Obituary: Sammy Cahn
Monday 18 January 1993
SAMMY CAHN's method of evaluating a songwriter was simple. 'Sing me his medley,' he'd say, and off you'd go, treading carefully. If you tried to slip in anything other than gold-plated smashes, Sammy would growl menacingly, 'That's not a money song.' By those strict rules, Sammy Cahn's medley is almost endless. From his earliest lyrics, like 'Please Be Kind' (1935), he had a flair for simple, catchy words that sledgehammered their way into public consciousness.
He was always an economical lyricist: 'Give me Five Minutes More/Only Five Minutes More/ Let me stay/Let me stay in your arms.' 'What's wrong?' asked his composer, Jule Styne. 'You got a stammer?' In its day, 'Five Minutes More' outsold the entire Gershwin catalogue. 'What about these days?' I asked. 'Ah,' replied Sammy. 'That's the difference between a hit and a
In 1947, Styne, eager to write more than pop tunes, collaborated with Cahn on their first Broadway show, High Button Shoes. Neither man ended up covered in glory, but, whereas Styne stuck it out to become Broadway's most successful post-war composer, Cahn quickly retreated back to undemanding Hollywood. 'Sammy stayed on writing those clicky-clacky theme-songs,' Styne once said to me. 'He didn't broaden out.' In fairness, those clicky-clacky theme-songs won Sammy four Oscars (an unbroken record) and one of them, 'Three Coins In The Fountain' (1953), is all the film has going for it. Two years ago, Cahn visited Rome: 'I'm finally going to see that fountain I made so famous.' Well, maybe the Trevi fountain would have made it without Sammy, but take away Sinatra singing over the opening titles, and what's the film got going for it? Another Award- winner, 'Call Me Irresponsible' (1963), is among his best lyrics: to pack a love-song with five-syllable words and make them sound entirely natural is a notable achievement - especially (as he liked to add) for a guy from a one-syllable neighbourhood.
But pop lyricists stand or fall by their monosyllables. Cahn used to make the point by quoting Irving Berlin: 'And if I ever lost you how much would I cry?' 'You can't hear that word to that note,' he'd say, 'without understanding the emotions of the singer and wanting to cry just a little yourself.' For Cahn, it was always that word to that note. On paper, 'Time After Time/I tell myself that I'm/So lucky to be loving you' looks like nothing. Set to Jule Styne's wonderfully translucent melody, it conjures a mood of ravishingly romantic contentment. Most of us would be lucky to find a relationship which measured up to such sentiments, but Cahn understood that aspiration is part of a pop song's potency.
Following the break with Styne, Frank Sinatra introduced Cahn to a new composing partner, Jimmy Van Heusen. In the Fifties and Sixties, Sinatra's image owed a lot to Van Heusen's effortlessly swinging music and Cahn's breezy, insolent lyrics - 'Come Fly With Me', 'My Kind Of Town (Chicago Is)'. As Sinatra appreciated, the lyrics were so sensitive to the contours of the music that, aside from content, they were aurally seductive: 'You see a pair of laughing eyes/ And suddenly you're sighing sighs/You're thinking nothing's wrong/You string along, boy, then wap]/ Those eyes, those sighs, they're part of The Tender Trap]' The sounds count as much as the sense: the 'eyezzz/sighzzz' for the dreamy seduction - the 'tender' bit; the hard short-stopped 'p's - 'wap/snap/ map' - for the clanking jaws of the 'trap'.
Cahn pooh-poohed such exhaustive examination: he wrote it in six minutes (or four, or two), and he wrote it instinctively. But his instincts were sure. He was an assignment writer: 'Do you think I'm wandering around all day thinking, 'I must write a song called 'Three Coins In The Fountain'?' Only an idiot would do that.' Asked what comes first - the words or the music - he'd reply, 'The phone call.' In fact, it was usually the lyric - pounded out on an old typewriter in the confidence that the first draft would be the final one. Most lyricists favour pencils and yellow legal pads, but maybe it was the tappity-tap of those typewriter keys that gave Cahn lyrics their bouncy rhythmic effervescence: 'singability', he'd call it. He made no claims for poetry, aware of the difference between him and Shakespeare. ' 'Love laughs at locksmiths': Try singing that]' he'd scoff.
After Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), Sammy found the hits harder to come by. Both on Broadway and in Hollywood, the ground was shifting away from the conventional pop lyricists, and Sammy took to 'special material', rewriting his own and other lyrics for testimonials, gala performances, etc. ('It's Impossible/To make love in a Toyota, It's Impossible]') A couple of years back, he tried collaborating with a composer who'd written for Whitney Houston. Accustomed to Tin Pan Alleymen demo-ing the tune in a pared-down piano version, he was presented with a fully synthesized wall of sound: 'I could write to that kind of tune,' he reckoned, 'if only I could hear it.' In recent years, he also turned the ton of anecdotage he'd accumulated into an irresistible 'and then I wrote . . .' evening. Here it was, just like in the movies: a Jewish kid from the Lower East Side who, in five minutes, could turn corny cliches into No 1 hits.
He was never one for false modesty. Indeed, his ego was so extravagantly untrammelled that many of us suspected him of false immodesty. 'The only way to get Sammy talking about, say, nuclear annihilation,' a friend observed, 'is to ask him, 'How will nuclear annihilation affect the catalogue of Sammy Cahn?' ' Sinatra liked him enough to write the sleeve notes for his recital album and the introductions to his song-sheet collections, but Cahn was equally appreciative of praise from less exalted quarters. A favourable mention en passant in a subordinate clause of a newspaper feature would invariably be followed by a fax or telegram from Sammy revealing that he was putting the article up for a Special Grammy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Musicological Analysis. More discriminating, his wife Tita was much taken by a phrase I once used, describing Sammy's songs as 'providing a soundtrack for people's memories'. It was his great gift to be able to express emotions so directly that he touched millions. His war songs still have powerful resonances for that generation. In 1960, he even managed a song for the widowed and divorced, 'The Second Time Around', tackling a difficult assignment tastefully and sensitively. Sammy had no illusions about his work. He was no Hammerstein or Lerner. But the best of his songs - 'I'll Walk Alone', 'I Should Care' - will endure. And, whatever the changes in pop music taste, his craftsmanship - his understanding of the relationship between words and music - remains an object example to anyone.
Despite the legendary egomania, Sammy would readily regale you with the most obscure songs by Mitchell Parish or Dorothy Fields. He was, anyway, such a lethal song- demonstrator he could have made the telephone directory sound like a brilliant lyric. I shall always think of him that way, accompanying wobbly top notes with weird physical contortions, his neck rattling round his shirt collar like one of those nodding dogs gone haywire. As Clive Barnes once said, if Sammy Cahn had had Frank Sinatra's voice, the world would really have been in trouble.
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