What’s in a Song: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (2)

[Another entry in an occasional series about American songs with long histories. This one follows Part 1, about the history of the composition of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” You can read Part 1, posted last week, here.]

[Video clip above assembled from the first film version of Roberta (1935); Irene Dunne sings it here. Later in the film, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance to an instrumental version, and their dance is what people usually remember from the film. This clip’s uploader helpfully tacked the dance scene onto the vocal: it begins at around 4:03 into the clip.]

By the time the 1940s rolled around, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” had already established itself in the pop songbook. According to at least one observer, pianist Joe Bushkin of the Tommy Dorsey band, it provided the pivotal moment on “the night Frank Sinatra happened.” (Something of a storyteller, Bushkin apparently told the story many times; the details below come from Sinatra! The Song Is You, by Will Friedwald.)

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Weird Week… and a Music-Language Mystery

Boy, does this feel like a long time between posts or what?!

An insane week at work. Busy early mornings. A week of fascinating blog posts t0 read from all my usual haunts (ha ha, no pun intended) — generally yours. Little to no spare time at night. It’s a conspiracy, I tell ya. A conspiracy.

I’ll be back tomorrow for a real post — the usual end-of-week whiskey-river-inspired rambling. And then at some point over the weekend, I hope to finally (!) put up Part 2 of the What’s in a Song entry on “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

Working on the latter has proved to be a lot harder than usual (and that’s saying something). I have almost too much information to draw on (at least if I’m to stay below the 2,000-word absolute maximum length I’ve set). One fascinating little nugget has turned out to be something of a mystery, but really just a side issue from the central topic; I thought I’d turn it over to RAMH readers for help — especially any of you who know something about songwriting and/or music at more than just a listener level.

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and numerous other popular songs, as it happens, apparently are considered examples of verseless songs. Obviously, this term doesn’t mean that they lack lyrics. And just as obviously, my assumption that the word verse equates roughly to stanza is completely off the mark.

Can anybody explain for me what that means?

As background, one of the most complete explanations I’ve read is from a book called What to Listen for in Rock: A Stylistic Analysis, by Ken Stephenson. Although primarily concerned with rock, the book does refer to other genres, like show tunes, to illustrate and explain key concepts. In this case, it says (bleeping over a lot of jargon):

The portion [of “Over the Rainbow”] starting with [“Somewhere over the rainbow, Way up high”] is actually only the chorus of the song; the verse, not sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz and thus largely ignored or forgotten, begins with the words “When all the world is a hopeless jumble.” Similarly, few of the millions who know Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas (1940) remember — or have ever heard — the verse, which begins with descriptions of the sunny weather and green grass of Southern California in December… Now, a chorus intended to be independent of a verse must have not only length but formal complexity as well… In many songs from this period, “Over the Rainbow” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” included, the chorus has taken on a multisectional form itself.

I don’t get it. Maybe in the case of “Over the Rainbow” — for which lyrics apparently exist for something called the “verse,” apart from the rest of the song — I can sorta kinda almost accept that “Somewhere over the rainbow/Way up high” is… something else. But what makes “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” verseless?

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What’s In a Song: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (1)

[One of a continuing series of posts on American popular songs with long histories. As is usually the case, this one on the history of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” will be was followed in a couple days by Part 2, about some of the cover versions.]

Where Were You in ’62?

So asked one of the taglines to George Lucas’s 1973 film, American Graffiti. The question both pinpointed the time of the film’s action and suggested that the film would be even better if the audience brought their own memories along to the theater.

Yet the hit soundtrack which followed wasn’t so neatly nailed down: it mashed together hits released between 1953 to 1964 (!). Hence — given the way that blocks of AM Top 40 radio playlists were constructed back then — these songs were unlikely to have been broadcast exactly that way during the single day of the characters’ lives which the film depicts.

The Graffiti soundtrack also failed to include many artists who would have been on the air over that twelve-year period — notably Elvis Presley. The idea of releasing a soundtrack album of original hits tied to the release of a film wasn’t new, but music producers and rights holders were suspicious of the payment plan proposed by studio lawyers: each song’s owner(s) would get a flat, and equal, amount. (Indeed, Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” was included, despite the rights issues, by the expedient of re-recording it just for the album.)

In any case, chronologically midway through that block of years, along came “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” recorded by The Platters in 1958 and topping the charts a year later:

[Below, click Play button to begin Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:39 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

They asked me how I knew
My true love was true
I, of course, replied,
Something here inside
Cannot be denied.

They said someday you’ll find
All who love are blind
When your heart’s on fire
You must realize
Smoke gets in your eyes.

So I chaffed them and I gayly laughed
To think that they could doubt my love,
Yet today my love has flown away
I am without my love

Now laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide
So I smile and say,
“When a lovely flame dies,
Smoke gets in your eyes.”

(Above lyrics transcription per songwriter Jimmy Webb’s study of pop music composition, Tunesmith, probably using The Platters’ cover as a guide. Slight variations do crop up in others, though.)

Like many people who lived through the ’50s and ’60s, I imagine, I’d always thought that to be the version of the song. It was certainly the only one I’d ever heard. And could any performer possibly have handled such lyrics and music with more authority than The Platters’ lead singer, Tony Williams?

Little did “My Generation”-centric I realize that the movie tagline might just as well have read: Where Were You in ‘32?

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