A Few Answers About 'Answer Me'

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Answer me this:

What 60 year-old song co-written by a German and an American reached No. 1 on the UK singles charts by two different singers at the same time; was penned by an atheist but banned by the BBC for its "religious" content; was secularized by said atheist via a change of three syllables; subsequently became a U.S. chart smash; has been covered by hundreds of pop, doo wop, rock, country, r&b, folk, jazz, gospel and classical artists; and bears a fascinating (though not remotely plagiaristic!) resemblance to a 48 year-old number that happens to be the most popular pop song of all time?

The answer: "Answer Me."

In 1953, my dad, Carl Sigman, was asked to write a lyric to German composer Gerhard Winkler's haunting tune "Mutterlein." Though Carl had nothing but contempt for organized religion, he felt that the melody's simple opening motif demanded the words, "Answer Me, Lord Above." After that, he said, the lyric pretty much wrote itself.

Soon after its UK release, "Answer Me" overcame a BBC ban -- they reportedly said it was "a sentimental mockery of Christian prayer" -- to become, during the week of December 8-14, the only song in British chart history to reach No. 1 by two different artists simultaneously. The operatic grandeur of David Whitfield's interpretation eventually was bested by Frankie ("Mule Train") Laine's reverent rendition. (Frankie, who died in 2007, would have been 100 this year.)

On these shores, Carl, for whom adjusting a single word was a sacrilege, got a call from his publisher suggesting that American singers would be more likely to record "Answer Me" sans religious overtones. After a bit of fuming, Carl calmed down, took to the piano and played the tune a few hundred times until he "heard" "Oh My Love" in place of "Lord Above."

In this case the change made for a better lyric, because now the singer -- whose lover has mysteriously abandoned him -- could appeal to her directly to "answer me" regarding "just what sin have I been guilty of." The peerless Nat King Cole recorded "Answer Me, My Love" with lush production by Nelson Riddle, the track soared to No. 6 on U.S. charts and a standard was born.

Since then, "Answer Me, My Love" has been covered by hundreds of artists, including Bing Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Gene Pitney, Renee Fleming, Bryan Ferry, Harry Connick, Jr., Barbara Dickson, Roy Hamilton, Marty Robbins, the Harptones, the Tokens, the Happenings, Petula Clark, Betty Buckley, Eddie Arnold, Wilburn Brothers, the Christien Brothers, the Impressions, Johnny Rivers, Gene Ammons and Keith Jarrett. Both Laine and Whitfield also recorded the secular version. Bob Dylan is among those who have performed but not recorded it.

Writing about music is tricky business but it's not, as some have said, as absurd as dancing about architecture. (Come to think of it, what's so crazy about a ballet based on the Parthenon or a modern dance fashioned after the Parrish Art Museum?)

For me, "Answer Me" is a very good song that achieves greatness after the opening verses when, upon the strange change from major to minor, the distraught protagonist sings, "If you're happier without me, I'll try not to care." How, exactly, does one try not to care? Eight bars later, the return to major on the word "prayer" -- a stunning musical moment -- captures something even harsher than the despair of lost love: the likelihood that there is no answer, just the unbearable awareness that he may never know what he's done to ruin everything.

While "Answer Me" was driving a double-decker to the top of the UK charts 60 years ago, Paul McCartney was an 11 year old Liverpudlian with a special ear for pop music. It's hard to imagine that he didn't hear the song repeatedly enough for it to take up residence somewhere in his subconscious.

Sir Paul has famously said that circa 1965, he dreamed a tune he called "Scrambled Eggs," and, after checking with friends to make sure he wasn't filching, wrote "Yesterday," a near-perfect pairing of words and music.

Musicologists have limned the formal musical and lyrical similarities between "Answer Me" and "Yesterday." You can read about them here. But in a world where the majority of pop songs have identical or nearly identical chord structures, who cares about formal similarities? Sit quietly with no distractions and listen to the two songs in succession three or four times and the connection becomes clear. (Connection, I repeat, not pilferage.)

Carl was the first to cry "that's a steal" when he believed that any song, not just one of his, was appropriated without due credit. But all he said about "Yesterday" was that it was a masterpiece, that it was the song that convinced him The Beatles were making "real music."

Despite being one of his biggest hits, "Answer Me" was not among Carl's favorites. He preferred, for instance, this and this, which, in the parlance of his day, "Never made any noise."

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