Nat King Cole
These Foolish Things
A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,
An airline ticket to romantic places,
And still my heart has wings…
These foolish things remind me of you.
Eric Maschwitz Lyrics
Jack Strachey Music
The story goes that Eric Maschwitz wrote the lyrics to this classic when he was parted from Anna May Wong, the glamorous American movie star (Maschwitz was British.) Whether the story is true or not is impossible to establish with any degree of certainty. Wong had a long career in Hollywood despite the caustic racism and blatant discrimination of the day. She never married, and is rumoured to have had affairs with Alla Nazimova and Marlene Dietrich.
Whether or not Wong was involved with Eric Maschwitz, she was the worthy muse of his inspiration. His plaintive lyrics found their perfect match in Jack Strachy’s music, and they collaborated to put the two together in the space of a single day.
I have included six versions of the song in this post, including Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition, which, as always is remarkable for its unlaboured clarity and unforced emotion.
I love Pia Beck’s playing for many reasons, but particularly I think because I grew up listening to recordings of Erroll Garner’s music, and her style reminds me of his. Not that Pia isn’t great in her own right – she is – and the sound of applause you hear could be from the patrons of her own piano-bar in Churriana, Spain, where she and her partner Marga lived since 1965. They died within five months of each other in 2009.
The other four artists featured here, Chet Baker, Oscar Peterson, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra,
need no introduction. They each infuse this song with their own individual spirit and character, but I think Chet Baker stays the truest to the original sentiment suggested by the lyrics.
I first heard this tune in the late ’50’s, when I was about 5 years old. I lived with my grandparents in Kandy (Ceylon) and my parents would come up from Colombo for the occasional weekend visit. Both my parents played this song on the old black-varnished the piano with the brass candlesticks and ivory keys, in my grandparents’ living-room, but I preferred my father’s treatment of the tune. I would make him play it on every visit. Sometimes I would sit on his lap and place my hands lightly on his, while he played.
I have no exact recollection of how I learned the lyrics of this song, but they always created familiar images in my mind – as if the words came out of my own memory. Tinkling pianos and lipstick-stained cigarettes were familiar to me since both my parents smoked, and both played the piano.
When I listen to this song now, it evokes a time that slipped outside time for me. The ghost of the ’50’s lives in me somewhere, and when I hear these familiar notes, it comes to stand close behind me, to share the moment.