Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, Lyle Lovett & Toots Thielmans : Smile

Exploring the genius of Charlie Chaplin featuring :

Chaplin himself, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Jimmy Durante, Lyle Lovett & Toots Thielmans.

Genius is an extremely overworked term when applied to popular artists of the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, without any hesitation I can assert that Charlie Chaplin was a genius.

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He was a master of every aspect of film making – writing, acting, producing and directing.

And, he did something only the very rarest artists do – he created an iconic character (the Tramp) who has become part of the very fabric of popular consciousness.

He was a Poet of  the Cinema with a deep tragi-comic vision.

A vision whose beauty and truth was recognised and welcomed whatever the age, language and culture of those who encountered his films.

The best definition of genius I know comes from Arthur Schopenhauer :

‘The genius … lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets, to whose well-regulated and comprehensible arrangement its wholly eccentric course is foreign.

Accordingly, he cannot go hand in hand with the regular course of the culture of the times as found; on the contrary, he casts his works far out on to the path in front …

Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target … which others cannot even see.’

Charlie Chaplin fully meets that definition.

Oh, and in addition to the honour board of talents listed above he was also a talented composer who wrote the music for one of the most affecting songs of his and any other era – ‘Smile’.

Chaplin, of course, thought in cinematic terms so let’s kick off this tribute to his genius with ‘Smile’ in its first incarnation as part of his score to his masterpiece from 1936, ‘Modern Times’.

Every element of this scene reflects the enormous pains Chaplin took to achieve the exact effects he was seeking.

Chaplin knew all about the Fear and Sorrow that beset so many lives.

He knew that a smile was often your best disguise and perhaps your only defence against the sadness that might otherwise overwhelm you.

The Tramp always keeps alive a spark of Hope, of determination to survive – to be present for what, who knows, may, just may, turn out to be a better tomorrow.

Chaplin’s whole cinematic persona – in the delicacy of his facial gestures and the gamut of his physical pantomime amounts in a sense to an alertness to the promise of Life – no matter how dire the circumstances.

With his mastery of mime and the balletic grace of his movement he was able to convey more nuances of emotion than a hundred lines of dialogue could convey.

His genius was both to acknowledge the Fear and Sorrow but not to surrender to it – to grandly and magnificently literally laugh in the face of it.

And, if Charlie can survive so might we.

As cinema goers, a spring anew in their step, left a Chaplin film they were reassured that light and laughter could outshine the darkness.

Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through
for you ….

The lyric and a title for Chaplin’s melody came from John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons in 1954.

The Premier recording was by a peerless balladeer of Golden Age American Song – Nat King Cole.

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile what’s the use of crying
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you’ll just Smile.

There is no grandiloquence in Nat’s performance.

Knowing that he had a rare treasure here he simply presents the song allowing the beauty of the melody and the poignancy of the words to travel into the hearts and minds of the audience.

‘Simple’ for Nat King Cole because of the burnished gold of his voice which makes us all gladly share any emotion he is evoking.

If I imagine an exhausted couple slow dancing to Nat’s version in the sanctuary of their home I can only imagine the next take as a solo dance underneath a waning Moon.

Judy Garland.

If ever an artist was born to sing a song it was Judy to sing, ‘Smile’.

Fear and Sorrow and Heartbreak surrounded her all her days.

And, those circumstances were fully incarnated in her voice when she sang – especially when she sang, ‘Smile’.

Her Version is filled with tears and sadness – the gladness and the smile is in the going on, the going on.

I am going to repeat something I wrote about Garland before because I don’t think I can say what I mean to say any better.

Her singing on this song seems to me to be almost miraculous.

It’s as if her singing really came from secret chambers of the heart all the rest of us keep under guard.

No wonder she has such a deep impact on us – we know she is expressing a profound truth about the human condition – our need to love and know we are loved.

Judy Garland paid a high price in terms of personal happiness for living her life and art with such an exposed heart and soul but she fulfilled a vocation given to very few and left an indelible mark on her age and will surely do for aeons to come.

There are hundreds and hundreds of versions of Smile but not a single one sounds anything like the depths that Judy Garland does.

And now for something completely different!

Jimmy Durante brought his own very real magic to Smile.

A straight from the shoulder, Hey Bud, have one on me, growl that’s surprisingly affecting.

Lyle Lovett knows songs having written many fine ones himself.

There is always consideration and deliberation involved in the way he approaches a song.

So, his Smile is ruminative, baffled and melancholic.

 

To conclude here’s something really special.

The great Jazz Harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielmans, at 90, bringing a lifetime of craft and experience to bear on Chaplin’s insights into the changeable weather of the human heart.

In a previous feature on, ‘The Third Man’ I noted that it had one of the great endings in the Film Canon.

Well, Charlie Chaplin was a supreme master of ending a Film in a highly memorable and emotionally satisfying way.

The melody plays, the camera rolls and our hearts are uplifted.

Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through
for you

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile what’s the use of crying
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you’ll just Smile

If you just Smile.

