Successes For The 'Dummies'

by Philip Greenspan

February 16, 2004   


Walking through a bookstore a few days ago I glanced at the titles of various books that were displayed. On several I saw the same word in the title.

As so often happens a word, phrase, sentence or thought will trigger a memory. This time it was "dummy."

In my youngest days the appellation dummy was shunned by all. It represented the lowest of the low. Nobody, but nobody, wanted to be called a dummy.

Apparently the word dummy has now become a successful term for marketing "How to" books. Ignorance of the basics of many everyday products has snared the curious who hope to grasp a smidgeon of knowledge from a simple explanatory book.

Passing fashions over time continually flip the ins and outs -- people, styles, and even words -- of our culture.

I grew up during the golden era of popular music when the legendary composers of that period were turning out hits that are still being played today. There was great demand for popular music during those years. Broadway was producing musicals as was Hollywood. And Tin Pan Alley was receptive to anything that the big name bands and radio might use. Accordingly, the tunesmiths were turning out gobs of numbers and a catchy title or tune that struck their fancy could end up as the next hit. Most of those songs were written by the combined efforts of a composer and a lyricist. Irving Berlin and Cole Porter were two of the few exceptions who knocked out both words and music.

The well crafted numbers were so well integrated that today if I hear a tune that I haven't heard in over 50 years, as each segment of the melody is played, most of the accompanying words will flash though my mind.

Because two individuals were collaborating, sometimes the melody would be written first and sometimes the words. Irving Caesar, a lyricist during that era, often told of how the composer Vincent Youmans, eager to hear how his latest melody would work in a song, woke him up in the middle of the night. Youmans asked the groggy Caesar to write a dummy lyric for the melody he had just composed. A dummy lyric is just some words, phrases, phonetic sounds, that will fit into a melody to give the composer the feel for how the completed composition, music, and words will sound.

A sleepy Caesar, as he heard each phrase of the tune, mumbled words that popped into his head that would fit. "Tea for two. . . and two for tea. . . Me for you. . . you for me, alone. . . Nobody near us. . . to see us or hear us. . .No friends or relations. . ." and so on until he came to the end of that new melody. As Youmans left, Caesar returned to his bed and went back to sleep.

The following day when Caesar saw Youmans he asked the composer to play his new melody again as he was now alert and ready to work. Youmans replied that there was no need to work on the tune. Caesar's dummy lyric was exactly what he wanted. And, as you are well aware, that song with the dummy lyric became a popular hit and is still played today, over 75 years later!

If the lyricist wrote the words first and he was anxious to hear how his words would sound within a melody, he would seek -- you're right -- a dummy melody.

Frank Loesser was a young upcoming lyricist at the Paramount Pictures studio. He was providing the lyrics to many of the tunes that were showcased in the studio's musicals of the '30s. He worked with and knew the top composers of the day.

In the early stages of World War II, an incident in Southeast Asia involving a group of American GIs got prominent human interest coverage in the papers and on the radio. During a religious service the chaplain spotted a Japanese plane approaching. He quickly concluded the service, shouting "Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition."

Loesser immediately used that sentence as the title for a lyric he wrote. He hurriedly integrated it into a dummy tune he composed so that he could judge the resulting sound. He then sought a composer to put the professional touch to it, but he was unable to get any who were interested. Many said that Loesser's dummy melody was fine, and it was published as such. It became a popular hit that lasted for 12 weeks on the "Hit Parade."

With that initial success he continued his career now as both composer and lyricist. Loesser went on to climb the ranks with top rate musicals -- Where's Charley, Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and The Most Happy Fella. In addition, he continued to write for films and Tin Pan Alley.

The dummies, even back then, were not a completely negative concept. Today they are riding high. Some dummies have achieved success, been honored, and praised.

But don't give up hope. Have heart. With time the outs will get back in and those miserable ins will be thrown out!

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America the 'beautiful' on Swans


Philip Greenspan on Swans (with bio).

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Published February 16, 2004
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