Most of us learned our ABCs by singing a tune that dates to the 1800s, the same tune used for “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” It’s based on a melody by Mozart, who borrowed it from an old French song.
Spelling through song starts early, too. Kids have been singing “Bingo” for more than 200 years. In the 1950s, Head Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd wrote music that taught young television viewers how to spell a very important name:
M-I-C (See you real soon)
K-E-Y (Why? Because we like you)
Grownups, too, have songs that spell out words in their lyrics. I decided to round them up. Here is what I’ve found so far (I limited my list to pre-1970 music):
- George Cohan wrote the spelling hit “When We Are M-A-Double R-I-E-D” for his 1907 show The Talk of the Town. He had even more success the following year with a song called “Harrigan” (“H-A-Double R-I-G-A-N spells Harrigan…”), one I play in all my St. Patrick’s Day programs.
- Sophia Tucker popularized “M-O-T-H-E-R” in 1915. In 1947, it was heard in the film Mother Wore Tights starring Betty Grable:
M is for the million things she gave me,
O means only that she’s growing old,
T is for the tears she shed to save me,
H is for her heart of purest gold…
Five of the songs I came across in my search spell out place names:
- Irving Berlin’s “I’ll see you in C-U-B-A,” a Prohibition-era song, was revived in 1946 by Bing Crosby and Olga San Juan in the film Blue Skies.
Everybody’s going there this year
And there’s a reason
The season opened last July
Ever since the U.S.A. went dry…
- Composer Harry Warren and lyricist Mack Gordon wrote “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” for the 1942 movie Orchestra Wives. Introduced in the musical by Glenn Miller, with a recording timed to coincide with the movie’s premiere, the song climbed to #1 on the Billboard chart. It was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to “White Christmas.” [In this video, singing starts at 1:15, with an amazing dance routine by the Nicholas Brothers at 4:18.]
- Oscar Hammerstein tacked on a spelling of the state at the very end of the lyrics he wrote for Richard Rodgers’ 1943 tune “Oklahoma.”
- Ralph Flanagan and Herb Hendler’s 1953 A-L-B-U-Q-U-E-R-Q-U-E” has a great big-band sound. [Singing starts one minute in.]
- Country musicians Curley Williams and Billy Simmons wrote “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I” in 1950. It was introduced by Red Foley, also recorded later by Kay Starr.
I turned up two holiday spelling songs. The first is secular: “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S,” a 1949 country tune by Eddy Arnold, with words by Jenny Lou Carson. The other has traditional religious lyrics: “Christmas Alphabet,” released in 1954 by The McGuire Sisters.
In the 1960s, we had:
- Connie Francis’s shout-out to “V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N” fun, her final top-ten hit in 1962.
- “L-O-V-E,” recorded by Nat King Cole in 1964.
L is for the way you look at me
O is for the only one I see
V is very, very extraordinary
E is even more than anyone that you adore can…
- Van Morrison’s memorable “G-L-O-R-I-A” chorus, also 1964.
- Aretha Franklin’s 1967 recording of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” She added a spelling bit to her version and earned a Grammy.
- “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” a country western/pop hit for Tammy Wynette in 1968. The song highlights what Wynette’s producer Billy Sherrill called the “teardrop” in her voice.
What song have I m-i-s-s-e-d?
Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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