Archive for the ‘Movie Themes’ Category

‘A Time For Us . . .’

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

A quick glance this morning at the Billboard Hot 100 from July 26, 1969 – forty-eight years ago today – brought back a treasured memory from the following summer. Perched at No. 10 this week in 1969 was Henry Mancini’s cover of “Love Theme From Romeo & Juliet.”

During early August of 1970, I spent a week at Boy Scout camp as an instructor for Troop 112, which was sponsored by our church, St. Cloud’s Salem Lutheran. I was also the troop’s bugler, rousing our scouts every morning with a poor version of “Reveille” and easing them into their sleeping bags at night with “Taps,” a tune more suited for my skills.

On one of the evenings we spent in the pines of Camp Clyde (or perhaps Parker Scout Reserve, which became the camp’s name somewhere along the line), the boys in my troop asked me to play some music on my horn as we sat around a campfire. I was pretty good at playing by ear, so I offered them a few tunes we’d all heard on the radio over the past year. After about fifteen minutes, with my fellow scouts pretty attentive for adolescent boys, I decided to close my little show with the “Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet,” perhaps better known by that time as “A Time For Us.”

By the summer of 1970, I’d been playing my cornet for about six years, and I’d play for another two or three, but I don’t know if I’ve ever played any better than I did during those three or so minutes when I offered Nino Rota’s melody to my troop members and to those scouts at other campsites within earshot in the pine forest. As the last notes from my horn faded in the fire-lit dark, the scouts from Troop 112 were utterly silent. And a few moments later, over their silence, came faint applause from several directions, as scouts at those other campsites offered their appreciation.

Here’s Mancini’s version:

I can’t remember if I had read William Shakespeare’s play by 1968, when Franco Zeffirelli’s film version came out, the film for which Nino Rota wrote the theme that Mancini covered with his 1969 record. But I was certainly aware by then of the plot of the play; the budding romantic in me would have latched tightly onto the theme of doomed love. And the tune was beautiful, so when Mancini’s version hit the airwaves during the summer of 1969, I was a willing absorber.

Where did I hear Mancini’s record? All over the place, no doubt. The record was No. 1 on KDWB’s “6+30” for the week of June 23, 1969, so I’m sure I heard it as I was hanging around with my friends, even though I was still a few weeks away from bringing my grandfather’s old RCA radio up to my room from the basement to feed my burgeoning interest in Top 40 music. And I certainly heard it elsewhere, too. Not only did Mancini’s record spend the last week of June and the first week of July at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, it spent all of June and July on top of the magazine’s Easy Listening chart, which meant I would have heard it on the Twin Cities’ WCCO as well as on St. Cloud’s WJON and KFAM.

Mancini’s version of the tune was the only one to hit the Top 40, although Johnny Mathis placed a vocal cover – “Love Theme From ‘Romeo And Juliet’ (A Time For Us)” – at No. 8 on the Easy Listening chart. I don’t recall hearing Mathis’ version until I sought it out this morning, and although I’ve generally liked Mathis’ work over the years, I didn’t care for it. I pondered that, and as I did, I took a look at the digital shelves here and got a slight surprise: Of the nineteen versions of the tune here at the EITW studios, seventeen are instrumentals.

The only two vocal versions are by the Lettermen and Bobby Sherman. And even I shake my head at the latter name. The Lettermen, I can understand. Their version of the tune was on the 1969 album Hurt So Bad, an album my sister owned and that I listened to regularly in the basement rec room on Kilian Boulevard. But the Bobby Sherman version of the tune isn’t something I would have sought on its own; all I can figure is that when I looked for Sherman’s version of Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” I found it on Sherman’s self-titled album from 1969 and “A Time For Us” came along as collateral damage.

Anyway, as the digital evidence points out, I prefer the Rota tune without the words. And it turns out the words we’ve heard so frequently for almost fifty years weren’t the original ones. The song was originally titled “What Is A Youth,” with lyrics by Eugene Walter. It was performed in Zeffirelli’s film by Glen Weston during the scene that sets up the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet at a party at the Capulet home. (The video of that scene – with the original performance of the original lyrics – cannot be embedded but can be seen here.)

