Of Phil Spector, Marshmallows and Ebb Tides

11/27/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

During the early 1960s, my father, songwriter Carl Sigman, and many of his "Great American Songbook" contemporaries watched in horror as airwaves and record stores were overrun by alien creatures making noises that, to their ears, did not qualify as "music."

Carl came from a tradition in which songwriters wrote songs and singers sang them. As the shift away from that model accelerated -- with the advent of the Beatles and other artists who wrote their own songs -- fewer and fewer of Carl's new tunes made the kind of (chart) noise he would have liked.

Phil Spector helped change that.

Spector's 1963 Christmas Album (nee A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector), which marked its semi-centennial anniversary last week, gave Carl an appreciation of the potential of rock & roll to take his old-school paeans to love (requited or, more often, not) to strange and beautiful places he had never imagined.

Writing in the examiner, ace music writer/Rock 'n' Roll Pantheon czar Jim Bessman reminds us of the artistic and aesthetic significance of the Christmas Album, which features spectacular interpretations of a number of standards, including the inimitable Darlene Love singing a rollicking Wall of Sound version of "Marshmallow World," a seasonal confection Carl wrote with Peter DeRose about "A yum yummy whipped cream day" where "The world is your snowball/Just for a song."

Carl enjoyed that cover. But he was thoroughly knocked out two years later when Spector brought the full force of his genius to a monumental treatment of Carl's best song.

In 1953, "Ebb Tide," a stunning melody composed by classical harpist Robert Maxwell and recorded by Frank Chacksfield & His Orchestra, was a smash hit instrumental in search of a lyric. The publisher offered Carl first crack at writing one, but there was a catch: it had to be completed within a few days.

Carl accepted the assignment with high anxiety not because of the tight deadline but because he instinctively felt that it would be next to impossible to conjure the right words to fit that tune, with that title. After several days filled with long hours at the piano -- punctuated by short bouts of the kind of intense pacing that made our living room something of a no-'hi' zone -- he decided to take a break and catch a movie.

He zeroed in on a newspaper ad for From Here to Eternity, featuring the now-iconic image of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr embracing on a beach as the tide washes in. In that moment, time was suspended and Carl's most profound lyric poured forth in near-perfect condition.

"Ebb Tide" became an instant standard via a hit single by Vic Damone and a flood of covers including Roy Hamilton's towering reading, a more pensive but even more brilliant version by Frank Sinatra (Nelson Riddle's arrangement which makes you swear you are on that beach) and a lovely romantic take by the Platters.

It took 12 years and the rock & roll sensibility of Phil Spector to make "Ebb Tide" a Top 5 hit single.

Towards the end of 1965, Spector was on a roll with the blue-eyed soul duo The Righteous Brothers (Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield). Having scored a monster hit with Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil's "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" the previous year, Spector put out "Ebb Tide" as a single (to follow "Unchained Melody," another smash). Where the dark-haired Medley's bass-baritone brought unutterable sadness to "Lovin' Feeling," blond Bobby Hatfield's soaring tenor made the orgasmic joy of "Ebb Tide" ring out.

"Ebb Tide"'s lyrics were as mysterious to singers and listeners as they were to their author. In Bob Dylan's memoir Chronicles, the greatest songwriter of the past half-century 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."

The reverence for "Ebb Tide" spawned a welcome irreverence from satirists. Steve Martin sent it up with faux grandeur in his early stand-up routine, and Jerry Colonna's decimation of the song proceeds un-swimmingly until he appears to drown before he and the song achieve their intended climax.

Spector added to the fun, though unintentionally. He was furious that Carl never thanked him for using the Righteous Brothers' "Ebb Tide" in the famous "pottery wheel" love scene in "Ghost." But that scene was "Ebb Tide"-less; it was accompanied by the aforementioned "Unchained Melody." "Ebb Tide" served as background music for the hilarious Naked Gun 21/2 pottery-gone-awry scene, in which Leslie Neilson and Priscilla Presley consummate their passion amidst images of a hot dog, a train going through a tunnel, rockets launching, fireworks and, the coup de grace, a basketball slam dunk.

Out of a thousand or so Sigmansongs, "Ebb Tide" was, I think, the only one in which the title never appears in the lyric. Spector's production even fixed that. Not long before he died, Bobby Hatfield wrote me a note expressing his love for the song. He added that towards the end of the recording session, Phil ducked out of the studio for a minute, whereupon Hatfield and Medley spontaneously belted out the words "Ebb Tide" at the very end, finally showing Carl how it's done.