These Foolish Things, Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, original written by Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey, 1936
These Foolish Things, Billie Holiday/Teddy Wilson & Orchestra, 1936
These Foolish Things, Turner Layton, 1936
These Foolish Things, Benny Carter, 1936
These Foolish Things, Benny Goodman/Helen Ward, 78RPM, 1936
These Foolish Things, Nat King Cole, Nat King Cole at the Piano, 1947/50
These Foolish Things, Billie Holiday, Solitude, 1956
These Foolish Things, Ella Fitzgerald, Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert, 1956
These Foolish Things, Etta James, These Foolish Things, 1960-65
These Foolish Things, Frank Sinatra, Point of No Return, 1962
These Foolish Things, Sam Cooke, Mr. Soul, 1963
These Foolish Things, Bryan Ferry, These Foolish Things, 1973
The song that stabilized Ferry’s reputation as a dependable hit-maker was ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. The song that stabilized Ferry’s reputation as a durable, old-style matinee idol was These Foolish Things. An extremely important song in Bryan Ferry’s lexicon, These Foolish Things cemented the two key strands of the singer’s career and subsequent image – one, as crooner and leading man, an interpreter of the Great American Songbook, and the other as postmodern stylist, using the tricks of performance and entertainment to present a European Cabaret rock fantasy, replete with music, theater, dance and the promise of a front seat at the Kit Kat Klub. Beneath both images was the unifying image of wrecked love contemplated and lost – remembered – over a gin martini and a pack of Gitanes cigarettes.
‘These Foolish Things’ is positioned at the close of the album These Foolish Things, providing the concluding moment to a record that has history and human activity as its central guiding principle. Opening with Bob Dylan’s mythological epic ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall‘, we listen as the poet-mind observes and recites for us the trauma of human experience across the ages:
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
Ferry sweetens the message by turning the folk song into a stomping glam-epic, rousing the troops with an archness and gaiety that resulted in the music critics seething with anger in 1973 (“I can’t really understand what all the fuss is about,” Ferry said. “I really can’t”). The songs that follow are tender and lighthearted: having provided a view of human history on a grand scale, we then are presented with the ordinary, observing the tug and drama of human love in all its tatty glory as demonstrated in the selection and presentation of River of Salt, Don’t Ever Change, Piece of My Heart, Baby I Don’t Care, It’s My Party, and Don’t Worry Baby.
Keen to maintain his structural framework, Ferry presents additional allegorical context by sequencing Sympathy for the Devil at the beginning of the second side of the original LP – a strategically placed doubling of Dylan’s mythological o , only this time we are lead across those sad forests and dead oceans by old saucy Lucifer, who is busy getting off on his crucifixions, revolutions and blitzkrieg. What follows next is chaos theory, but on a very human, mundane level – the minutia of the every day, the froth of love as seen through the sixties pop machine: The Tracks of My Tears, You Won’t See Me, I Love How You Love Me, Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.
Then Ferry drops a (structural) bomb: until this point These Foolish Things has selected tracks from the 1960s – eleven of thirteen songs are from 1961-1967 – an important period for Ferry: “[Foolish Things] reminds me of when I used to be in Gas Board in Newcastle – in fact, the whole LP does!” (Ferry). In a sense, Foolish Things is Gas Board’s first release, the record that never was. Just as Roxy Music‘s For Your Pleasure was a chronicle of the dark strategizing of an ambitious mind (through every step/a change), Ferry uses Foolish Things to consider his options and take a moment to pull back into his recent past, square up his influences, and digest and strategize on the kind of artist he is going to be moving forward. He then takes an intuitive leap and lands a career defining moment every bit as encompassing as Virginia Plain: he chooses a song largely forgotten by modern audiences, the classic, These Foolish Things.
II. These Foolish Things
A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces
An airline ticket to romantic places
And still my heart has wings
These foolish things remind me of you
For sheer hairy yarbles, in-your-face daring, no song on Ferry’s first solo album has more visceral impact than These Foolish Things. Recorded in 1936 – the oldest tune on the record by a good few decades – ‘Foolish Things’ was originally added (late) to the set-list of a London revue titled Spread it Abroad, written by songwriters lyricist Eric Maschwitz and composer Jack Strachey and performed on stage by Dorothy Dickson. This is the version most critics cite as the one Ferry emulated (“Bryan Ferry covered the Dorothy Dickson version of the song for the title track of his first solo album…” Wiki). Yet this is unlikely, as no recorded version of Dickson’s song exists. Instead, Ferry’s adaptation most resembles the version recorded by the man who first made the tune a hit – Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, the famous West Indian-British cabaret star of the 1930-40s. Visiting lyricist Maschwitz’s studio one afternoon hunting for songs, Hutchinson saw the unloved ‘Foolish Things’ manuscript sitting on top of the studio piano. The Great American Songbook quotes Maschwitz in his autobiography:
“What’s this?” he [Hutchinson] asked.
Maschwitz explained it had not been picked up by any publisher.
Hutch placed the music on the rack, played and sang the song right through.
The Moment he had finished, he turned to Maschwitz and said: “I have a recording session in two days’ time. May I use it?”
May I use it? Talk about being at the right place at the right time. Hutchinson recorded his version and it was an immediate hit in the UK. After Hutchinson’s success, a further five other covers charted the same year, 1936: Benny Goodman (# 1), Teddy Wilson with Billie Holiday (# 5), Nat Brandywynne (# 6), Carroll Gibbons (# 8), and Joe Sanders (# 17). Between 1936 and 1963 the song continued its massive popularity, being covered by many of the great musical talents of the twentieth century – in addition to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra, there was Nat King Cole, Etta James, and Sam Cooke. The track also became a favourite of the bop and post-bop jazz giants, with versions recorded by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, Red Garland, Johnny Hartman, Dave Brubeck, Art Pepper, and Chet Baker – the seductive lyric an invitation for embellishment via saxophone, trumpet, or piano.
