On my list of London songs, I have lots of favorites, but probably only one true obsession among them: the showtune standard "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." (It's pronounced "Barkley," by-the-by, not "Berkley.") How obsessed am I with this one song? Well, I've got a dedicated playlist (entitled, tongue-in-cheek, "That Bloody Nightingale") for thirty-one different versions of it on my iPod, and I've only just on this trip discovered a couple more I like (the John Le Mesurier "definitive" version and the smooth silky Ellis Marsalis cover) that I'll be adding to the collection. Why such a fondness for a pleasant little ditty that debuted in a forgotten 1940 West End show (New Faces)? After all, it's a song about falling in love...and what does a little stuffed bull know about love? (Aside from quite fancying nose-kisses from Keira Knightley.)
I think it's less likely that I love this song because it's a love song alone, more that it's a love song set in London, about the transformation that London has on people in love, and vice-versily, the transformation that people in love have on London:
That certain night, the night we met,
There was magic abroad in the air,
There were angels dining at the Ritz,
And a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.
I first discovered "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" as a tune played by harmonicist Max Geldray on The Goon Show, curiously enough on an episode set in the American West. The Goon Show featured, as was customary in those days, musical numbers one-third and two-thirds of the way through the frenetic comedy action, partly out of following to the British music hall traditional of breaking of comedy acts with music, but mostly to give Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers time to dash backstage for a quick brandy-and-milk before they had to go on again. The Ray Ellington Quartet filled the second musical spot and Geldray the first, and it's a tribute to his skill that I've never felt the need to fast-forward through a musical number to get back to the comedy faster. Geldray's one of my favorite harmonicists of all time: Larry Adler may be better technically, but did Larry Adler ever play straight man to Neddie Seagoon and get to say "ploogee" all the time? No, he did not.. Geldray's version starts out slow and sweet and is butter-smooth all the way through; his playing was the inspiration for me wanting to learn to play the harmonica for many years. Never could, but every time I listen to him play, and this number especially, it still makes me wish I'd learned.
Let's take a listen to Max Geldray, shall we?
I next encountered "A Nightingale Sang" on that wonderful John Williams Echoes of London guitar album I told you about on my first day here in London, and like "London by Night" on that record, I still didn't realize that "Nightingale" has lyrics. My first inkling that this wonderful tune had words came from another classic BBC radio comedy: I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again (thank you NPR for broadcasting both these shows heavily when I was just a tiny stuffed bull in Clay, New York!). Sung by comedian and eventual bird-botherer Bill Oddie (lower right of the floating heads of the cast in the picture to the right), here's Oddie's very short but very funny parody of the tune.
Now I can spin the virtual touchwheel of my iPod and listen at whim to dozens of versions of this charmer of a tune, from the soulful Nat "King" Cole version, to Vera Lynn's very-British rendering, a growly re-invented Rod Stewart singing oldies version, the bouncy and festive New Vaudeville Band (they of "Winchester Cathedral") or even the music-hall inspired cover by Robson and Jerome. But force me into a corner and ply with tea and crumpets to get me to tell you my favorite version and I will hem and haw and mull over thirty-one flavors of wonderful but I'll probably tell you my favorite version is by Frank Chacksfield and His Orchestra. Like the first couple versions I encountered of "Nightingale," it's an instrumental, but what an instrumental: a full-fledged, all-out symphonic overture that paints a picture in my little stuffed head of London so dramatic and beautiful that it doesn't matter where I listen to the Chacksfield version playing: whether I'm on the F train in Manhattan or walking through a street in Brooklyn, it's always Berkeley Square to me. Chacksfield's version is to me, the overture to the greatest London movie never made, and of course this movie should be titled A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. There's already a movie by that name, of course, but it's a 1979 crime/heist thriller, and what I'm picturing is a WWII-era black-and-white romance with an American GI in London (Bing Crosby?) falling in love with a London girl (Vera Lynn?). Arthur Treacher's got to be in there somewhere, and Patricia Roc, and George Formby and "that man again" Tommy Handley, and while the whole darned world seems upside-down in the end the lovers are united as that pesky bird twitters away in the square. Wouldn't you go to see that? I sure would, 'specially if it featured Chacksfield's version of the song as the opening number, bursting into the theaters in glorious full resonance over the titles and shots of London by night. Chacksfield's "Nightingale" starts with that big fanfare, and then smoothly segues into the Westminster chimes (that's the bells of Big Ben to you and me), and a slight detour into the grand old song "London Pride" before the melody of "Nightingale" rises over the opening titles...oh, let's just take a listen to it right now, and you sit back and close your eyes and imagine that opening movie sequence along with me, won't you?
Did you see it in your head? Now tell me this: is that or is that not the best London movie you ever wanted to see in your life that has never been made?
The streets of town were paved with stars;
It was such a romantic affair.
And, as we kissed and said 'goodnight',
A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.