Singing along in the Big Apple;Jotter

13th August 1999 at 01:00
IN MY fourth year at school, I got into a fight over who was the better singer, Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley. I won the argument but lost the fight (she was bigger than me). When it came to female singers, however, it was no contest - Ella reigned supreme, need I give her a second name?

Though I once sported a pair of Elvis sideburns, when it came to buying records I spent my pocket money on Frank, Ella and jazz.

One of my favourite recordings was of Ella singing the Cole Porter standard "Every Time We Say Goodbye", with "Manhattan" on the flip side. If anything, this early Rogers and Hart classic had a greater effect on me. So much did I identify with the song that it came as shock to hear her muff her lines on a video I was given recently. It was a bit like the Pope forgetting the words of Our Father.

How was I to know all those years ago, when my pocket money didn't stretch to buying LPs, that the song was only one of 34 Rogers and Hart classics that Ella had included on two of her Songbook albums?

I made sure that I knew all the words before I used this musical gem as a guide to New York recently: "We'll have Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too, it's lovely going through the zoo."

The famous Staten Island ferry is extensively used, and, amazingly for a city where little goes for nothing, is free. I was reminded of a journey I made from Kilchoan in Ardnamurchan to Tobermory, standing on a low deck with sea water swirling abut our feet, only this time it was the Statute of Liberty we were looking for in the mist, not the Mishnish hotel.

Staten Island was a bit like Greenock, and the comparison was compounded when we went into a bar that would not have looked out of place in Clydeside during the formica-and-glass boom of the sixties. With typical American transparency, some of the buildings displayed prominent "Fall-Out Shelter" notices, something Greenock should have being so close to the nuclear submarine base at Faslane.

I made it to the Bronx, not to the zoo, but to the Yankee Stadium, to see the Yankees defeat the Detroit Tigers in their first home game of the season. My fondest memory is the 40,000 crowd lustily singing that baseball classic, "Take Me Out To the Ball Game". Kicking over my carton of beer when I stood up to hear Motown legend Smokey Robinson sing the national anthem was also memorable, though for the wrong reasons.

"It's very fancy, on old Delancey Street, you know . . ."

The dual carriageway that is Delancey might have been fancy in the twenties when Lorenz Hart penned his lyric, but as a good Jewish boy he would also have been aware of its proximity to the social cauldron that was the Lower East Side, the first port of call for millions of European Jews and Italian immigrants. A visit to the tenement museum on Orchard Street is an effective antidote for anyone tempted to over-romanticise early 20th century New York.

"We'll go to Coney and eat baloney on a roll . . ."

I might have had some baloney if I had seen some on our trip to Coney Island, but I don't think I would have enjoyed it. The beach and amusement park, formerly the summer mecca for millions of New Yorkers, should be visited, but no more than once - it is tackiness personified.

They haven't even bothered to remove the original roller-coaster, which looms like the rusting skeleton of a long-abandoned liner. I don't know which I found more intriguing, the Russian names on the shopfronts, or the "Exhibits" advertised on the sideshows: "Fiji Mermaid", "Albino Python", "Real Human Shrunken Head".

The highlight was counting the planes making their approach to JFK airport, appearing through the low cloud after "stacking up". I counted 15 in as many minutes.

"Through Central Park we'll stroll, where our first kiss we stole, soul to soul . . ."

Central Park is special. It has something to do with the juxtaposition of the greenery and the grandeur of the surrounding skyscrapers. Not only did I stroll, I also ran, learnt more about baseball from a retired doctor who started his career in Forfar, bought coloured balloons and stole a kiss. But I must end with the best vernacular rhyme in popular music, written by the century's best lyricist:

"The city's clamour can never spoil

the dreams of a boy and goil.

We'll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy."

Beat that Elvis, wherever you are.

John Cairney

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