I’d been nervously anticipating Irving Caesar’s death, and not particularly because he was 101. When I first met him, he was a mere whippersnapper of eightysomething, and took me through the genesis of some of his biggest hits. ” ‘Swanee’?” “Wrote it in 11 minutes,” he said proudly. ” ‘Tea for Two’?” “Wrote it in 10 minutes. I write fast. Sometimes lousy, but always fast.” In the years after, he was wont to reprise his favorite stories, as old folk are entitled to do: ” ‘Swanee’?” “Wrote it in eight minutes.” ” ‘Tea for Two’?” “Wrote it in six minutes.” At this rate of attrition, he’d soon be claiming less time to write the songs than it took to sing them. When he insisted he’d written “Swanee” in one minute, I somehow knew it would be the last time I saw him. He died a week before Christmas, Dec. 17, 1996, at age 101, and he took a large chunk of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway history with him: He was George Gershwin’s last surviving lyricist. He wrote for the Ziegfeld Follies and the Scandals. He gave Al Jolson his signature song and Shirley Temple hers. Unlike George M. Cohan, the Yankee Doodle Dandy, who falsely claimed to be “born on the fourth of July,” Caesar actually was–on the fourth of July, 1895, on the Lower East Side. As with many of the immigrant kids in that teeming ghetto–Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby–pop songs were his ticket uptown. For half a century, he had his office in Broadway’s famous Brill Building, a holdout against the marauding rockers. Eventually, he retreated a couple of blocks to more anonymous accommodations. But no matter how extensively the lobbies and elevators were remodeled in chrome or aluminum, behind Caesar’s door everything stayed the same. You were back at Remick’s or Mills Music, circa 1925: the sheet-music covers were quaintly dated, the faded photographs showed singers long dead, and each chair had its own spittoon. Caesar himself held court from his BarcaLounger, an early recliner, puffing his cigar and singing obscure lyrics in a sort of lightweight Jolson, but with such animation that the BarcaLounger would rock back and forth until, by the 24th bar, he’d be fully reclined–a small, white-haired, bow-tied figure in a candy-striped jacket, prone, arms flailing, with only the cigar and rusty springs for accompaniment:
IIIIIIIII’m [puff, creak]
A little bit fonder of you [creak]
Than of myself [puff, creak]
It’s true …
In his pop songs, he was an old-school Tin Pan Alley opportunist, cashing in on bizarre novelties, with rhymes but no reason (“Lady, Play Your Mandolin”–why, of all things, a mandolin?). Yet, ever since the surprise Broadway revival of his 1925 musical, No, No Nanette, in the 1970s, Caesar’s songs always seemed to be in the air. “I’m back in the Hit Parade,” he barked down the phone to me a decade or so ago. ” ‘Just a Gigolo.’ Some black fellow out on the coast covered it.” Actually it was a white fellow–David Lee Roth of Van Halen–and, if memory serves, he’s from Indiana. But who cares? Singers come and go. Good songs endure.
Then there were those hits that were immune to fashion. Littering his office floor, stacked up against desk legs, were dozens of awards, mostly from ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) and mostly for “Tea for Two” as “Most Performed Song of the Decade”–not in the 1920s, when it was written, but in 1984, ‘85, ‘86–“They give it to me every year,” he’d sigh. “I don’t know what to do with ‘em any more.” Caesar would tell you its phenomenal success is due to his lyrics, but jazzmen dig the abrupt key shift from A-flat major to C, soft-shoers love the rhythmic pattern, and its harmonic structure has prompted arrangements from Tommy Dorsey (who did it as a cha-cha-cha) to Dmitri Shostakovich (who didn’t). It’s big in malls and elevators, too.
I t began when he was taking a nap, resting up for a party, when his composing partner Vincent Youmans shook Caesar’s trouser leg and demanded he listen to the new tune. Caesar said no, he was tired, it could wait till the morning. Before cassette machines, lyricists used to write a “dummy lyric”–a bunch of meaningless words that would help them remember the musical stresses. Youmans insisted Caesar do a dummy–so, still half-asleep, Sound01 - bob-IrvCeasar01.asf:
Upon my knee
With tea for two
And two for tea
At the end he said, “That stinks, but I’ll do the real lyric in the morning.” It’s one of those suspiciously neat showbiz anecdotes, but unusually plausible. For one thing, although the song’s called “Tea for Two,” there’s no reference to the beverage after the first quatrain. Also, the Sound02 - bob-IrvCeasar02.asf makes little sense except as a crude guide to where the rhymes should fall:
Day will break
And you’ll awake
And start to bake
A sugar cake
For me to take
For all the boys to see
At the party that night, the meaningless doggerel was a smash. I wondered whether Caesar still thought the lyric stank. “Nah,” he said. “Now I think it’s a great lyric.” Both his philosophy and lyric-writing style were summed up in “Sound03 - bob-IrvCeasar03.asf“:
Life’s really worth living
When you are mirth giving
T ime magazine used to give pronunciation guides for proper names: “Orwell (rhymes with doorbell),” “Longstreet (rhymes with wrong beat),” etc. It would drive Ira Gershwin nuts. “These aren’t being rhymed correctly,” he declared, pointing out that “Orwell” rhymes with “door-well,” and “Longstreet,” with “wrong street.” They’re straightforward feminine rhymes with the stress on the penultimate syllable. “Time,” he said, “is rhyming each syllable perpendicularly instead of double-rhyming the name horizontally.” But no lyricist liked to rhyme perpendicularly as much as Caesar. Besides “worth living/mirth giving,” he also gave us “my sentiment/never meant a cent.” ” ‘Sentiment/meant a cent,’ ” he said, thumping his chest. “I wrote that–a kid from the Lower East Side.” Caesar was a sweet man, but you could detect a certain resentment of Ira Gershwin. When Ira established himself as a lyric-writer, Caesar lost his best composing partner. “Ira’s funny with me,” he told me once, furtively. “You know why? Because George told him on his deathbed that I’d written the music for ‘Swanee.’ ” “Oh, yes?” I said politely, and wrote his comment off as the mild paranoia of a lyricist who’d been deprived of his source of tunes. Then I thought about it. “Swanee,” George and Irving’s first big hit (1919), sold more records and sheet music than anything George wrote with Ira. It’s more a pop hit than one of the high-toned standards George typically wrote. But, more than that, musically it doesn’t sound like George–not a note of it, except maybe the Sound04 - bob-IrvCeasar04.asf in the ninth measure of the verse. Otherwise, its cornball resilience couldn’t be less Gershwinesque. “Swanee” catapulted young George, not Caesar, to stardom but, on the evidence, I’d say there was a strong chance Gershwin’s celebrity was built on another man’s tune.