A HIT IS BORN
The Story of —
How does a song hit 'get born'? It takes a lot of things: clever lyrics, catchy melody, a sixth sense of judgment about the mood of the times, shrewd exploitation. Here's the story behind my recent RCA Victor hit "Papa Loves Mambo," just as it happened.
MONDAY, 4:30 P.M.: Bix Reichner, a Philadelphia songwriter, stops by Hanson's luncheonette at 51st Street and Seventh Avenue in New York for a glass of milk. Hanson's is a hangout for musicians, songwriters and singers. Here they get their phone messages, catch up on news and contacts, and wangle a little credit.
At the counter, Reichner meets dapper, sad-looking Al Hoffman, a fellow songwriter. Reichner knows about Hoffman's work — "Mairzy Doats," "If I Knew You Were Coming I'da Baked a Cake," and "Gilly Gilly Ossenfeller Katzenellen by the Sea." Comparing notes with him now, Bix suddenly realizes Al is the man to write a mambo novelty to a title buzzing in his head for weeks.
As he leaves, Bix, a lanky part-time farmer with a predilection for loud shirts and a close working knowledge of the music industry, says, "I'd like to throw a title at you. See what you think. " Al puts down his root beer: "Shoot!" Bix holds his breath dramatically, then shoots it out: "Papa Loves Mambo." A glint appears in Al's eyes and Bix knows he has hit the target. Hoffman smiles and says, "I Like it. I'll talk it over with Dick Manning and see what we can do."
"It can't miss," Bix says. "The country's in the midst of a mambo mania. Kick it around." He waves goodbye and rushes to catch a train.
MONDAY, 4:35 P.M.: Hoffman calls Dick Manning, his collaborator for the past two years. "Look Dick, I'm excited about a new idea for a song. I just bumped into Bix Reichner, and he gave me a title. I think it's a surefire: "Papa Loves Mambo." Dick's reaction is spontaneous. "Great! Sensational!" he says excitedly. "Let's put everything else aside and work on this. We'll bat it back and forth at dinner tonight."
8:15 P.M.: Hoffman and Manning, a stocky good-natured man with features not unlike a mustached cherub, have a dinner-theater date with their wives tonight, but during dinner their enthusiasm reaches such a peak that they decide to forego the theater and start working on the song immediately at Al's place.
MONDAY, 9:00 P.M.: In the living room of Al's apartment on W. 57th Street, the writers continue their preliminary doodling with words and music. As these talks progress, they lock themselves into Al's den and hang a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the doorknob, leaving their wives to watch television.
Decisions are made about the construction of the song. Should the title come first or at the end of the phrase? "It's always better at the beginning," Al points out. "It's safer. People remember the opening, not the middle." Dick agrees.
Then the rhythm. What beat do they use? Dick, who plays fine piano and organ, suggests a few mambo tempos, and they select one (the cha-cha).
Hoffman and Manning like to work out a melodic strain first before they "drape it with a lyric." So Dick sits at the piano and plays some of their ideas. The opening bars seem to call for an echo: should it be a vocal or an instrumental echo? They decide to make it instrumental.
With the opening phrase finally set, the boys find they can make a little headway. The phrase now begins to flow: "He goes fast . . . she goes slow . . . he goes left . . . she goes right." But the problem is to end this thought. "We've got to have a good punch line," Al tells Dick. "Something to catch 'em, make 'em laugh."
TUESDAY, 2:30 A.M.: After ten cups of black coffee for Dick and a carton of cigarettes for Al, they are ready to set down the final draft on paper. "Papa Loves Mambo" has only 113 words in the lyrics, but finding the right combinations was a tough business. Playing melodic and lyric, the boys iron out the kinks in the finished product, make the necessary revisions, break the news — in loud song — to their wives and call it a night.
TUESDAY, NOON: Al and Dick's good friend, Claire Kaufman, sings song to Bix ("So fast? I think it's great!") and to Dick Volter, vice-president of Shapiro-Bernstein music publishers ("Bring it up at 4:30. I want Mr. Bernstein and Al Gallico, general manager, to hear it.") At 4:35, after one rendition, the trio nods approval and Gallico says quietly, "We'll take it."
WEDNESDAY: Dick Volter and Al Gallico lunch at Toots Shor's with Joe Carlton, RCA Victor's Artists and Repertoire head, who selects tunes and the artists to sing them. When Carlton first hears the title he nearly falls off his chair. He has been searching for a mambo, aware of the huge teenage craze over the dance. That night, Carlton works late in his Radio City office, ignoring the cleaning women to get the song recorded quickly. His first decision was, "It's perfect for Como." So he tries to persuade me to do it.
FRIDAY: Joe Carlton calls in Joe Reisman, arranger who has done some fine work for Patti Page, and assigns him to do a "spirited raucous arrangement bearing in mind Como's easy style." Next morning, Carlton confers with Mitchell Ayres my musical director and longtime friend. They set the time for the recording date.
TUESDAY, 5:00 P.M.: As Artists and Repertoire man, Joe Carlton supervises the recording session. He and the engineers say I'm a Toscanini — a perfectionist. But there's no use doing something unless you can do it well. I may be hypercritical about my own performance, but I would rather spend a little more time and effort and do the very best I can.
Crazy things happen at recording sessions. We are going fine until I "fluff" — trip over the tongue-twisting lyrics. The girls giggle, I grab my mouth in shame, and the tension broken we start again.
I can never eat during a recording session, no matter how long it lasts. I might gulp down some coffee or a Coke, but I like to eat in peace and quiet when the work is behind me.
When we are finally finished, I am still not convinced that "Papa Loves Mambo" is the right song for me, so I bet my friend Larry Kanaga, general sales and merchandising manager for RCA, fifty dollars that the other side of the record will be the hit. Funny thing . . . I seem to win bets we make on prizefights, but Larry collects on the record sides.
We dress sloppily and work in a casual atmosphere. To break up the heavy repetition of takes, I try relaxing by walking a straight line along one of the mike wires or doing a mambo step with one of the girls. The takes continue until one is pronounced good by the engineers, Joe Carlton and me.
Once the performers are through with a recording, the sales staff campaigns to get the record the most attention possible. Song-pluggers for Shapiro-Bernstein often take acetate recordings for special previews to disc-jockeys.
Every summer I try to visit distributors around the country with Larry Kanaga to find out what they want me to record. One of the convincers for choosing "Papa Loves Mambo" was a request by a Maine distributor for a mambo tune. Soon wires began pouring in from distributors: "Sounds like a hit. Double the order!" The word is the "Papa Loves Mambo" is the kick-off for the fall season.
Perry recorded "Papa Loves Mambo" on August 31, 1954; it was released in September, and charted on October 4, eventually peaking at number four, spending eighteen weeks on the charts. It was Perry's 98th hit.
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Friday, April 07, 2023