The Melodious Veep
By Bill Kauffman
The only U.S. Vice President to have written a tune covered by Van Morrison and the Four Tops knew something of the fickleness of fame.
Charles G. Dawes, the Chicago banker who served under Calvin Coolidge, had a great-great-grandfather who rode with Paul Revere (the patriot, not the guy who played keyboards for the Raiders). Legend has it that Longfellow memorialized only the silversmith, and not Dawes’ ancestor, because “the name Revere rhymed better.” A later poet, Helen Moore, would write sympathetically:
’Tis all very well for the children to hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
But why should my name be quite forgot
Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
Why should I ask? The reason is clear:
My name was Dawes and his Revere.
Charles Dawes, descendant of the eclipsed rider, first made his mark rather less heroically, as a lieutenant in the Mark Hanna political machine that elected William McKinley President. Dawes’ subsequent stint as comptroller of the currency led naturally into banking, but he was musical enough to stand out among the plutocrats. As one journalist wrote, “In the conformist Dawes there is bottled up an individualist. In the banker Dawes there is bottled up an artist.”
Charles Dawes composed “Melody in A Major” in a single piano sitting in 1911. “It’s just a tune that I got in my head, so I set it down,” he said modestly. Dawes played it for a friend, violinist Francis MacMillan, who showed it to a publisher, and before he knew it, Dawes was a composer.
“No one told me it had been published,” he recalled. “I was walking down State Street and came to a music shop. I saw a poster-size picture of myself, my name plastered all over the window in large letters and the window space entirely filled with the sheet music.”
A phonograph recording of “Melody in A Major” sold briskly, to Dawes’ amusement: “My business is that of a banker and few bankers have won renown as composers of music. I know that I will be the target of my punster friends. They will say that if all the notes in my bank are as bad as my musical ones, they are not worth the paper they were written on.”
The banker-composer kept a hand (and wallet) in Republican politics. His ticket to national office was punched when in 1921, appearing before a Congressional committee investigating profiteering in the First World War, he bellowed, “Helen Maria! We weren’t trying to keep a set of books; we were trying to win the war.”
His Oliver North-ish outburst caught the voters’ fancy, though with his martial swagger it was easy to forget that Dawes was chief of supply procurement, not a battle-grimed doughboy.
Running with Coolidge in 1924, Dawes entertained reporters with his “picturesque vocabulary, the odd collars, the strange pipes, the superficial don’t-give-a-whoopness, the exaggeration of manner, the incoherence.” And “wherever he went,” as biographer Bascom Timmons wrote, “his ‘Melody in A Major’ was being manhandled by bands of every description.”
Dawes complained, “General Sherman, with justifiable profanity once expressed his detestation of the tune ‘Marching Through Georgia,’ to which he was compelled to listen whenever he appeared anywhere. I sympathize with his feeling when I listen to this piece of mine over and over. If it had not been fairly good music I should have been subjected to unlimited ridicule.”
In 1951, lyricist Carl Sigman supplied words to Dawes’ music. They began:
Many a tear has to fall
but it’s all in the game...
First recorded by crooner Tommy Edwards, “It’s All in the Game” has been cooed, barked, purred, and growled by Dinah Shore, Sammy Kaye, the Four Tops, Cliff Richard, and Van Morrison. Edwards’ soulful 1958 version made it to #1 on the Billboard charts. His recording remains the standard, though rock writer Dave Marsh regards Van Morrison’s 1979 rendering as “one of the most emotionally revealing travels through the history of pop music.”
Charles Dawes died in 1951, the year his wordless melody took lyrical flight. If he is as forgotten as the ancestor who rode with Revere, well, Chuck, it’s all in the game...