McDONALD – From the window of her father’s medical practice on West Lincoln Avenue in McDonald, Peggy Hughey used to see Jacob and Alan Levison stroll to the train station from their comfortable Victorian home on Station Street so they could travel to Pittsburgh for music lessons.
It was a sight that could have been replicated in many other small towns around Pittsburgh in the late 1920s or early 1930s. But the music lessons the Levisons received turned out to be more consequential than most, and more than simple, enriching diversions. They could have become respected merchants like their father, Maurice, who sold shoes in downtown McDonald. But their talents and savvy took them far beyond the confines of this northern Washington County community.
Eventually both migrated to America’s coasts and changed their surnames from Levison to Livingston, presumably to make them sound more Anglo-Saxon and less Jewish in a social and business milieu that was markedly less tolerant than today’s world, and Jacob’s name was correspondingly shortened to Jay. Alan went on to become an entertainment industry mover and shaker who was at the helm of Capitol Records when the Beatles and Frank Sinatra were signed to the label, and he helped develop the series “Bonanza” when he was in the executive suite at NBC-TV.
Arguably, the success of Alan’s older brother was even greater and more profound. Teamed with lyricist Ray Evans, Jay Livingston crafted some of the most beloved songs in the, songs so well known, with melodies so indelible, that the words and music seem to have been carved on stone tablets and hauled down from a mountaintop.
There’s “Mona Lisa” and “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).” Then there’s also “Dear Heart” and “To Each His Own.” Finally, there’s “Silver Bells,” the faintly wistful celebration of Christmastime in the city that first appeared in the Bob Hope vehicle “The Lemon Drop Kid” and has endured long after the movie from which it came has been relegated to off-hours screenings on Turner Classic Movies.
Though Livingston, who was born 100 years ago next Saturday, never became a household name in the way a Paul McCartney or an Oscar Hammerstein has, his songs have been sung in every household.
“The melodies are basically very tuneful and very cheerful,” according to Mike Plaskett, who co-hosts the Saturday night vintage music program “Rhythm, Sweet & Hot” on Pittsburgh radio station WESA-FM. He added that Livingston’s career was at its apogee before rock and roll burst on the scene and that was an era, in Plaskett’s estimation, when “what was commercial was good and what was good was commercial.”
Having finished first in his high school graduating class in 1933 – Hughey’s sister finished a close second – Livingston ventured across the commonwealth to attend the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. While there, he met Evans and the two began their professional collaboration. Though waylaid by World War II, they put in their time in clubs and cruises, cooked up material for swing era siren Martha Tilton and even tried their hand at penning jokes and comedic fodder.
It was when they started writing music for movies that Livingston and Evans discovered their true metier. Johnny Mercer, the composer of “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” and “Moon River,” took a shine to the team and enlisted them to work in Tinsel Town. They struck pay dirt almost immediately – Livingston and Evans received the first of seven Oscar nominations in 1946 for the song “To Each His Own” from the Olivia DeHaviland movie of the same name. All told, they ended up winning three.
Before the 1960s and 1970s, when songwriters like Bob Dylan, John Lennon or James Taylor would turn their songs into soul-baring confessionals, Livingston and Evans were tailoring tunes on a made-to-order basis, crafting songs to accentuate a mood or a scene. Perhaps in part for that reason, the whole of their work hasn’t, with a few exceptions, been as subject to reinterpretation or scholarly re-evaluation as other songwriters from the era.
Upon the release of a 2002 album consisting of covers of tunes by Livingston and Evans, jazz singer and pianist Michael Feinstein told the The Honolulu Advertiser that the duo was “much underestimated” and their songs were “simplistic in construction; people consequently think they were simplistic. But they (wrote) some wonderful material, a vindication of their talent, which people inside the music industry have known about.”
Will Friedwald, who writes about jazz and cabaret music for The Wall Street Journal and has also penned books on jazz singing and Sinatra, believes the relative obscurity with which Livingston and Evans have been consigned in recent decades stems from the fact that, in rare instances, it was singers who grabbed the lion’s share of the spotlight and acclaim in their salad days, while songwriters were left to labor in the background.
“The composers are never going to have their names above the title,” Friedwald said. “The composers are always secondary.”
It’s perhaps ironic that one of the greatest accomplishments of Livingston’s brother – bringing the Beatles to an American audience – helped cool his own career. According to Friedwald, “The real sea change in popular music happened with the arrival of the Beatles. Before then, being singers and being songwriters were two different professions. But with the Beatles, that’s when the idea of singer-songwriters began, and all the traditional songwriters were displaced.”
Nonetheless, Livingston and Evans persevered through the 1960s and even into the 1970s and 1980s, continuing to write songs for movies and television. It left precious little time for Livingston to make return trips to McDonald. In a 1987 interview with the Observer-Reporter, Livingston said he had been back just three times since he left for the University of Pennsylvania and all that followed. On the verge of an appearance with Evans to rechristen the Stanley Theater in downtown Pittsburgh as the Benedum Center, Livingston said, “When I lived there, everything was so dirty. McDonald was dirty because it was a coal town. Now, it’s so clean. I was so happy to see that happen.”
McDonald also now has a marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission commemorating Livingston’s accomplishments. It stands near the onetime train station where the Levison brothers would embark to Pittsburgh for their music lessons. But the station now houses an exhibit on McDonald’s history, and Livingston’s life and career are prominently featured.
“He never really left,” said Hughey, who is now 94. “He was just gone a long time.”