Jerry Lee Lewis, Richard Thompson &The Move (never forgetting Cowboy Jack Clement) : It’ll Be Me!

In the mid 1950s Rock ‘n’ Roll smashed apart the ice bound cultural climate of America and Britain.

A new generation born in the 1940s had epiphanies in the 50s listening to the icebreakers in chief : Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

In Minnesota, Bob Dylan.

In Liverpool, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

And, their ecstatic immersion into a new world was repeated in hamlets and villages and towns and cities all over the world.

Later, when those Baby Boomers became artists and legends in their own right they always carried within treasured memories of the sparks that had lit their own flames.

That’s why, time after time, when it comes to encores you’ll find the titans of the 60s and 70s returning to the original source to pay homage and rock out for all they are worth!

Now, if you want a mentor, an exemplar, for barn burning, earth shattering, Rock ‘n’ Roll you can’t possibly beat The Killer – Ferriday Louisiana’s very own Jerry Lee Lewis!

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If there was ever a man/myth you might chance upon a-peeping from a crawdad hole or grinnin’ down on you from the top of a telephone pole it would have to be Jerry Lee!

In February 1957 Jerry was in Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios for his second session as a recording artist with Cowboy Jack Clement at the desk.

Everyone with a pulse from Mercury to Pluto knows the second track they recorded that day, ‘Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On’ as it became one of the defining records of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era (which is of course still extant).

But, today The Jukebox is celebrating the B Side of that epochal 45, ‘It’ll Be Me’ a masterpiece in its own right and, as we shall see, an inspiration for decades to come.

Well, you can climb to the top of Everest or descend in a diving bell to the deepest darkest depths of the oceans but you still wouldn’t be able to find a truer Rock ‘n’ Roller than Jerry Lee.

I love the leer that’s always in his voice tempered by a sly wink to the audience :

Come on you’ve got to admit it you just can’t get enough of Jerry Lee can you’.

And, there’s always that slippin’ and a slidin’ perpetually pumpin’ Piano to keep your heart rate up and out a broad smile on your face.

‘It’ll Be Me’ was written by a popular music renaissance man – Cowboy Jack Clement.

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Among the roles Jack assumed were : songwriter, singer, producer, studio owner, talent spotter and world class raconteur!

Of course, as The Jukebox never tires of saying you only have to make one great record to be sure of immortality and with, ‘It’ll Be Me’ Jack most assuredly did that.

Janis Martin was a contemporary of Jerry Lee’s and a rip roaring rocker.

She took a long spell away from the music business yet when lured back by the estimable Rosie Flores for the album, ‘The Blanco Sessions’ in 1995 she showed that she could still set those sparks flying upward.

The Move were one of the least classifiable outfits in the firmament of British Beat Groups of the 1960s.

They were Rock ‘n’ Roll, they were Pop, they were Psychedelic, they were progressive and Retro all at the same time.

In Roy Wood they had a songwriter/performer who overflowed with talent turbo charging the efforts of Bev Bevan (Drums), Carl Wayne (Vocals & Guitar), Trevor Burton (Guitar & Vocals) and Ace Kefford (Bass & Vocals).

Live, they brewed up quite a storm.

Here they are giving, ‘It’ll Be Me’ a no holds barred, eyeballs out, performance for the good old BBC.

Now we turn to a regular on The Jukebox, Richard Thompson, here performing live with his then wife Linda.

Richard Thompson, in contrast to almost all the stellar guitarists of his time, was not a devotee of B. B King, Elmore James or Chuck Berry.

Rather he had a unique set of influences which included traditional Pipers and Fiddle Players alongside Guitarists like Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Les Paul.

Which is why he sounds only ever like himself.

And, he can play in almost any emotional register.

He can play with the still tenderness of a mother singing a lullaby to her sick child in the dead of night.

He can play with the ferocity of William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops as they slashed and burned their was from Atlanta to Savannah.

You want someone who can make the line :

‘If you see a rocket ship on its way to Mars’ come alive well look no further than Richard Thompson when he’s in the mood!

Better fasten your seat belt real tight! – you’ll be pulling some serious Gs!

Remember what I said about Encores?

Well, here’s a short, sharp and satisfying one from a Group, Lindisfarne, whom I often saw in their 70s heyday.

Lindisfarne, as their name suggests, were from England’s North East.

Their take on ‘It’ll Be Me’ suggests they may have been tuned in to Chuck Berry rather more closely than they were to Bede!

Pretty sure Bede never played the Harmonica like that!

Look who’s knocking on our door now!

None other than Tom Jones, happily never recovered from his first ecstatic exposure to Jerry Lee.

Sometimes you want music to be pure Fun and that’s exactly what Tom serves up here aided and ably abetted by Jools Holland.

What’s that line about funny faces and comic books?

Let’s conclude with Cowboy Jack himself bringing it all back home.

Well, if you see a new face on your totem pole or if you find a new lump in your sugar bowl, Baby, I have to tell you It’ll Be Me …….