Nora Torches the Night


When Kay Swift died on January, 28, 1993, I read her obituary in the New York Times. I then looked for it in the Seattle Times. There was no mention of her death. Right then I decide to write a play about women who wrote pop tunes in the Tin Pan Alley era. I’d become a fan of Kay when I found out she wrote the tune “Fine and Dandy.” That was a tune I heard over and over and over when I was growing up because it seemed to be the tune all tap dancers chose to dance to on TV shows. I didn’t learn till later, that “Fine and Dandy,” the song, was part of a Broadway musical from 1930, that Kay had written the whole score for. It ran for almost 300 performances and was the first musical with score by a woman. It was a crime that no one seemed to know her, or others of her select fraternity.

Kay was far from alone in writing pop tunes in the first half of the twentieth century. One of my favorites was Bernice Petkere. Bernice had written in 1933, the knockout tune “Close Your Eyes.” It was recorded by hundreds over the years. She also wrote the very cool song “A Mile A Minute,” and many others. She was also one of few who wrote both words and music for her songs. That put her in a class with Irving Berlin, Walter Donaldson and Cole Porter.

Others included Mabel Wayne, who wrote for Hollywood movies, including It Happened In Monterey, that Frank Sinatra made a nice record of. Doris Fisher was the daughter of the big time songwriter Fred Fisher, who was born in 1875. She wrote many excellent songs, mostly in the forties. Ann Ronell wrote “Willow Weep for Me.” Dana Suisse wrote the tune that became the theme song for Kodak ads, “You Ought to Be in Pictures,” as well as the hit tune “My Silent Love.” Maria Grever wrote the tune “What A Difference a Day Makes,” that was a hit for Dinah Washington, and has also been used in TV ads. There are too many other women song writers for me to mention in this brief report.

I had the play written, titled Can’t We Be Friends (the title of a Kay Swift song) within a month. It was sub-titled: The Women of Tin Pan Alley. It would be a musical revue that included 35mm slides, 16mm films, a jazz band, and a singer. Once it was written I asked around about available singers and piano players. I found a mother and daughter act that seemed like a good fit. When I met with them and showed them the script they loved it. They also told me it would take a year to mount such a show. I was in more of hurry than that. was

I was introduced to the singer Nora Michaels. She was well known for doing an Edith Piaf show. She loved the idea, and agreed to be in the show. Now all I needed was a jazz band. If I had done the show twenty years earlier, I had many friends who would want to take part. At that time, we were all in college and in love with Twenties jazz. Jeff Hughes the cornet player was the leader of that group. They regularly performed as the Salmon City Seven and also gigged with John Holte in his band the Swingland Express. Over the years, most of that group had moved away or gotten married and were pursuing careers.

One night I was at Canlis listening to my friend Jack Brownlow play the piano. Jack was the best piano player I ever knew. He had legions of fans, without a lot of ambition to record and become famous. He was happy to play gigs, own a house in Seattle, and even though he was fabulous, rehearse every day to get better. At a break I told him about my play and how I was having trouble finding a piano player to be in it. He said “Well, I’ll do it.” Wow, next I guess I should have asked Pablo Picasso to design the sets. Also, with Jack, came the bass player Scott Faulkner, who played with Jack at Canlis. I then got my friend John Draper to play reeds in the play. All agreed as pay, to split the gate that came in.

Luckily for me, I didn’t have to find a theater company to do the show. I owned a little movie theater that could easily be turned into a live theater. Can’t We Be Friends opened at the Pike St. Cinema, then masquerading as the Pike St. Theatre, on May 20, 1993. It played four nights a week for three weeks. After that the run was extended through August 31.

In 1995 I closed the Pike St. Cinema, loaded its parts into a truck and drove it to New York City, where a few months later I opened the Lighthouse Cinema on the Suffolk St. on the Lower East Side. I got an email from Nora, telling me she had a singing gig in New York coming up. I showed up at her gig. One of her sets was all women songwriters. After that set a woman name Terry Benes asked her how she knew the women writers’ songs. Nora brought her over to introduce me. Terry was a producer for PBS docs.

