Hooray! My first pre-rock ‘n’ roll era entry of my Every Number-One Single challenge! Of course, the Hot 100 would not come into existence for a whole decade, which tests the entire definition of what could truly be called a number-one single. Nonetheless, as I stated in the challenge’s rubric, extending this to include pre-Hot 100 number-ones gives me a good chance to become acquainted with what is certainly a major blind spot of mine: popular recorded music from before 1957.
“Oh! What It Seemed to Be” was partially written by songwriter Bennie Benjamin, who had previously found success in writing “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire”, which itself became a hit single for vocal group The Ink Spots. He later partnered with composer George Weiss, which began a successful collaboration that would span throughout the 40s and 50s. Along the way, they met bandleader Frankie Carle and the three of them composed “Oh! What It Seemed to Be” to near immediate success. It took the number-one spot with recordings by Carle and his orchestra, as well as Frank Sinatra; both of these recordings resulted in the song becoming one of the most massive hits of 1946.
Of these two renditions, Frankie Carle’s is arguably the most popular, at least in this day and age. Much of this could probably be owed to the sumptuous lead vocals by Carle’s daughter Marjorie Hughes, who was only twenty at the time of this recording! Sinatra is always a delight to listen to – especially his earlier melancholy works – but the fullness and clarity of Hughes vocal performance here really is the magic ingredient that brings this record up to its highest potential. The big band instrumentals also call to mind the nighttime romanticism that surely defined the lives of young people in love during wartime in America (something I’ve also often felt in Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”).
Lyrically, this song follows along the simpler traditions of romantic songs and poetry of yore. The theme of this particular song highlights how simple everyday occurrences suddenly become something much more extravagant when a lover or acquaintance is involved. One of my favorite set of lines comes in the second verse: “It was just a ride on a train… / But, oh, what it seemed to be / It was like a trip to the stars to Venus and Mars / ‘Cause you were on the train with me”. It’s this old timey sensibility that has been reiterated again and again, hundreds of times before this song and countless times since. Yet its the honest simplicity of this track that really elevates this to something a little more special.
I guess that’s what I enjoy so much about jazz and big band songs that predate the rock ‘n’ roll era. I listen to so much pop music that it often becomes both monotonous and monolithic, most of it propelled and motivated by the same capitalist structures that churn out repetitive music to make an extra buck. It’s true that this earlier stuff isn’t exactly exempt either – but it’s always so nice to hear live instruments and clear, innocent vocal deliveries for a change. I think that what I’m getting at is that “Oh! What It Seemed to Be” doesn’t feel like any other song of its kind I haven’t already heard before, but its landlocked qualities it attributes to its specific time and place make it beautiful nonetheless.
As is probably apparent, I’m still struggling to talk about records that don’t contain electric guitars or synthesizers. I’m hoping this gets a lot easier with time!