January 26, 2014

In Which an Advertising Man Introduces Me to Mose Allison

There are two Duke Ellingon tunes that I've long associated with one another - "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", and "Do Nothing till You Hear From Me".  I'd heard and hummed them for many years before I learned that they were both the work of lyricist Bob Russell.  Russell started out as an advertising man, but made his way to Tin Pan Alley and ultimately to Hollywood, where he collaborated with Quincy Jones and did many other improbable things, more of which later.

The two Ellington songs are early efforts.  They are both remarkably fluent:  spare but telling dramatic monologues in which every words counts, and sometimes counts twice.  I was a bit surprised at the order of composition, with "Don't Get Around Much..." coming in 1942 and "Do Nothing..." in 1943.  Before I knew this it seemed so evident that these were episodes in the life of the same bon vivant, "Do Nothing..." during the party times, and "Don't Get Around Much..." after the fun was over.  Well, chronology aside I still think of them that way.

"Do Nothing till you Hear From Me" is the inventive testimony of a weasel who's been sleeping around, but doesn't want to lose his girlfriend.  He's in so deep there's really no hope of refuting the charges, so he instead engages in a series of ingeniously non-apologetic non-denials.  He gives it such a good try you almost root for him, but Russell won't let you forget that he's also a cad.  Implementations vary - e.g., Ella Fitzgerald's ornate and elegiac cover has an extended prologue (and includes a solo Ellington's by sax man Ben Webster) - but these four stanzas make up the core of the song:

Do nothin' till you hear from me
Pay no attention to what's said
Why people tear the seam of anyone's dream
Is over my head

Do nothin' till you hear from me
At least consider our romance
If you should take the word of others you've heard
I haven't a chance

True, I've been seen with someone new
But does that mean that I'm untrue?
When we're apart, the words in my heart
Reveal how I feel about you

Some kiss may cloud my memory
And other arms may hold a thrill
But please do nothin' till you hear from me
And you never will

There are many covers of "Do Nothing till You Hear From Me", but if you find this one wanting in some way, there is not much I can do for you:

That said, the great Mose Allison has made cool ambivalence his stock in trade, and his fine cover approaches the level of the Armstrong/Ellington version.  It is straight-up heresy, but I think I've come around to the view that Allison gets the song a little righter than Ellington/Armstrong, moving it away from showy performance - which after all was Armstrong's stock in trade - and a bit closer to testimony.
If "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" is the pleading of a scoundrel still up to his old tricks, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is a sadder tale, drawn in the briefest strokes imaginable:

I missed the Saturday dance  
I heard they crowded the floor 
It's awfully different without you 
Don't get around much anymore 

I thought I'd visit the club
I got as far as the door 
They'd have asked me about you 
Don't get around much anymore  

Darling, I guess 
That my mind's more at ease 
But nevertheless, 
Why stir up memories  

I've been invited on dates 
I might have gone but what for 
It's awfully different without you 
Don't get around much anymore

In the category of "getting a lot done in four words," I'd nominate "awfully different without you" as pre-eminent, right up there with "are my methods unsound?" and "stand up for bastards!"

Again, we should probably use The Summit version as our point of departure:

Both the arrangement and Armstrong's vocals fit the lyrics better here.  But again, Mose Allison seems genetically connected with this material.  If you'd like to hear some others, Wikipedia lists 24 covers, though most are inferior and should not be employed.  I do recommend that first one by the Ink Spots, however.

They were popular songs back in the day, in a time when the big city could be seen as sophisticated, not just rich and cruel.  After a career that defies synopsis, Russell passed away in 1970.  His last offering - written almost on his deathbed - showed the same delight in paradoxical wordplay, but in other respects it is almost the exact opposite of those first, protean, efforts:

  • Russell also wrote "You Came a Long Way From St. Louis", one of only a few songs sung by both Rosemary Clooney (here) and Marvin Gaye (here), although I most prefer the Della Reese version.  T.S. Eliot, who was originally from St. Louis, reportedly enjoyed the song.  I'll pause while you picture Eliot bopping a little in his chair as he listens to it on his record player.  Word is he especially liked the line "you've still got a long way to go."
  • A fine documentary on Mose Allison, with exegesis by Peter Townshend ("without that song I don't think I'd have written My Generation") is here (starts at 2:00).


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