On August 19, 1999, the American Masters Yours for Song: The Women of Tin Pan Alley, was broadcast nationally on PBS. I got three credits in the finished production, one of my films was used in it, and I got paid not much. Nora, and my friend Peter Mintun, were filmed. The production had taken three years. In the end I was not happy with it. The result could have been called Dorothy Fields and the Seven Dwarfs. I have nothing against Dorothy Fields, but she wrote lyrics, many with big time men songwriters such as Jerome Kern and Jimmie McHugh. Too much of the show was about her, leaving very little room for the women who had written music, with many of whose melodies being known to people even today. My show was about melody writers, which had not included Dorothy Fields. They also could have had someone interview Bernice Petkere, which I pointed out; she was the only living woman songwriter from the Twenties still alive. Finally, I didn’t like the title Yours For a Song. It was the title of a Dorothy Fields song, but to me it suggested ownership, with a sexist aspect. On the other hand, the doc was probably watched by millions, who did get the idea that women wrote pop songs.

During the run of Can’t We Be Friends, Nora asked me if I could write her a musical revue titled Nora Torches the Night. It took a month or two to write it. It has never been produced. I can see why. It is much wordier than Can’t We Be Friends, and has many more songs. If anyone wants to produce it, I would be happy.


Nora Torches the Night


House lights dim to black.

HOUSE BAND PLAYS: Verse to “I’ve Got To Sing A Torch Song”.

A spot illuminates Nora’s face upon conclusion of verse. She sings “I’VE GOT TO SING A TORCH SONG.”

NORA: That was not a torch song. That was a song by Al Dubin and Harry Warren about torch songs, performed in the movie Gold Diggers of 1933, toward the end of the torch singing era. Not bad timing by Hollywood standards. They managed to do a movie about Malcom X with-in thirty years of his death. Not only was it not a torch song, it was even sung by a man, DICK POWELL!! Geez, Hollywood couldn’t even get that right. Men weren’t torch singers, especially Dick Powell with his nail you to the chair tenor voice. Women were torch singers. They sang about women’s problems, although most had to do with men. We’ll get more into that as the show goes on.

What does the phrase “torch singing” mean anyway? The musicologist Sigmund Spaeth said in 1934 that the term came about “Possibly because the singers are always pictured as burning like a torch over the complete misery of their lives.” An example of this is found in the verse to the Walter Donaldson song “You’re Driving Me Crazy.” The lyric goes “I’m not the same, dear, I’m burning like a flame, dear.” There was also the phrase for being in love called carrying the torch for someone. What? Like the Statue of Liberty. That doesn’t make much sense to me, but the vision of someone having such a deep passion that she bursts into flames seems perfectly reasonable. Or maybe it wasn’t just deep passion — Hot! Passion, so hot that flames could fly. I can buy that. Now that you’ve heard a fake Hollywood torch song, here is the real thing. A song identified with the torch singer Belle Baker.


NORA: I hope you liked that because I’m sure most of you’ve never heard it before. After tonight you might never hear it again. There are going to plenty of songs fitting that description in tonight’s program. Isn’t the possibility of discovery thrilling? Don’t be worried about hearing things for the first time. Most torch songs aren’t too deep. Even on a first hearing, don’t worry too much about catching subtle uses of irony or satire. When they want you to notice something, they usually spell it out. “The One I Love Just Can’t Be Bothered with Me” was written by the team of Seymour Simons and Gus Kahn. Not exactly household names. Why did I use it to start with? Why didn’t I start with something by George Gershwin or Cole Porter? First, it’s just one of my favorite torch songs. Second, since hardly anyone has ever heard of Seymour Simons, I want in this show to introduce you to him and a lot of other unjustly forgotten people such as Belle Baker, a forgotten torch singer. Look her up on video in the 1929 film The Song of Love or try to get a re-issue of her records. Good Luck. Last, that song has a classic torch song lyric “When I get a real throwdown, I feel lowdown, but I keep coming back for more.” Which brings up one of the hall marks of torch songs, an indomitable masochistic spirit. The 1931 torch song “When a Woman Loves a Man” has the line “Just being miserable, gives her a thrill, when a woman loves a man.”

