Friday Song, Rudy Vallee, LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF CHERRIES (Ray Henderson and Lew Brown, 1931)

Here’s an odd one. Until a few years ago, I thought I couldn’t stand the song I have now chosen as my Friday Song. I found it schmaltzy, melodically uninteresting  – the worst kind of middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser.

I defy anyone to listen to  the Judy Garland version or the song, or Dean Martin and  Bing Crosby, without their mouse-finger involuntarily twitching for the next track.

Then one day, listening to a compilation record, I heard an early version of it by Rudy Vallee.

It was a revelation. Still a Tin Pan Alley song to its core, its tune was written by Ray Henderson, among whose credits is the amazing ‘Bye-Bye Blackbird’ , and its lyrics are by Lew Brown. Together they wrote ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ and one of my favourite 1920s songs ‘I Want To Be Bad’ .

What makes the Vallee version different, apart from his great voice,  is that it’s complete. As with many songs for that time (‘Pennies From Heaven, ‘Makin’ Whoopee’, ‘Bye-Bye Blackbird’ etc),  its opening verse  –  known as the sectional verse – has been dumped in later versions and has been pretty much forgotten down the years.

Apart from Ethel Merman, who first sang the song in the 1931  review George White’s Scandals (here’s an interesting little history of the phrase that inspired the song), Rudy Vallee is the only singer I’ve found who includes the sectional verse. And it’s a cracker, crucial to the effect of the song.

‘People are queer, they’re always crowing, scrambling and rushing about
Why don’t they stop someday, address themselves this way?
Why are we here? Where are we going? It’s time that we found out
We’re not here to stay; we’re on a short holiday…’

That intro, with its clever hint of darkness – ‘We’re on a short holiday’ – sets up the chorus and gives it a tug of fatalism and sadness that cuts through the saccharine. For me, it had the effect of making me listen to the lyrics,  probably for the first time.

‘The sweet things in life, to you were just loaned
So how can you lose what you’ve never owned?
Life is just a bowl of cherries
So live and laugh at it all.’

Unfortunately the second part of the Vallee version is a parody of one of the stars of George’s White’s Scandals, and the self-conscious, jokey  element comprehensively crashes the vibe of the song.

I’ve searched in vain for the perfect version of ‘Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries’. – I’d like someone like June Tabor or Gillian Welch or even Marianne Faithful to have  a crack at it. In fact, the only other version I liked at all was this weird, ukulele-driven cover from EG Daily for the 2009 film My Sister’s Keeper.

Eighty-eight years on, here is a song that for me still has still not had a satisfactory interpretation.

Why are we here? What are we doing? It’s time that we found out. Here’s Rudy to tell us ….

 

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