You’d be hard-pressed to find a birth announcement these days for a baby girl named Mildred. Or Ethel, or Shirley. But in my audiences, these good, old-fashioned names flourish.
I used to play the piano on the first Monday evening of each month for a group of women who lived in a senior apartment complex. They liked to sing, and were game for anything from the late 1800s through the 1940s. (They drew the line at 1950, though. Nothing more recent than that was acceptable.) For one program, I offered them a wide-ranging selection of songs with women’s names in the titles, names from yesteryear. Here’s what I played:
“Sweet Adeline,” a barbershop quartet favorite inspired by the farewell tour of Italian opera singer Adelina Patti in the early 1900s.
“Dolores,” written by Frank Loesser in 1941. I had a Dolores in my audience, an amiable woman with mild cognitive problems. I dedicated the song to her. She basked in her moment in the spotlight.
“Georgia on My Mind,” a jazz classic from 1930. Hoagy Carmichael composed the melody, his Indiana University classmate Stuart Gorrell added the words, with Hoagy’s sister on his mind. But the lyrics are ambiguous enough that many believe the song is about the state of Georgia. This collaboration with Carmichael was Gorrell’s only venture into the field of music. He became a banker.
“Ida! Sweet as Apple Cider,” an oldie from 1903, named for Eddie Cantor’s wife.
“Jeannine I Dream of Lilac Time,” a 1928 waltz ballad featured in the silent film Lilac Time.
“Come Josephine in My Flying Machine,” composed in 1910, in the early days of the airplane.
“Sweet Lorraine,” composed in 1928 by Cliff Burwell, pianist in Rudy Vallée’s band. The song didn’t get much notice until Nat King Cole recorded it in 1940.
“Louise,” a huge winner for French actor and singer Maurice Chevalier, who sang it in the 1929 film Innocents of Paris.
“Paddlin’ Madelin Home” from 1925, an early songwriting success for Harry Woods, and my mother’s “name song.”
“Margie,” made popular by Eddie Cantor in 1921, who sang it for his 5-year-old daughter Marjorie. When I played it for the Margie in my audience, she was delighted. “People sang that song to me a lot when I was young,” she said. “But nobody knows it anymore.”
“Marie,” a swing-era classic, with words and music by Irving Berlin, made famous by a 1937 Tommy Dorsey recording.
“Mary’s a Grand Old Name” a George Cohan tune from 1905. The simple, beautiful name Mary doesn’t show up much in classrooms these days, but at my Catholic high school in the 1970s it abounded, usually in combinations: Mary Alice, Mary Ann, Mary Beth, Mary Ellen, Mary Jane, Mary Lou.
“Nancy with the Laughing Face” from 1945, with lyrics by comedian Phil Silvers. Thought to be written for Frank Sinatra’s daughter.
“Wait ‘Till the Sun Shines Nellie,” a 1905 song about hope and optimism, sung at 11:30 am every Christmas and New Year’s Eve by traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
“Peg o’ My Heart” from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1913, popularly revived in the late 1940s.
“Stella by Starlight,” a jazz standard originally written by Victor Young as the theme for the 1944 film The Uninvited.
“If You Knew Susie,” a toe-tapping number from 1925.
It’s lucky I was looking for name songs to suit a female audience, because there aren’t many vintage songs with men’s names in the titles. I can think of “Barney Google,” “Oh Johnny, Oh!,” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” And one more.
A while back, a man in a retirement home approached me with a question: “Have you ever heard of a song called ‘Elmer’s Tune’? I’ve been asking piano players for that song for years and no one has ever heard of it.” I always have the sheet music for “Elmer’s Tune” with me when I visit senior facilities. Everyone loves it. Named for its composer, the tune was a big band standard in the 1940s and a number one hit for Glenn Miller. Amateur pianist Elmer Albrecht came up with the jaunty melody while noodling on a piano in the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, on a break from his work at the funeral home next door.
So I played “Elmer’s Tune” for Elmer that day, and every time I’ve seen him since. He told me that first day—and he’s told me every time since—”I thought my song was lost forever.” Glad to resurrect it for you, Elmer.
Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.