Those lyrics – seemingly well-suited for the film’s setting in Renaissance Italy, have long since been pushed out of mass awareness by the lyrics crafted for the tune by Eddie Snyder and Larry Kusik. According to Second Hand Songs, those lyrics, with the song bearing the title “A Time For Us,” were first recorded in 1968 by Merrill Womach, a forty-one year old undertaker and gospel singer from Spokane, Washington. It was released on his 1968 album A Time For Us.

The first release of “A Time For Us” by a well-known performer followed quickly, according to the list at SHS: Shirley Bassey released her version of the song on her 1968 album This Is My Life, and the Lettermen followed with their version the next year. After that, SHS lists thirty-four more vocal versions.

As to instrumental versions, the first, says SHS, was Rota’s use of his theme in the film’s soundtrack under the title “In Capulet’s Tomb.” The first cover listed there came from Mancini, and the website lists forty-two more recordings under the title of “Love Theme From Romeo & Juliet.”

Add a few instrumentals recorded as “A Time For Us” and about fifteen versions listed in Italian, Portuguese and Finnish (!), and there are about a hundred versions of the tune listed at SHS. There are no doubt more out there. My favorite? The Mancini version, although I’m tempted to say that my favorite version is the one that I sent out among the pines one summer night in 1970.

Wandering To A Place

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

A couple of weeks ago, I made my way through The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel, which I found to be a pretty good book. It’s not so much about the production of the 1956 John Ford/John Wayne movie as about the story behind the movie.

And for Frankel, that starts in Texas in the mid-1830s, with the kidnapping by the Comanche of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was about 10 at the time. Her uncle’s increasingly obsessive search for her and her recapture and return to Anglo life after twenty-four years is obviously the seed behind Alan Le May’s 1954 novel The Searchers and the film that followed two years later.

Along the way, Frankel tells as much as can be determined – from many sources, some original – what life was like for Cynthia Ann both among the Comanche and when she was returned to Anglo life. (That latter portion of her life – only ten years – was unhappy, as she longed to return to the Comanche and her sons; she had brought a daughter with her when she was, in effect, recaptured by U.S. Cavalry and Texas volunteers.)

In his book, Frankel tells Cynthia Ann’s story; the story of one of her sons, Comanche chief Quanah Parker; Le May’s story; and the better-known stories of John Ford and John Wayne, as he winds his way to the tale of the making of the film version of The Searchers, discussing along the way the themes of obsession, racism, and fear of the other found in both the book and the movie. It’s a good read, one that was more compelling than I thought it would be when I opened it. (If there’s a section that moves a little slowly and seems to have more of Frankel’s attention than necessary, it’s Quanah Parker’s story.)

The book touched a lot of sweet spots for me: I’m a history buff, I have an interest in Native American culture (especially the Plains tribes), I’m a writer, and I’m a movie fan. And of course, I’m a music fan, so when Frankel got around to talking about the scoring of the movie, I paid attention. The score was written by Max Steiner, whose name I knew.

Steiner was one of the first composers to score a film, and Wikipedia says that he’s been called “the father of film music.” He scored more than 300 films, including Casablanca and Gone With The Wind, to name two of the more prominent. And in his discussion of Steiner’s work on The Searchers, Frankel threw out two tidbits of information that honestly made stop reading in surprise and awe: When he was a child in Vienna, Steiner studied piano under Johannes Brahms, and he later studied composition with Gustav Mahler.

Then, the other day, I saw a Facebook post about the theme to the 1959 movie A Summer Place, and I wandered off to YouTube to find versions of the theme. (I have, of course, the hit version by Percy Faith and a few more, but I wondered if there were some obscure versions I’d not heard.) And I learned that the score to the film, including the famous main theme, was composed by Max Steiner.

I found a truncated version of Steiner’s version of the main theme at YouTube, and then went wandering to Amazon and learned that a CD of the score runs more than sixty bucks, which is well out of the sanity range for me. Back at YouTube, I found a couple of videos with highlights of the score. Here’s the better of the two. It offers a good sampling of Steiner’s approach to scoring a film. (The piece at Wikipedia offers a detailed assessment of his thoughts and techniques.) And, of course, it includes what is likely Steiner’s most famous piece of music: The main theme to A Summer Place, which comes in at the four-minute mark.