Articles

What ONE SONG can do

ERIC HUTTON September 17 1955
Articles

What ONE SONG can do

ERIC HUTTON September 17 1955

What ONE SONG can do

ERIC HUTTON

It took a schoolgirl and thrust her into the lame of TV and the jukebox. It took a dreaming immigrant, let him quit bis job and go honeymooning. That’s what Man in a Raincoat — Canada’s first hit in years — did for Priscilla Wright and W arwick Webster

LATE ONE drizzly night in the spring of 1954 a moody young aircraft worker named Warwick Webster was drinking coffee in a restaurant at the corner of Yonge Street Clair Avenue in Toronto. Through the rain-streaked window he watched the shadowy figure of a man, neck hunched into the collar of his raincoat, waiting at the streetcar stop. Presently a girl appeared through the gloom, carrying a small damp suitcase. For a moment the two stood silent beside each other. Then the man turned to the girl and said something. She was murmuring an answer when a streetcar pulled up. They climbed on together.

Who the man and girl were will never he known. Nor whether they ever saw each other again, and if so, whether he took her out dancing, or borrowed money from her and skipped town. The only certain outcome of that brief encounter was that a year and a half later it brought old-fashioned fame and fortune to a totally different young couple to the moody aircraft worker and to an unsuspecting little girl in London, Ont. For the couple in the rain at the streetcar stop became, all unbeknownst to themselves, the cast of Man in a Raincoat, Canada’s biggest song hit of a decade; possibly of all time, when final returns are in.

The reasons for the lapse of a year and a half were several. In the first place, Priscilla Wright, who was to become one of North America’s top singing stars of mid-1955 by recording Man in a Raincoat, was in the spring of 1954 a thirteen-year-

old schoolgirl who wore corrective glasses and bands on her teeth, and sang in a voice that didn’t rate her a spot in the annual concert of Medway High School in Arva, the suburb of London, Ont,., where she lives.

In the second place, Warwick Webster, who composed (he song—words, music and title—in one feverish hour before going to bed that rainy night, was spending the next year and more vainly trying to find someone in the English-speaking world willing to publish, record, play, or just hear, his song.

The story of how Priscilla Wright, Warwick Webster and the Man in a Raincoat all landed in that dizzy maelstrom known as the Hit Parade is one of those slick contrived stories that depends too much on coincidence to happen anywhere but in real life... \

If, for example, Priscilla’s mother hadn’t had a sudden attack of twenty-four-hour influenza right on last New Year’s Eve, the family would have gone out partying as planned. As it was, they propped Mrs. Wright comfortably on a couch in the living room, left the door to the music room open, and set about making the best of a spoiled New Year’s Eve with homemade music and song.

The party in the music room consisted of Priscilla, her older brother Timothy, seventeen, and her younger brother Patrick, thirteen, plus her father, Don Wright, who is rather well known in musical circles as the founder and leader of the Don Wright Chorus, which broadcasts over the CBC in Canada and the NBC in the United States. The only Wright training Priscilla had had, though, was informal sitting-in at the weekly chorus rehearsals. She was taking advanced piano lessons, though.

The New Year was coming, and so was Priscilla’s historic moment. “Priscilla was fooling around with Blue Moon to her father’s piano accompaniment,” Mrs. Wright recalls. “I heard Don say, ‘You’re too high . . . you’re straining your voice.’ ”

“As an old orchestra man,” explained Don Wright, “I was playing Blue Moon in the key in which it was written, C. As an old music teacher and author of textbooks on ‘The Changing Voice’ I did what I preached—lowered the key to A-flat. Priscilla followed ...”

“And,” exclaimed Mrs. Wright, “out came this lovely contralto voice.”

Incredulous, the Wrights took Priscilla through almost the entire repertoire of songs in their musical library, testing her voice on all manner of music problems in its new low key.

“I didn’t know why they were so excited,” Priscilla said later, “but it was fun singing in my new voice. It made me feel ...” she wriggled her shoulders looking for the right word “ . . . grown up and - sophisticated.”

