Rebirth of Reason

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Sunday, March 28, 2004 - 10:34amSanction this postReply
AMEN! I suspect there was an enormous amount of crap produced throughout the early and mid 20th century, but the benefit of our perspective is that we only hear what survived... My bet is that "even" the 90's will sound better once rap, heavy metal and remnants of punk are dead and forgotten forever...if anything's left...

Good article!

(Edited by David Bertelsen on 3/28, 12:11pm)

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Post 1

Monday, March 29, 2004 - 10:26amSanction this postReply
Like Mr Sciabarra, I grew up with "old fogey" music, even though I was born in '63, the beginning of Beatlemania. To my constant social embarrassment I was barely able to even name a modern rock band until the age of around 13, but I knew Lena Horne, Bing, Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ella, et all like the back of my hand - not to mention your Fats Wallers and Djangos too . And though I've added everyone from The Velvet Underground to Neu! to Curtis Mayfield to The Darkness over the years, this hasn't diminished my appreciation of them one iota.

Could I just add Anita O'Day - everyone forgets about her - and the insanely underrated Blossom Dearie to your list? And just to irritate jazz snobs everywhere, I officially declare the best ever version of "My Funny Valentine" - one of the greatest love songs ever written - is the live version by Rickie Lee Jones.

- Daniel

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Post 2

Tuesday, March 30, 2004 - 11:34amSanction this postReply
Hey thanks David and Daniel ... and yes, yes, yes to Anita O'Day.  Some years ago, she did a terrific special with the Stan Kenton Orchestra that, I'm sorry to say, has never been made available on DVD.  She was remarkable in her virtuosity.   And, OF COURSE, just because one loves and appreciates these timeless classics does not mean that it is impossible to enjoy or appreciate other genres, singers, or instrumentalists. 

Post 3

Wednesday, March 31, 2004 - 5:12pmSanction this postReply
For those who enjoy the great melodies of the American Song Book, and jazz - then I can thoroughly recommend a wonderful "new" jazz vocalist - Stacey Kent.

When I first came across her, I was simply amazed, and quickly purchased every album currently available. She now has 6 CDs to her name.

She was apparently born in New York - but is an expat, working and recording out of London.

A big bonus is the band she has on all her CDs, an in particular the pianist, David Newton.

Any jazz lover will appreciate the sheer musicality of her work.

For Bio and CD listing info, see: http://www.staceykent.com

I have had hundreds of hours of pleasure from listening to this fine singer and her musicians - and perhaps you can too. :-)

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Post 4

Wednesday, April 7, 2004 - 6:21pmSanction this postReply

This post has reached article length; however, I do not wish to rework it as an article at this time. So I offer some thoughts on this very intriguing topic. Sorry my writing is not more tightly integrated.

When I was growing up, the radio airwaves were filled with a wonderful mixture of old-style pop (the great standards), the new rock and roll, and (my favorite) pop that was strongly influenced by rock. I loved it all, though I must say I found less to like in the pure rock. In fact, everybody loved it all. I did not get the impression of rock being a rejection of everything that went before—it was simply another style, eagerly embraced by most people who listened with an objective ear.

Thinking back, I realize that I most responded to good melodies. And some part of me was aware that the pre-rock tunes were generally superior. However, when I remarked to a friend that rock melodies were not impressive, his or her protestations that this was not true gave me pause. I began to think and listen more carefully, and changed my thinking: the melodies were somewhat more angular, they made more use of repeated notes and multiple notes for single syllables, and they leaned for support on the beat, but within this style many of them were outstanding examples of melody-writing.

As the 1960s drew to a close, I noticed that I was listening to radio less and less. My golden age of rock-influenced pop was ending. The great standards were much less in evidence. The pure rock was very often just boring. There were still good tunes to be heard, but emphasis in general seemed to have shifted to other elements of songs. I wanted to hear records that showed off their tunefulness unabashedly.

