, Burnett pushed it hard, but nobody was interested. The following year, 1912, Burnett took it to his friend, a Denver music publisher called Theron Bennett. Bennett liked the tune, but not the words. With the agreement of Ernie Burnett and (apparently) his missus, Bennett took it to his own frequent collaborator, George A Norton, who turned "Melancholy" into...
Come to me, My Melancholy Baby...
He kept the original title, however, and the new song was published under the old label, "Melancholy", in 1912, credited to Ernie Burnett and Geo A Norton. As for Maybelle Watson, she was not only on her way out as co-author but also as Burnett's missus, headed for the divorce courts and a new life on the west coast. Lest she be disappointed at the elimination of both her lyric and her credit, the revised version was respectfully "dedicated to Miss Maybelle Watson of Berkeley, California".
So Burnett and Norton had a song, and now all they needed was someone to sing it. According to legend, the number we now know as "Melancholy Baby" was first sung in public by William Frawley - better known as Fred Mertz, Lucy and Ricky's landlord on "I Love Lucy". The young Frawley was in vaudeville, touring a double-act with the pianist Franz Rath under the billing "A Man, A Piano And A Nut" (Rath was the man, the venue's piano was the piano, and Frawley was the nut). In 1912, they were booked into the Mozart Cafe in Denver. One lunchtime Frawley visited a bar on Curtis Street run by a friend of his. "When the bartender passed me the word that Ernie Burnett and George Norton had been working on something pretty good in the back room, I got myself in there to have a listen," said Frawley. He liked what he heard, all the more so since a couple of hard-drinking newspaper pals, Gene Fowler and Damon Runyon, had been ragging him to come up with something new. That night at the Mozart Cafe Fowler and Runyon started heckling Frawley. He told them, "If you two will be quiet, I'll sing you something so new it hasn't even been published." And, with that, he pulled out "a yellow piece of paper" with some notes scribbled on it and gave it to his accompanist. And so Franz Rath played Ernie Burnett's famous tune in public for the first time, and William Frawley became the first man on the planet to sing:
Ev'ry cloud must have a silver lining
Wait until the sun shines through
Smile, my honey dear
While I kiss away each tear
Or else I shall be melancholy, too.
Well, that's the way Bill Frawley told it in newspaper interviews, and when he appeared on "I've Got A Secret" in 1965. It seems to me highly unlikely that Burnett and Norton had been finishing off the song in a bar on Curtis Street, as Burnett had finished off his tune the previous year and Norton fixed a new set of words to it well after the fact. But Frawley's account of the birth of "Melancholy Baby" certainly doesn't want for detail. Gene Fowler was with The Denver Post at the time, and Damon Runyon was working at The Rocky Mountain News (this was long before his Guys & Dolls New York heyday). So it could have happened - and, according to Frawley, the Mozart Cafe didn't just witness the first performance of the song but the first performance of the maudlin drunk's injuction to perform it. A well-lubricated Runyon was so moved by Frawley's performance that he spent the rest of the show calling out, "Sing 'Melancholy Baby'!"
Hmm. I like showbiz anecdotage as much as the next chap, but he may be stretching credulity a smidgeonette too far with that. "Years later, Runyon was still telling me it was the best song he had ever heard," Frawley insisted - and he continued to sing the song, very agreeably, whenever asked, by Lucille Ball or anybody else. Aside from his studio recording for the album Bill Frawley Sings The Old Ones, he warbled it on the 1958 episode " Lucy Goes To Sun Valley". But a drunken (celebrity) patron yelling "Sing 'Melancholy Baby"!" on the very first performance? Just like an offstage drunk does to Judy Garland in the " Born In A Trunk" sequence in A Star Is Born (1954)? And as innumerable barroom hecklers did in "The Monkees" and "Hogan's Heroes" and a thousand variety-show sketches in the two decades after that movie?
Whatever the truth of Frawley's claim, the man who did the hard work of making the song a hit was a vaudevillian called Jack O'Leary, who was rewarded with his picture on the front of the first sheet music. The song was still called "Melancholy" for its first two years, until it was re-copyrighted in 1914 under the title "My Melancholy Baby". For the record, the phrase "my melancholy baby" occurs only once, in the very first line - whereas the word "melancholy" appears twice, in the first and last lines. Whether under its one-word title or in its revised form, it's a rare adjective for Tin Pan Alley. "We've all heard this song so many times I think we may have forgotten a few salient facts about it," wrote the musicologist Alec Wilder in his survey of American Popular Song. "First, its title is most unusual, the seldom-used and dignified 'melancholy' qualifying the colloquial term of endearment, 'baby'." As for the tune, Wilder called it a "good, well-written melody, highly unusual for the time, and certainly not a piece of hack work. Furthermore, it's unlike any other melody." He suggested it might be "the first torch song". If so, it was news to Ernie Burnett. The 1914 version includes a march chorus, which is apparently how he originally conceived the song. Like many composers, he didn't know what he had.
