Name that tune

By Chuck Sigars | Oct 31, 2012

I’m an old hand at not knowing the future. It’s always been there, and it’s usually a mystery, and particularly in this space.

As I write, it’s a little breezy outside, a reminder that the future can frighten. Hurricane Sandy is heading toward New Jersey along a predicted path, and you know more than I do. You know what happened, devastation or a near miss.

You may also know the results of the Nov. 6 elections, although in that case you’re either wandering through the web archives or you’ve dug up a slightly used edition of this newspaper. From where I write, it’s also an unknown.

What I do know something about is what has already happened, and lately I’ve learned more.

When Glenn Miller recorded “Sunrise Serenade” in 1939, he put “Moonlight Serenade” on the B side.

Unlike “E-ticket ride” and probably a lot of other expressions that are still used despite faded origins, none of which I can think of at the moment, “B side” is probably already a dim reference, doomed to extinction as something people say.

It was the second half of a double feature (there, another one), a filler, an afterthought, maybe.

It turned out to be a good one. “Moonlight Serenade” ended up becoming a huge hit and Glenn Miller’s signature song, a classic example of the big band sound, the clarinet leading the sax section.

It was the first song up on a local NPR station’s big band show last Saturday night, which I caught while driving home from the grocery store, entirely by accident. But sometimes you wonder about accidents. Particularly when they remind you of what’s already on your mind.

The small church my wife (associate) pastors is preparing to mark its 50th anniversary. Since I offered (or was coerced; most of the time it’s hard to tell) to help with the celebration, I’ve become sort of a casual expert on the world as it was half a century ago. This is mostly trivial expertise, although some of it is fun.

In 1962, the San Francisco Giants played in their first World Series since the big move west; they lost to the Yankees, although I think after this year they’re probably over it.

The big film of the year was “Lawrence of Arabia,” although one of my favorites, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the first film I remember seeing, was also released in 1962.

“The Jetsons” began in 1962, and while I don’t remember a specific date set for George and Jane, it could have been 2012, why not? Fifty years in the future; surely we’d all be flying around.

They did get two things right, though: People still have real dogs, not robot ones, and George’s treadmill is a pretty common household appliance. You’ve probably got laundry on top of yours.

And of course there were the missiles of October, the Soviet-American standoff over Cuba, which made the headlines half a century ago.

It was the music, though, that intrigued me. Can you name the No. 1 Billboard hit of 1962? I’ll wait.

There were a lot to choose from, and they’re fascinating as a snapshot of a transitional time. If you’d asked me a few weeks ago, I would have guessed that the big band era was long over, replaced by early rock ‘n’ roll.

By 1962, Elvis was already a household name, and four moptops in Liverpool were starting to get a lot of attention.

And some of this is borne out by looking at the top songs. “The Twist” premiered that year, along with “Johnny Angel,” two hits from the Four Seasons (“Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”), and, something you might have heard lately, “Monster Mash.” The times were changing.

It was the No. 1 hit of 1962 that caught my eye, though. Composed by English clarinetist Acker Bilk for his daughter, originally called “Jenny” after her, it became the theme song for a popular British soap opera in 1961.

It zoomed up the UK charts, then crossed the Atlantic. And in the age of Frankie Valli, and with The Beatles about to break, it feels like a last gasp, a coda to an era slipping away, an instrumental.

And one of my favorite songs. “Stranger On the Shore” might be familiar to you, too; it was featured in “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and in the Jim Carrey film “The Majestic,” a schmaltzy, ridiculous piece of movie fluff that I would watch right now, I swear.

“Stranger On the Shore” just feels recognizable, and I think it’s because it carries that Glenn Miller sound, the in-your-face clarinet, the lilt, the sentimentality.

So this was on my mind last Saturday, along with Sandy and the election. I was thinking 50 years in the past, thinking about music of the era, and then turned on the radio.

It was “Moonlight Serenade” but it could have been Mr. Bilk’s song, written for a little girl but also written for a time, long ago, half a century now, back when The Jetsons were born and everything seemed possible.

Back when what was new was also old, and now all these years later still feels that way.

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