Have you ever wondered how little you know about the songs you listen to? Of course, sometimes you know the singer’s name, but even that you can’t always remember. It’s not even worth the risk to ask you about who composed the music or wrote the lyrics. Producers, arrangers, instrumentalists, backing vocals – “Are you kidding me?”
Despite what it looks like, a song doesn’t just come from nowhere. Sometimes it takes months, during which all these people have to run with a bat in their hands, chasing after inspiration and trying to squeeze some more notes out of it. Or, in some cases, it takes years for a song to be reborn. Somehow, it manages to break through.
During all this time, the song gets a story. And I’m not referring to what the song says, but to the story that remains untold. The story about the song’s life.
Let me show you what you’ve been missing! Let’s take the example of “Smile” – a song which should steal a smile from you. But it would most likely leave you with your mouth wide open.
On this page:
Charlie Chaplin – the composer
Does the thought of me playing with your mind tickle you? It must be a coincidence of names, or something like that. Still, it’s not an April Fools’ Day prank.
The brilliant Charlie Chaplin was also a composer. He actually composed a great deal of songs.
Charlie was born on April 16th, 1889 to a family of musicians in London. (Did you know he is British, not American?!)
Charlie Chaplin, the father who had the same name, was a notable music-hall singer with several successful songs. But, if Charlie inherited something from him, it was purely genetic, because two years after the boy’s birth, the father abandoned his family. He died penniless at only 38 years old due to heavy drinking 1)”Charles Chaplin Sr” in Wikipedia.
Hannah, Charlie’s mother, did music-hall performances for a brief period. She was not very successful, but, through her, Charlie made his first contact with music and the stage. With no income, the woman was squeezing money from whoever she could. But she had to pay a high price for that, ending up in an asylum after she contracted syphilis. Once he made himself a wealthy man in Hollywood, Charlie brought his mother to America, offering her the best conditions toward the end of her life. She passed away in 1928.
From the age of 7, Charlie had spent most of his life in orphanages. But he was attracted to the stage like to a magnet. At 14, he took his life into his own hands and started working with various vaudeville companies.
At some point, he bought himself a second-hand cello. He was fascinated with this instrument. He practiced a lot, he tried different things, he “stole” the trade from his fellow musicians… And so he learned to play, for his own pleasure. He used to hold the bow in his left hand, while the cords were reversed 2)”Making Music with Charlie Chaplin” by Eric James and Jeffrey Vance, book published by Scarecrow Press in 2000.
He learned to play the violin in the same way. In 1912, during the tour of a vaudeville show across the United States, he drove his colleagues crazy: he was practicing daily, hours in a row, and sometimes until late in night. He was hoping to become a great instrumentalist. And even if he didn’t reach the desired performance, this ability of his would come in handy later in his life.
Charlie Chaplin started to make his appearance in films – short films – in 1914. And you know that, back then, the films were silent. So as to avoid that awkward silence, the films were accompanied by music. But not in the way you think…
Every theatre had its own orchestra. Yes, the music was live! And everyone was playing what they thought would go well with the movie.
The more important productions were accompanied by a list with suggestions for the orchestra. If they knew how to play the songs from the list, they played them. If not, they were improvising. Who would have sensed the difference?
Charlie Chaplin felt the importance of music ever since its beginning in cinematography. The first film for which he composed a song was “A Dog’s Life”, who had its premiere in 1918. But it didn’t matter so much, as the song was played only in a few places. Still, he continued to compose musical themes for many of his movies.
But Charlie Chaplin didn’t have a proper musical education. He didn’t know how to write sheet music. He learned to play the piano, and that eased his collaboration with trained musicians, who wrote the compositions for him.
It was a novelty when movies started to appear together with musical sheets for the orchestra. There was a certain timing with the image, which brought more emotion into the story.
Charlie Chaplin appreciated very much this new valance, and wanted to take part in the creation of the soundtrack; starting with his second feature film, “A Woman of Paris”, which appeared in 1923. But he didn’t compose the score for this film.
The first film for which Charlie Chaplin assumed the task of composing the soundtrack was “City Lights”, the feature film from 1931. From this moment on, he did this for every film he made. He even redid the soundtrack for some of his older films.
Actor, scriptwriter, director, producer and composer, all for one single film – here is the ultimate film creator!
How good was the composer Charlie Chaplin?
At the beginning of the XXth century, the musical recordings began to become popular. Still, not everybody had access to them. The main approach of putting a musical composition into circulation remained the sheet music.
In 1916, the Charles Chaplin Music Company was launching into the musical market with three original compositions, printed in 2000 copies: “Oh! That Cello”, “There’s Always One You Can’t Forget” and “The Peace Patrol”. It was a devastating success – only 3 copies sold. Thus, the “shop” closed pretty soon.
Still, Charlie Chaplin didn’t stop composing. He did it especially for the films he made.
But, over the years, some of his compositions have been circulating independently, and finding success with the public:
- “Smile”, the song composed for the movie “Modern Times”, which appeared in 1936
- “Terry’s Theme”, from the soundtrack of the movie “Limelight”, from 1952, was popularized by Jimmy Young under the title “Eternally”
- “This Is My Song”, the song interpreted by Petula Clark for the 1967 movie “A Countess from Hong Kong”, became Number One in Australia, Great Britain, Ireland and other European countries; in fact, because of the sensational success of the soundtrack it was possible to cover the production expenses, which the selling of the tickets failed to do.
