Remembering Judy Garland
"Ditch the rainbow song!" - Anon., Hollywood, 1939
May 28, 2003
I'll never forget Judy Garland. So few artistes have the compassion that she so often showed. That poor man, I remember she said to me once - he's been cleaning all those windows and now he's leaning on a lamp post at the corner of the street, doesn't he ever get to sit down? She actually sought out George Formby and sent him a note, with a signed photograph and a rather nice armchair. I don't know what became of it, though, I never actually worked with George.
Our paths did cross once, now I think of it, over a matter of pastiche and travesty rights. Remember young Alfie Gainsborough? Much the finest ex-Services George Formby impressionist of his day, on the Wirral circuit at least. To begin with he didn't have the clothes for the part, you see, and after a time we made a feature of it - we got him billed as 'Khaki' Gainsborough. Worked like a charm - they loved him in Heswall, I can tell you. (Well, they clapped.)
Anyway, Alfie lugged his ukulele up and down the A540 for a couple of years, but after a while he decided to look further afield. So we relaunched him in France. He had to make a few changes, obviously: the uke had to go, for a start. The songs got a lot slower, and of course their lyrics had to be translated into French, pretty much in their entirety. Even then, they didn't really take to him. Eventually I realised the name was giving us problems: we'd changed everything else, but Alfie was still going out with an English name. So out went 'Khaki' Gainsborough and in came 'Serge' Gainsbourg.
The rest of course is history: where Heswall led, the Left Bank could only follow. As time went by Alfie had more and more difficulties adapting the old George Formby material; he often told me he was working on a new version of 'the window song', but nothing ever came of it. That said, one of Alfie's biggest hits was adapted from an old Formby number, albeit one that George's people would never let him release - it was called "When I'm Between Your Kidneys". Racy little number, as I recall.
That was with the Birkin girl, of course. Lovely girl - daughter of a judge, I believe. She'd known Alfie back home, you see, and quite by chance she ran into him in Paris one day. She was quite taken aback by his appearance, apparently, and she blurted out, "Qu'est-ce que c'est donc de quoi il s'agit dans l'ensemble, Alfie?" She was concerned that he'd become a little too French, you see; she wanted him to lose the strings of onions, you know, and the stripey jumper, and the red wine and the Gauloises and the womanising. I suppose one out of five isn't too bad.
Marvellous career, he had, Alfie - influential in all sorts of ways. Take young Whitney Houston - she'd never have had that big hit of hers if not for Alfie. She actually jotted down the first draft straight after their meeting; it was originally called "I Will Always Love You (If You'll Get This Ghastly Frenchman Out Of My Face)". But do you know, 'the window song' evaded Alfie to the last. In the end he handed it over to an old Forces friend who'd also set up on the Continent - Jack 'Clanger' Bell (or 'Clanger' Brel as he preferred to be known by that time). Old Clanger turned it round in no time:
Les oiseaux noirs du désespoir
Ne chantent pas seulement pour toi -
Ils chantent doucement pour moi,
Quand je lave les fenêtres!
"The black birds of despair sing sweetly for me, when I'm cleaning windows" - rather nice in its way. They wouldn't have it in Hoylake, mind you. Funny thing, years later little Dirk McCartney got hold of that song and tried to translate it back into English. Missed the whole point, though - lost the windows for one thing. No professionalism, these youngsters.