Saturday, December 25, 2004

Leo Robin

'Tis the season to stop posting about depressing songs and turn to more pleasant topics... like great writers of non-depressing songs. While the lyricist Leo Robin is not completely unknown -- he has a chapter in the book Reading Lyrics, and is remembered as the guy who wrote the lyrics to "Thanks For the Memory" -- he's not particularly well known, and he should be.

Brief biographical note: he was born in Pittsburgh, went to law school at the Univeristy of Pennsylvania, concluded that law was not for him (why would that ever happen?), and moved to New York to write songs. His big break came when he got to write some of the lyrics for the show Hit the Deck, to Vincent Youmans's music, though I'm not sure which lyrics he wrote. He moved out to Hollywood, where he started collaborating with the composer Richard Whiting, father of Margaret, on songs for Paramount movies; they wrote Maurice Chevalier's first big American hit, "Louise," and then wrote the songs for Ernst Lubitsch's Monte Carlo, including the blockbuster "Beyond the Blue Horizon." After Monte Carlo, Lubitsch hired Robin several more times, telling him that he liked his lyrics because "You don't turn my characters into performers."

In the mid-'30s Robin joined up with the composer Ralph Rainger, writing many hits for Paramount and Fox musicals. Their most famous collaboration, as previously mentioned, was "Thanks For the Memory." Rainger was killed in a plane crash in 1942, and Robin never had another regular songwriting partner; but he wrote for some of the best composers in the business, including Harry Warren, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Sigmund Romberg, and Jule Styne, with whom he wrote the Broadway show Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Robin more or less retired in the late '50s -- he turned down the chance to write the lyrics to Funny Girl, noting that it was too much like the cliche'd biopics the Hollywood studios had been churning out when he was there -- and died in 1984.

Robin probably wrote several songs that you sort of remember, and many of them have had real staying power. It helped that Bob Hope adopted "Thanks For the Memory" as his theme song, Eddie Cantor used "One Hour With You" as his theme song, and Jack Benny picked "Love in Bloom" as his. But it also helped that Leo Robin was one of the best pop lyricists of his generation. The operative word there is "pop"; though, as Lubitsch admiringly noted, Robin could write lyrics that were appropriate for story and characters, he always stuck to the basic forms and patterns of pop lyric writing, with the three basic themes of every pop song: a) Love, b) Love, and c) Love. He wouldn't play around with form like Johnny Mercer did, or with syntax the way E.Y. Harburg did. He wrote solid, functional, well-crafted lyrics that expressed familiar things in fresh ways.

What makes a Leo Robin lyric work so well is, first of all, his high level of craftsmanship in fitting words to music. Here's one of my favorites among his lyrics, "Lost in Loveliness," from the 1954 Broadway musical The Girl in Pink Tights, music by Sigmund Romberg (who died before the score was completed, but this was one of the songs he managed to finish):

What a thrill you are,
What a sight to see,
Something the eyes of mortals have no right to see.
Am I on the earth or in the sky?
Lost in loveliness am I.
When I look at you,
I forget myself,
I could go mad about you if I let myself.
Should I let myself, or pass you by?
Lost in loveliness am I.
I know I'm reaching for a star,
What's more, I know how dangerous you are.
If I were wise
I'd close my eyes
Or walk away and worship from afar.
In the lonely night,
You would haunt my heart,
And I would pray that someday you might want my heart.
And I'd have to live my whole life through
Lost in loveliness, the loveliness of you.

On paper, these look like good solid lyrics, but what lifts them into the class of great lyrics is the way they fit the tune (Romberg, like most Broadway composers of his time, always wrote the tune first and expected the lyricist to fit it). Every development in the melody is perfectly matched by the words that Robin chooses for that particular point. For example, the tune is fairly calm and collected for the first two (repeated) measures, and suddenly gets more passionate with a "blue" note in the third measure, only to calm down again and go back to the initial phrase. In each section of the song, Robin makes sure to put an important word on that all-important note, a word that is easy to sing on a sustained note and is suggestive of the love and passion that the song is about: "eyes" (rivaling the heart as the go-to organs for songwriting, but "heart" is hard to sing on a sustained note), "mad," and "pray." And the line for that phrase, the key musical phrase in the melody, is always a line about something beyond reality: "Something the eyes of mortals have no right to see," "I could go mad about you," "I would pray that someday you might want my heart." And then as the melody calms down, Robin writes a phrase more indicative of reality, as the singer briefly faces the real world again: "Am I on the earth," "Should I let myself" -- before rejecting reality: he's "lost in loveliness" and will stay that way.