But there was music in my soul, although I could not read or write a note of it. Always shy with the opposite sex, I forced myself to overcome inhibitions when disco arrived. This was not listening music mostly, although it often made for great listening—it was for dancing! I was not going to deprive myself of all that fun I saw other people having. (Later, I would realize the excellence of “I Will Survive.”)

A bit before that, and partly through Ayn Rand’s influence, I had started to listen to more classical music. I remember listening to Beethoven even before discovering The Fountainhead; that book introduced me to the Romantics and to light classical music. Shortly thereafter, I began to teach myself music and started writing songs. It was Franz Lehár who started me thinking about the nature of good melodies, and my appreciation of this aspect of songs reached a fever pitch. Lehár, of course, had been mentioned in Who Is Ayn Rand?

I now maintain a website called Music, Melody, and Songs, which I update far too seldom, I admit. One of the plans I have for it is to present a list of songs I consider to be in the very top rank of songwriting. To be included in this list, the song would have to display awe-inspiring skill in melody writing and chord assignment. You have to be looking at the music and saying to yourself, “How in the world did the songwriter think of this musical move?” or “How did he or she think of using this chord?” The melodies should usually be natural, inventive, and long-lined. And—although this is less important for me—the lyrics have to be very refined and inventive. In short, these songs have to ooze professionalism and class.

At this moment, from the songs I have studied and that I can think of off the cuff right now, here is my list:

  • Thou Swell (Both the verse and the chorus; and one of the extremely few songs whose lyric impresses me as much as the music)
  • I Left My Heart in San Francisco (This song’s status as the city’s official song was revoked in favor of “San Francisco”; I hope the police are on that crime)
  • There Will Never Be Another You (This shows mastery of the long line)
  • The More I See You (Again, mastery of the long line)
  • Love and Marriage (The middle section goes to a far-off key and somehow finds it way back)
  • Young at Heart (So good that it overcomes my aversion to songs that seem addressed to the old)
  • You Make Me Feel So Young (Ditto)
  • Dein is Mein ganzes Herz (Franz Lehár’s greatest aria, whose English title is “You Are My Heart’s Delight”; at its premiere in Das Land des Lächelns, the audience abruptly ceased to be interested in hearing any other music or song)
  • Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (There are some chords in here that I marvel at, not being able to understand how the composer found them)
  • Makin’ Whoopie (Great lyric too)
  • Hey There (Won’t you take this advice I hand you like a brother? / Or are you not seeing things too clear? / Are you too much in love to hear? / Is it all going in one ear and out the other? Oh, how I’ve lived this song)
  • A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody
  • The Girl on the Magazine Cover
  • Goody, Goody (The best line, both musically and lyrically, is the last: And I hope you’re satisfied, you rascal you! I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, but it is great!)

The next level down, for me, contains the best of all the other great standards, songs such as “Just One of Those Things,” “High Hopes,” “Swinging on a Star,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Pass Me By,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Melancholy Baby,” and I could go on forever. In truth, some of these songs may belong in the list above; much of the time I can’t decide.

Several months ago I discovered another great song. Up to then, I had known only about the song’s origin. Apparently, some housewife wrote to the songwriter, who was already famous, about a great idea she had for a song title. He agreed, wrote the song around this title, and made sure she got part of the royalties. To me also, the title had seemed a great one, and I made a mental note to catch the music some day.

I walked into a local bookstore, and as I did the song was starting. The first line of the lyric consisted of the title, so I knew I was hearing that song I had been interested in. As it progressed, it struck me as exceedingly sophisticated, refined, natural, long-lined (both words and music were written by Johnny Mercer, who as well as being a great lyricist penned some fantastic melodies):

I wanna be around to pick up the pieces

When somebody breaks your heart …

The singer? Tony Bennett.

It seems to me that an appreciation for quality songwriting is making a comeback. In movies, on talk shows, in coffee shops, in the malls—directors, scriptwriters, singers, and shop owners seem to be pushing their own musical loves back into public awareness from the ghetto to which they have been so long confined. The walls of that ghetto were an idea: that every generation has its own music, that there is nothing objectively better in some musical qualities than in others, and that the young inevitably reject the preferences and the standards of their elders. Those walls have been slowly but surely eroded by one factor that those with a vested interest in this idea had been blind to: reality.