Tonight we are going to examine just what identifies a Torch song. The lyricist Gus Kahn was one of the giants of Tin Pan Alley, writing such standards as “Carolina In The Morning,” “It Had To Be You,” “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and dozens of others. In contrast, the composer Seymour Simons is as equally obscure, although his most famous song, “All of Me,” is still heard in elevators, on a Willie Nelson record and as the title song from a Steve Martin movie. Maybe I spoke rashly when I used the term masochistic. The women in torch songs didn’t enjoy pain, at least not all of them. They probably didn’t even want to burst into flames. They just knew that pain was part of the price they had to pay for love. This next song explains it well.


NORA: That was written by team of Yellan and Ager and introduced by Sophie Tucker in the 1929 film Honky Tonk. Jack Yellan and Milton Ager wrote such standards as “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” There’s a new book out by MIlton Ager’s daughter Shana Alexander about her remarkable parents called Happy Days, it’s recommended reading. Now, just to keep you from getting antsy, here’s a song you should recognize. Written by Howard Dietz and Ralph Rainger. Libby Holman, who deserves her own show, introduced this one, on Broadway, in 1929, in The Little Show. The original scene was a shabby room with a sagging bed. Clifton Webb — you may remember Clifton Webb as the character Waldo Lydecker in the film Laura, or as the character Mr. Belvedere or Mr. Scoutmaster in other movies. This was earlier in his career. He is sprawled across the bed and ignores Libby Holman when she enters. She stops and conceals some money in the top of her stocking then gives the rest to Webb. He gets up and begins to make love to her. As his hands caress her body he comes across the money. He tears it away from her and violently throws her to the floor. He then saunters to stage front center and starts to dance in a wildly suggestive style, much like the Harlem star Snake Hips Tucker, throwing his hips around in figure eights, like a cowboy’s lasso. Then, Libby Holman sang.


NORA: At the end of the song, Clifton Webb slithers out the door, slamming it in back of him as Libby Holman throws herself against it. That was a big hit. In Bing Crosby’s first feature film The Big Broadcast Of 1932 he played a character who had a girlfriend named Mona Low. Every time she made an entrance they played a little snatch of the song. “Moanin’ Low” touches on what is probably the most common theme of torch songs. That is, that love does not depend on the adored object. Love is something that comes from the heart of the woman that she can’t control and is often directed at someone who doesn’t deserve it. She’ll even pass over some perfectly decent, successful man for some bum. In fact in torch songs it’s not just often, it’s usually. Here’s an even more directly stated version of that premise written by George and Ira Gershwin and featured by Jane Froman.


NORA: Jane Froman starred on Broadway in the early thirties and was featured in the Ziegfeld Follies. A movie about her life starring Susan Hayward was made in 1952 called With A Song In My Heart.

It should be noted that these themes of masochism and helplessness are in songs sung by women, but so far they have all been written by men. The lyrics to this next song were written by a woman, Dorothy Fields, to a melody written by Jimmy McHugh. She brings us to another trait of torch songs, that is that for all the misery that men bring to women, it can be worth it and that men do sometimes give value in return. At least the man in the song has some good values, most notably his being “Hot as Hades”


NORA: So far our only description of a torch singer has been that they were all women. Another trait most of them had was that they were white. Black women were usually billed as “Blues” singers. That last song was introduced by one of the few Black Torch singers, Miss Adalaide Hall in the Broadway show Blackbirds Of 1928. Getting back to that line “He’s hot as Hades, a lady’s not safe in his arms.” Lets get one thing straight, a lot of these songs were for adults and sex was main issue. In the song “Body and Soul” the prurient emphasis was on the body. In the song “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight” only the most naive misunderstood what could be accomplished in one hour. In torch songs sex was often euphemistically referred to. The woman could give herself, or surrender, or just LOVE and what’s so wrong about that? This song takes an adult look at just what one man has to offer and in opposition to the helplessness of most of our songs so far this offers murder as option when a woman decides the man isn’t worth it.


NORA: That was also introduced by Sophie Tucker in the 1929 film Honky Tonk. Sophie billed herself as “The Last Of The Red Hot Mamas,” used her big hit song “Some of These Days” as her theme song, and had a long career appearing in vaudeville before electrical amplification and later on television in the 1960’s. She also had a ribald sense of humor of which this is an example. She liked to joke about her relationship with a certain Ernie. One day she and Ernie were lying on the divan when Ernie said “Soph (He always called me “Soph”) You know what I like about you, Soph? You got no tits and a tight box” and she said “Ernie, get off my back.” “He’s Good Man To Have Around” was also written by the team of Yellen and Ager. And again, I recommend the book. Of course now that we’ve mentioned sex, that brings up another theme of torch songs: guilt. If sex was inevitable, it was still wrong, and the woman must feel guilty afterward.


NORA: That song was written by the three men popularly referred to as DeSylva, Brown and Henderson. They were responsible for a raft of hit songs in the twenties such as “Button Up Your Overcoat,” “California Here I Come,” “April Showers,” and many others. It brings up another hallmark of many torch songs: that love doesn’t end when the man walks out the door. Just as love doesn’t depend on the quality of the man, it doesn’t end just because the man leaves. An even more successful song writer was Irving Berlin who alone wrote enough torch songs to fill up this program. He could have called his program Irving Torches The Night. I’d pay to see him do the “Moanin’ Low” bit, where he’d put the money in the top of his stocking. By limiting this show to just one Irving Berlin song I had to pass over such gems as “Say It Isn’t So,” “How About Me?”, “Just A Little While,” and about a dozen others. This is one of his more obscure numbers.


NORA: That was introduced by the great torch singer Fred Astaire accompanied by the Leo Reisman Orchestra in 1933, before he became a movie star. Oddly enough, Clifton Webb, who did the cootch dance in “Moanin’ Low,” also recorded songs with the Reisman Band about that same time.

Gosh! Look at the time go by, we’ve got just one song left before the intermission and since I don’t want anybody slitting there throats in the restrooms because of these songs about the complete misery of women’s lives, we’ll go out with a slightly bouncy little number that is gender non-specific, but still, a great torch song.




NORA (after looking over the audience): I see we’re all here and nobody did anything drastic during the intermission. The song that ended the first act was written by Harry Akst with lyrics by Grant Clark. The reason I didn’t talk about them before the song was that I thought it would be poor taste to joke about suicide and then mention that Grant Clarke killed himself in 1931 two days after his 40th birthday in Hollywood. Clarke was extremely successful in a variety of fields. His first hit song “Dat’s Harmony” was written for the famous black comedian and Ziegfeld star Bert Williams. He was a charter member at the age of 23 of ASCAP (The American Society of Composers and Publishers) in 1914 along with such superstar songwriters as Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. He went to Hollywood to write the songs for the first big Talking Picture The Jazz Singer in 1927 and he stayed in Hollywood writing both songs and screenplays. Among his many hit songs were “Second Hand Rose,” and “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”. This was probably Clarke and Akst’s biggest hit.


NORA: That was introduced by the great Ethel Waters in the 1929 film On With The Show. This brings us back to point mentioned earlier. Ethel Waters was Black and she was not considered a torch singer. Most torch singers were white. Ethel Waters was comfortable doing all kinds of material but because she was black she was considered a blues singer. This might explain why Billie Holiday, the greatest jazz singer who ever lived, is often labeled a blues singer. Which brings us back to Malcolm X and Libby Holman. You might recall I dropped the name of Malcolm X at the beginning of the show. You may of thought it was just a pointless aside, but AHA! Now you know that every word I say is carefully planned and of some importance.

Libby rocketed to fame in the late twenties despite a peculiar voice that is not to everyone’s taste. She was the toast of Broadway introducing songs like “Moanin’ Low,” “Why Was I Born,” “Something To Remember You By” and “Body And Soul.” She married the heir to one of the great fortunes in the country, Smith Reynolds of RJ Reynolds Tobacco and when Mr. Reynolds was found dead with a bullet through his brain Libby was tried for murder. Although acquitted, she was scorned by the family, who tried unsuccessfully to take her child away from her. Consequently her career faltered and for twenty years she labored in obscurity until she made a popular comeback in the 1950’s. Back in the spotlight she threw her support to leftist causes, most notably Black activism and became a friend and confident of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. She died in 1971. Here’s song she recorded in 1929, written by Cole Porter, which offers a different slant on the masculine Ideal.


