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15 Great Oscar-Winning Songs!: “Mona Lisa”

Sometimes one great song is the lone claim to fame for an otherwise forgotten movie, and we can only hope that the Academy will successfully identify these diamonds of musical inspiration which are hidden in arguably unlikely places. Of course public attention to a song can often do the job for them. This was certainly part of the case in 1950 when Nat “King” Cole’s recording of the Ray Evans/Jay Livingston tune “Mona Lisa” topped the charts throughout the month of August despite getting little to no promotional boost from the movie it appeared in. Captain Carey U.S.A. was an inconsequential film based on a written serial about an American played by Alan Ladd who returns to Italy to help bring a traitor to justice. It wasn’t one of the top ten box office hits of the year and “Mona Lisa” appears to have been the only awards attention it received. Classics such as All About Eve, Born Yesterday, Sunset Boulevard, Walt Disney’s Cinderella, The Third Man, and Father of the Bride dominated both the box office and the Oscars that year (the eventual divorce in tastes between the movie-going public and the Academy is a subject for another day perhaps). Either way, we can thank Captain Carey U.S.A. for getting this great song to the Oscars stage.

Songwriters Ray Evans and Jay Livingston were not exactly dark horses in the world of music during their decades in the business. They had already won an Oscar for “Buttons and Bows” just a couple of years before their win for “Mona Lisa” and would win again in 1956 for “Que Sera Sera.” In fact, they appeared as themselves in a party scene in the contemporary Hollywood film Sunset Boulevard that same year. The pair teamed to write more than seven hundred songs in their careers, including a couple of the more memorable television theme songs of all time.

Yep, that’s theirs. In fact, that’s Jay Livingston himself singing on the track. He’d agreed to produce an example for a professional singer to model from, but the producers decided that they liked his version well enough to keep on television, so they never hired another singer. Twenty years later, an Ohio preacher looking for some cheap publicity named the “Mister Ed” theme as one of many popular recordings to contain “back masked” satanic messages. This meant that if you played the track backwards you would supposedly hear some sort of devil-worshipping proclamation. In Mister Ed’s case, it was claimed that you could hear “Someone sung this song for Satan” and “the source is Satan.” Clearly this is another topic which is way too big to be addressed here fully aside than to say that it is ludicrous on its face.

Evans and Livingston also wrote the theme song for “Bonanza” television show starring Lorne Greene.

evans2

I’m sure the Hall of Fame songwriters would much rather be remembered for their contribution of one of the more famous holiday songs out there. “Silver Bells” was introduced to the public through a popular recording by Bing Crosby which was released in 1950 (his name keeps popping up in these articles), and then appeared as sung by Bob Hope the next year in the movie The Lemon Drop Kid. A long series of cover versions have since rolled out over the years, including the one which was most popular in my home as a child, sung by Johnny Mathis.

Evans and Livingston had unwittingly composed the song as “Tinkle Bells” originally, but when one of them went home and shared it with their family their error was made apparent. Livingston’s wife reportedly exclaimed, “Are you crazy?! Do you know what the word Tinkle is?!” They decided to change the bells to “Silver” pretty quickly after that, claiming to have never realized the original word had another meaning which is most associated with bathroom business.

While the Nat “King” Cole recording of “Mona Lisa” continues to be the definitive version, the song has enjoyed coverage by several other artists, including Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby (there’s that name again), Harry Connick Jr, Willie Nelson, Brian Setzer, and Cole’s own daughter, Natalie on a Grammy-winning album which honored her late Father.

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Posted on February 23, 2017, in Awards, Movies, Music, Oscars and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’m very familiar with the Nat King Cole version of this song (it crosses my mind anytime I think of the 1986 film “Mona Lisa) but I had no idea about “Captain Carey U.S.A.”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I used to have a 1920s music anthology (no doubt my parents got the LP with a magazine subscription, or whatever) and one of the songs on it had the line, “Rows and rows of buttons and bows.” Pretty sure that was the title. It’s not the same song as the 1948 Livingston composition. Can’t find any Internet info on it.
    Never know what gems you might unearth when you stop by Leblog 🙂

    Like

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