Remembrances
11:46 am
Fri December 13, 2013

Celebrating The Centennial Of Lyricist Sammy Cahn

2013 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of lyricist Sammy Cahn, who was born Samuel Cohen, on the Lower East Side of New York City, on June 18, 1913. We didn't want the year to end without celebrating this centennial.

Cahn had his most successful and enduring partnerships with composers Saul Chaplin, Jule Styne and Jimmy Van Heusen. Several of his songs were written for Frank Sinatra. Cahn died in 1993, at the age of 79.

He spoke with Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1985, and — as you'll hear — he'd sing his songs at the slightest provocation. And when he was commissioned to write a song for a particular singer, he would insist on performing it to show what he had in mind. When it was time to demonstrate a song for a great singer, Cahn never lacked confidence, even if the singer was Sinatra.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. This year marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of lyricist Sammy Cahn, who was born Samuel Cohen on the Lower East Side of New York City on June 18th, 1913.

We didn't want the year to end without celebrating this centennial. Let's start with just a small sampling of his songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME DANCE WITH ME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Hey there cutes, put on your dancin' boots. Come dance with me. Come dance with me, what an evening for some Terpsichore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEI MIR BISTU SHEIN")

THE ANDREW SISTERS: (Singing) Bei mir bist du schn, please let me explain. Bei mir bist du schn means you're grand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE MY LOVE")

MARIO LANZA: (Singing) Be my love, for no one else can end this yearning; this need that you and you alone create.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEACH ME TONIGHT")

DINAH WASHINGTON: (Singing) Did you say that I've got a lot to learn? Well, don't think I'm trying not to learn. Since this is the perfect spot to learn. Oh, teach me tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SATURDAY NIGHT IS THE LONELIEST NIGHT")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Saturday night is the loneliest night in the week, 'cause that's the night that my sweetie and I used to dance cheek to cheek. I don't mind...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME AFTER TIME")

ABBEY LINCOLN: (Singing) Time after time, I tell myself that I'm so lucky to be loving you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME FLY WITH ME")

SINATRA: (Singing) Come fly with me. Let's fly, let's fly away. If you can use some exotic foods, there's a bar in far Bombay. Come fly with me. Let's fly, let's fly away. Come fly...

DAVIES: Sammy Cahn had his most successful and enduring partnerships with composers Saul Chaplin, Jule Styne and Jimmy Van Heusen. Several of his songs were written for Frank Sinatra. Cahn died in 1993, at the age of 79.

Terry spoke with Sammy Cahn in 1985, and - as you'll hear - he'd sing his songs at the slightest provocation. And when he was commissioned to write a song for a particular singer, he would insist on performing it to show what he had in mind. When it was time to demonstrate a song for a great singer, Cahn never lacked confidence, even if the singer was Frank Sinatra.

SAMMY CAHN: I sing this song for the first time. And I stand in front of Sinatra and I am a lethal demonstrator. I'm lethal.

(LAUGHTER)

CAHN: I don't know if you understand the true meaning when I stand in front of you and take my posture, I'm ready. One of the most memorable moments of demonstrating a song was when I sang the song to "Our Town." When I sang to him it was kind of quiet with no one around, just him sitting in an easy chair. When Sinatra reflects, he rolls the bottom of his thumb over his lower left, and that's how he reflects. And his highest praise is: Yeah. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CAHN: High praise. And he doesn't turn down to song - never has.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Do you want to change a lyric that you wrote?

CAHN: Only one time.

GROSS: Which one was that?

CAHN: That's in the song, one of my very, very favorite songs, "The Last Dance." We started the idea of writing an opening song for an album and a closing song for an album, like "Come Fly With Me," of course, and the closing song, which is, "It's Nice to Go Traveling." And then we wrote "Come Dance with Me." And then we needed a closing song. And we quickly discovered that Irving Berlin, the legendary Irving Berlin, I discovered that he had written every song you can possibly write about dancing. "Cheek to Cheek," "Change Partners," "I'm Putting On My Top Hat." And usually, I write a song very, very swiftly. But here I am and I can't come up with the last song. Finally I turned to Van Heusen one day. I said, has there ever been a song called "The Last Dance?" And Van Heusen, who is very, very familiar with the literature of songs, said no. There's been "Save the Last Waltz For Me," but not the last. I said sit down.

