My BFF John has been simultaneously inspiring and shaming me with his Movie Year project. He’s watched and reviewed 1300 movies over the past four years — each one new to him — and has kept up a one-a-day pace nearly the whole time.
You see my dilemma. Patting oneself on the back is rarely easy unless you’re a gymnast from one of those weirdo former Soviet nations. It’s even more challenging for me to boast “I write about a different piece of music every day (kind of) for about a month, once a year” in the face of this much grander achievement.
(Or is it “grandiose”? Well, that’s for other people to decide.)
I mean, a month ago, a little kid somewhere in the world finally summoned every last gram of his bravery and made his very first dive off of the one-meter springboard at his community pool. He was immensely proud of what he’d done and he was right to be. But what did he find after he ran home, with his hair still wet and stiff with chlorine, to tell his parents what he’d done? He found the whole family gathered around the TV watching Felix Baumgartner jumping out of a balloon and one-upping him.
And just to rub it in, the bastard had to go and dive from a platform 127,997 meters higher.
I know exactly how that kid feels. It ain’t right.
Well. If I can’t match John’s consistent productivity (and I can’t; honest, ask my editors) I can at least steal an idea of his, just out of spite. John often includes runs of films that share a common theme. And so, I’m starting this year’s Advent Calendar with a number of tracks that are all related to Comedy.
Ah! But there’s a theme inside this theme. Each of these tracks would probably be filed under “comedy” by an underpaid store clerk in a retail store, or by an underfed algorithm in a digital store. But is it comedy, really?
Case in point: “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby,” recorded by Jerry Lewis.
Jerry has earned a rare and highly desirable group of distinctions. By God…the man is in his Eighties, lucid, and his cv includes a long string of legitimate career successes, all at the same time.
If you can score two out of three of those achievements, you can dine very well for the rest of your life on testimonial dinners. Though as a practical matter, one of those two should definitely be “remain alive.” The event organizers usually expect you to say a few words between the serving of the soup course and the entree, you see.
If you can achieve the full trifecta, then unlike Milton Berle you’ll be served a full plate of respect as well as the free dinner. Folks like Mel Brooks, Tony Bennett, and yes, Jerry are in this kind of club.
Any Jerry fan will remind you that at the apex of his career, he was part of an act that simultaneously was successful on TV, movies, the radio, and in live performances. “The King Of Comedy” (a compulsively readable Jerry Lewis biography) paints a picture of a guy who was both driven (good) and obsessed (bad) with success. The press kept painting Jerry as the genius of the act and Dean reacted by gradually retreating from all responsibility; ultimately, he couldn’t be made to care about anything apart from showing up at the right place and the right time in the right tuxedo. Meanwhile, Jerry seemed to tackle the duties and opportunities of the team’s success with a kind of grave seriousness.
In the 1500s, another man applied that same kind of focus towards overseeing the first 50 years of construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. In the 1950s, Jerry applied it to taking his hyperactive little monkey character and parlaying it into six decades in show business. Well, whatever; it’s all about setting goals and letting nothing stand in your way. It’s admirable.
His drive was matched by his obsessions. One of them (if you believe the book) was cultivating a bond with Dean, casting him in the role of “big brother” in his life. Alas, Dean Martin appeared to be as disinterested in expressions of mutual affection as he was in everything else. “When I look at you, all I see is dollar signs,” is the famous quote from that period.
One might theorize that this actually forged the strongest kind of “little brother” bond possible: a white-hot passive-aggressive drive to top all of the big brother’s achievements.
It’s just pop-psychology, I know. But still, wow, there’s no denying that Dean Martin had set up housekeeping deep inside Jerry’s head. After their 1956 breakup, Dean Martin opened a restaurant on the Sunset Strip in LA and it became a success. So Jerry opened his own restaurant, just up the street. Where “Dino’s Lodge” required little more from Dean than signing the contracts and letting them hang a neon caricature of his face outside the joint, “Jerry’s” had the dubious benefit of Lewis’ mitts on every aspect of the shop. Jerry even hired away as many key staffmembers of Dino’s Lodge as he could.
And shortly after the breakup, Jerry started making records. Not even comedy records: “Jerry Lewis Just Sings” was an LP of straightforward singing. Yes, Dean and Jerry were definitely entering the Popeye and Bluto phase of their relationship.
Soon, Jerry’s solo career eclipsed Dean’s. Which serves as proof, yet again, that although the alchemy of enduring success is impossible to nail down, “drive” is the one ingredient that you absolutely can’t do without. Dean didn’t have a Colonel Tom Parker or a Brian Epstein to help plan his next move for him. Jerry didn’t need one. He simply dropped the clutch and burned rubber.
Part of me enjoys the drama of that sequence of events. This part of me is rude and mean and alas, it often shouts down the nobler part…the one who, even now, sighs and wonders why we should even care about a spat between two celebrities that took place a half a century ago.
