Sunday, 28 July 2019

The Song That Wouldn't Die

Jack Benny’s writers loved running gags and milked them as long as they could.

One concept they came up with was Jack writing a wretched song that he thought was tremendous and trying to peddle and publicise it everywhere. The gag began in the radio days on September 30, 1951. It petered out later in the season but, on occasion, Benny would continue to joke about it.

Benny really did write the lyrics for it. His musical director, Mahlon Merrick, composed the music.

Something else Benny’s writers loved doing when television came along was to rework old radio scripts for the visual medium. And they decided to bring back Jack’s song.

United Press International covered the story. This column dates from December 26, 1963.
Jack Benny's 2-Bit Song To Be Reborn

HOLLYWOOD (UPI)—Professional skinflint Jack Benny is still trying to unload that two-bit song of his on a gullible public. Jack's tune, "When You Say I Beg Your Pardon, Then I'll Come Back to You," is the hallmark of bad musical composing. It's a vocal jawbreaker with lyrics which would need to be sung by a mouth twice the size of Martha Raye's.
Benny has owned this musical turkey for more than 15 years. It was born on his old radio show, died the miserable death it deserved, and was reborn several times on his television series.
The song has been killed consistently by people of taste. However, it refuses to die. And if it ever did. Jack would refuse to bury the melody.
Song Is Bomb, Jack Knows
Deep down inside, Benny knows his song is a bomb. But he intends to bring back "When You Say etc." again on CBS-TV Jan. 14. The comedian won't sing his song though, for the simple reason that he can't. Jack's lack of singing talent is rivaled only by George Burns, who set horticulture back 1,000 years with his rendition of "Red Rose Rag."
During a steak luncheon recently, Jack reviewed the history of his song since its unfortunate inception.
"It was purposely written lousy," said Jack, indicating that poor lyrics gave the song charm. "We always get a pretty funny show out of it."
To indicate how durable the song has been during the years, Benny recalled some formative musicians and others who tried to lend it some class. The list includes Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Welk, Danny Kaye, George Burns and Groucho Marx. All failed.
Now Benny has hired the folk-singing trio of Peter, Paul and Mary to sing it. When they find out how bad that song is, they'll wish they had used their last names.
Publishers Interested
During the years, Jack's song has gained enough notoriety to interest publishers. They have seriously asked Benny to allow them to publish it. He has refused.
"The publishers heard us plugging it all the time." Jack explained. "And those were the days when they were publishing lousy songs."
Jack said there is one hope for his song a language other than English.
"The Guadalajara trio sang it once in Spanish," he said. "In Spanish it sounds pretty good." He might have added: "To everybody but those who understand Spanish."
Jack’s not quite correct about the publishing, unless it was done after this article was written. Merrick was a member of BMI and the song was published by what I presume was a Merrick company, Palisades Music. My guess is it had to be published so it could be used on television.

This was, to the best of my knowledge, Benny’s song’s swan song. It first appeared on TV on the January 9, 1958 edition of Shower of Stars in which, just as in the radio days, Benny tries to convince several people to sing it, including Tommy Sands and an old vaudeville colleague, Ed Wynn (who does a dramatic recitation). The writers dredged it up again for a Benny show in 1961, where they do a switch on the radio gag about dishes breaking every time Jack talks about giving 50 cents to a bum. In this case, playing the song opens windows. In 1962, he forces Lawrence Welk’s orchestra to play it (Jack, on his violin, repeats the old off-key/give-me-an-A bit), but Welk ruins Benny’s plans by turning the song into a polka (with the wonderful Madge Blake dancing with Mr. Wunnerful).

As funny as the Welk show is, my favourite version is from the radio show. Honorable mention goes to the Danny Kaye/Groucho Marx/Frank Sinatra/Sugar Throat travesty where the song morphs into something that sounds like a combination of The Chords and the Ink Spots. But the most enjoyable one to me is when Jack dreams a symphony orchestra is playing it at Carnegie Hall. Mahlon Merrick both satirises overblown arrangements but treats it straight as well with some beautiful string work. Maybe Jack’s lyrics were “a bomb” but Merrick’s music shows he really had great composing and arranging skills.


  1. The end gag for the final use of it -- with Peter, Paul & Mary having to buy back the recording of the song from Jack to save their careers -- was a nice cap to the running bit (since it made it seem like Jack only wanted the song recorded in the first place so he could blackmail musicians for money).

  2. When the swallows from Sorano come back to Capistrano...

  3. Never stop laughing when I watch episodes on Benny's show featuring it (or even when I remember the lyrics). But missing here is reference to the show's first 'cover' of the song: 12/17/1961, "Jack Writes a Song,", where the intended victim was the great movie composer Dmitri Tiompkin

  4. I just uploaded this clip with Lawrence Welk's band: