Remembering the bikini man
Western pop music recently lost a truly gifted artist in Lee Pockriss. V Gangadhar writes.
For a 15-year-old boy from Palghat, Kerala, familiar with only Tamil film songs, a jukebox in a New Delhi restaurant was a revelation. You put a four anna coin in a slot, press a button and the jukebox blares out a song of your choice. Not Tamil songs, but English ones. I was fascinated and began to listen more carefully to this 'new' music. Soon, interest became passion. One of my favourite songs was 'Itsy Bitsy, Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini'. Lee Pockriss, who wrote the song, died at age 87 recently.
The jukebox taught me to like slow, sentimental songs whose words were easy to follow. Pockriss wrote and composed some such songs. For example, 'Catch a Falling Star', whose lines 'Catch a falling star an' put it in your pocket/Save it for a rainy day/For love may come an' tap you on the shoulder/Some star-less night!' appealed to my adolescent mind a lot.
The English section of the Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon also broadcast these songs. In Delhi, one could buy pocket-sized songbooks for Rs 2, which had lyrics of all the popular numbers. Soon I was humming most of these songs. My favourites among them were 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' , 'A Little Serenade', Dean Martin's 'On an Evening in Roma' and 'Return to Me', all songs by Everley Brothers, Doris Day and Patty Paige, the oft-hummed 'Lipstick on your Collar' and the racy number 'Witchdoctor'. Of course, some singers were more special than others. For instance, the silky-smooth voice of Nat King Cole, whose 'Fascination' haunted me for years. It was used by writer-director Billy Wilder in his Gary Cooper-Audrey Hepburn adult comedy Love in the Afternoon Equally haunting was the gifted voice of Johny Mathias.
Back then, Hollywood musicals like An American in Paris or Singin' in the Rain were hugely popular. But I was more attracted towards lesser-known movies that had my favourite singers in lead roles. I don't think I have missed a single Pat Boone film. Though not a great actor, he was cast only for his singing and, in my opinion, he made smashing numbers like 'April Love', 'Love Letters in the Sand' and 'Technique' (from the movie Bernadine) and, my favourite Boone number, 'I'll Remember Tonight' from Mardi Gras. Later, I shifted to Ahmedabad where jukeboxes and western pop music were considered anti-Indian and a politician even fasted to protest against a local restaurant's announcement of starting weekly jam sessions. I wanted to hum my favourite Pat Boone number to one of my Gujarati girlfriends but could not impress her, as her favourite songs included 'Hum Kale Hain To Kya Hua Dilwale Hain' and 'Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu...'.
I was told that Tony Brent, another great artist, was born in Bombay. In the late 1950s, almost everyone hummed his 'The Game of love'. Later, Frank Sinatra became the top crooner. By now, popular music was becoming too loud. It was difficult to understand lyrics. My interest waned and even Beatles could not rekindle it. At that time I realised that the contribution of people like Pockkriss and his contemporaries to western popular music will always remain unmatched.
V Gangadhar is a Mumbai-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.