Bobby Darin

Ocean Crossing


This article, written by Will Friedwald appeared in the Music Issue, 2002 of Vanity Fair Magazine.

Most Americans know "Beyond the Sea" as Bobby Darin's 1960 hit. But it was first written and recorded as "La Mer," at the close of World War II, by French music idol Charles Trenet. How one song swept two cultures--remaining hugely popular in both--is a tale with many twists

"Beyond the Sea" exploded onto the American pop-music scene in early 1960. This was Bobby Darin's follow-up to his blockbuster hit "Mack the Knife;" and it was almost as successful: where "Mack the Knife" had shot to No. I on the charts, "Beyond the Sea" made it to No. 6. "Beyond the Sea" also followed "Mack the Knife" as the second selection on his breakthrough, That's All, the album on which Darin, up until that tune strictly a kiddie-pop idol ("Splish Splash," "Queen of the Hop," etc.), revolutionized the music industry by uniting the pop music of the baby-boomers with that of their parents.

 

"Beyond the Sea" was, if anything, an even better dance record than "Mack the Knife," because it took its tune at an easier, more terpsichoreally copacetic tempo and with a somewhat less bloodthirsty sentiment. "Beyond the Sea" was obviously a love song, although the way Darin irreverently danced through the lyrics, it could have been about anything--the content didn't matter. His nautical-but-nice version shouted with the same exuberance as his tale of a blade-happy Ober-criminal.

 

At first, "Mack the Knife" was by far the more popular disc. In the early 60s, the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht-Marc Blitzstein piece was heard so much that it became something of a cliché. In the last 40 years, however, "Beyond the Sea" has become an even more popular choice of Darin fans and imitators and anyone aspiring to gain entry to his era. The song has opened the gates for dozens of other pop stars who yearn to sing the traditional standards and, in fact, become the next Bobby Darin.

 

"Beyond the Sea" is one of the few works of world culture that have held entirely different meanings for different groups of people. In France the song is known as "La Mer," and it is significantly different from the better-known "Beyond the Sea." In stark contrast to Darin's impudent version, "La Mer" is, for the French, an ongoing source of Gallic pride--the best-known work by a beloved son of France, one of the country's most celebrated singer-songwriters, Charles Trenet. Far from background for lindy-hopping teenagers, "La Mer" is generally performed with all the solemnity of a national anthem. In America, the song has become an anthem of another sort, a call to arms for retro swingers (such as the Royal Crown Revue) who may be conscious that, by summoning up the ghost of Darin, they are bringing together two generations and two genres--the Sinatra thing and the Elvis thang--but remain unaware that they're also uniting two countries and two cultures.

 

The careers of the two men who wrote "La Mer" and "Beyond the Sea"--Charles Trenet and Jack Lawrence-=are likewise similar and disparate. Both men were long-distance runners with careers that lasted from the Depression to beyond the millennium. Yet they barely knew each other and, in the nuts and bolts of their professional lives, could hardly have been more different--and each, in his own way, is a perfect representative of his country's musical culture. Trenet, who lived to be 87, was an archetypally flamboyant Frenchman who not only wrote both words and music but also was the greatest performer of his own compositions--a singer-songwriter about 30 years before the concept became popular in the States. Lawrence, still going strong at 90, was and is, in the best Tin Pan Alley tradition, a specialist who concentrates on lyrics.

 

When Charles Trenet passed away in early 2001, France reacted almost as dramatically as America did following Frank Sinatra's death nearly three years earlier: it was a time of national mourning. Tributes filled the TV, and nothing but Trenet songs were heard on the radio. He was a prophet so honored in his native land that not even the rumors that he was both a homosexual (apparently true) and, far more worrisome, a collaborator with the Nazis during World War II (probably not true, but it's complicated) could temper the national enthusiasm for the man, who was billed as "Le Fou Chantant" (the Singing Fool).

 

He was born in 1913 in Narbonne. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was a free spirit who ran off with a paramour while Charles was still an enfant. As a youngster, Trenct was attracted to poetry and music, and as a student in Paris in the early 1930s he gained his first shot at fame as a singer and songwriter when he met the young pianist Johnny Hess. As Charles and Johnny, the two became a popular cabaret attraction, singing American hits as well as their own compositions. Trenet was, at this time, being drawn in many directions: poetry, music, songwriting, singing, American pop, jazz, theater, and film. By the late 30s, his songs were being performed by the well-established Maurice Chevalier and emerging stars such as Yves Montand and Jean Sablon.

