Field Notes From a Songwriter's Centennial

11/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Many a tear has to fall but it's all in the game...

September 24th is the centennial birthday of my late father, the songwriter Carl Sigman (1909-2000), who wrote nearly a thousand songs, including "It's All In The Game," "(Where Do I Begin) Love Story," "Ebb Tide," "What Now, My Love," "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)" and "Arrivederci, Roma." In the first of two parts, I offer some fun facts and observations on his first half-century.

Also born in 1909: Johnny Mercer, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Maybelle Carter, Burl Ives, Colonel Tom Parker and, absurdly, Eugene Ionesco.

Johnny Mercer, the genteel Georgian who would become one of the greatest American songwriters, lived down the street from my dad in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, and became his mentor. Johnny would show up at the Sigman apartment most nights around dinnertime to enjoy generous helpings of kreplach, blintzes and chopped liver on rye bread, courtesy of my grandmother. Carl's first published song, 1937's "Just Remember," was a collaboration with Mercer. Returning the favor, Carl gave Johnny the famous line "Or am I breathing music into ev'ry word" for the immortal "And The Angels Sing."

Carl's first monster hit -- "Pennsylvania 6-5000" by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra in 1940 -- referred to the phone number of big band hot spot the Hotel Pennsylvania, which you can still reach by dialing that number.

As part of his contribution to World War II, Sgt. Sigman wrote "All-American Soldier," still the theme song of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Some funny song titles from the early years: "I Left The One I Love On One Of The Thousand Islands, But I Can't Remember Which One," "The Big High Mountain With Nothing On The Top," "Our Horses Are Falling In Love." And who can forget that ode to the hot dog, "Pickle In the Middle and the Mustard on Top"?

The lyrics for the bridge to "Crazy He Calls Me" -- a late '40s ballad made famous by Billie Holiday and later recorded by Tony Bennett, Linda Ronstadt, Sam Cooke, Rod Stewart et al -- came to Carl when he pictured a sign from the wartime Army mess hall that read, "The difficult I'll do right now; the impossible will take a little while."

In 1947, Carl had the top two songs on Your Hit Parade. No. 2 was Sigman-Hilliard's "Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)" by Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters, while Vaughn Monroe's "Ballerina" topped the chart. Carl wrote the melody for "Ballerina" -- Bob Russell contributed the lyric -- and at least a half dozen of his friends swore he composed it on their pianos.

In 1948, Carl married Louis Prima's gal Friday, Eleanor (Terry) Berkowitz, whom he met in the Brill Building while writing songs for Louis. But the Sigman-Hilliard collaboration didn't miss a beat -- Bob was there when my dad proposed, and accompanied my parents on their honeymoon.

"Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)," a New Year's Eve perennial and still my mom's voicemail message, has been assayed by Bing Crosby, Doris Day, reggae immortal Prince Buster, ska stalwarts The Specials, alt-country great Todd Snider, the apparently stoned-out-of-their-minds Wingless Angels -- produced by Keith Richards -- and, just last month, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.

Carl and his friend the composer/orchestra leader Percy Faith wrote "My Heart Cries For You" at the race track. It took ten minutes. Guy Mitchell brought it to the top of the charts in 1951, and Elvis Presley and Ray Charles are among the hundreds who've covered it since.

My dad's biggest hit -- "It's All In The Game" -- began as classical violin solo composed by Charles Dawes, making it the only No. 1 song to have been co-written by a vice president of the United States. (Dawes served under Calvin Coolidge.) In addition to Tommy Edwards' classic 1958 chart-topper, it's been a country hit for Merle Haggard and an r&b hit for the Four Tops. Other interpreters include Louis Armstrong, Liberace, UB40, Jackie DeShannon, Cliff Richard, Elton John, Johnny Mathis, Barry White, Nick Lowe, Isaac Hayes, Bob Dylan, Keith Jarrett and my personal fave, Van Morrison.

My father never "went to work." Instead, the meditative calm of the golf course often served as his muse. From a very young age I'd reply to the question, "What does your father do?" with, "He plays golf." If someone asked what he did in the winter, I'd say, "He bowls."

"Ebb Tide" was Carl's personal favorite of all his songs. In his memoir Chronicles Bob Dylan writes, "I used to play the phenomenal 'Ebb Tide' by Frank Sinatra a lot and it had never failed to fill me with awe. The lyrics were so mystifying and stupendous. When Frank sang that song, I could hear everything in his voice -- death, God and the universe, everything." Lest we get swept away, my parents, my brothers Jeff and Randy and I laughed till it hurt the first time we heard Jerry Colonna's "Ebb Tide" send-up, where he drowns before his passion is consummated.

Carl wrote all kinds of songs. He collaborated with jazz greats Duke Ellington ("All Too Soon") and Tad Dameron ("If You Could See Me Now"), added lyrics to the vintage ragtime tunes "Fidgety Feet," "Panama" and "Sensation," wrote folk songs for Burl Ives --"River Of Smoke," "(O-Lee-O) The Bachelor's Life" -- and even came up with a protest song for lefty activist Tom Glazer, "Money In The Pocket."

For the '50s TV series Robin Hood, my father wrote words and music to the theme song, which began with the memorable lines "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Riding through the glen." This being the week of all things Beatle, it's worth noting that the hit recording of "Robin Hood" was produced by "fifth Beatle" George Martin and sung by Martin's friend Dick James, who later became the Mop-Tops' publisher. What's more, Monty Python -- the Beatles of comedy -- parodied the song in "Dennis Moore," a famous sketch from Flying Circus season three.

My dad shunned publicity, sometimes with a deft assist from my mom. When I was around 10, a strange woman, daughter in tow, came to our door and asked if her little girl could watch my dad write a song. Mom's deadpan reply: "He does most of his writing on the john."

Next week: Where do we begin? Sinatra sings Sigman; Surviving the British Invasion; Big in Iran, and more.