Brooklyn Boro

Recent Brooklyn history influenced pop music and created new icons

March 23, 2017 By John B. Manbeck Special to Brooklyn Eagle
Image courtesy of John Manbeck
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Back in 1945, the Brooklyn Eagle published a column about a new song called “Give Me the Moon Over Brooklyn” recorded by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. At the time, songs about Brooklyn were scarce, although some achieved fame over the years. Now that Brooklyn has become a cachet, an opera of them could be written instead of just a single aria. Many of the songs, styles and artists are unrecognizable to me but that’s just a matter of senility as well as taste. An online list of New York City titles rambles on for days but I’ve selected a few of the more memorable titles and artists.

The most popular titles begin with the name of the borough such as “Brooklyn,” one by Wizz and another by Steely Dan; then “Brooklyn Roads” by Neil Diamond; “Brooklyn Blues” by Barry Manilow; and “Brooklyn Boogie” by Louis Prima. The icon of the Brooklyn Bridge was serenaded by Frank Sinatra (in the film “It Happened in Brooklyn”) and by both Burl Ives and Buck Owens. (The latter is about love lost and jumping off the bridge). Art Garfunkel sang about what goes on “Just Over the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Instrumentals have surfaced about Brooklyn. Herb Alpert played “Coney Island”; Harry James introduced “Flatbush Flanagan”; and Sammy Kaye admired “The Rich People of Brooklyn” (as opposed to “The Poor People of Paris”) although none were natives. On the other hand, for jazz inspirations, Sonny Rollins would play “The Bridge” on the Williamsburg Bridge.

Contemporary artists have different takes on Brooklyn and its diverse neighborhoods. Queen Latifah released “Brownsville” while the rapper, Notorious B.I.G. asked “Where Brooklyn At.” The Beastie Boys have their hits, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and “Hello Brooklyn.”

Probably the most popular and famous neighborhood is Coney Island: Lou Reed sang about his “Coney Island Baby” in 1975 while Tom Waits had his own interpretation. Joan Jett discovered “Coney Island Whitefish” whereas the Mills Brothers sang about their “Coney Island Washboard.” The famous songwriting team of Rodgers and Hart wrote their “Coney Island” for Al Jolson to record. Mysterious doings occurred “Under the Boardwalk.” And the farewell, popular among barbershop quartets, “Goodbye My Coney Island Baby,” came out in 1948. In Brighton Beach, a song writer sat on a balcony overlooking the ocean and wrote “By the Beautiful Sea.”

John Phillip Sousa played regularly at the Manhattan Beach Hotel so he dedicated his “Manhattan Beach March” to the resort. But he also wrote songs as well as marches. In 1907 he introduced a parlor song, “I’ve Made My Plans for the Summer” about a girl who would rather go to Luna Park than date a young man.

The Brooklyn Dodgers inspired music. Ralph Branca, their pitcher who just died, recorded “Brooklyn Dodgers Jump” with two of his teammates. Harry James recorded “Dodgers Fan Dance” with his band. Dion sang “I Used to Be a Brooklyn Dodger.” In the 1951 film comedy “Rhubarb” about a cat who inherits a Brooklyn baseball team called The Loons, the players sing “It’s a Privilege to Live in Brooklyn.” And Phil Foster pleaded (unsuccessfully) “Let’s Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.”

Another joke was the Weird Al Jankovic take on “Flatbush Avenue.” But even stranger was the 1936 hit “In a Little Jernt in Greenpernt (By Gowanus Canal).” Once you get past the Brooklyn accent, think about the geography. Good rhyme, but Gowanus is nowhere near Greenpoint. Two more: In 1944, a singer asked “Why Don’t Someone Write a Song About Brooklyn?”; the next year the question was “Why Do They Always Pick on Brooklyn?” Bandleader Xavier Cugat added Latin tempo to “She’s a Bombshell from Brooklyn” sung by Abbe Lane, his bombshell singer.

Brooklyn had more class in the past when “I Love the Heights of Brooklyn” was written in 1850. By the 1880s, bicycling was the rage in Brooklyn, leading to the “New York and Coney Island Cycle March” along Ocean Parkway. George M. Cohan who wrote “Over There” also wrote “Born and Bred in Brooklyn” for a Broadway musical “Little Nellie Kelly” in 1923.

Years ago, my wife and I sailed to Alaska. At night, a staff pianist, Phil Westbrook who had an extensive knowledge of popular music, sang requests in the lounge. One night I asked for “Christmas in Brooklyn.” He thought for a minute, then admitted he didn’t know the song. “That’s because you haven’t written it yet,” I replied.

Next month I received a cassette with the new song on it.  

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