Thanksgiving is the best holiday, the cliché goes, and New Year's Eve is the worst.
Personally, I'm not so wild about Thanksgiving, when we're pressured to be (or act) grateful no matter how we actually feel. But even though I'm not a drinker and have trouble staying up late, I look forward to New Year's Eve because of a special kinship with a certain song.
The first time I heard "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)" I hadn't been born yet. Neither had the song. We were gestating -- me in my mom's womb, the song on my dad's piano.
From my folks' apartment on Manhattan's East Side, my dad, Carl Sigman, wrote the song in 1948 over the phone with L.A.-based songwriter Herb Magidson. (In other words, he wrote it transcontinentally with the writer of "The Continental.")
"Enjoy Yourself" and I were both released soon thereafter and so we're practically twins. Not identical twins, though. Unlike you and me, the song is immortal. It will never not exist. If no one sings it for a thousand years, it will still be there, waiting patiently for the right person to whistle it in the shower.
Immortality is nice, but it hardly means that a song can rest on its laurels. In the Darwinian quest for standard-hood, evolution is a must!
"Enjoy Yourself" began life as a Big Band number, most notably via recordings by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra (vocals by several warblers) and Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians (vocals by Kenny Gardner). Lombardo's version hit the Top 10 and he proceeded to make the number a New Year's Eve staple by performing it year after year at NYC's Roosevelt Hotel.
While "Enjoy Yourself" and I were kids, Bing Crosby, Eddie Cantor and Doris Day were among the justice-doing coverers. My favorite version, though, was by the hilarious Louis Prima, without whom neither the song nor I would ever have been conceived, let alone born. (My parents met in Louis' office and my dad began writing the song during their honeymoon.)
Throughout our childhood, I loved listening to the playful lyrics and show-stopping chorus of "Enjoy Yourself." I was especially excited when I'd catch it on my tiny transistor and yell "Plug," whereupon the whole family would gather 'round the big radio in the den, Norman Rockwell-style.
In 1967, I went off to college and majored in being an alienated hippy radical who, truth be told, enjoyed not enjoying myself. I didn't like what I saw as the sexist, bourgeois message of "Enjoy Yourself" -- one comfortable white guy telling another comfortable white guy to become a hedonist before he kicks the bucket. How could a napalmed Vietnamese mother or a starving Appalachian child decide to enjoy themselves?
I conveniently forgot that earlier in the '60s, ska master Prince Buster had reimagined "Enjoy Yourself" as only a great artist can, giving it a syncopated beat and adding lyrics encouraging listeners to, "Get wisdom, knowledge and understanding."
Working for a music trade magazine during the '70s, I immersed myself in all kinds of pop music, and my attitude towards "Enjoy Yourself" did a 180. I loved how Der Bingle crooned a bit of it with Dino on TV and heard the Doris Day recording with new ears. My mom reminded me that "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)" was a Chinese proverb and I wondered if the song was less about hedonism than about living in the present moment. If we don't, it'll be way later than we think.
Since its birth nearly two-thirds of a century ago, "Enjoy Yourself" has shown remarkable versatility. Prince Buster's cover inspired a ton of similar treatments including a classic rendering by the Specials.
It's been a vehicle for pop/R&B (the Supremes), jump blues (Jimmy Witherspoon), alt country (Todd Snider), good-time jugband (Jim Kweskin), stoner (the only description for the Keith Richards-produced Wingless Angels), Singapore teen (the Stylers) and the genre-encompassing music of former Squeeze-man now bandleader extraordinaire Jools Holland with various configurations of his friends. Rug-cuttable renditions range from Polka (Larry Chesky Orchestra) to the Madison (Johnny Clarysse) to Cha Cha (Enoch Light).
It's no surprise that "Enjoy Yourself" has been the centerpiece of ad campaigns for travel and cars. It was surprising to see the famously anhedonic Woody Allen deploy it for a ghost-filled scene in Everyone Says I Love You and chilling to hear Anne Dudek sing it with exceeding creepiness in an episode of House. A Louis Prima/Keely Smith track rang a positive note at the very end of the series finale of that show.
The hundreds, perhaps thousands of extant recordings of "Enjoy Yourself" are a speck of dust among the millions of private recordings and performances from karaoke bars to YouTubes to living rooms to New Year's bashes like this one. Not to mention the uncountable number (billions?) of times we've heard it in our heads or sung it to ourselves. (One YouTube commenter wrote, "My Gran sang this song every time I saw her for nearly 40 years and we'll be playing it at her funeral next week"; the one and only time I met Michael Buble, he sang a few bars of "Enjoy Yourself" in lieu of a more quotidian greeting.)
"Enjoy Yourself" and I will be 65 in a few months, and given our shared history, we decided to get together and discuss that milestone. Which is to say, "Enjoy Yourself" spoke and I listened.
The song said, "Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think/Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink/The years go by, as quickly as a wink/Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself it's later than you think."
The years do indeed go by as quickly as a wink. (Or, as Bruce Springsteen put it, "In the wink of a young girl's eye.") But my relationship with "Enjoy Yourself" inspires me to understand that it's not later than I think. In fact, it's precisely as late as I think.
Speaking of thinking, I'd like to think that as long as there's a New Year's Eve, there will be a place for "Enjoy Yourself."
Follow Michael Sigman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/majorsongs