32. ‘Stranger in Paradise’, by Tony Bennett

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Stranger in Paradise, by Tony Bennett (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 13th to 27th May 1955

I don’t know this song, or do I?

The opening melody sounds very familiar – familiar in a film score-ish, symphonic way. The sort of music you might here in a lift, or on a held call. Then the lyrics kick in and I’m not so sure I do know this song after all. But that melody… Are we listening to the first ever sample to top the charts? I didn’t think that was a thing until the late ’80s.

Take my hand, Tony croons. I’m a stranger in paradise… Lost in a wonderland… Starry eyed… The lyrics are all standard-issue mid-fifties. At first. Then things take an interesting turn. The singer is in love, unrequited, and can but stare from afar at his love. He is a mortal, and his love is an angel. He saw her face and ascended out of the common place, into the rare, somewhere in space… He hangs suspended, until he knows his love cares, and that she will answer his fervent prayer. It’s all quite cerebral. Probably the most complex song, lyrically, to have topped the charts so far.

It’s a well-constructed, immaculately sung, beautifully polished record. It’s no throwaway flash in the pan, yet to me it lacks something. Perhaps it just can’t step out from the shadow of the raunchy mambo that preceded it. File it under ‘Pleasant, But Dull’ – a record that I can understand others enjoying, but that I fail to really get myself. But boy, did others enjoy this record back in the spring of 1955! In the week that Mr. Bennett ‘ascended’ to the top, there were no fewer than five other versions of ‘Stranger in Paradise’ in the singles chart (by now a Top 20). The Four Aces, Bing Crosby, Tony Martin and Don Cornell all had a go. Eddie Calvert even parped a version out on his trumpet.

This is something that I fail to grasp about these early charts… While multiple hits by the same artist clogging up the charts (Sheeran! Bieber!) can be frustrating, it is ultimately an indicator of their popularity. But who needs six versions of the same bloody song? It’s not as if one version was ska, one version death metal – I’m confident that the Don Cornell version sounds pretty much like all the others. Anyway, Tony Bennett won the ‘Stranger in Paradise’ race, and it at least meant that a musical legend ticked a UK #1 off his bucket list. A still active legend too. He recently hit ninety, and released his most recent studio album in 2015. The year before that he released a duets album with Lady Gaga. And so, though we are wading through the mists of time (chart-history wise), we have a direct link here to the modern day. That’s quite cool.

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I was about to leave it there, but I still had a nagging feeling that there was more to this song than I had realised. I know that melody – doo doo doo dooby dooby doo – and the lyrics are a little bit too weird to exist only for the benefit of this one hit record. And so it emerges… ‘Stranger in Paradise’ is from the musical ‘Kismet’, which is in turn adapted from the music of 19th Century Russian composer Alexander Borodin. Hence the outré lyrics, hence the familiar melody…

I want to like this song: it’s music for grown-ups. But I also want to read all seven volumes of ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ and learn Italian. Some things just aren’t going to happen.