Continued on page 112

What One Song Can Do

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 19

A few days later she tape-recorded a couple of songs—"Just so my grandchildren could hear how I sounded when I was fourteen,” she laughed. These were stored away with the holiday decorations, and Don Wright Productions returned to serious business. One of Wright’s enterprises is a singing-commercial studio, one of the two largest Canadian producers of those merry, maddening little jingles employed to sell soap, sedatives and myriad other products.

One of Wright’s first jingle assignments of 1955 came from the F. H. Hayhurst advertising agency of Toronto. Tom Tevlin, Hayhurst’s copy chief, composed a singing commercial on behalf of Bromo-Seltzer and, as he prepared to make a record of the jingle, Wright tried several of the girl singers who usually work with him. None of them had quite the quality that he and Tevlin wanted, a quality described by the latter as "light and cute.” Suddenly Don said, "Why not try Priscilla?” None of the agency men had heard of the girl’s Cinderella premiere at home, but they were willing to try anything.

In a matter of minutes Priscilla ran over the lines and recorded them. "It was one of the most successful commercials ever made in Canada,” Tevlin says. For two months it was played up to a dozen times a day on most of Canada’s radio stations.

It was also the end of normal life around the Wright home. Within three days after the jingle was released on March 15, enquiries began to funnel in on Wright via the radio stations and the Hayhurst agency: enquiries from recording firms, talent agencies and people who simply wanted to know whose voice that was.

"It was just one jingle in hundreds,” said Don Wright, "but this new voice seemed to click. I decided that Priscilla at least deserved a chance to see what a record would do.”

Don told his daughter about the pitfalls of show business, the possibility that highest promise might end in a flop, the high cost of putting a record on the market and the low, slow returns.

"Gosh,” said Priscilla, "sure I’ll make a record if you like—and I’ll sing free.”

With his artiste under favorable contract, Wright proceeded to bargain with record companies. He finally decided on the Sparton Company. "In the first place, Sparton is in London where we live,” he explained. "In the second place, it’s a relatively small company and didn’t object to giving us a voice in deciding what Priscilla was going to sing. A big outfit might be dictatorial and insist on her recording stuff that just didn’t suit her.”

The most crucial step was still to pick the right music. Wright says he contacted Canadian music publishers in search of new tunes, preferably Canadian and previously unheard, and was offered a hundred and twenty compositions.

In the Toronto offices of Broadcast Music Inc., Canadian division of a big United States company, Mr. and Mrs. Wright listened to several tunes by aspiring song writers and chose two or three to take home for Priscilla to try out. As they were leaving the BMI studio, Mrs. Wright said on an impulse:

"I’d like to hear that one again . . . you know, the ballad without a

chorus. Something about a raincoat.”

Harold Moon, BMI’s Canadian manager, obligingly replayed the sad story of the Man in a Raincoat.

"Let’s see how it sounds with Priscilla,” she suggested.

And so, a year and a half after it was written, the Man in a Raincoat at last found someone who would give it a trial singing.

No one concerned with the song pretends that at this date he or she recognized its hidden potential. The most Don Wright himself claims is that he regarded it as "a sleeper, a dark horse that was worth putting on the 'flip’ side of a record because it just might be unexpectedly successful.” For the truth is that Man in a Raincoat started its career as second string to the song that was supposed to launch Priscilla Wright’s singing career—a thing called Please Have Mercy, which failed to evoke that quality from the critics.

The fact that it was in BMI’s file, too, confirms the contention of Harold Moon that he and his BMI colleague, Bailey Bird, "thought it might have possibilities.” But Moon admits, too, that Man in a Raincoat was close at hand on the day the Wrights were in town tune-hunting only because a few days before Warwick Webster, composer of the song, had stalked into BMI with a chip on his shoulder.

A Fast Boom or Bust?

Webster’s own version of the incident is probably the most vivid. It must be remembered that he was now almost into his second year of trying to get someone to perform his song. He had even paid his way to England in his summer holidays from the Orenda jetengine plant and made the rounds of all the song publishers there . . .

"I remember it was a miserable day in March,” Webster recalls. "I had just come from another radio station that wouldn’t play the song. Oh, yes, by now I had made my own recording of it, humming and whistling and singing and strumming a guitar—which is all the music I can play. I was feeling discouraged, and defiant as weW$ I guess. I remembered that of all the people and companies I had sent copies of Man in a Raincoat, most had said 'no thanks’ but I’d never heard from BMI, right in my own city. I decided to go then and there and have it out with them.