 

Charles and Johnny broke up when Trenet was drafted, but even the war couldn't slow down his momentum. As a solo artist, Trenet came to be identified by his beaming, Harpo Marx-like visage, his famous tilted fedora and light-blue suit, as well as a series of songs that were by turns lightly comic or lightly romantic, sometimes both. His upbeat songs could never be described as hard-swinging, and his sad songs were never suicidally despondent, but all of his songs were strongly melodic and rhythmic. They were not--as Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's 2000 Year Old Man album characterized French music--overly repetitive. Trenet's friend Jean Cocteau once wrote of Trenet's singing, "He was so young, so fresh that the bar yielded to a rustic decor, the projectors became the stiff branches of a cherry tree, the microphone a hollyhock, the piano a cow."

 

By the time of the occupation, both Trenet's music and Trenet himself were French institutions. In retrospect, the war- time Trenet seems naively apolitical: he did not appease the Nazis by appearing at Fascist rallies; yet he also managed to stay on the bad side of the French Resistance. In the early 40s, a rumor circulated that Trenet had died, and around the same time a newspaper reported that he was Jewish. He quickly made it known he wasn't dead, and denied he was a Jew with a vehemence that led to charges of anti-Semitism-charges that shocked his many Jewish friends. He even went to the trouble of having visiting cards printed up that read, "Charles Trenet--neither dead nor Jewish." A copy of this card somehow reached London, and Trenet was accused on the BBC of collaboration. Even so, his songs, particularly "La Douce France," which became almost a new "La Marseillaise"--the French equivalent of "There'll Always Be an England" and "God Bless America"--continued to inspire French freedom fighters.

 

It was on a train between Narbonne and Carcassonne in 1945--shortly after the defeat of the German Army--that Trenet got the idea for the song that became "La Mer." Rather than write about the rhythm of the rails, Trenet was moved to describe the fluctuating moods of the ocean in such a way that the song soon became a source of national pride for the newly liberated nation. According to legend, it took Trenet all of 20 minutes to write the song, which he recorded shortly thereafter with an orchestra and chorus conducted by one Albert Lasry. It was nervy of him to title the song "La Mer," since Debussy's famous symphonic tone poem of that name was well known to practically every Frenchman, but Trenet's "La Met" was an immediate hit in postwar France.

 

His de facto co-writer, Jack Lawrence, had enjoyed a career that was somewhat less colorful, although equally profitable. Born in Brooklyn in 1912, Lawrence was writing songs while in high school when he met Arthur Altman, an aspiring composer who was a year ahead of him. At 20, Lawrence was the youngest person ever to be admitted to ASCAP, and in 1933 he and Altman published their first songs. That same year, Lawrence and Altman had a hit with "Play, Fiddle, Play," which was used in the film Dinner at Eight. Over the years, working with a variety of songwriters, Lawrence wrote the lyrics that helped to launch the careers of the Ink Spots ("If I Didn't Care") and, somewhat more important, Frank Sinatra ("All or Nothing at All").

 

By the time the war began, Lawrence had also established a reputation as an American songwriter with strong ties to Europe. In fact, "Play, Fiddle, Play" (subtitled "Sumna Violino") was popularized by the Hungarian, Gypsy-style violinist Emery Deutsch. Lawrence wrote Americanized lyrics for such imports as "Ciribiribin" (Harry James's theme song) and "Sleepy Lagoon" (an English "lite classic"). Lawrence also wrote songs that were recorded by Bing Crosby ("What Will I Tell My Heart?"), Billie Holiday ("Foolin' Myself"), and Nat King Cole ("A Hand Full of Stars" and "Hold My Hand"). "Linda," a song inspired by his lawyer's baby daughter, Linda Eastman (who ended up marrying Beatle Paul McCartney), was a No. I hit in 1946. All the while, Lawrence continued to transform old-world melodies (even the works of Tchaikovsky and Mozart) into American pop hits.

 

The lyricist enjoyed an especially good relationship with the Parisian publishing house Breton Music, which published the songs of Charles Trenet. Lawrence worked with Trenet for the first time in the early 1940s, on a song called "Passing By," later performed by Nat Cole, and in 1945 on a song called "Whispering Pines." "Whenever I worked on a foreign hit," Lawrence says, "I always made a point never to do a direct translation of the original lyric. I felt that wouldn't be contributing anything. I wanted to be more creative." He gives as an example Trenet's "Passing By." "The original French lyric was kind of a sad song. The full title in English was actually 'You Who Pass Without Seeing Me,' but when I did an English lyric, I made it a happy song-'you and I passed by and fell in love,' that sort of thing. Trenet came to this country shortly afterward and told me he loved what I had done, which was very gracious of him, considering that I had completely changed the intention of his song. I told him that I loved his writing and wanted to work some more with him."

