March 26, 2013

Carl Sigman



By Michael Sigman


y dad, songwriter Carl Sigman (1909-2000), had a fitful relationship with movie themes.

He spent most of his early career writing songs for stars like Glenn Miller (“Pennsylvania 6-5000”), Louis Prima “Civil-ization (“Bongo, bongo, bongo I don’t want to leave the Congo /Oh no no no no no”), Billie Holiday “Crazy He Calls Me” and “Ballerina” (Vaughn Monroe).

Dad’s first big assignment to write for the movies came in the form of a contract to write two musicals for Warner Brothers with Bob Hilliard, a great, undisciplined collaborator whom Dad called “A gob of talent.” They took a train to the Coast along with Mom, who’d met dad while she was Louis Prima’s Gal Friday, and their three very young sons, me and my brothers Jeff and Randy.

That collaboration resulted in two musical film scores: one for Stop! You’re Killing Me, based on a Damon Runyon story and starring Broderick Crawford and Claire Trevor, the other for She’s Back on Broadway featuring Virginia Mayo.

Both were, uh, flops.

Chastened and angered by the politics that went into moviemaking, Dad returned to his comfort zone, writing such hits as “It’s All In The Game,” (Tommy Edwards), “Careless Hands” (Mel Torme) and “Answer Me, My Love” (Nat King Cole).

Dad supplied his mentor, Johnny Mercer, with the famous line “Or am I breathing music into ev’ry word” for the immortal “And The Angels Sing.”

In 1959, however, the invitation to write the lyric to the theme from the blockbuster-in-the-making Otto Preminger film Exodus was impossible to pass up.
Dad wrote a deeply moving lyric to go with the epic melody. Its opening verse set the tone: “It all began 5000 years ago/they made me leave my place of birth/That was the Exodus/The start of Exodus/And ever since I’ve roamed about the earth.” Studio infighting ensued, and the powers-that-were decided to use words written by Pat Boone instead. Anyone remember them?

The next year, the instru-mental theme from A Summer Place was the biggest smash in the world. Dad was asked to write lyrics, and wrote a good song titled “I Grew Up Last Night.” (He always said that getting the title is half the battle.) No one alive remembers what went wrong, but a different lyric was ultimately used. Dad regrouped and wrote a new melody for his lyrics, and Leslie Uggams released “I Grew Up Last Night” it as a single.

Fast forward another decade to Dad’s next close encounter with movie themes. Paramount asked him to write lyrics for Francis Lai’s unforgettable “Theme From Love Story,” the biggest film of the year. Dad’s initial effort was rejected by producer Bob Evans, who thought it was too sad (and also too sexually suggestive — they objected to the phrase “Jenny came”). Furious, Dad refused to rewrite what he thought was just the right wedding of words to music, but cooler heads prevailed. He paced around our living room contemplating alternatives, but couldn’t get any ideas. Then he turned to my Mom and said, “Where do I begin,” and the rest is history. (Shirley Bassey’s version contains one line from the original, rejected lyric — “Sudden summer rain/That cools the pavement with a patent leather shine,” a line actually contributed by my mom.)

“Where Do I Begin (Love Story)” became a monster hit for Andy Williams, who beat out versions by Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis in an epic intramural cover battle among three stars on the Columbia label. The song has since been covered by hundreds of artists around the world and plays a role in such films as Earth Girls Are Easy and The Name Of Love.


Many of Dad’s songs were more distantly related to various films. In the mid-sixties he added English lyrics to Luis Bonfa’s haunting “Manha de Carnival” theme from the classic film Black Orpheus. It’s been covered many times, with Frank Sinatra’s Don Costa-arranged 1969 reading remaining definitive. Other Sigman songs that appeared in movies include “It’s All In The Game” (Diner and many others) “Marshmallow World” (Step Brothers) and “Buona Sera” (Big Night).

The song Dad considered his best was inspired by a movie he didn’t see. In 1953, he was stumped trying to write a lyric to “Ebb Tide,” a gorgeous tune written by classical harpist Robert Maxwell that was charging up the charts as an instrumental. The publisher needed the lyric yesterday, and Dad was all but ready to surrender when he saw a newspaper ad for From Here To Eternity, the film that revived Frank Sinatra’s career. The ad captured the key moment when Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr embrace on the beach as the tide washes over them. That was Dad’s eureka moment, after which, as he put it, the song wrote itself.

“Ebb Tide” has appeared in several films, most famously including Naked Gun 2-1/2, which deploys the Righteous Brothers’ monumental version to parody the pottery-wheel scene in Ghost. The song is unique in that the title never appears in the lyric, though The Righteous Brothers spontaneously belt it out at the end of their recording. Bobby Hatfield told me the moment came while producer Phil Spector was out of the studio. Spector may have been a legendary control freak, but he was smart enough to know a towering musical moment when he heard one.

And here’s an even more ob-scure connection. Dad supplied his mentor, Johnny Mercer, with the famous line “Or am I breathing music into ev’ry word” for the immortal “And The Angels Sing,” a song which inspired the eponymous 1944 film musical, though the song isn’t used in the film.

Dad’s last “one that got away” involved one of the greatest films of all time. After the worldwide success of “(Where Do I Begin) Love Story,” it wasn’t surprising that he got a call from Famous Music, Paramount’s publishing arm, to get started on a lyric to Nino Rota’s now-iconic theme. When he arrived at the lobby of the Gulf + Western Building for a meeting, the shakily-constructed skyscraper was literally swaying from the heavy winds and had to be evacuated. But something else was apparently in the wind that day, because Dad never heard from Paramount again!


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