168: Neal Hefti, ‘Girl Talk’

Posted by on Mar 15, 2013 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists |

Girl Talk – Neal Hefti
Girl Talk – Tony Bennett
Girl Talk – Holly Cole 

Girl Talk, circa 1864

I’m rankled.

There’s a scene in “Lincoln” in which a black Union private quotes the Gettysburg Address by heart in a mellifluous baritone. Apparently, in Spielberg’s imagination, this gentleman was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and learned about the Address via the internet three weeks after it was delivered.

I found “Django Unchained” almost as offensive (at least Tarantino’s games with history aren’t shrouded in counterfeit verisimilitude). “Oh, I think things should have been different, let’s change them.” Go to your room, Steven.

Let me say up front, I am against slavery. I hereby declare that I have never owned a slave nor have I ever knowingly associated with a slave owner. But I think raping yesterday’s events to validate today’s biases is intellectually hypocritical and aesthetically offensive.

Girl Talk

Hang on, folks: Things Change!
First A happens, and then after that B.
B is to some degree a result of A.
A is in no way a result of B.
Was that too fast for you, Quentin?

Yet I come not to bash Civil War recreationists, but to praise music.

Same thing with misogyny. I was raised by a feminist. I firmly believe that women are a superior breed to men, Homo sapiens rev. 2.0 (well, today it might be rev. 2.1). I believe that women are smarter than men in almost every conceivable way, more caring, more sensitive, more capable, more resourceful, more realistic. I have never beaten my wife (other than at Scrabble), my children, or my dog. For many years, I haven’t even beaten a rug.

Girl Talk

But yet, I am a member of the male persuasion, and as such adhere to many of the traditional prejudices and biases of my ilk. Such as:

  • Women enjoy shopping more than men (I recently learned the medical term for its salubrious curative affects: “Retail Therapy”)
  • Women can be crueler to women than men can be to men or women or beasts of burden (see Genesis 21)
  • Women ‘communicate’ more than men (i.e., talk when you’re trying to read the newspaper). See my man James Thurber, “Is Sex Necessary?”

Get to the music, Jeff.

Jean Harlow. Girl (don’t need to) Talk.

In 1965, Joe Levine produced the cinematic misterpiece “Harlow” for Paramount Pictures, a biopic of the prototypical ‘Blonde Bombshell”, the 1930s sex symbol Jean Harlow, starring Carroll Baker. ([Crying after a bad day at the studio:] “Oh, Mom, all they want is my body!”) For the theme song, he hired one of the best composer/arrangers around, Neal Hefti (1922-2008).

Hefti had in his CV decades of fine work in jazz, including Woody Herman’s First Herd, the first WWII swing band to begin to move to ‘The New Thing’ – bebop jazz (‘Wildroot’ and ‘The Good Earth’). Hefti married Herman’s singer Frances Wayne and then in 1950 began a 12-year collaboration with Count Basie.

One of the most memorable results is the album “Atomic Basie”, with joyous cuts such as ‘Flight of the Foo Birds’, ‘The Kid from Red Bank’ and ‘Whirlybird’. Miles Davis: “If it weren’t for Neal Hefti, the Basie band wouldn’t sound as good as it does. But Neal’s band can’t play those same arrangements nearly as well.”

Girl Talk

Tangent: Twenty-five years later these cuts also inspired The Real Group, a Swedish vocal quintet, which in 1987 began recording a cappella versions of Basie/Hefti collaborations and thereby created the foundation of Contemporary AC, a genre I love dearly. Here’s The Real Group in a wonderful medley from 2004, and here’s the Danish group Touché with another from 2011. I’ve written about this music in the past, and plan to continue in the near future.

Julie London. Girl, just don’t Talk.

In the 1960s, Hefti moved to California to compose and arrange for films, TV and stars (including “Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass”), winning lots of Grammies along the way. Some of his biggest hits included the themes for ‘Batman’, ‘The Odd Couple’, and our sometimes maligned Song of The Week, ‘Girl Talk’, the theme from the movie “Harlow”. In the movie, the theme was instrumental. Call Bobby Troup.