Another thing Robin did particularly well, perhaps better than any other lyricist except Irving Berlin, was to end a song by putting a twist on the title. The title is probably the most important part of a classic-era popular song lyric (as Ira Gershwin put it: "A title/Is vital./Once you've it,/Prove it"), and Robin was exceptionally good at giving the title an extra bit of meaning, or a play on words, or something to make the ending of the song seem fresh, instead of a repetition of what we heard at the beginning. Here are some examples of Robin's little title twists, mostly from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

("Bye Bye Baby")
Though you'll be gone for a while,
I know that I'll be smiling
With my baby, bye and bye.

("Just a Kiss Apart")
So while we're just a kiss apart,
Kiss me and tell me you're mine.

("It's High Time")
It's no time to get low,
Let's start to let go,
Start to feel high,
Have a real high

Have some fun,
Thrill your heart,
With the sun
Fill your heart,
Save it for a rainy day.

These are pretty simple tricks -- contrasting sunshine with rain, playing on "high time" (the expression "It's high time" contrasted with the idea of a "high" time) -- but they work, and they are exceptionally difficult to do when you're writing to the music and trying to come up with an ending that at once exploits the title and expands on it. These little twists give the listener the feeling that something has happened in the song, that there's been some kind of progression or thinking going on, and that the ending is really the ending, not just a repetition of whatever was said in the first line.

Robin was also good at writing comedy lyrics; "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" is his most famous comedy song, but he could also put some genuine wit into a pop lyric, playing with jokes and internal rhymes while still keeping the apparent simplicity that a good pop lyric needs. "Thanks For the Memory" is probably the funniest ballad ever written, and "Hooray For Love," written with Harold Arlen, is a pretty nutty combination of love song and list song:

Some trust to fate for love,
Others have to take off weight for love,
Some go berzerk for love,
Loafers even go to work for love.
Sad songs are sobbed for love,
People have their noses bobbed for love,
Some say we pay for love,
Just the same, hooray for love!

It's the wonder of the world!
It's a rocket to the moon!
It gets you high, it gets you low,
But once you get that glow --
Oh! Love!

There's no biography of Robin as far as I know; he didn't lead a very eventful life. His last public appearance, and for all I know his first major public appearance, was in 1982 as part of New York's "Lyrics and Lyricists" series at the 92nd Street "Y," where, the New York Times reported, "the most affecting singing came from Mr. Robin himself. Clutching an ever-present pipe in his hand, he sang a jaunty, throaty version of ''Love Is Just Around the Corner,'' a warm and husky treatment of ''June in January'' and, with grace and feeling, the song he sang to his wife at their wedding, ''If I Should Lose You.''"

Since I was previously quoting depressing songs, I'll close by quoting one of the most un-depressing songs ever written, "The Worry Bird," by Mr. Robin and Jule Styne. This was introduced by Gloria De Haven in the 1951 movie musical Two Tickets to Broadway, one of many 1950s RKO movies that misfired due to the meddling (and possible insanity) of RKO then-boss Howard Hughes. But "The Worry Bird" has had some minor popularity outside of the film, and deserves more; Styne's wonderfully upbeat tune is complimented by lyrics that use every possible device to create a "happy" sound: internal rhymes, sound patterns suggestive of a chirping bird, alliteration -- and all without ever sounding less than natural. The great thing about the classic pop lyricists is that they made such difficult work sound so simple. Leo Robin was one of the best.


Everyone has his share of care and woe.
Even in Lovers Lane, there’s rain and snow.
We all have to pay the piper,
So why be a gloomy griper?
Forget regret, don’t let it get you low, no --


Let the worry bird worry for you,
Let the worry bird fuss and stew,
He’s a wonderful pet,
And when you get the jitters,
He twitters.
Let the worry bird worry his head,
Have the time of your life instead,
What’s a tumble or two
As long as you can keep well,
Sleep well?
Every cloud is silver-lined,
Bear that in mind
When old man trouble gets tough
And the going gets rough,
Let the worry bird worry for you,
It’s remarkable what he’ll do,
He’ll consider it fun
To be your understudy,
So buddy,
Why should you be blue?
Let the worry bird sing the blues for you.

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