"I marched in and said to the receptionist, Dorothy Gates, "I’ve got a bone to pick with you. I sent you copies of a song and you didn’t answer.

"She looked in the files but couldn’t find any reference to me or Man in a Raincoat. I grumbled to myself that not only didn’t they acknowledge my song, but now they’d gone and lost it. I planked down the record I was carrying—the one the radio station wouldn’t play—and said: 'Well, I’ve got a disk of it right here. I’ll give your people two days to decide.’ and I stalked out. (Since then I’ve decided that I never did mail copies to BMI.)”

Two days later Webster telephoned. Dorothy had a cryptic message for him. No, there was no report yet. Yes, Mr. Bird had listened to the record. In an agony of impatience Webster waited another week. Then Bird phoned to say he was "very intrigued” with Man in a Raincoat, and would Webster come down and discuss it.

"It was,” Harold Moon recalls, "the kind of song that wasn’t going to keep you in suspense, once it was tried out. It was the kind that would catch on— or flop—in a hurry, because it was so different from the popular songs we hear every day.

"In the first place, it was just fifty-seven bars of music that told a story in five verses, with no chorus and no repeats. Webster, who wants to be a short-story writer, simply told a short story. But at that it was twenty-five bars longer than the thirty-two bars which arbitrarily make up a popular song.”

When Webster hurried down to the BMI office he and Bird went over the words of Man in a Raincoat line by line and made one small change. One line had read: "We smiled in the crush on the old streetcar.” It was changed to "We smiled as we climbed on the old streetcar.” Bird pronounced the song ready for launching. What did that mean, Webster wanted to know. "Oh, when we can get some company to record it,” Bird said.

Webster’s spirits returned to halfmast. The recording he had submitted to BMI was made, at Webster’s expense, by Hallmark, a young company just launching into popular recordings. Joe Brook, the Hallmark technician who cut the disks from Webster’s own tape recording, had told company officials it was a good tune. They had considered launching it themselves, and turned it down.

Two days later Bird telephoned Webster the best news he had heard yet: the Wrights had taken home a copy of Man in a Raincoat, and a new discovery of theirs, their own daughter Priscilla, would record it if she liked it; if it sounded "right” for her.

Priscilla liked it. And the Wrights decided it sounded "right.” On Saturday, March 28, she made the recording. It was a day of utter misery for her. That morning she awoke and told her mother that she was ill.

"Of course you are, dear,” said Mrs. Wright. "It’s the excitement.”

"I’m not excited,” answered Priscilla. "I’m just sick.”

But she couldn’t convince anybody that it wasn’t the thrill of making her first record that upset her. She sang her pieces at the studio and went home to bed with a fever of 103. She stayed in bed a week.

On April 1, BMI representatives took down to their exhibit at the Jukebox Operators’ Convention in Chicago a copy of Priscilla’s first record: Man in a Raincoat on one side, Please Have Mercy on the other. It was what the trade calls a "soft cut”—a temporary record of poor quality and scratchy reproduction. All that first day the BMI officials played it for representatives of U. S. record companies, until the words and music were barely recognizable. And all the next day, and the next, the telephone rang in the Wright home and in the office of Harold Pounds, manager of Sparton. The callers were record-company executives anxious to make a deal for U. S rights to the record. Or rather, for the tune on the "flip” side, Man in a Raincoat. Nobody mentioned the "main” song, Please Have Mercy. On the second day, Sparton made a U. S.rights deal with Unique, a small New York City record house.

It was then that Don Wright knew that the "dark horse” he had placed a bet on had won. It was then that Bird telephoned Warwick Webster from Chicago and said, "My boy, you’ve got a hit on your hands.”

What has Man in a Raincoat meant to Warwick Webster and Priscilla Wright? First, in terms of fortune . . .

Strangely enough, the song that has been earmarked as a hit since early in April has not yet meant the music of money to either of them. Neither will know until mid-November what success has meant in terms of dollars, because of.the musical world’s system of reporting sales in quarterly periods. The mid-August returns barely hinted at future possibilities.

