New York New York

New York, New York is a big song. A Manhattan skyline big song. Everybody from eight to eighty knows it. No, scrap that cliche. Plenty of people over eighty know it too. And maybe quite a few under eight too.

It’s the ultimate song for drunks at the end of a party. What a singalong. Belting out those lyrics about waking up in the city that doesn’t sleep and how if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, and pretending to be Francis Albert.

As Sinatra signature tunes go, this is right up there. Only My Way can rival it. It has become the unofficial anthem of the great city and New York’s very own Martin Scorsese even named one of his early movies after it.

No, scrap that too. When Martin Scorsese hit on the idea to make a spec script by a screenwriting newcomer Earl Mac Rauch into a dazzling, hyper-stylised tribute to the big band era and to the golden age of Hollywood musicals, the song didn’t yet exist.

New York New York Happy Endings

To me, it sounds as if it was maybe composed when my grandfather was still a young man, or when my dad was a teenager in the 1950s, but it was written when I was fifteen, a time when The Sex Pistols were tabloid sensations, when David Bowie changed direction radically with Low, and John Travolta strutted his stuff in Saturday Night Fever.

I could get into some old tittle-tattle about Scorsese and Liza Minelli but won’t. He cast the star as his female lead, an up and coming singer Francine Evans, and brought in two songwriters Kander and Ebb, who’d become strongly associated with her through musicals like Cabaret, to supply some tunes.

Their original theme for the film impressed the director and singer but co-star Robert De Niro, who was to play saxophonist Jimmy Doyle, was much less happy about it. He requested that they try writing another theme which I’m guessing must have rattled the award-winning team, who were happy with their effort.

Still, they agreed to give it another go, in order to please an actor who was learning to play saxophone at this point, albeit only so he could better mimic a sax player as his own parts were to be dubbed in the movie by George Auld. Auld who also played bandleader Frankie Harte claimed that when he first met De Niro, the actor ‘Didn’t know a tuba from a taxicab.’

So what did this guy know about a successful theme tune?

This time Kander and Ebb came up with something that he did approve of, as did Scorsese and Minelli too, and this showstopper – which in the film, Jimmy composes – became the highlight of New York, New York (which I could never remotely love the way I loved Mean Streets or Taxi Driver).

Released as a single by Minelli during the long hot summer of ’77, this is Theme From New York, New York:

Was it a hit?

Like the film,* it failed to live up to expectations. It’s easy to imagine that from the moment people hear that killer opening vamp, they would fall in love with the track, but Minnelli’s original only managed to reach #104 in America.

Liza Minelli - New York, New York.jpg

‘Really?’ you might say. ‘But I bet the track must have went on to win Best Song at the Oscars and took off from there?’

Nope. In fact, it didn’t even earn a nomination from the Academy.

When it was first suggested that Frank Sinatra cover the song, he was initially wary. Ol’ Blue Eyes liked Liza’s version and treated her almost like family, due to his old friendship with Liza’s mother Judy Garland. By the autumn of 1978, though, he was persuaded to sing it live at a charity event at Waldorf-Astoria.

In 1980, he released the song as a single.

That must have been a huge hit then, you might think.

Nope, not really. In America it peaked at #32, while in Britain it made it no higher than #59.

Strange.

Both Frank and Liza continued to perform the song live and it continued to grow in popularity. A little research tells me that on these shores, Sinatra’s version was re-released early in 1986, and did finally go on to become a very sizeable success, joining the likes of The Damned, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Simple Minds in the official UK singles chart, where it eventually peaked at #4, although I have absolutely no recollection of this.

Here are Frank and Liza live at Madison Square Gardens with a very showbizzy take on the song that doesn’t really work for me. Sorry but there’s no real chemistry between the voices and Frank, it would have to be admitted, is clearly past his prime. See if you agree:

* George Lucas – whose wife Marcia worked as an editor on the film – believed that New York, New York could have added another ten million to its box-office takings if Scorsese had chosen to close the film with a happy ending. Scorsese decided to ignore the suggestion but stuck with what he saw as the truth of the relationship.