Who could have a vested interest in cutting generations off from one another? Anyone who wanted to continue the erosion of values remaining from a more individualistic and rational time. That is, modern intellectuals, who for decades have systematically undercut every manifestation of reason they see in the culture. In the field of music, this has meant the dismissal of melodicism, sophistication, and the idea that the young could ever adopt the values of the previous generation.

In the field of popular song, this undercutting had been directed at, not only the great standards I have been discussing thus far, but also the pop of the 1950s and 1960s and that progressive genre that has always been my special love: the rock-influenced pop of the early 1960s, especially what is termed Brill Building Pop:

The influence of mainstream American popular songwriting, embodied by the conglomerate of professional composers and publishers dubbed Tin Pan Alley, on rock’s early development is sometimes overlooked. While rock & roll was to a significant degree a reaction against the overly professional, sentimental, and sterile conventions of pre-rock American pop, the best of Tin Pan Alley’s melodic and lyrical hallmarks were incorporated into rock & roll to raise the music to new levels of sophistication. (Spectropop, “Brill Building Main Page”)

Brill Building Pop applied the concept of professional songwriters in traditional pop to rock & roll. Numerous teams of professional songwriters worked at the Brill Building—a block of music publishing houses in New York City—writing songs for artists as diverse as the Coasters, the Drifters, the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, Neil Sedaka, and Connie Francis. The songs were indebted not only to rock & roll and R&B, but also Tin Pan Alley pop, as the sophisticated lyrics and melodies proved. The productions on these early ’60s records were also more sophisticated than most rock & roll records, featuring orchestras and bands with large rhythm and guitar sections. Though it fell out of favor after the British Invasion, both British and American pop/rock demonstrated an enormous debt to Brill Building pop for years to come. (All Music Guide, “Brill Building Pop”)

Some major songwriters of Brill Building Pop were Carole King; Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart; Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart; Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield; and Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

In my mind, Carole King epitomizes these creators. By no means do I like all of her work, or even all of her most popular work. But she wrote many of my favorite melodies from this period: “Up on the Roof,” “Go Away Little Girl,” “It Might as Well Rain Until September” (which is my favorite), “(I’ll Do My) Crying in the Rain,” “The Loco-Motion,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “Take Good Care of My Baby.”

Here is a link to a little-known King tune that may help convey a sense of this woman’s talent, for those who don’t yet appreciate it (of course, there may be those who won’t care for this particular one, but everyone to whom I have shown it so far has liked it): “Point of No Return” (headphones or good speakers urged). (Quite apart from the tune, I am fascinated by the arrangement. Note especially the subtle genius happening in the drums, right up to the end.)

The undercutting has taken the form of using the term “pop” with disdain. Instead, it is only considered “cool” to like blues, jazz, zydeco (whatever that is), rock, doo-wop, etc. Now, specific musical genres all have their own contributions to make, and can be combined in infinite ways. But our allegiance must ultimately be to music, and—here is my theory—pop is the category reserved for any record that strives simply to be good music. Pop is not a “genre” in the same sense as the others. Its standard is not the improvisational skill or virtuosity of the singer or the instrumentalist, its “faithfulness to its roots,” its lyrical message, how good the lyrics are poetically, who created it, how “honest” it is, whether the musicians are having fun “getting down” with it. The only thing that counts with pop is the total musical effect on the hearers. Observe how, when a genre record “crosses over” and becomes a hit, it tends to be considered as having “gone pop.” With the implication it has “sold out.”

Certain pop and pop-rock composers and performers are so respected that they are immune to the undercutting. Carole King seems to be one of these.

As for sterling songs by other composers in this general period and its influence, I would mention (to hear them, click on any links you see): “Town Without Pity,” “Run to Him,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” “Bobby’s Girl,” “Dawn (Go Away),” “The End of the World,” “Goodbye Cruel World” (an example of the long line; observe how it keeps introducing new material right up to the end), “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” “Georgy Girl,” “Johnny Angel,” “Today,” “Forget Him” (this link is not the original recording, but the song is so good it does not matter), “Moments to Remember,” “The Wayward Wind” (I love how the French horn here seems to be commenting on the lyric, sometimes by means of a single well-placed note!), “Venus” (this one may be very familiar and you may be tired of it, as I was for a while; but have you ever noticed what a sophisticated melody it has?).