What they stand to make, though, is fairly predictable. Don Wright is believed to have a seven-percent royalty contract with Sparton on Canadian sales, plus a fifty-fifty split on foreign sales of Priscilla’s records. Although a number of big names followed Priscilla by a few weeks in making Man in a Raincoat (Marion Marlowe, Karen Chandler, Lita Roza and the "cult” jazz pianist Eddie Bonnemere), the fourteen-year-old Canadian girl’s version has remained consistently at the top of Man in a Raincoat sales—and, in places like Detroit, Minneapolis and Buffalo, at £he top of all tunes. In mid-August the song was just beginning to take solid hold in the South and on the Pacificcoast.

Like the original man and girl at the car stop, Warwick Webster and Priscilla Wright have met briefly, once. He told her he was grateful to her for making his song a hit; she expressed gratitude to him for writing the song that launched her singing career in the big time. But at that point their interests part company. Priscilla is financially interested only in the sales

of her own recording; Webster is interested in every performance of his song, regardless of who does it and in what form.

Don Wright, father-manager of his daughter-performer, has managed to complicate his own income-tax structure by sponsoring his daughter’s career. "First, my wife is business manager of Don Wright Productions,” he explains, "and of course what a man pays his wife in salary is not deductible from his own income tax. Now I’ve got a daughter who is both an employee and a minor—and what seem likely to be her very considerable earnings are taxable right off the top of my own.”

Webster, who had practically exhausted his slim resources in trying to get his song published, isn’t worrying about his income tax—yet. There are the five recordings of his song, each sale of which nets Webster one cent. Then there’s sheet music, paying him three cents per sheet. In one July week seventy-eight thousand copies were sold, netting him $2,340 for the week from that source alone.

Next, Man in a Raincoat has made what the trade calls the "wrap-up record”—several top hits of the day recorded on one long-play disk, generally taken as an indication that a tune has "made the grade.”

Next, the U. S. Army—of all organizations—demanded eight hundred dance-band arrangements of the song, which BMI had done by the versatile Canadian arranger Frank Radeliffe.

Then there’s an accordion arrangement and a simple piano arrangement. All these supplementaries carry a tenpercent royalty—or five cents each at the usual half-dollar selling price.

Musak, the organization that supplies piped-in music for industry and business, has applied for a license to record and feed out the song, piling up still more royalties.

Finally, British sales of sheet music and records are reported "better than satisfactory.” And, in August, J. Albert and Sons, Sydney publishers, acquired the Australian rights.

Webster at this moment is enjoying with more than usual relish a honeymoon in England with his pretty bride, Dianne Ariss. It is being financed by advance royalties from the London music publishing house of Peter Maurice, which last summer gave Webster a polite but firm "no thanks” when he flew the Atlantic at his own expense to offer British publishers Man in a Raincoat.

Webster, now twenty-seven, came to Canada from Norwich, England, two years ago, leaving behind his parents and three younger brothers. He had trained in draftsmanship, and got a job at the Orenda engine division of Avro as an illustrator of service manuals. When he had settled down and saved some money, he faced a

dilemma: All his friends owned cars— but he was more interested in buying a tape recorder. He wanted, and still wants, to be a short-story writer, with song writing as a secondary interest. He had heard that a tape recorder greatly facilitated clear rapid writing. And besides, he had to have one for song writing.

"You see,” he explains, "I can’t write or play a note. So I have to compose by singing it out on tape.”

So he got his tape recorder, and it became a bit of a joke among his friends. When anyone asked if Webster owned a car, they would chorus, "Oh, no, not Ricky—he's got a tape recorder.”

That rainy night in the restaurant at Yonge and St. Clair, Webster hurried home the moment the unknown couple on the street had started lyrics running through his head. "The tune and the words were coming all together,” he recalled, "and I kept repeating them over and over so I wouldn’t forget them before I could get to the recorder.”

Who’d Sing About Toronto?

Webster was living in a healthy atmosphere for a young song writer— in the part conservatory, part rooming house on midtown Macpherson Avenue alongside a railroad track, presided over by James Rosselino, a veteran musician who doggedly produces his own opera season annually and at other times gives singing lessons to resident and day pupils.

Anyone living at the Rosselino academy is willing to discuss and criticize anyone else’s work—and they fell on the opening lyrics of Webster’s song:

Down on Yonge Street by St. Clair,

A man in a raincoat standing there.

