Awesome – another one of these pre-rock ‘n’ roll era hits. I’ve heard of Jimmy Dorsey in passing every now and then, but I can’t say I’m very familiar with many (or any?) of his recordings. Additionally, I’ve never even heard of Bob Eberly, who performs the vocal melody, so all of this is just really exciting for me.
But first, as always, a little background on the song itself. Although this record is dated 1941, the original Spanish lyrics to “Maria Elena” date back further to when it was written by Mexican musician Lorenzo Barcelata. Though he had been performing for quite some time prior, by 1932 Barcelata was most well known for being a composer for films of his country. Inspired by the First Lady of Mexico, he wrote “Maria Elena” for the 1932 film of the same name, and it would eventually become his most well-known work. The beauty of this initial record eventually crossed the border, and musician Lawrence Welk introduced an English-language version of the tune in 1939. My personal introduction to the song came with the hit instrumental version from 1962 by Los Indios Tabajaras, which went to #6 on the Hot 100 in that same year and is probably the second most commercially successful.
The first, of course, would be the version covered in this review, which topped Billboard’s Best Sellers chart for two non-consecutive weeks. Jimmy Dorsey was a big band leader whose recordings performed by his orchestra were on top of the world by 1941. In actuality, pretty much every recording he and Bob Eberly made together (along with Helen O’Connell, who frequently performed duets with Eberly) between 1939-43 were bonafide hits. They were especially successful with records of songs with Latin American origins, such as “Amapola”, “Green Eyes”, “Besame Mucho”, and – yes – “Maria Elena”.
The style of brassy orchestral arrangements that partially defines “Maria Elena” comes from the big band era, during a time when the US was deep in the throws of World War II. As such, these old timey records always remind me of something that listeners would gravitate toward during times of loneliness or whenever they’re thinking of a loved one who might be overseas during such tumultuous times. Even though the lyrics are relatively uplifting (“Maria Elena, you’re the answer to a prayer / Maria Elena, can’t you see how much I care?”), the dreamy tempo and horns definitely bring some sense of quiet melancholia to the entire work. And yes, this probably does have something to do with the overall sonic quality of the record – every version I’ve found of this track online sounds replete with the traditional grain and weather that frequently defines much of these older records. Something about these qualities and the flatness of the sound itself definitely conjure of connotations of a lost memory, or something to that level of sadness.
I really wish I had time to analyze the English lyrics side-by-side with Barcelata’s original Spanish poetry, but time and word limits on my part constrain me to only speak of the version that became a hit. And it’s certainly clear to see how listeners would be soothed by the caramel character of Eberly’s vocal performance. Apparently he was around twenty-five around the time of this recording, but the depth and timbre of his vocal range seems well beyond any concept of time and age. Although I dig the backing piano, strings, and horns that fill up this record to an undeniable richness, it’s Eberly’s voice that really sell this one for me. While I do wish that at least some Spanish lyrics were thrown in to enhance the roots of this particular composition (Nat King Cole and Connie Francis did it!), it still is a great little song to slowly stroll and watch the stars to.
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