I am here to say that the best of the melodies created by the composers in this period deserve to be just as esteemed as those of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Sammy Fain, and the other writers of old standards listed above. As I have mentioned, the only important musical difference of the best pop-rock from these masterpieces is the stylistic elements imported from the practices and experiments of rock and roll, including a general freedom and daring that, in most cases I think, does not so much constitute a rebellion as an impulse to progress. These writers heard the new beat, liked it, and integrated it to the rest of their values.

I believe this process will continue. The Internet, as you see, has refused to let the music I love die. There are even sites dedicated to “all-but-forgotten oldies.” Every day, I rediscover online an old friend I had completely forgotten about. The technology of the electron has come to the aid that of the soul.

(Edited by Rodney Rawlings on 5/12, 11:42am)

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Post 5

Thursday, April 8, 2004 - 3:59amSanction this postReply
Rodney - I wouldn't want to think you would deprive yourself of the next level up of mediousness from all the wonderful songwriters you've mentioned here. You might find a little experimentation with Puccini & Rachmaninoff highly rewarding. Or maybe grab a video of The Great Waltz - the original 1930s version, not the later remake - & play a sequence about twelve minutes in where a tenor (George Houston) leaps up onto a cafe table & sings I'm in Love with Vienna with Maestro Strauss himself conducting his own orchestra. I swear that this is one of the greatest sense-of-life moments in any movie ever!!


Post 6

Thursday, April 8, 2004 - 3:03pmSanction this postReply

I’ll have to catch that movie. By the way, I’m quite familiar with Rachmaninoff. I tend not to care for Italian opera melodies—too ornate; but I must admit my hearing of them has not been extensive.

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Post 7

Friday, April 9, 2004 - 11:37amSanction this postReply
Rodney, that was a wonderful essay.  Thanks for posting it.  I remember growing up to the sounds of WNEW-AM here in NYC with the great William B. Williams doing the Make-Believe Ballroom.  And even pop radio was so much more diverse.  My tastes run the gamut---from the great American songbook and jazz to Broadway, film scores, and melodic pop music, R&B, and dance.  It's just great being among people who understand.  :)

Post 8

Friday, April 9, 2004 - 11:58amSanction this postReply

My tastes are very catholic also, even to the extent of loving some music that is not melodic or that does not depend mainly on melody. I can even take some rap if it is well choreographed; then, it is not the music that grabs me, but the whole experience.

My step-grandson (my wife is older than I) is Ashley Parker Angel, of the former band O-Town that was formed on TV’s Making the Band, and I even like some of their records, notably “Love Should Be a Crime” (which is straight rock) and “Liquid Dreams” (pure boy-band—or should I say impure?).

But melody speaks to our highest faculties, I believe. It is no accident that that is the aspect AR focuses on.

(Edited by Rodney Rawlings on 4/09, 11:59am)

PS: From time to time I will be inserting links into my article-length post for song titles that lack them, if I can find such links. (I have just inserted one.) By the way, the poor sound quality in some of these links is not present in the original recordings. This should not matter too much anyway, to anyone who wants to focus on songwriting as such.

(Edited by Rodney Rawlings on 4/18, 3:05pm)

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Post 9

Sunday, April 18, 2004 - 12:48amSanction this postReply
The song "Blinded by the light," in the version by Manfred Mann's Earth Band, is, of course, in reference to Atlas Shrugged. Note here that I am not being especially serious:

"With a boulder on my shoulder,
feeling kinda older,
I tripped the merry-go-round
With this very unpleasin', sneezin' and wheezin,
the goliath he crashed to the ground
the goliath he crashed to the ground"

A dual metaphor: both Atlas unable to carry the burden any longer crashes to the ground, and the power of the United States govt. drops - "the goliath...crashed to the ground"

"Some silicon sister with a manager mister
told me I go what it takes."

