East of the Sun

September 30, 2011 § Leave a comment


Cover of Hi-Fi Sampler record from Masterseal, 1951

"Hi-Fi Sampler" (Masterseal Records, 1951)

I was drawn to this cover because of the image of the family listening to a record on that great pull-out turntable. I think one could say that that sort of scenario is a little less common in today’s digital music world – one in which the computers on which a lot of music is now played  can tend be located in more out-of-the-way rooms than, say, the living room, where things were often more easily overheard or shared by others in the house…or where, of course, people are just listening on headphones connected to an ipod or what have you. Although this particular  depiction is certainly from before my time, it reminds me in general of the stereo situation in my house growing up during the 1970s. And I guess in the end I just like record covers that include records on them.

But what I wanted to talk about in connection with this sleeve is one of the songs included on the album, “East of the Sun.” Composed in 1934 by Brooks Bowman, a Princeton University student at the time, it was written for a show put on by his all-male acting/musical comedy troupe The Triangle Club. (The club still exists, and describes itself as “the oldest touring collegiate original musical comedy organization in the nation.”) The tune quickly caught on, and has become an enduring standard. Imagine writing a song that would go on to be performed or recorded by this list: Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Frank Sinatra, Louie Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Bob Crosby, George Shearing (see my post on him here), Keely Smith (with Billy May), Guy Mitchell, and, more recently, Joshua Redman and Diana Krall, among many others.

The unfortunate thing is that Bowman would live to see virtually none of that, as he died tragically in a car accident at the age of 23. He had graduated from Princeton the year before, then moved to Hollywood for a brief period to write songs for Warner Bros and then Selznick International Pictures. There he met Cole Porter and was assigned to write songs for a Carole Lombard film, “Nothing Sacred.” Returning to the East Coast to publish some songs and embark on a new songwriting partnership, he attended the Army-Navy football game in New Haven, Connecticut on October 17, 1937. After the game, the car in which Bowman was riding (along with its driver, an old college roommate, and their dates) blew a tire and swerved into a stone wall. Brooks was in the back, and was the only one even really hurt. The driver, Richard Pettit, emerged unscathed, and the two women suffered only minor cuts and bruises.  The songwriter’s heart was ruptured, however, and he died while being transported to a hospital by a passing motorist.

It’s hard not to be struck by that image – the songwriter of one of the classic, romantic odes to love taken by a freak accident in which his heart is ruptured. What – alongside the utter shock – must the surviving friends have felt afterward, not to mention, of course, his family. His mother (to whom he was quite close; the Princeton University Library has Bowman’s papers, and says that “they wrote each other almost daily and in great detail”) was an accomplished pianist from Salem, Ohio (and in fact had had a hand in scoring the song), and on top of everything else involved in losing a son she must have been – I of course don’t know this, but can only imagine – immensely sad that his promising musical career had been so cruelly and prematurely ended. And of course that leads to the fact that in the end it was also just a great loss to the future of popular music, for everyone.

From a website on jazz standards: “It’s likely Brooks Bowman came up with the title from a Norwegian fairy tale where a prince and his step-mother live ‘east of the sun and west of the moon.’ The tune’s lyrics have a fairy tale quality, beginning with the seldom-performed verse: ‘I wish that we could live up in the sky, to live among the stars, the moon, just you and I.’ In the chorus the couple will ‘live in a lovely way, on love and pale moonlight.’ The tune is a romantic ballad that continues to find favor with vocalists and instrumentalists alike.”

Bowman was buried in the family plot in Salem. Princeton’s Triangle Club still receives royalties from “East of the Sun.”

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