Jay Livingston

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The Independent Online

Jay Harold Livingston, songwriter: born McDonald, Pennsylvania 28 March 1915; married first Lynne Gordon (died 1991; one daughter), 1992 Shirley Mitchell: died Los Angeles 17 October 2001.

The songwriting partnership of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans endured from 1945 until Livingston's death and included some of the biggest record and film hits of all time. Their three Oscar-winning songs were "Buttons and Bows", "Mona Lisa" and "Que Sera, Sera".

Livingston was born in Philadelphia in 1915. He played the piano and formed a dance band while he was at the University of Pennsylvania studying journalism. He invited another student, seven weeks older, Ray Evans, to join and after graduation they provided entertainment for cruise ships. The pair realised they had a talent for writing songs, Livingston usually supplying the music, Evans the lyrics, and they settled in New York. To make ends meet, Evans worked in accountancy, while Livingston took a job as a pianist for NBC Radio. He was once asked to fill in the silence when the boxer Joe Louis knocked out an opponent in the first round.

Their first song to have any success was "G'bye Now" for the Broadway revue Hellzapoppin' in 1941 and their first commission was to write songs for a film that was as bad as its title, Why Girls Leave Home (1945). The film was panned, but one song, "The Cat and the Canary", was nominated for an Oscar. It was a bumper year with 14 songs being nominated, and, although "The Cat and the Canary" lost to "It Might as Well Be Spring", it was performed at the awards ceremony by Frank Sinatra and the composers were invited to be house songwriters for Paramount Pictures.

They had a major success with "To Each His Own" (1946), the title song from a film starring Olivia de Havilland and recorded by the Ink Spots. In 1947 they wrote the lyrics for the title song of Golden Earrings, starring Marlene Dietrich as a gypsy. The following year Bob Hope and Jane Russell appeared in a spoof western, The Paleface, which was the Blazing Saddles of its day. Livingston and Evans had written a number for the Indians, "Snookum", but the director said they were meant to be dangerous and he was not giving them a comedy song. They took the melody and rewrote it for Hope as "Buttons and Bows". Hope sang it in the film and then Russell at the awards ceremony, where it won an Oscar. They revived the song in the sequel Son of Paleface (1952) – "My bones denounce the buckboard bounce / And the cactus hurts my toes."

In 1950 Livingston and Evans were asked to write for an espionage film set in Italy, Captain Carey, USA, starring Alan Ladd and Russ Tamblyn. The song, which needed an Italian lyric, was used to herald danger and was not heard in English during the film. Evans wrote an English lyric, "Mona Lisa", and passed it to Nat "King" Cole, who thought the title was too highbrow. He sang it but it was only released as a B-side. Disc-jockeys picked up on it and it too won an Oscar. In 1959 both Carl Mann and Conway Twitty recorded rock'n'roll versions of the tune and in 1986 it was the title song for a British gangland film starring Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson.

Also in 1950, the pair wrote "Home Cookin' " for another Bob Hope film, Fancy Pants, and made a walk-on appearance as themselves in the legendary Sunset Boulevard. Bing Crosby had a seasonal hit in 1951 with "Silver Bells", which was introduced in the Bob Hope film The Lemon Drop Kid. The song had been written as "Tinkle Bells" but Livingston's wife said, "Are you out of your minds? Don't you know what a tinkle is?"

The two left Paramount in 1956 and were immediately employed by Alfred Hitchcock. He was making The Man Who Knew Too Much and wanted something for Doris Day to sing to her child. They played him a song about destiny that they had already written, "Que Sera, Sera", and Hitchcock said, "Gentlemen, I told you I didn't know what kind of song I wanted, but that's the kind of song I want."

As all nominations for the Best Song at the Academy Awards had to have English titles, it was renamed "Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)". It won them a third Oscar and was an international hit for Doris Day, topping the UK charts and becoming the theme song for her CBS television series The Doris Day Show.

In 1957 Livingston and Evans were asked to write a modern folk song called "Tammy" for the teenage romance Tammy and the Bachelor, starring Debbie Reynolds and Leslie Nielsen. The song topped the US charts and reached No 2 in Britain and was also nominated for an Oscar. In later years, Debbie Reynolds performed a rap version in cabaret.

In 1958 they wrote a Broadway musical, Oh, Captain!, with limited success but were nominated again for an Oscar, this time for "Almost in Your Arms". They wrote a second musical, Let It Ride, in 1961. They finally had a Broadway success with their contributions to Sugar Babies (1979) starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller.

Livingston's favourite of their compositions was "Never Let Me Go", which has been performed by many vocalists, including Nat "King" Cole and Johnny Mathis.

They wrote songs for several television series including the classic western theme for Bonanza! (1959-73) and the tune for Mr Ed (1960-65). Indeed, it is Livingston who sang the immortal line from the latter, "A horse is a horse / Of course of course".

The last film to contain original material was Foxtrot, starring Peter O'Toole, in 1976. Evans commented,

We write special things every once in a while, but in the rock'n'roll and rap world, we ain't it. If George Gershwin were alive today, he'd be on the corner with a tin cup, because the art of songwriting has disappeared.

Michael Feinstein has completed an album of their songs for release in 2002, Michael Feinstein Sings the Livingston and Evans Song Book.

Spencer Leigh

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