Dagny Taggart with her assorted CEO lovers congratulates...

"I'll run you on sonny to something strong
play the song with the funky break"

The brakeman!

"And go-cart Mozart was checkin' out the
weather charts see if it was safe outside"

Good old John Galt, the genius of engines - the go-cart Mozart.

"So brimstone-baritone, anti-cyclone Rolling Stone
Preacher from the East,
says dethrone the dictaphone, hit it in it's funny bone
thats what they expect at least"

Oh, Ma Chalmers, surely.

"Now Scott with the sling-shot finally found a tender spot
and throws his lover in the sand "

The theory of sex in Atlas Shrugged..

"and some blood-shot forget-me-not
said Daddy's within earshot, save the buck-shot, turn up the band"

I have no idea.

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Post 10

Wednesday, May 12, 2004 - 2:48amSanction this postReply

Post 11

Monday, July 5, 2004 - 5:33pmSanction this postReply

Further to my post on 1960s pop above, I could not fail to put up here two items that have recently come into my possession relating to songwriter Carole King, whom I discussed. A collector, Bob Celli, has kindly provided me with a recording of the original acetate demo of one of King’s finest works, and a scan of the label for that demo.

A demo (for “demonstration”) recording is a rough performance of a new song sent by its writer to publishers, singers, etc. in hopes of getting it recorded. It is intended only to communicate a general idea of the song—the tune, the harmonies, and the lyrics. The public normally never hears a demo, but practically every new song is first heard in that form within the music industry.

Rodney—I don’t actually have the demo in my possession, but I was able to tape it and many others while visiting [teen idol] Bobby Vee’s home in the mid-eighties. Bob was also good enough to later send me label scans of some of the demos also. I have attached one of “Go Away Little Girl.”

In 1962, when King wrote “Go Away Little Girl,” she sent one of its few acetate demos to Vee (though due to a promoter’s double-dealing it was Steve Lawrence who ended up recording it). You can now have the privilege of hearing this valuable artefact by clicking on the second link below. The first link opens a picture of the demo label.

Not all King’s admirers prefer this particular song, but as a composer and songwriter myself I consider it one of her best and it was always a favorite of mine. It has been covered many, many times.

Click here to see the demo label.

Click here to hear the demo.

This is the actual demo that Bobby Vee used to learn the song. I would imagine there were three copies of this sent to Liberty Records at the time. One for Snuff Garrett, one for Ernie Freeman, and one for Bobby. Feel free to post the label and the song on your site as long as you give me a credit as your source.

I learned a lot about Carole King through Bobby. He always speaks so highly of her. I remember reading about his King demos in the album notes from an early seventies double album titled Legendary Masters. He talked about bringing them out like fine wine and playing them for his close friends. Needless to say, I laughed to myself when I found them all rubbing up against each other in a box without any sleeves!!—Bob Celli

Carole King’s demos were legendary in the industry for their quality and polish, and the finished arrangements one hears on the radio were often virtually note-for-note copies of her demonstration versions. The present item is no exception.

Even so, back then it was less important for a demo to sound like a finished product. Industry executives could often recognize a good song on the basis of a very primitive piano-and-voice performance. That is not so today. The phrase “a good song” has come to mean only “a good record”—neither the industry nor the public seems generally able to recognize superior tunefulness as such.

Observe how blithely King (who apparently is harmonizing with herself here) ignores the fact that this lyric is to be sung by a male. Despite this apparent incongruity, which today might be disastrous for a song’s prospects, this recording is now my favorite rendition of “Go Away Little Girl.”

(Edited by Rodney Rawlings on 7/05, 5:46pm)

Post 12

Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - 4:28pmSanction this postReply
Please do not forget my nominee for the greatest American Songwriter,

Hoagy Carmichael.

Georgia On My Mind, Stardust, Heart And Soul, The Nearness Of You just to name a few gems. Beautiful melodies, amazing lyrics, jazz, pop, even novelty tune masterpieces. He was a pretty good actor to boot.

