Different songs – usually obscure ones – are always rolling around in my head. Recent extraordinary life changes have led a particular number to roll up quite often. It’s called I Gaze In Your Eyes and you’ve probably never heard it (didn’t I just say it’s usually an obscure song?) and I think the story of its creation is worth telling: Fascinating, and might induce a little jealousy.
About twenty years ago a wonderful coffee table book came out. Square and dense, the brainchild of musical theatre historian Robert Kimball, The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter spawned a series. Kimball and the publisher have done similar books for Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Hammerstein, Mercer, Loesser and Hart. What makes the Porter volume, in particular, so fascinating, are the reproductions of pages from his notebooks, affording an intimate view of his process.
The cabaret singer Ann Hampton Callaway pored over the Porter book, as a lot of us did, and saw that the music had been lost to some of them. She was rather taken with I Gaze In Your Eyes and decided to compose music to it.
A pause in our story for a moment: That’s a great exercise. As a teenager, I got my hands on a book containing Lorenz Hart lyrics. (I’ve since become friends with the young man who did the lion’s share of the work putting it together.) I propped the book up on my piano’s music stand, and had the experience of setting music to several songs I didn’t know by the greatest lyricist who ever lived. This helped me learn both about composition and the craft of lyric writing. Eventually, I learned the Richard Rodgers tune for You Are So Fair, and was amused to discover it was pretty similar to my melody for the same words.
Callaway has long been a fixture in New York’s café society, and the oddly impish record producer Ben Bagley asked her to sing on one of his albums devoted to obscure songs by Cole Porter. She played him her version of I Gaze In Your Eyes, and he generously recorded a track of her singing it. She then contacted the trustees that run Porter’s estate, and they liked her setting of the Porter song with the un-findable tune so much, they granted permission for her (and others) to release the posthumous collaboration. As far as they’re concerned, Callaway’s is the official, sanctioned musical setting of the lyric.
There’s a lot to admire here. First, Callaway employs a couple of techniques that were Porter favorites. One is his way of throwing in a triplet where one expects straight quarters or eighth notes, as in Begin the Beguine or I Get a Kick Out of You. Another thing she does is to have the opening phrase more than once hit extended notes on the fifth of the scale, as happens in two wonderfully moving Cole Porter ballads, Why Shouldn’t I? and Goodbye Little Dream Goodbye. (If you don’t know these two, I suggest you acquaint yourself. The beauty of the latter once moved a movie executive to tears. Coincidentally, his name was Katz.)
Now, knowing that Callaway cadged some of Cole’s quirks, you might assume that the finished product sounds Porter-esque. But this beautiful ballad sounds fairly contemporary, not an imitation at all. The harmony moves forward charmingly, on the words “Joy I find” leading the ear to new places in a manner rather unlike the Yalie tunesmith’s. The song has a classic feel, and yet one doesn’t associate it with any particular decade. It’s timeless in the best sense of the word. The lyric barely sounds like Porter. It’s simple, un-showy, not a bit urbane. One gets the sense that it was written from the heart, while many famous Porter songs involve a mask of sorts, as if his cosmopolitan aesthetic was something of a put-on.
Too much dime-store psychoanalysis, I know, I know. All I know for sure is, this song hits me where I live.