Not bad for a self-taught musician!
If you’re still in doubt that Charlie Chaplin was a remarkable composer, to say the least, here’s another argument in his favour: the only Academy Award Charlie Chaplin received was for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score for the movie “Limelight”, together with Ray Rasch and Larry Russell – although the latter was not listed on the ending credits of the movie 3)”British Movie Entertainments on VHS and DVD (A Classic Movie Fan’s Guide)” by John Howard Reid, book published by Lulu în 2010.
- in 1929, when he was a nominee for The Best Leading Actor for his role from “The Circus”, the Academy considered that what he had done was so special that it couldn’t be compared with anything else, so much so that Charlie Chaplin received a special award
- in 1972, the Academy offered him an award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century”, which was also interpreted as an amendment that Charles Chaplin decided to accept it in person, after two decades of absence from the United States; he was given a twelve-minute standing ovation – the longest in the Academy’s history 5)”Charlie Chaplin prepares for return to United States after two decades” – article published by History
A successful soundtrack
As I was telling you, the first musical hit of Charlie Chaplin dates from 1936. It’s an instrumental composition used as a soundtrack for the ending of the great movie “Modern Times“.
The composition was inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” 6)”The Ellington Century” by David Schiff, book published by University of California Press in 2012. But the spirit of Charlie Chaplin can still be sensed in every note, being, beyond any doubt, an original composition.
You can’t fully understand Charlie Chaplin until you listen to this song. His life itself is summarized within this mixture of feelings.
The movie scene is anthological for another reason as well: the story of the Tramp came to an end and he’s biding farewell from the audience. With a smile.
The rebirth of a song
It would have probably remained just an appreciated piece of music, if it hadn’t taken wings in 1954, when most of the people didn’t even remember it. John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons put the lyrics to the song, inspired, obviously, by the movie itself:
Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you
Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile
Thus, “Smile” became a song perfect for the unmistakable voice of Nat King Cole:
In the United States, the song ranked 10th on the Billboard chart. In Great Britain he enjoyed an even greater success, ranking 2nd.
In time, the song became a classic. In 1959 it was interpreted by another famous voice: Tony Bennett.
From 1967 to 1969, it served as a soundtrack for the TV show The Jerry Lewis Show.
In 1974 it was sang by Eric Clapton.
And the list could go on.
Women smile too
In the ’70s, Diana Ross was a sensation – she was one of the most appreciated female singers. On her album from 1974, named “Diana Ross” (and subsequently named “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”), she included the song… “Smile” as well.
It was for the first time when a female voice left its mark on this song. A tone less poignant and more delicate:
The favourite song of Michael Jackson
I have my hunch about that. And probably you have yours.
You may know that Michael Jackson was a good friend of… Diana Ross. In the ’70s, they worked for the same record label, Motown. Michael Jackson must have listened to Diana’s albums, including to her version of “Smile”, which he liked very much. You’ll know exactly why I’m saying this.
Michael Jackson was not satisfied with just listening to the song. In 1955, he interpreted it in his own, sensitive way, from which you can really feel that smile which overcomes the sadness, that the lycrics are talking about:
Michael Jackson included this version on his double album: “HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I”. In 1998, the song was extracted from the album and turned into a single.
In 2009, at Michael’s funeral, his brother Jermaine Jackson sang precisely this song: “Smile”. None of the megastar’s hits wouldn’t have been more appropriated to the occasion than this song full of heart.
A never-ending story
Once every few years, some artist brings “Smile” back to our attention: Rod Stewart, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Robert Downey Jr. (after he played the main character of the biographical movie “Chaplin”), Josh Groban, Michael Buble, Martina McBride, the Japanese singer Misia… The list remains open.
If you’re into jazz music, here’s a wonderful interpretation of Bobby McFerrin featuring Chick Corea, which will really make you smile, but in a different way:
This song represents a universal truth, which remains valid generation after generation. Isn’t that the mark of a genius?
Every one of us has his difficulties and personal sadness to bear and overcome. But no matter what these may be, there is a cure for them:
Smile to life! Smile with the same joy the Tramp welcomes every situation! Smile as Charlie Chaplin did in order to go from a child with no future to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time!
A selection of the most original interpretations of the widely-known main theme song from the Star Wars series
|”Charles Chaplin Sr” in Wikipedia
|”Making Music with Charlie Chaplin” by Eric James and Jeffrey Vance, book published by Scarecrow Press in 2000
|”British Movie Entertainments on VHS and DVD (A Classic Movie Fan’s Guide)” by John Howard Reid, book published by Lulu în 2010
|”Charlie Chaplin Awards” in IMDb
|”Charlie Chaplin prepares for return to United States after two decades” – article published by History
|”The Ellington Century” by David Schiff, book published by University of California Press in 2012
|”Michael Jackson: The Icon” by Jos Borsboom, book published by Lulu in 2011
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