Don't know who I have to thank for this shaggy dog story. Possibly Frank Muir – I seem to remember his slight lisp - on BBC's Radio Four. Whoever was first with the tale it's definitely one for big band enthusiasts.
Those big band fans will know that songwriters Mack Gordon and Hal Warren often worked together. What those fans might not know is that in November 1941 Glen Miller had a prestigious gig coming up in New York's Grand Central Station. He asked the songwriting duo Mack Gordon and Hal Warren to come up with a new tune. Glen said that he wanted it to be 'startlingly new.'
“As far out of left field as can be,” Glen told them. “And I need it in three days.” And he left the pair to it in their Sun Valley hotel. Glen was paying.
So far as record sales went the European war had thus far been kind to Glen. Mack and Hal consequently had a suite that took up a whole floor, paid for in advance, unlimited room service, reams of blank score sheets, plus a baby grand.
Soon as the suite door had closed behind Glen, Hal and Mack tried to settle to composing. They tinkered for a bit, but nothing felt worth developing. Hal decided he'd benefit from a change of air. Mack had had a heavy session the night before, laid himself on one of the chaise-longues for a snooze.
He was woken by Hal excitedly showing him a brand new pair of brown and white spats.
“Not much of a town,” Hal told Mack, “but one helluva shoe shop. Old-fashioned, and quality leather. Top quality.”
Hal had sat on the chaise-longue opposite to try on the spats.
“New shoes.” He went dancing and sliding across the hotel carpet. “Leather stitched soles.” He lifted his left foot to show Mack, who smiling took himself over to the baby grand, converted 'leather soles' to four chords, tried two for 'new shoes.'
“Again,” Hal said, leaning in beside Mack. He added two more chords.
“OK,” Mack took up a sharpened pencil, scribbled on a blank score sheet.
For the next couple of hours the pair built up a tune, put in repeats, until Mack called a halt.
“Let it settle,” he said. Both knew from long practice that the musical subconscious (recently discovered by an Austrian cove) often emerged with a subtle development. “I'm going to order us up a celebratory feast.” Mack reached for the hotel phone: “ Glen's paying. What you fancy?”
Hal held up his hand, said that he'd like to get out from four walls again, would try the diner he'd passed on his walk.
“Never seen a town with so many cats,” Hal said as he retied his laces. “Cats on windowsills. Cats in doorways. Everywhere I looked a cat.”
“Won't see many now.” Mack pointed out the window at the rain. “You sure about the diner?”
Hal however was uncomfortable with foreign-sounding hotel food. He preferred run-of-the-mill cafeterias where he knew from the pictures he'd get what he asked for.
Mack was still cheerfully lifting covers and sampling dishes when Hal, drenched, got back.
“Look at my new shoes.” Hal held out his right foot to show Mack. The front of both spats were covered in greasy grey mud.
“Ran back across the green,” Hal said. “Was squelchy all the way.”
Mack, his mouth full, told Hal to put the spats outside the suite door: “Boot boy'll clean 'em.”
Hal changed into dry trousers and jacket, and – letting their different dinners settle – they ordered up coffee and listened to the news from Europe.
When the chambermaid came to turn down the bedsheets she seemed a little afraid of the two men who had gone back to working at the piano.
“Anything the matter?” Mack asked her.
“Your shoes,” the maid said. “I had to chase a cat away from them. They get in sometimes. Can't blame them. They're so hungry, and its so wet out.”
Hal had gone to the door, came back with a ripped and torn apart spat.
“Looks like,” he examined the torn upper, “a tooth must have got stuck in one of the perforations and the cat had to claw its self free. Shame though,” he tried to be philosophical – the chambermaid was actually trembling and he didn't want to add to her worries - “was the last pair my size in the shop. Still, easy come easy go.” He ceremonially dropped both spats in among crumpled score sheets in the wastebasket.
With the apologetic chambermaid gone Mack and Hal returned to the tune, tweaked a chord here, added a pause there. Glen would have to complete the arrangement for his band.
“All we need now,” Mack decided before they took themselves to bed, “are lyrics and a title.”
“Let us consult the Austrian,” Hal yawned.
The rain had stopped by the morning, and Mack accompanied Hal to the diner for what he called a 'Good 'ol American breakfast.' Neither had known what to order from the hotel menu.
With the early sun glinting on last night's raindrops Mack also kept noticing the cats that Hal had mentioned; and he got to saying at sight of every new cat – in a porch, on a windowsill - “Hey Hal, think that's the cat who clawed your new shoes?” Mack even kept it up when they left the diner. Until Hal excitedly grabbed his arm: “That's it Mack! That's our title.” And he sang it, “Pardon me Hal, is that the cat who chewed your new shoes? Left field or what?”
The duo hurried back to their hotel suite, where they scribbled cat and shoe lyrics over the score. Took them a giddy hour.
They phoned Glen to sing and whistle it to him.
“Love the tune,” Glen said. “But the gig's on the station concourse. A train theme'd be better.”
© Sam Smith 1st January 2021