‘These Foolish Things’ is known as a “list” or catalog song, and is one of the very earliest examples of narrative cataloging in pop music, capturing, in particular, the virtues or vices of a spurned or absent lover (The Great American Songbook is now full of them: All the Things You Are, Thanks for the Memory, and The Way You Look Tonight). Maschwitz knew he wanted to write a song in the vein of Cole Porter’s You’re the Top – a hit two years previously, in 1934 – in which Porter lists the many amusing qualities about his sweetheart. Maschwitz created a moody epic, lingering on such timeless images as The sigh of midnight trains in empty stations/Silk stockings thrown aside, dance invitations, adhering to a poetic sensibility with just a hint of flirtatious sex. Music critic Robin Miller comments in his 1963 article, that it is quite possible that a certain kind of songwriting success is no longer possible because “The great songs of the 1930s were written by adults for adults. People with experience of life and love, who could appreciate wit and were not afraid of sentiment. And sentiment, of course, is what is revealed by every line, every note of ‘These Foolish Things’.”
Not surprisingly, given the evocative and sensual lyric of the song, the public was fascinated by who Maschwitz might have had in mind while writing ‘These Foolish Things’. True, Maschwitz was romantically linked to the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong while working in Hollywood during the early thirties, but The Great American Songbook tells us the lyricist himself “does not mention this.”
The far more interesting story is that ‘These Foolish Things’ is a song inspired by Jean Ross, British writer, activist, film critic and the role-model for Christopher Isherwood’s ‘divinely decadent’ Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin, later adapted into the long-running stage musical and film, Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli as Sally/Jean. According to the research, “most sources, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, posit cabaret singer Ross, with whom Maschwitz had a youthful romantic liaison, as the muse for the song” (Ross). The implication then, is that the dark and decadent Berlin Weimar Republic years of 1931 are the inspiration for one of the twentieth centuries most popular romance songs. I wonder if Michael Buble knows this?
This darker undertone would appeal to the cheap and vulgarity loving Ferry, shedding a bit of light on the reason why he selected the song – you can safely say ‘Foolish’ being out of style with the young teen fans he had converted with Roxy Music’s early singles. On on the one hand, the possibilities of seductive interpretation certainly appeal to any singer who tackles ‘Foolish Things’ – Hutchinson (stoic); Sinatra (self-absorbed); Ella Fitzgerald (emotive, insightful). To his credit Ferry chooses to play it straight, respectful, yet laced with dollops of camp and ironic awareness – this is the movies, after all. He nails the lyric by getting inside the seductive element of the song, not once flinching over the innate high-style Romanticism of the tune (think Morrissey dreading another sunny day) and never once backing down from such ironic, poor-taste pearls asthe original lyric, including the opening stanza “Oh will you never let me be?/Oh will you never set me free?” – even the song’s originator Leslie Hutchinson didn’t include that one. And Ferry didn’t add new verses or change lines lines, like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald did – indeed, Ella added whole new verses, but it’s Ella – so who cares?
We’ll look at the fantastic filmed promotional clip for ‘These Foolish Things’ in part two of this entry, but it is enough to say for now that Ferry’s vision for the piece was interesting, choosing to stage the song for cinema, contrasting sharply with ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall‘s pure (and funny) Top of the Pops band-in-action clip. When Ferry stages ‘Foolish Things’, he does so in pink flamingo shadows, an opened, half empty whiskey bottle sitting open beside a burning cigarette. The mood is sombre but heated, the shadow of tropical plants paint prison bars on the singer’s face. He looks up and around (a little awkwardly, it must be said) chasing down the memory.
Knowing the song is inspired by fashion model cabaret rebel Jean Ross, and bearing in mind his own taste for decadent Weimar imagery – Country Life is full of it, the track ‘Bitter-Sweet‘ in particular (years before Bowie and Iggy descended on Berlin) – we can posit that Ferry’s promotional movie is actually a re-staging of ‘These Foolish Things’ moment of composition, the point in time Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson discovered the battered manuscript on top of the piano, and he and the love-torn Maschwitz worked out the song between plentiful sips of “vodka and coffee”. Ferry replaces the West Indian-British cabaret star Hutchinson with a gorgeous African-American pianist, who is smiling up at the singer, but somehow distant, out-of-frame, yet responsive to the changes in Ferry’s phrasing and vocal enunciation. Ferry’s performance is almost diabolical in its seriousness, pushing through to a point where some viewers want to snigger, others simply laugh out loud at how odd and different the whole thing is. A little, perhaps, like Sally Bowles herself.
She had a surprisingly deep, husky voice. She sang badly, without any expression, her hands hanging down at her sides – yet her performance was, in its own way, effective because of her startling appearance and her air of not caring a curse of what people thought of her.
Great articles at The Cafe Songbook provide the historical context for this entry; as do clips from Ferry’s ‘Foolish Things’ film; with the web providing great shots of Leslie Hutchinson, Jean Ross, Ana May Wong, Hutch’s These Foolish Things, original release; and of course the brilliant movie poster art for Cabaret – not Bob Fosse’s best film necessarily (that distinction goes to All That Jazz), but any Fosse film is worth more than most.
Not convinced by the Weimar Republic connection to ‘Foolish Things’? – no problem – enjoy instead Bryan Ferry‘s cameo doing Roxy Music‘s Bitter-Sweet on the television series Babylon Berlin. The woman watching is the flawed and lovely Weimar character Charlotte Ritter, police clerk by day, cabaret star by night..
Next: These Foolish Things – Part 2