The best Father’s Day tribute I can think of is to reflect not too seriously on one of my dad’s not-too-serious songs.
When he got home from World War II — where he was awarded a Bronze Star I only discovered after his death in 2000 — my father, Carl Sigman, picked up his songwriting career in earnest. And as is so often the case in life, a failure produced a turning point.
He and his partner Bob Hilliard were doing well writing special material for New York’s renowned hot spot the Copacabana. But their song “Civilization” — a send up of the post-War rush to modernization — was rejected out of hand. They were given no reason, but perhaps the song’s refrain — “Bongo, bongo, bongo I don’t want to leave the Congo /Oh no no no no no/ Bingle, bangle, bungle I’m so happy in the jungle/ I refuse to go” — was simply too much for the Copa’s swells.
Undaunted, the writers featured “Civilization” in Angel in the Wings, a Broadway revue of their songs which ran for 308 performances at the Coronet Theatre during 1947-48. Elaine Stritch performed the show-stopper in her debut on the Great White Way. (A half-century later she reprised it — with the original comical choreography — in her long-running autobiographical one-woman show At Liberty.)
“Civilization” was a smash. The inimitable Louis Prima’s version made the Top 10 for eight weeks in 1947. (Louis had another Sigman/Hilliard hit that year with the deadpan “Thousand Islands Song” — “I left the one I love on one of the Thousand Islands; unfortunately, I can’t remember which one.”) Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, Jack Smith and Ray McKinley were among the many who covered it. But it was the call-and-response cut by Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters that soared to No. 1 on Your Hit Parade later that year, phony African accents and all.
Meanwhile, my mom, while still a teenager, had landed a job as Louis Prima’s gal Friday. She became an expert at duplicating his signature on autographs — Be Happy! Louis Prima — and taking, in addition to dictation, his bets on the ponies. One day, a certain songwriter came by the Brill Building with more prospective hits for Louis; he left with a crush on the gal Friday. One thing led to another, and I can say with reasonable certainty that if it weren’t for Louis, I would never have been born.
“Civilization” has stayed alive through the decades, both as an artifact of its era and as an all-purpose satire of modernity. In 1979, Dyan Cannon and some cute jungle animals surveyed it on The Muppet Show, which now runs perpetually in syndication and on YouTube. It’s on the radio as Jeremy Irons’ Humbert Humbert chauffeurs his prepubescent obsession around in the 1997 remake of Lolita. It’s featured in the iconic 2008 video game Fallout 3.
Frank Sinatra sang it, on the radio, in a performance that survives to this day on bootleg recordings. And who can forget the smooth, mellow rendition by Svend Asmussen’s Orkester favored by my friend the great Gregg Geller (discoverer of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, John Hiatt et al)? www.whatsontv.co.uk/youtube/search/svend%20asmussen/video/K9UHYm5PzCI/1
Never one to be outdone, Louis updated “Civilization” in 1965, with sax by the late, legendary Sam Butera and some improv about golf clubs and drive-in movies. One of my favorite versions, it can be heard 24/7 on Prima aficionado Art Fein’s fine website, www.sofein.com. Art opines, “Prima veering into ‘Twist & Shout’ at the end of ‘Civilization’ is a mindblower!”
Though “Civilization” — a spot-on emblem of its time — might be faulted for political incorrectness in today’s terms, a playful attitude will reward the listener with plenty of smiles and maybe even a few belly laughs. In fact, I’ve recently been in touch with my friend Gabriel, who lives in Capetown and is mounting a revival of Angel in the Wings. He tells me something that would bring joy and astonishment to my dad, who had a hard time believing his songs would have a lasting impact: people all over Africa — black and white — still greet each other with the salutation, “Bongo, Bongo, Bongo.”