And I said it's "The Last Dance." We've come to the last dance. They're dimming the lights down, they're hoping we will go. It's obvious they're aware of us, the pair of us, alone on the floor. But I want to hold you like this forever more. So Sinatra is recording this song and I had a line that said (Singing) They're wondering just when will we leave. But till we leave, keep holding me tight through the last dance, each beat of the last dance and save me the first dance in your dreams tonight.

So when you speak, you would say they're wondering just when we will leave. You wouldn't say, they're wondering just when will we leave. So he said that one, just when we will leave. I said no, it isn't - hold it. I said they're wondering just when will we leave. But till we leave. He said what kind of cockamamie word is...

(LAUGHTER)

CAHN: I said no one speaks like that. I said no. I said no one speaks like that, but we aren't speaking, Frank, are we? We're singing, aren't we, Frank? And that's the only time we ever kind of good-naturedly quarreled about a line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S THE LAST DANCE")

SINATRA: (Singing) It's the last dance. We've come to the last dance. They're dimming the lights down. They're hoping we'll go. It's obvious, they're aware of us, the pair of us, alone on the floor. Still, I want to hold you like this forever and more.

(Singing) It's the last song. They're playing the last song. The orchestra's yawning. They're sleepy, I know. They're wondering Just when will we leave. But till we leave, keep holding me tight. Through the last dance. Each beat of the last dance. Save me the first dance in your dreams tonight.

GROSS: Is there a song that you've written that you're proudest of the ones you were able to come up with?

CAHN: Yes. The one I tell everyone, the one I'm very, very proud of is "Call Me Irresponsible." Simply because I want to say and it's not as facetious as it sounds. It has five syllable words in it. (Singing) Call me unpredictable. Tell me I'm impractical. I said five syllable words from a fellow who came from a one syllable neighborhood.

GROSS: You know what I love in that song? Throw in undependable too. I love the throw in. How did you get that?

CAHN: Well, you...

GROSS: That's a vernacular. I really love that.

CAHN: You say, but every song, the title dictates the architecture of the song. If you say the title is call me irresponsible, da, da,da, da, da, da, da, da, that's the architecture. Call me irresponsible. Call me undependable. Throw in unreliable too. Do my foolish alibis bore you? Well, I'm not too clever. I just adore you. Call me unpredictable. Tell me I'm in practical. Rainbows I'm inclined to pursue. Call me irresponsible. Yes, I'm undependable. But it's undeniably true. I said you know, Jim, if I had unreliable down there, undeniable coming after unreliable would be better, so we switched the two lines on top. I call that neatening up a song. So we changed the two lines. On top of it had (Singing) Call me irresponsible. Yes, I'm unreliable. But it's undeniably true. That's called graceful and very gratifying to the ear.

DAVIES: We're listening back to a 1985 interview with the late lyricist Sammy Cahn. This year marked the 100th anniversary of his birth. We'll hear more after break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME FLY WITH ME")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 1985 interview with the late lyricist Sammy Cahn. This year is the centenary of his birth. He told Terry about writing about the song "Be My Love" for the singer Mario Lanza.

CAHN: In this instance, the music was already written in ink: Love Theme for Lanza. De da de, de, da, da, da. Every note was written, not in pencil, which you can erase and make a change written in ink by this very, very talented little Hungarian, Nicholas Brodsky, friend of Joseph Pasternak, another little Hungarian. And I was called in to put a lyric to this melody. But think about it. The title is "Be My Love." They're absolutely singing the words (Singing) Be my love. You can sing everyone of the line. For no one else can end this yearning. This need that you, and you alone create. Every one of those words you can bite them, chew them. Now, I don't know if you realize it. When I wrote that lyric, not a word rhymes.

