February 14, 2024

Love Calls the Tune: Sinatra, Swift, the Beatles, and Carolyn Leigh

By Stuart Mitchner

…when love finally calls the tune, it almost always comes from the least expected direction — from the bohemian, the excluded, the marginalized and least powerful folks, and the most hidden places.

—Ted Gioia

On Valentine’s Day 2024 I’m thinking about the way love happens in a song that’s been synonymous with February 14 ever since I sang along with it as a teenager. Although “How Little We Know” comes from a relatively “hidden” songwriter, it was put on the map in 1956 by Frank Sinatra, one of the “least marginalized” and “most powerful” of performers. According to Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History (Oxford University Press 2015), Sinatra brought a “new level of sophistication” to the romantic ballad by adding “layers of irony, sometimes outright cynicism, to the emotional immediacy of the torch singers,” which resulted in “a performance that delivered the inner meaning of the lyric while also offering an arch commentary on it.”

“That Tingle”

Chances are you’ve never heard of the woman who devised the combination of words that tells us “how little we understand what touches off that tingle, that sudden explosion when two tingles intermingle.” It’s hard to imagine a more succinct, sing-along-silly account of the “chemical forces” that “flow from lover to lover.” To fully appreciate the song, with its explosive rhetorical question, you have to hear what Sinatra does with “Who cares to define what chemistry this is? Who cares, with your lips on mine, how ignorant bliss is? So long as you kiss me, and the world around us shatters, how little it matters, how little we know.”

Carolyn Leigh

When Sinatra delivers those soaring lines, never mind “how little it matters,” you know the person on the receiving end of that world-shattering kiss must be a female (for sure it’s not Philip Springer, the tunesmith who provided the music). So who is the woman who created this seductive dynamic? The little I know of Carolyn Leigh’s personal history is that she was Jewish (born Carolyn Rosenthal in the Bronx), she attended Queens College and NYU, and once described herself as a typist “who couldn’t take dictation” and so “wrote stories and poems.” The stark cold facts say she was married three times, had no children, and died at 57 of a heart attack. Quoted in the November 21, 1983 New York Times obituary, the composers she worked with called her “a poet with a great feel for music” (Cy Coleman) and “one of the few people who had genuine wit in her lyrics … a lot of heart,” and “was very human and also very funny” (Marvin Hamlisch ). Other Leigh lyrics include the award-winning Sinatra standards “Young at Heart” and “Witchcraft.” She also wrote “The Best Is Yet To Come,” with music by Cy Coleman, the last song Sinatra sang in public, on February 1995; the title is etched on his tombstone.

Bogart and Bacall

What makes the words “How Little We Know” doubly relevant to a celebration of love is an earlier song with the same title. Online references distinguish the 1956 song from its predecessor by awkwardly adding “What Little It Matters” to the title. Otherwise Leigh’s lyric has little in common with the dreamy, laid back ballad played by the song’s eternally laconic composer Hoagy Carmichael and performed, unforgettably, by Lauren Bacall in Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944). During one of the most sensational debuts in Hollywood history, Bacall croons “Maybe it happens this way” while making bedroom eyes of epic proportions at Humphrey Bogart. The Johnny Mercer lyrics that Bogart and Bacall bond to (they were married less than a year later) are slyly equivocal compared to Leigh’s tingling interminglings: “Maybe it’s just for a day,” Bacall sings, already looking forward to love’s night. “Maybe you’re meant to be mine in spite of how little we know.” In “real life,” Bogart was hers until his death on January 14, 1957.

Love Spoken/Unspoken

Thirty years earlier, the love song of the day was “Diane,” from Frank Borzage’s Oscar-winning silent romance 7th Heaven, a box office hit whose stars Charles Farrell (Chico) and Janet Gaynor (Diane) became “America’s Sweethearts.” In To Have and Have Not, when Bogart and Bacall were one of America’s most famous couples (today the word would be “hottest”), Bacall famously tells Bogart, “If you want me, just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.” In 1927 the lovers had no voices and audiences may have smiled or even snickered when the petite Diane was lifted up and hugged by the towering Chico. But no one was laughing after the first lingering close-up of Gaynor’s radiant natural beauty at the moment she knows she is loved by the man she loves. That’s when Depression-bound American filmgoers bonded with the couple and the film.