 

In 1946 the song publisher Raoul Breton and his wife made a business trip to America. "They brought 'La Mer,' which was becoming a big hit in France, thanks to Charles's performance," Lawrence recalls. "They said, 'We'd like Jack to do this English lyric, because he's very good with these things.' So I was brought in and given the song." Trenet's song, much like Debussy's symphonic piece of the same title, was a tone poem that contemplated the ocean, finding in the depths of the waters "the sea shepherdess of infinite azure," "pure angels," and "white sheep." "He had written a kind of a mood poem," says Lawrence, "about the different moods of the sea, and how the sea affected him-the tides reflecting the skies, sometimes the clouds-and how the sea could be happy or sad. That was the thrust of the whole lyric, and I said, 'Well, I don't want to do that. I'm not going to write a poetic-type thing. I don't think that would mean anything as an American POP song."

 

Instead, Lawrence says, "I made it into a love song. There's somebody standing on the shore waiting for their lover to come back, never to sail again, so they can be together." Thus, the song became part of a continuum of popular songs in the tradition of "Harbor Lights" and "Red Sails in the Sunset"--although Lawrence's lyric differs from convention in that it is expressed from the perspective of the sailing lad heading home toward his beloved; the protagonist is on the ocean and contemplating the land ("my lover stands on golden sands") that lies beyond the sea. Since the end of the war, songs of homecoming--"Sentimental Journey," "It's Been a Long, Long Time"-had become an instant staple of American pop.

 

Lawrence's words to "Beyond the Sea" constitute a lyric of the highest order. "I started by adding that one word, 'beyond,' and that drove the whole song," he says. In the song's bridge (middle section), Lawrence goes beyond "beyond" by using the word as the linchpin of a series of phrases, each with a slightly different meaning: "Beyond a star ... Beyond the moon ... Beyond a doubt." The word "star" arrives on an accidental C-sharp, which charges the phrase with unexpected oomph and gives the word an especially starry feeling. Changing the title, paradoxically, allowed Lawrence to remain phonetically faithful, at least, to Trenet's original: in Trenet's text, each eight-bar "A" section begins with the words "La mer"; in Lawrence's version, each of these sections commences with "Somewhere," so that the English lyric has the same sonic feel as the original.

 

For all the craftsmanship of Lawrence and Trenet, "Beyond the Sea" was not an instant hit in America. The song was recorded by a number of important Stateside orchestras, but where the original Trenet recording was, in spite of the poetic lyrics and the presence of a choir, essentially light and frothy, the early American recordings were surprisingly heavy. Benny Goodman recorded it with a string orchestra in 1947, and Tex Beneke cut it with his string-laden postwar Glenn Miller Orchestra. (An air check also survives of Beneke playing it with Ronnie Deauville, a crooner who was almost impossible to distinguish from the young Sinatra; this track has been circulated by collectors mistaking it for a Frank Sinatra-Glenn Miller collaboration.) "The first recordings we got were beautiful," says Lawrence. "Lush, really almost classical in interpretation, like Mantovani and Percy Faith. They all did it in a lush, broad manner, with lots of strings. They were beautiful to listen to, but the song wasn't going anywhere." In 1949 the song received its first important jazz interpretation; ironically, this didn't occur in America but back in Europe, where it was enthusiastically swung by the great Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (who had recorded with Trenet in 1941).

 

For 10 years or so afterward, the song lay dormant in America. In that time Trenet and Lawrence had other hits to concern themselves with: Lawrence's "Tenderly" and Trenet's "I Wish You Love." "Beyond the Sea" was forgotten--at least in America-until sometime around 1958. At a publishing office in New York, Lawrence happened to run into Bobby Darin, and he gave Darin a copy of the music to "Beyond the Sea." Why it occurred to Lawrence to do this, he doesn't remember, since Darin was at that time exclusively a kiddie-pop/rock 'n' roll star who had yet to venture into the world of adult standards. "He was just on his way up," says Lawrence. "He was very brash and arrogant, but a great talent. I gave him a copy of the song and I said, 'You might be able to do something with this.' It wasn't until maybe a year later that he called me and said, 'I'm gonna do it, but I don't like what they've done with it so far. I don't wanna do a long, drawn-out, mournful song. To me it needs a beat.' He started snapping his fingers and he said, 'I can do it that way.' I said, 'Listen, you're a very talented guy--do it your way.'"

 

At the New York City recording sessions for the album That's All, Darin made "Beyond the Sea" of a piece with "Mack the Knife." Both are older songs of European provenance given hard-swinging, thoroughly American treatments in Richard Wess's arrangements. "Beyond the Sea" uses a chart that has since been echoed by zillions of Darin and Sinatra imitators: it opens alternating the rhythm section with tightly muted trombones, and once Darin enters, after an amazingly catchy vamp has been established, he plays with the time and his phrasing throughout. Strings and other horns enter in the second eight, and then, by the bridge, the brass starts to really kick. There follows an instrumental break, in which thunderous drums (played by Don Lamond, best known for his work with Woody Herman) alternate with soft strings. When Darin returns for his final chorus (unusually, he re-enters at the third line of the bridge, "I know beyond a doubt ... "), he's even friskier than before, especially in the coda, in which he expands on the concept of ceasing to sail ("no more sailin' ... so long sailin' ... bye-bye, sailin' ... ").