This nobler part gently nudges me to move on and start talking about the positive nature of Jerry’s triumph instead. “Jerry Just Sings” was a hit, and “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby” sold well over a million copies. None of that would have happened if not for the fact that Jerry had confidence in what he could do, and a determination to succeed. Even though he was part of one of the most popular live and movie duos in the world, he couldn’t land a record deal. So he bankrolled the production costs of “Jerry Lewis Just Sings” personally, booking a studio, engineer, and a full orchestra.
I’ve selected a version of “Rock-A-Bye” that includes part of the studio recording session. “I’m laughing,” he banters to the booth, as everybody resets after a flubbed take. “But I’m paying for the date. Hurry up!”
There’s a story behind the inclusion of this song in the recording session, and it’s exactly the sort of broad-canvas Showbiz story that I usually associate with Jerry.
I mean, I imagine that if you’re Jerry Lewis and it’s 1956 and you’re vacationing in Las Vegas with your wife, you can sort of expect to be called upon to serve as a last-second substitution for Judy Garland. “Rock-A-Bye” was the tune with which she usually closed her show and Jerry knew it by heart. It was a classic Al Jolson standard and it happened to be a song that Jerry’s dad used to perform in his own act. Danny Lewis was largely absent in Jerry’s childhood, chiefly because he kept trying to make a singing career happen. He only made it far enough in show business to spend the rest of his life wondering why the hell his son became an international superstar instead of him.
At least it allowed Jerry to close Judy’s Vegas show the same way she always did. He sang “Rock-A-Bye” to her onstage, as a way of proving to the paying audience that she had actually gone sick, and wasn’t just off somewhere putting in some sweat equity on future diagnosis of cirrhosis.
This track leaves me with two different thoughts about Jerry Lewis, the singer. First: jeez, that guy could really sing. Give the man his due. His mouth was clearly good for a third thing, apart from spit takes and licking Sinatra’s head whenever that could get a laugh.
Also? It seems like the sort of performance made by someone who sees singing as one of the skills in an entertainer’s full portfolio. If you want to entertain, you need to sing well, act well, move well, make people laugh, and you need to be a solid enough creative force that (unlike Dean) your career isn’t left at the mercy of outside writers and directors and producers.
To put it another way: it seemed as though Jerry saw singing as one event in a showbiz decathlon. He definitely medaled in the overall competition. Meanwhile, singers like Tony Bennett focused on just one skill…and it shows.
To further exploit an Olympic analogy: in any creative endeavor you can score a bronze, a silver, or a gold if you’re very good. You get the bronze if you can mimic what other people have done. You win the silver if you can adapt what other people have done in a fresh way.
The gold is reserved for people who are truly inventive. Janis Joplin wasn’t even the hundredth person to record “Summertime,” from “Porgy and Bess.” But she was the first singer in many years to invent a new performance that was so fresh that it forced everyone to thing about this familiar tune in a completely new way.
Danny Lewis’ act (it seems) consisted mostly of mimicry. “Rock-A-Bye” was a big hit for Al Jolson, so Danny sang it like Jolson did. Jerry’s singing chops shouldn’t be judged based on this track (he could hardly help but deliver this song the way his dad did). Nonetheless, his other tracks seem familiar. He sings with great skill and he seems to genuinely care about his performance, but there’s nothing about a Jerry Lewis track that urges you put down the Kindle and focus fully on the song.
As a comic, though…yes, Jerry was pure gold. The fact that even a weak Jerry Lewis impression is instantly recognizable — as is a certain style of filmed comedy — underscores the conclusion that Jerry put something on earth that wasn’t there before.
It’s a powerful lesson for anyone in a creative line of work. You need to invent, invent, invent. Mimics can be very successful, but after the lights come back up in the theater, nobody ever remembers who they are.
As the old Albert Brooks joke goes: the sign at the outskirts of Las Vegas reads “You are now leaving Las Vegas. Nobody past this sign knows who the hell Danny Ganz is.”
Sorry: Danny Gans.
Oh, well, he was a singing impressionist. He had his own theater in Las Vegas and the largest billboard on the Strip. His act grossed 18 million bucks a year. He passed away in 2009 at the age of just 52.
Yeah. See what I mean?
Oh, and his Wikipedia page tells me that he played Dean Martin in a made-for-TV miniseries about Frank Sinatra. Lovely how things come full circle, eh?
Speaking of bringing things full circle, I was only kidding when I implied that I was spiteful of my BFF John. He’s maintained a truly Roger Ebert-scale annual output of movie reviews. I’m proud of him.
Still, it would please me greatly if my own blog post today outgrossed his. Shouldn’t be much trouble, as he doesn’t even use Amazon Associates links, but every bit helps.
Anything you buy after following this link will result in my getting a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits, which I promise to use for stuff that helps me to be a better tech columnist.
(Meaning, anything from “a $45 cable that lets me check to see if a new tablet works with a wired network” to “a comfier chair for the living room, which is a place where I sometimes write.”)