Releasing the Word

“Love is so simple,” Arletty’s Garance tells Jean-Louis Barrault’s Debaru in Children of Paradise (1945) at the high point of one of cinema’s most stirring love scenes. Not so simple after all when Garance wants to get seriously physical and Debaru backs out the door. As a word, love does indeed sound simple. Just say it aloud, savor it, and say it again. It’s such a durable, adaptable, powerful little word. It can be recklessly spent, endlessly abused and misused, and come back as good as gold. Or if you’re a genius, you can release it, transform it and set it flowing, as Van Morrison does when “glove” becomes “love” in his novel-in-a-song “Madame George.” Toward the end of the 1968 album Astral Weeks, after singing about going into “a trance sitting on a sofa playing games of chance,” Morrison puts the trance in play and a dropped glove releases the word hidden inside, and suddenly language feels bigger than life: “Hey love, you forgot your gloves,” Van sings, and like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat pulls out “the love that loves that loves to love the love to love the love the glove,” and does it again in the closing verses, “the loves to love the loves to love.” Morrison calls his incantatory riffing “the inarticulate speech of the heart,” which is just a wordier way of saying love is music and music love, a combination that never ends as long as someone’s singing.

“The Word”

The Beatles get down to the essence in “The Word,” from the 1965 album Rubber Soul. In that eerie, relentless, evangelical mantra of a song, Lennon and McCartney reduce the most popular term in popular culture to its word-for-word’s-sake core. In the chorus — “Say the word and you’ll be free … Say the word and be like me … Say the word I’m thinking of,” the word isn’t sung so much as keened, dementedly, despairingly, like Coleridge’s “woman wailing for her demon lover” in his opium poem “Kubla Khan.”

Taylor’s Version

Having begun with a seemingly unknown female songwriter, I come to Taylor Swift, who at the moment is at the center of a Pop Diva/Football Hero romance; she and Travis Kelce may be the Couple of the Hour, but are unlikely to be the 2024 version of “America’s Sweethearts,” not with the Far Right spewing freaked-out conspiracy theories on social media. Like Carolyn Leigh, Swift has a ball writing (and singing) about love’s ups and downs — she has also produced deeply felt songs like “This Love” and “You’re in Love,” both in last year’s album 1989 (Taylor’s Version).


How little I knew — it turns out that there’s nothing “seemingly unknown” about the “female songwriter” being remembered online in “Unsung Carolyn Leigh,” an April 5, 2014 American Songbook event at Lincoln Center. The video begins with an audio of her voice as she addresses another, long-ago audience, telling them to “forgive the little introductory remarks” and hoping they “will make some sense of this,” a line she delivers with a touch of irony reminiscent of Ted Gioia’s Sinatra delivering “the inner meaning” of a lyric while “offering an arch commentary on it.” Among the “unsung” songs are several from an unproduced musical based on Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which features a lively, jazzy ensemble number about the Jazz Age.

At a 2009 tribute to composer Cy Coleman, Fiona Apple sings a touching version of Leigh’s “I Walk A Little Faster,” a song I’d never heard of and keep coming back to. Unlike “How Little We Know,” the lyric has an intimate, almost confessional quality, and every time I hear lines like “Pretending life is sweet ‘cause love’s around the corner,
I walk a little faster” and “Can’t begin to see my future shine as yet, no sign as yet, you’re mine as yet, rushing to a face I can’t define as yet,” I feel as if I’ve simultaneously discovered and been discovered by a song. I’m also reminded of a phrase from the closing sentence of Ted Gioia’s book: “when love finally calls the tune, it almost always comes from the least expected direction.”


Note: Philip Springer, 97, the man who wrote the music for “How Little We Know” and is best known as the composer of Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” is reportedly still writing 35 songs a year.