Post 13

Tuesday, January 25, 2005 - 5:03pmSanction this postReply

Hoagy was certainly among the greatest, but it is so hard to compare at this level. I would nominate also Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Walter Donaldson, Harry Warren, Arthur Schwartz, Jerome Kern, and several others.


Forced to choose, I would go with Irving Berlin—because of “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” which incidentally is a great philosophical truth.

Post 14

Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - 7:20amSanction this postReply

I was glad you included one of my favorites, All The Things You Are,  in your essay.  You attributed the song to Jerome Kern, which is only half the story.  The superb lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein II, who contributed some of the finest lyrics to the Great American Songbook:

Ol' Man River
People Will Say We're in Love
Oh, What a Beautiful Morning
Hello, Young Lovers
If I Loved You
Cockeyed Optimist
Climb Every Mountain

...and the impressive list goes on and on. 

Legend has it that the wives of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were at a party together, and Mrs. Rodgers boasted that her husband wrote Some Enchanted Evening.  Mrs. Hammerstein corrected her by commenting, "No, my husband wrote Some Enchanted Evening, you're husband just wrote..." 

Then Mrs. Hammerstein sang the famous tune "la la la la la la!"

Post 15

Thursday, January 27, 2005 - 1:29amSanction this postReply
Chris, I'm about to die of nostalgia -- but I'm loving every minute of it! And I'm about to pull out my old, scratchy vinyl records and have a wonderful time. Thanks for reminding me.

Linz, The Great Waltz was one of my first loves -- and one never recovers from one's first love. The scene where the tenor leaps onto the table and sings "I'm in Love with Vienna" is definitely one of the greatest sense of life moments in any movie ever!


Post 16

Thursday, January 27, 2005 - 9:11amSanction this postReply
I can't get excited over any singer, no matter how good. What thrills me is songs, and not so much the lyrics (which, don't get me wrong, can make or break a song) as the tune. (A lyric can be good only in relation to the melody it is intended for, but a song's melody can be good regardless of its lyric--and a good melody can transform the most ordinary words into soaring expression).

Corliss Lamont's many faults included his singing voice, but notice how the greatness of Irving Berlin's "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" comes across even in his rendition.

Irving Berlin did not know how to write music, could not sing, and could not play the piano with any skill; and yet he wrote this tune, harmonized it, and wrote the lyric!

(Edited by Rodney Rawlings on 1/27, 9:15am)

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Post 17

Thursday, January 27, 2005 - 3:52pmSanction this postReply
Hey, folks, I didn't realize that more comments had been added to this revisited piece.  Thanks very much.

Yes, Robert, Hoagy was terrific.  "I Get Along Without You Very Well" is one of my favorite songs of all time.

And, yes, Eric, you are right about "All the Things You Are."  Magnificent song.

As readers might have noticed by now... I have an ongoing "sequel" to this article that is updated every day... though it's considerably more ecumenical, encompassing many genres and compositions.  Check out my regular "Song of the Day" listings at "Not a Blog" and the full, evolving alphabetical listing of "My Favorite Songs"---with lots of links to lyrics, biographies, and audio clips.

And bravo on all the other magnificent songwriters mentioned...

Shall we dance?  :)

Post 18

Thursday, January 27, 2005 - 5:14pmSanction this postReply

“I’ll Be Seeing You” has one of the loveliest lines in any song—its last. It depends on an artistic device that is used in many songs, that of reinterpreting the title. After such lines as 

I’ll be seeing you in all the old, familiar places


I’ll be seeing you in ev’ry lovely summer’s day

we end with

I’ll find you in the morning sun and when the night is new

I’ll be looking at the moon


                     ... but I’ll be seeing you.

Post 19

Thursday, January 27, 2005 - 8:31pmSanction this postReply
Rodney—I then defy you to hear Signor Lanza's rendering of I'll Be Seeing You & still say you can't get excited over any singer, no matter how good! (BTW, there are excellent drugs available nowadays for this condition.)


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