The making of Frank Sinatra’s Strangers In The Night
Mark Steyn celebrates his Sinatra Centenary series with a look at the making of a hit song:
It was 1966. Enter Bert Kaempfert “the German kaiser of kitsch”:
He eschewed the standard 32-bar A-A-B-A song, possibly on the grounds that a middle section was way too much work. Instead, his tunes are built on the slightest of melodic themes, endlessly repeated. Yet they are, as the Germans say, Ohrwürmer – or earworms: maddening tunes that insinuate their way into your head and refuse to get out. “L-O-V-E” is the über-Kaempfert, a tune so simple that its lyricist Milt Gabler turned it into a spelling lesson, an “Alphabet Song” for grown-ups:
L is for the way you look at me
O is for the only one I see
V is very very extraordinary
E is even more…
So Kaempfert had form. And so Jimmy Bowen listens to Hal Fine’s bunch of Kaempfert themes and something called “Beddy-Bye” comes up. And Bowen plays it again, and again. And then he says, “Man, get me a lyric on that, and I’ll do it with Sinatra.”
“Beddy-Bye” sounds to me like yet another minimalist Kaempfert tune: the five-note title phrase, reprised a tone up and a tone down, is about 50 per cent of the tune. Yet a remarkable number of other people claim to have had a hand in its creation. The last time I mentioned the thing in this space David C Tobin of Washington, DC wrote to say that it was composed by Avo Uvezian, a Beirut-born Armenian-American pianist cum cigar manufacturer. He does indeed claim to have written the music, but so does the late Ivo Robić, the crooning Croat, who insisted that he’d composed it for a folk music festival in Split, Yugoslavia. M Philippe-Gérard, the Brazilian-born French composer of “When The World Was Young”, sued on the grounds that the tune was stolen from his “Magic Tango”, but lost in court.
So until these various Croatian-Armenian claims are as litigated as the Franco-Brazilian ones, we’ll stick with the official narrative. In 1966, Bert Kaempfert wrote this tune for his first Hollywood movie score, for the aforementioned A Man Could Get Killed, directed by Ronald Neame. And all it needed now was a lyric and Jimmy Bowen would make good on his promise and get Kaempfert a recording by Frank Sinatra.
Bowen had never made such a pledge before – for a fairly obvious reason: He was in no position to promise any such thing. “Obviously,” he explained subsequently, “nobody knows what Frank is going to do till he says what he’s going to do.” But he knew that that “Beddy-Bye” theme smelled like a hit, and Hal Fine took him at his word. He farmed the tune out to various writers, and submitted a couple of lyrics. Jimmy Bowen didn’t like either of them.
So Hal Fine tried again, this time with Eddie Snyder and Charles Singleton….
For “Beddy-Bye”, Eddie Snyder took his cue from the film and the James Garner/Melina Mercouri characters: They’re strangers, exchanging glances, and, by the time the tune’s reprised in the final moments, you know that, as the song says, they’re “in love forever”. “We had the scene,” recalled Snyder. “A man is sitting across from a girl in a bar. That was it.” But that was all they needed:
Strangers In The Night
Wond’ring in the night
What were the chances
We’d be sharing love
Before the night was through…