NORA: Most of the great torch singers led pretty interesting personal lives. Ruth Etting had a notorious gangster as lover even though she had a virginal public persona and was billed as “The Sweetheart of Columbia Records.” She actually married Martin “The Gimp” Snyder and when she tried to leave him “The Gimp” pumped two bullets into the man she really loved, Meryl “Johnny” Alderman. Luckily Alderman, a piano player, lived and Ruth later married him. She retired in the mid-thirties, having been the biggest selling recording star of the twenties and appearing in several movies. She and Johnny had a long and happy marriage. A ridiculously fictional account of her life was made into the movie Love Me or Leave in 1955 with Doris Day in the lead and James Cagney as “The Gimp”. This Richard Rogers/Lorenz Hart number was one of her biggest hits.


NORA: Fanny Brice, born in Brooklyn in 1892. Her notorious gangster-lover was Gambler Nicky Arnstein who she married and stood by while he did time. Eventually she dumped him and married the big time Broadway Producer Billy Rose. She was a Ziegfeld star by 1910 and became one of the greatest stars of the Twenties. She is now remembered now more as a comedienne than a torch singer. From the thirties right up to her death in 1951 she was on the radio as Baby Snooks. Here’s an example of her Baby Snooks humor.

Daddy tries to save money by getting Baby Snooks on the bus as a child of 6 or under. The driver says “She looks a lot older than that”. Daddy replies “Can I help it if she worries?” Still, she could torch with the best of them, which is why in the two movies about her the singer Barbra Streisand got the lead role. This song was written in France by Maurice Yvain and became a huge hit for Miss Brice in 1921.


NORA: It’s time I mentioned another absolutely forgotten torch singer in the midst of these others who were so well known as to be immortalized by Hollywood. Lee Morse was a singer with a remarkable range and a penchant for yodeling. She also recorded for Columbia Records and recorded versions of four of the songs you’ve heard already tonight. This song is associated with her. It offers a new spin on the hopelessness and masochism of most torch songs by offering that one thing a wronged woman can do is give up love all together. The lyric was by the previously mentioned Gus Kahn with music by Fud Livingston and Matty Malneck.


NORA: What else was a woman to do when wronged by a man. It looks like all that’s left is suicide. Oddly enough most torch songs never consider it. This surprisingly bouncy little ditty written by the jazz musician Don Redman would not seem to be a torch song if it were only heard instrumentally but the lyrics are about as down in the dumps as you can get.


A largely forgotten singer named Annette Hanshaw recorded that song. She was primarily a recording artist and recorded in a remarkable range of styles from cutesy cutesy things in a voice like Betty Boop to very adult torch songs. My vote for the single oddest torch song is this surprisingly depressing ode, not to the living hell of kept women and nightclubs, but of the more mundane existence of many women in the 1920’s.


We’ve made it now to the greatest of the torch singers, Helen Morgan, who often performed perched on a piano, first as a stage device and later to keep her from falling over from too much Prohibition liquor. Helen was born in 1900 in Danville, Illinois but came to New York after winning a beauty contest in Montreal as the city’s Miss Mount Royal. Sounds like something you’d bet on in the Derby or the name of porno film. During her first year in the Big Apple she studied voice at the Metropolitan Opera. She then began to sing in clubs and appear in the chorus on Broadway. She was spotted by George White and was put in his Scandals of 1925 where she understudied the lead. In the classic tradition the star fell in Ill on opening night and the rest is history. From 1927 through 1929 she played Julie in the original Broadway production of Show Boat and then went into movies starring in Applause in 1929 and in several others including Show Boat in 1936 before returning to Broadway in George White’s Scandals Of 1936.

She didn’t introduce the classic song “More Than You Know” by Vincent Youmans from the Broadway show Great Day, but sang it in a nightclub a few days after the show opened and it became hers forever.


Helen Morgan drank herself into an early grave and died in 1941. Much like this show, which has tottered to its conclusion. We’re going to end with another Helen Morgan song from her film Applause. This is as good a torch song as you can find. Written by Jay Gorney and E. Y. Harburg it’s a classic torcher with its message of male domination, masochism and oddly enough, hope.





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