It was too local, they argued, no bigtime singer would want to sing lyrics about two Toronto streets. Webster, whose admiration for Canada is tremendous, answered hotly that if St. Louis Woman and Beale Street Blues and California Here I Come and Lullaby of Broadway could be popular, there was no reason why he could not immortalize the corner of Yonge and St. Clair in Toronto.

But his friends talked him out of it, and he substituted the present "good anywhere” lyrics:

Late in the evening, out in the square, A man in a raincoat standing there*

Which, he admits, probably contributes to the song’s universal appeal.

What has the success of Man in a Raincoat done to the personalities of Warwick Webster and Priscilla Wright? Remarkably little, it seems.

*Copyr\yht 1955 BMI Canada Ltd.

"When it first became a hit I got temporarily swell-headed,” Webster admitted. "If anyone at the Orenda plant would ask me how the song was going, I’d go to great lengths to tell him how well it was going, and how big the sales were. Rut I soon got tired of that.”

In fact, he soon got tired of Toronto’s sweltering summer. As soon as it became apparent that real money was being earned by his song, he quit his job and retired to the Rossmoyne Inn at Lake Rosseau, a summer resort owned by his father-in-law to be. His future plans call for more songs and a serious attack on the short-story market. His advisers have warned him not to count on more than thirty thousand dollars in total returns from Man in a Raincoat, but even they admit that the song may well get out of hand and prove that estimate to be far too modest.

"The luckiest thing that happened to me,” Webster sums up, "was that utterly frustrating year trying to get someone interested in my song. If I had taken it to BMI first, and by accident at just the time the Wrights were looking for a song for Priscilla, and all this had happened—well, I wouldn’t know what a really tough proposition it is to sell a song.”

Will it Hit a Million?

What has fame done to Priscilla Wright? So incredibly little that her father has formed the theory that she may be an early example of a new generation of what might be called "stars-without-fame.”

"Certainly,” he said, "her home town takes her and her success quite for granted. It’s probably the influence of widespread television, and possibly a healthy influence, this assumption that a competent performer will be given the opportunity to perform. 1 remember people saying casually, 'When is Priscilla going to be on the Rd Sullivan show ... or the Julius .^ptosa show?’ She eventually was ^wited onto both those shows, and -Many more, but what seemed to us a Jromendous honor was taken as a maftto* of course by television viewers. Jusras so many people ask: 'Have you sold a million records yet?’ I wonder if

they know how many singers actually ever sell a million records. But TV viewers see gold records being presented to those who do sell a million—so it’s a normal sight.”

Probably Priscilla’s most eminent and devoted fan in her own country is grandfather Arthur Meighen, former prime minister of Canada. The fact that Priscilla is his only granddaughter may be a factor, but the stalwart elder statesman explains it this way: "I don’t know the first thing about music, but I know Priscilla is a success, so she must have worked hard and have talent. I’m proud of that.”

Some More Kids Say “Hi"

Priscilla’s United States fans are much less restrained than her London classmates. A few weeks ago I watched her being mobbed by teen-aged fans outside CBS Studio 61 following the Julius LaRosa show. "We didn’t get in to see you,” they chorused, "so sing us a song now.” Priscilla smiled and talked to them with utmost self-possession, and I’m sure she’d have sung them a song there on the sidewalk of First Avenue and 76th Street. But five stalwart young teen-agers commandeered a cab, bundled Priscilla and her party into it, and shooed the driver off. She wasn’t any more the thirteenyear-old described earlier. She was a pertly pretty miss with sleek black hair, laughing grey eyes, and ninetyfour pounds carried neatly on her five-foot figure.

I asked Priscilla what difference Man in a Raincoat had made to her personally and to her school friendships.

"I feel a little less shy with people,” she answered, "and in school about twenty more kids say 'Hi’ when we pass in the corridors. But they never stare or ask for autographs like they do outside the studios in New York.”

It is true that Priscilla receives some special consideration at school when she has to be away for singing engagements. "Mr. Robertson, the principal, told me I could have time off,” she said. "He explained that many of the children were members of calf clubs, and got excused to attend meetings or show their calves at fairs. And he thought I was entitled to the same treatment.” ★