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(Pictured: a look inside my head, and maybe yours too.)
Certain songs seem to have been in my head forever. Maybe that’s because I grew up in a house where the radio was always on. When I hear those songs now, they come with associations positively ancient, from the beginning of time and possibly before. A lot of those songs date back to the late 50s and the early 60s, to what I have called “time without a calendar,” before I started listening to my own radio stations and could use the record charts to mark my passage through the years. A lot of them call up rainy Saturday afternoons, Mother bustling around the house doing the endless chores required while raising two and later three young boys, those young boys with Lincoln Logs or Tinkertoys spread out across the living room, Dad periodically coming in from whatever he was doing outside, and all of it soundtracked by our hometown radio station, or maybe by WGN from Chicago.
This post is about one of those songs.
Doris “Dotty” Babb was in showbiz early, having performed at Carnegie Hall in the late 1920s, when she was 13 years old. As a girl, she also performed on Broadway and radio. But showbiz was not going to be her life. She was attending business school when she met Art Todd, a fellow musician from her hometown, Elizabeth, New Jersey, and married him the same year, 1941. After Art got home from the Second World War, they relocated to California, where they worked in radio, and played hotels and casinos.
Art and Dotty Todd eventually got a record deal from RCA; in 1953, “Broken Wings” did big business in the UK but nothing at all in the States. In 1958, songwriter/producer Wayne Shanklin brought them “Chanson D’Amour,” and they cut a demo in the style of Les Paul and Mary Ford, who had recorded a string of successful duets going back to 1951. But no record label wanted it until a small label called Era decided to bite. (Even then, one of Era’s owners told the other that “Chanson D’Amour” was, in his words, a “piece of shit.”) Rather than recutting it, Era released the demo as it was.
“Chanson D’Amour” rose to #6 on Billboard‘s Top 100 in May 1958, and was a #1 hit at WOKY in Milwaukee and at WGR in Buffalo. Art believed that its popularity was partly driven by the resistance of some DJs to rock ‘n’ roll, and their preference for more traditional sounds. (In Buffalo, it ran the Top 10 alongside the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Twilight Time” by the Platters, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and David Seville’s novelty “Witch Doctor.”) “Chanson D’Amour” got its first big boost when it was featured on the TV show Your Hit Parade. Art and Dotty themselves appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and on American Bandstand as well; I have seen a clip of their Bandstand appearance, which featured Dick Clark introducing them from horseback for some reason, but it’s not at YouTube anymore.
Six decades later, it’s easy to hear the appeal of “Chanson D’Amour”: Art and Dotty’s close harmonies, the ever-so-slightly lascivious saxophone (which honks just enough to appeal to rock ‘n’ roll fans of 1958), and “rah-ta-ta-ta-da.”
For all their success in 1958, Art and Dotty Todd never returned to the big Billboard chart, although they continued to record and perform. They were regulars at casinos in Las Vegas and Reno, and in 1980 moved to Hawaii and opened a club there. Dotty Todd died in 2000 at age 87; Art died in 2007 at age 90. Wayne Shanklin, who had written Frankie Laine’s big 1951 hit “Jezebel,” went on to write “Primrose Lane,” a 1959 hit for Jerry Wallace (another song that comes to me with associations from the deepest past). He died in 1970.
In 1953, Art and Dotty’s “Broken Wings” was outdone in the UK by a version by the Stargazers, which went to #1. Their “Chanson D’Amour” was bested in the UK as well, but not until years later. In 1977, Manhattan Transfer took a version to #1. While it imitates Art and Dotty, it doesn’t capture whatever was the indefinable something that made the original insinuate itself into my head years before, when I was too young to know it.