You might know Bobby for his compositions ‘Route 66’ (originally a hit for Nat ‘King’ Cole, but covered by everyone from The Rolling Stones to The Cramps) or ‘The Meaning of the Blues’ from the great Miles Davis/Gil Evans album “Miles Ahead”. But I remember him most for his second wife, the pin-up jazz singer Julie London. Troup wrote lyrics for ‘Girl Talk’, and made the first recording of the vocal version in 1965 in this video directed by no less than Robert Altman! Bobby’s not much of a singer (or actor), and the video is indeed pretty cheesy and objectionable. Hey, blame Altman.

Girl Talk about shopping

Bobby then gave it to Julie with lyrics altered to suit her gender, but it’s really a guy’s song. It’s a ‘can’t live with ‘em can’t live without ‘em’ anthem. That doesn’t fly today, I know, at least not in public. I talked all about this concept in SoTW 150 in its Biblical context and what my granddaddy had to say to me about it. I know what Guys Talk about when their spouses (spice?) ain’t listening.

If you want a definitive version of ‘Girl Talk’, I guess it would be Tony Bennett’s from 1966, backed by Neil Hefti’s band. (Here’s the same arrangement nicely done live.) ‘Girl Talk’ has been recorded a million times since then, mostly by female jazz singers. Here are recent versions by Kate McGarry and by Cheryl Bentyne, both fine versions by fine singers. My favorite is this great treatment by Holly Cole. During the course of this video, she says the song is sexist and that she performs it as a parody.

James Thurber. Girl Talk, man listen.

‘Girl Talk’ is sexist? Demeaning? Misogynist? You turn on a gangsta rap radio station today, you hear ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ by Prodigy, ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit’ by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, and ‘99 Problems (but a bitch ain’t one)’ by Jay-Z. I guess ‘Run For Your Life’ by The Beatles is too tame for the playlist at WHIP.

I think those songs aren’t just offensive. I think they have no redeeming social value.

But when Holly Cole calls ‘Girl Talk’ sexist, I think she’s being disingenuous. I think she’s very feminine, and she’s playing up her femininity as female jazz singers so often do. As Julie London did, as Jean Harlow did, as women always have and always will. Yeah, social standards have changed and I do firmly believe that women should get the same pay as men for the same job. But plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, folks. And I personally wouldn’t have it any other way.

They like to chat about the dresses they will wear tonight
They chew the fat about their tresses and the neighbours’ fight
Inconsequential things that men don’t really care to know
Become essential things that women find so a propos

But that’s a dame, they’re all the same, it’s just a game,
They call it Girl Talk.
They all meow about the ups and downs of all their friends,
The who, the how, the why, they dish the dirt, it never ends.
The weaker sex, the speaker sex, we mortal males behold
But though we joke, we wouldn’t trade you for a ton of gold.

So baby stay and gab away but hear me say
That after girl talk – talk to me.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

150: Matti Caspi, ‘Not Good, A Man Being Alone’
045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’
020: Esperanza Spalding, ‘I Know You Know’

4 Comments

ze'ev
Mar 17, 2013 at 7:23 pm

I understand her to say that the song always was a parody, i.e., only if it’s understood incorrectly would it be sexist. I’m not sure she’s right, but we are supposed to judge everyone ‘בכף זכות’ (for the non-Hebrew speakers, that would be, loosely, the benefit of the doubt).


 
james goodman
Mar 21, 2013 at 12:23 am

L’il Darlin — lovely tune. Cut my musical teeth on it. Don’t rush it. Remember the Basie version, just love it. One of my favorite tunes.


 
Mike
Mar 30, 2013 at 7:39 pm

The music is so good, it makes the lyrics inconsequential. But if one must comment on the words in question, one can clearly state that only a Bull-Dyke totally detached from reality might find them offensive.


 
Astrid
Apr 3, 2013 at 2:41 pm

I resemble that remark, Mike. And it appears, you do too. What’s NOT sexist about this thought:

Inconsequential things that men don’t really care to know
Become essential things that women find so a propos
But that’s a dame, they’re all the same, it’s just a game,
They call it Girl Talk.
They all meow about the ups and downs of all their friends,
The who, the how, the why, they dish the dirt, it never ends.

You, Professor Meshel, are dating yourself with this post. Is the music that good, as Mike suggests, to disconnect the lyric from the melody? Neil Hefty may have been better served by other treasures from his repertoire.

Just my two cents.

Now it’s back to bull-dyke reality detachment exercises for me!


 

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