Obituary: Jay Livingston

By Leigh, Spencer | The Independent (London, England), October 19, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Jay Livingston


Leigh, Spencer, The Independent (London, England)


THE SONGWRITING partnership of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans endured from 1945 until Livingston's death and included some of the biggest record and film hits of all time. Their three Oscar-winning songs were "Buttons and Bows", "Mona Lisa" and "Que Sera, Sera".

Livingston was born in Philadelphia in 1915. He played the piano and formed a dance band while he was at the University of Pennsylvania studying journalism. He invited another student, seven weeks older, Ray Evans, to join and after graduation they provided entertainment for cruise ships. The pair realised they had a talent for writing songs, Livingston usually supplying the music, Evans the lyrics, and they settled in New York. To make ends meet, Evans worked in accountancy, while Livingston took a job as a pianist for NBC Radio. He was once asked to fill in the silence when the boxer Joe Louis knocked out an opponent in the first round.

Their first song to have any success was "G'bye Now" for the Broadway revue Hellzapoppin' in 1941 and their first commission was to write songs for a film that was as bad as its title, Why Girls Leave Home (1945). The film was panned, but one song, "The Cat and the Canary", was nominated for an Oscar. It was a bumper year with 14 songs being nominated, and, although "The Cat and the Canary" lost to "It Might as Well Be Spring", it was performed at the awards ceremony by Frank Sinatra and the composers were invited to be house songwriters for Paramount Pictures.

They had a major success with "To Each His Own" (1946), the title song from a film starring Olivia de Havilland and recorded by the Ink Spots. In 1947 they wrote the lyrics for the title song of Golden Earrings, starring Marlene Dietrich as a gypsy. The following year Bob Hope and Jane Russell appeared in a spoof western, The Paleface, which was the Blazing Saddles of its day. Livingston and Evans had written a number for the Indians, "Snookum", but the director said they were meant to be dangerous and he was not giving them a comedy song. They took the melody and rewrote it for Hope as "Buttons and Bows". Hope sang it in the film and then Russell at the awards ceremony, where it won an Oscar. They revived the song in the sequel Son of Paleface (1952) - "My bones denounce the buckboard bounce / And the cactus hurts my toes."

In 1950 Livingston and Evans were asked to write for an espionage film set in Italy, Captain Carey, USA, starring Alan Ladd and Russ Tamblyn. The song, which needed an Italian lyric, was used to herald danger and was not heard in English during the film. Evans wrote an English lyric, "Mona Lisa", and passed it to Nat "King" Cole, who thought the title was too highbrow. He sang it but it was only released as a B-side. Disc-jockeys picked up on it and it too won an Oscar. In 1959 both Carl Mann and Conway Twitty recorded rock'n'roll versions of the tune and in 1986 it was the title song for a British gangland film starring Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson.

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