"I Have No Words" (1930)

“I Have No Words” (1930)

“I Have No Words.” Composed by W. Desmond Carter (words) and Arthur Schwartz (music) for the London stage musical Little Tommy Tucker (1930). Recorded in London on October 23, 1930 by Percival Mackey and His Band with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Columbia CB-168 mx. WA-10819-2.

Personnel: Percival Mackey dir. Jack Jackson-Andy Richardson-t / Ben Oakley-tb / Chester Smith-another?-cl-as / George Smith-ts / Dave Fish-vn / Pat Dodd-p / Bob Martin-bj-g / Jim Bellamy-bb-sb / Bill Harty-d / Maurice Elwin-v

Percival Mackey and His Band – “I Have No Words” (1930)
(Transfer by Henry Parsons)

Percival Mackey’s “I Have No Words,” like its reverse side (“Let’s Be Sentimental”), derives from the London stage show Little Tommy Tucker, a comedy of errors that was not particularly successful. The song did not make it into the movie version (Out of the Blue), so I have no way of telling which character sang it or what the context was, but no matter. “I Have No Words” is a musically compelling love song with light, witty lyrics by Desmond Carter that have been called “nonchalantly sophisticated” and “flippantly unsentimental.” 1

Percival Mackey’s version of the song has a very stylish arrangement, quick and upbeat. Maurice Elwin delivers the vocal refrain in a somewhat deadpan way, as if not in on the fact that the lyrics are incredibly silly. As in so many other comical vocals, Elwin plays the straight man; his seriousness or earnestness is the source of the humor. There is, perhaps, also a level on which Elwin’s smooth, sweet delivery rescues the lyric from being merely comical. I do not think that would have been possible if other excerpts from the original lyrics had been included:

I would beg for you,
Break a leg for you,
Lay an egg for you... 2

As usual, producing a first-rate recording of this sort is the work not only of a band and its vocalist but of the arranger, who, among other things, decides which short excerpt from a song to use as the vocal refrain.

The other British dance band treatments of “I Have No Words” occur only in medleys. The New Mayfair Dance Orchestra had recorded a purely instrumental medley (it literally had no words) three days before the Percival Mackey recording. On November 1, The Million-Airs (under Arthur Lally’s direction) would release one that had Maurice Elwin once again singing a snippet of “I Have No Words.”

While there are very few recordings, then, of “I Have No Words” per se, there are many of its basic melody. Immediately after working with Desmond Carter to set the lyrics of “I Have No Words” to music, composer Arthur Schwartz would turn to Howard Dietz to write new lyrics, producing the song “Something to Remember You By,” which was introduced on Broadway by Libby Holman in Three’s a Crowd (1930). Both Holman and Helen Morgan committed memorable versions of the song to shellac that year, and it has continued to be recorded every few years since and been featured in many movies.

It is interesting to note that “I Have No Words” had little staying power, while “Something to Remember You By” — fundamentally the same tune — has been so favored by musicians and audiences over the course of nearly a century. Composer and musicologist Alec Wilder was unaware of the melody’s origin in Little Tommy Tucker but had heard what he thought was an “unsubstantiated story” that an original version of “Something to Remember You By” had been sung “at least twice as fast as its later version.” 3 Wilder praised the decision to slow it down as having been “fortunate for all lovers of good song.” 4

This is a rare case where I cannot agree with Wilder or, apparently, popular taste. To me, the slow pace of “Something to Remember You By” makes it treacly, and its lyrics seem hackneyed. Percival Mackey’s “I Have No Words” with its Maurice Elwin vocal will always stand out as an excellent example of how the original concept could be executed successfully.

Notes:

  1. Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Alec Wilder. American Popular Song: The Great Innovators (1900-1950). Kindle location 4031.
  4. Ibid., Kindle location 4035.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.