Still, at least he knew he'd written it - for a while. In 1917, America entered the Great War, and Burnett signed on with the 89th Division of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. He was wounded in France, fell among a heap of bodies, and, in the course of so doing, parted company with his dog tags. They were assumed to belong to one of the corpses's. So Burnett was taken to a field hospital suffering from total amnesia, and with no identifying paperwork to help the staff figure out who he was. Some time thereafter, a variety troupe came through the ward to cheer up the wounded. One of the showgirls sang "Melancholy Baby", prefacing it with the sad announcement that among those killed in this tragic conflict had been the composer of this beautiful ballad. As she began to sing, Patient X sat bolt upright in bed. "I wrote that tune!" he declared. The nurses tried to slough him off with sympathetic murmurings about how, yes, they were sure he had, just like that guy two wards down had once been Emperor of France, but Patient X insisted and was able to piece together his life and return to being Ernie Burnett.
Maybe Patient X should have sued himself for plagiarizing himself. After all, pretty much everybody else associated with "Melancholy Baby" wound up feeling aggrieved enough for legal action. By 1938, Burnett was composing "I Married My Melancholy Baby". Yes, he had, and then he'd divorced her. And by 1938 Maybelle Watson had far more reason to be melancholy than her ex-husband. As "Melancholy Baby"'s beautiful verse puts it:
Come, sweetheart mine
Don't sit and pine.
Tell me of the cares that make you feel so blue
What have I done?
Answer me, hon'...
What had he done? Only deprive his ex-wife of 50 per cent of one of the biggest hits of the previous quarter-century. In 1938, Maybelle Watson registered a copyright claim to the 1912 edition of "Melancholy Baby" - ie, the hit version. She could have made a lot of money as the credited co-author of the song. If it was any consolation to her, George Norton, the fellow who'd supplanted her as lyricist, had nothing to show for it, either. He'd written his share of the song as a work for hire, taking a salary of $20 per week for 12 weeks and then signing a bill of sale with the publisher, Theron Bennett. Norton had died in 1923 but his son was eager to assert his father's rights. By 1940, the former Mrs Burnett, now Mrs Bergmann, had a credit on the sheet music - and had even written a three-act play called My Melancholy Baby, and based on the song. It took Norton's son till 1945 to get his father's rights recognized in court. A decade later, the dispute over the lyrics expanded to the melody when a chap named Ben Light (of Ben Light and his Surf Club Boys) claimed he'd written the tune as a teenager in 1909, and that Ernie Burnett had been living off eine kleine Light musik all these years.
Burnett never wrote another piece of music of any interest whatsoever. But he didn't need to. "Melancholy Baby" was ubiquitous for half-a-century. Hence, the "Play 'Melancholy Baby'!" gag: Barroom drunks were supposedly so sentimental and maudlin that, no matter how gifted or inventive the pianist, the regulars just wanted to hear the same things over and over. Au contraire, musicians love "Melancholy Baby" - Sidney Bechet and Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie. And singers love it, too - although Dinah Shore's take with Andre Previn is hard to beat. And, if the lyric gets a bit too wearily familiar, you could always do what Vikki Carr did and sing that lovely, sweetly antiquated verse as a stand-alone song. I believe that's the only instance since Sinatra's recording of the verse from "Star Dust" in which a singer has eschewed the well-known chorus and sung only the obscure intro. It's a neat little record. I like to think that, somewhere on the road over her long career, Miss Carr was heckled Judy Garland-like with "Sing 'Melancholy Baby'!" and launched into her idiosyncratic version only to be heckled anew: "Thash not the 'Melancholy Baby' I wanted to hear. Hic."
But here it is: "My Melancholy Baby" is now a melancholy centenarian, having survived divorce, trench warfare, amnesia, lawsuits, hecklers and Fred Mertz. What better way to launch the song on its second century than with this moving introduction by the Dapper Dans? The Dans are the barbershop quartet on DisneyWorld's Main Street USA and they like to put it this way:
Here's a beautiful ballad entitled, 'She Had a Head Like a Cantaloupe and a Face like a Dog So I Called Her My Melancholy Baby.'