John Sieger
Sieger On Songs

“Mr. Sandman” Is a Wisconsin Dream

Singers from Sheboygan, references to Liberace, and a nifty song.

By - Apr 15th, 2016 04:20 pm
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The Chordettes

The Chordettes

Sheboygan, a town often used to get a chuckle in old Bob & Ray routines, is surprisingly cool. The Kohler Art Center regularly has fascinating shows. Their specialty is unschooled and outsider artists, and a folk art garden south of town that seems like a walk through the mind of mad genius. There’s surfing in Sheboygan. While it may not rival California, people do travel from far away to ride the frisky little waves that somehow kick up higher there than elsewhere on Lake Michigan. What I didn’t know is one of the great hits of the 50’s, a song covered endlessly by artists like Chet Atkins and Emmylou Harris, originated with a homegrown vocal quartet, The Chordettes.

“Mr. Sandman” was a huge hit for them in 1954, just as the music world was tilting toward something wilder called Rock and Roll. Instant squareness befell The Chordettes, though they did have a few other hits like “Lollipop,” not to be confused with Millie Small’s boy. But who really cares what’s square or hip? Good is what matters and these ladies sang great! They performed the arcane art of Close Harmony, as practiced by Barbershop Quartets. More on that in a bit, because there are so many of fascinating details surrounding this story, all of them as amazing to me as their unlikely Sheboygan beginning.

Let’s get the names first, from Wikipedia: “The original members of the group were Janet Ertel, Carol Buschmann (her sister-in-law), Dorothy Schwartz, and Jinny Osborn/Lockard (April 25, 1927 – May 19, 2003). In 1952 Lynn Evans replaced Schwartz and in 1953, Margie Needham replaced Osborn (who was having a baby), though Osborn later returned to the group. Nancy Overton also was a member of the group at a later time.”

They first gained attention appearing on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. On this radio show, 60 years before American Idol, he discovered Patsy Cline and Tony Bennett, and many other major stars. His crystal ball shorted out a couple of times when he passed on Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.

The Chordettes had an early connection to the tight harmony scene. Jinny Osborn’s father was president of S.P.E.B.S.Q.A. I know what this means because my mother sewed all the curtains for their headquarters after they moved to Kenosha. The acronym stands for The Society For the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartets in America. Ray Davies would have a field day with that.

Also this: Janet Ertl’s daughter married Phil Everly. You could do a long sidebar about that duo’s Milwaukee connections. It would include hit songs with lyrics by Felice Bryant, a former elevator operator at the old Schroeder Hotel, and their longtime road guitarist, the legendary Sam McCue, a Milwaukee native.

The Everly Brothers and The Chordettes were both on Arthur Godfrey’s label, Cadence Records. That has to be how the young couple met. And here is my favorite fact. On the label the head of the company is credited this way: “Knees played by and orchestra conducted by Archie Bleyer.”

I wouldn’t give a darn about any of this if I didn’t love this song. I’ve played it for my own amusement for years and, if you want to hear a ridiculously great instrumental version, yell out a request the next time you see Milwaukee guitar god Greg Koch.

The song was written by a virtual cipher named Pat Ballard, who has the briefest Wiki page I’ve ever seen. This song was his only hit and is based on the “circle of fourths,” a chord progression that sounds like a secret society, but in fact, is way of moving through all the chords in a major key in a logical and satisfying way. It features an ingenious melody, that caught many an ear. Pat probably had to put a huge mailbox on his house to hold all the royalty checks.

The lyrics are clever and concise, with a story telling of a “magic beam” that should charm the heck out of anyone not too jaded by modern ideas:

Bung, bung, bung, bung
Bung, bung, bung, bung
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
(bum, bum, bum, bum)
Make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen
(bum, bum, bum, bum)
Give him two lips like roses and clover
(bum, bum, bum, bum)
Then tell him that his lonesome nights are over

Sandman, I’m so alone
(bum, bum, bum, bum)
Don’t have nobody to call my own
(bum, bum, bum, bum)
Please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
Make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen
Give him the word that I’m not a rover
Then tell him that his lonesome nights are over

Sandman, I’m so alone
Don’t have nobody to call my own
Please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream

Mr. Sandman (“Yes?”) bring us a dream
Give him a pair of eyes with a come-hither gleam
Give him a lonely heart like Pagliacci
And lots of wavy hair like Liberace

Mr. Sandman, someone to hold (someone to hold)
Would be so peachy before we’re too old
So please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring us, please, please, please
Mr. Sandman, bring us a dream

© Pat Ballard

Okay, lot to get through here. Let’s start with the word they chime in the beginning, “bung.” This must have induced snickers galore, if it was on the air in England. It’s a euphemism (short for “bunghole”) you’re probably familiar with. Then, maybe in an effort to be thorough, it switches to “bum.” Different euphemism, same general area. You wouldn’t think the word “Yes” would be memorable, but in this video it’s sung by Dick Clark, in a one second cameo — the only time I’ve ever seen him sing. Only one word, but I think we would all agree he nailed it.

Lastly, there’s the rhyme, worthy of Gershwin or Porter, of “Pagliacci” and “Liberace.” I love the fact that the not-yet-out mega star from you-know-where (Milwaukee again!) was considered a heartthrob. How many hearts were crushed when it was revealed he played for the other team?

It’s easy to ascribe innocence to earlier times. I didn’t delve deeply enough to get any tabloid surprises, but the Chordettes were all human and there may have been a story or two, even if they were from Sheybogan. As in Victorian times, surfaces in the 50’s were a fabrication, scrubbed clean and shined to represent a Hollywood press agent’s vision of hunky dory. The reflection off that surface, plus the overwhelming whiteness of the time makes it seem absolutely Disney-ish. Walt might have moved to Sheboygan if he had seen it.

All in all, I’m feeling a little puffed up on Wisconsin pride. This song seems like a veritable vortex of cultural import, even if our icons are Liberace, Barbershop Quartets and the lovely girls from the town next door, The Chordettes.

2 thoughts on “Sieger On Songs: “Mr. Sandman” Is a Wisconsin Dream”

  1. Ken Sumka says:

    Founding member Dorothy Schwartz just passed away a few weeks ago. Her grandson called me that day and asked me to play a Chordettes song for her family on the air. I did.

  2. dudemeister says:

    A great and catchy song, perfectly emblematic of that unusual period of music between the fading of Big Band in the late 40s and the rise of rock n roll and rock-influenced pop.

    Stuff like this contributed to the 50s being the most (yes, verifiably) musically diverse decade in history.

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