 

With the success of the Darin record, "Beyond the Sea" began to be widely recorded. Trenet's obituaries claimed that more than 4,000 recordings of both the European and American versions have been made. Although that's certainly an exaggeration, the song is on at least 100 compact discs, as well as the soundtracks of a dozen or so films, including Diner, Goodfellas, Apollo 13, Sea of Love, Father of the Bride, and Jerry Lewis's Funny Bones. In the tradition of American popular standards, it has been adapted to all manner of sub-genres: in 1959, Martin Denny, whose usual approach was to make any song sound as if it were being chanted in a Polynesian hut, reworked it into his brand of exotic jazz Muzak via a hypnotic vibraphone solo embellished with seagull calls; in the 1960s, a quasi-folk trio called the Sandpipers sang it, sounding like three stoned guys sitting around a campfire on the beach. The song has also been Muzaked by Percy Faith, Ray Conniff, Mantovani, Roger Williams, and the Three Suns.

 

But as a rule the song is most often the province of aspiring Sinatra-Darin clones such as Frank Stallone (Sly's brother), crooning Warner Bros. music executive Gary LeMel, and the prolific singer-songwriter Bobby Caldwell. In recent years, it has been covered by two younger British pop stars--the enormously successful Robbie Williams (who also fools around with the concept of sailing in the coda) and Will Young (who mimics the Darin orchestration almost inflection for inflection). The song is nearly always done by swinging young males: some, thankfully, have found a way to swing it without aping Darin, such as jazz guitarist George Benson and emerging cabaret star Eric Comstock.

 

La Mer" continues to rack up recording after recording in France: Patricia Kaas summons both of the song's identities in a rendition that sounds characteristically French and yet jazzy at the same time, replete with a Miles Davis-style muted-trumpet solo. Davis himself had, in the 1950s, enjoyed a relationship with the French actress and singer Juliette Greco; the Kaas disc sounds like the kind of thing Greco and Davis would have done had they ever made it into the studio together. In 1946, Trenet himself recorded "La Mer" in a manner similar to that of the somewhat inflated early American symphonic versions-sounding, in fact, more as if he were singing the national anthem.

 

Trenet was still quite active in 1995, when his music was prominently and appropriately featured in Lawrence Kasdan's French Kiss, a romantic comedy concerning Franco-American relations and starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline. Trenet's song "Verlaine" effectively underscores a love scene between the two principals, and "La Mer" figures significantly in a postscript to the story that occurs over the end titles: Ryan plays a boorish American who wants to hear "the Bobby Darin song" again, and Kline a belligerent Frenchman (a redundant statement-c'est la guerre!) who insists the song was by Charles Trenet, "not Bob-bee Dar-rin!" Kline then talk-sings a touchingly soft-spoken rendition of "La Mer" with a very hip string orchestration by Hollywood vet (and Oscar winner) Johnny Mandel.

 

Exactly whether the song is French, American, or a product of world culture is an issue that the courts may soon decide. In 1959, the original publisher, Raoul Breton, passed away, and his widow sold the company to a firm called France Music. France Music's method of asserting Gallic pride has been to deny Lawrence his share of the royalties. "They claim that it's never performed as 'Beyond the Sea,' only as 'La Mer,' which is absurd," says Lawrence. "Charles would have been the first to agree that the English title and lyric are performed all over the world--and heard in movies all over the world." Recent French editions of the song now credit two composers, Trenet and Albert Lasry, the musical director for Trenet's original 1946 recording. France Music's representatives say that Lawrence is entitled only to an "adapter's fee" for his work on "Beyond the Sea." "I have formally asked them for proof of Lasry's contribution to the song," Lawrence says, "which, so far, they have failed to supply." Even if France Music acknowledges Lawrence's right to any royalties, he will most likely have to split the money three ways.

Fortunately, there's more than enough to go around-the accumulating royalties from the Darin version alone would be sufficient to support Lawrence's and Trenet's heirs for as many generations as the song remains under copyright. Lawrence certainly didn't seem bitter when, at a Carnegie Hall concert in June 2002, he was introduced by Michael Feinstein, who said, "I hope I look that good when I'm 90:' (Amen to that.) "Everybody was applauding, oohing and ahing," says Lawrence. "I guess I am a phenomenon." He's almost as much of a phenomenon as this most remarkable of his songs, a piece of music that has existed in two cultures at once and thereby can be said to express the universal aspirations of man.


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