GROSS: Gosh, you're right. I hadn't realized that before.

CAHN: (Singing) Just fill my arms of the way you fill my dreams. And no rhymes yet. We're halfway through a song. First rhyme. The dreams that you inspire, with every sweet desire. And I'm not ruling my R's the way opera people love to do. Now I rhyme the whole song, be my love in with your kisses, set me burning - yearning burning - one kiss is all I need to seal my fate. Create - fate. Now, listen now every word fits the mouth and it's really singing words. And in a hand, we'll find love's promised land. They'll be no one but you, ooh - ooh sounds very good in the high notes - for me intern...

Now Lanza, who had a voice that you could not believe unless you heard it in person - no mechanical reproduction of this voice does it any gestures. In a room with him it was a staggering experience. So there will be no one but you for me etern - hear that - eternally. If you will be my love. It's a high C. I don't know. It's just... Now, as I say to you, he knew every note of that song. He didn't know the lyric. I had the lyric. And you know what chutzpah is. You know what chutzpah means? That's cheek or gall. Chutzpah, the classic version is, the ancient version is this chap kills his parents and he pleads for mercy because he's an orphan. That's classic chutzpah. But my chutzpah was me singing to Mario Lanza. So Mario looked at me after I talk-sang "Be My Love" for the first time, he took the lyric out of my hand as contemptuously as you can take a lyric out of someone's hand, and he sang "Be My Love" back at me. And I tell you, that was an experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE MY LOVE")

LANZA: (Singing) Be my love for no one else can end this yearning. This need that you and you alone create. Just fill my arms the way you've filled my dreams, the dreams that you inspire with every sweet desire. Be my love and with your kisses set me burning. One kiss is all I need to seal my fate. And hand in hand we'll find love's promised land. There'll be no one but you for me eternally. If you will be my love.

GROSS: You've written a rhyming dictionary. Did you actually use one? Would you ever use one when you were writing?

CAHN: I've always had a rhyming dictionary.

GROSS: Yeah?

CAHN: For the composer.

(LAUGHTER)

CAHN: That's the truth.

GROSS: Really?

CAHN: I always felt - I, personally, I always felt that if I couldn't think of the word I shouldn't use it. But the composer, he used to say to me - every time I was writing the composer used to say to me you have a rhyming dictionary? I said sure, here it is. Give it to the composer.

GROSS: Right. I get it. Are there words that you really avoid because you know they're un-rhymable?

CAHN: No. Every word is rhymable. Rhymable. Rhymable. Take a simple name like Nicholas you can rhyme it with ridiculous. If you aren't too meticulous. You know, every word's rhymable.

DAVIES: The late lyricist Sammy Cahn speaking with Terry Gross in 1985. This year marked the 100th anniversary of his birth. Here he is singing his song "The Tender Trap" which he co-wrote with Jimmy Van Heusen. It was recorded in 1972 at the 92nd Streetwise Lyrics and Lyricist Series.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TENDER TRAP")

CAHN: (Singing) You see a pair of laughing eyes and suddenly your sorrow sighs. You're thinking nothing's wrong. You string along, boy, then snap. Those eyes, those sighs, they're part of the tender trap. You're hand in hand beneath the trees. And soon there's music in the breeze. You're acting kind of smart until your heart just goes whap. How those trees, that breeze, they're part of the tender trap.

(Singing) Some starry night when her kisses make you tingle she'll hold you tight and you'll hate yourself for being single. And all at once it seems so nice that folks are throwing shoes and rice. You hurry to a spot that's just a dot on the map. How you wonder how it all came about. It's too late now, there's no getting out. You fell in love and love is the tender trap.

(APPLAUSE)

DAVIES: Coming up, "American Hustle." David Edelstein reviews the new film starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Amy Adams. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT SNOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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