As the lyric-writing half of the team of Livingston and Evans, Ray Evans (1915-2007) was responsible for some of the most memorable and successful songs of the past 60 years. The team's work was featured mostly in motion pictures but has also found inroads in Broadway and television as well. In 2003, I interviewed Evans, who was then 88. At that time, he was comfortably retired, still sharp-witted, and eager to talk about his career in show business. Evans met his former partner, Jay Livingston, who died in 2001 at the age of 86, while both were students at the University of Pennsylvania. Evans was a musician who played clarinet and saxophone while Livingston led a dance band. The two became friends when the band played on cruise ships during their summers off. On the last day of a cruise in 1938, while sailing up the Hudson River in New York Harbor, they decided to become a songwriting team.
Livingston and Evans spent a lot of time knocking on doors at the Brill Building, the famed "Tin Pan Alley" structure where many of the top publishers in New York had their offices. Eventually, they landed an audition with the Broadway team of Olsen and Johnson who helped introduce the young writers to the movers and shakers in the theater industry.
When BMI was formed in 1940, Livingston and Evans signed on and had their first hit published, a song called "G'bye Now." The song became a top seller on the Hit Parade and was recorded by Horace Heidt and Martha Tilton. World War II broke up the act for a short time; Evans was exempted from service because of a knee problem but Livingston served in the Army for nine months. After the war, they became staff writers at the Paramount studios in Hollywood. Their first hit was "To Each His Own," which became a hit recording by no less than five recording artists in 1946: Eddy Howard, the Ink Spots, the Modernaires, Tony Martin, and Freddy Martin.
Of course, Livingston and Evans are best known for the string of hit songs from motion pictures they wrote, including "Mona Lisa," "Buttons and Bows," "Que Sera Sera" (all of which won Oscars), and "Silver Bells." Television fans will recognize their theme songs for "Bonanza" and "Mister Ed" (Livingston was the voice of "Mister Ed" in the song that was sung over the credits of the popular sitcom). They also wrote lyrics for Henry Mancini songs including "Mr. Lucky" and "Dear Heart." In our interview, Evans told the inside stories about these and other songs from his career as a top Hollywood lyricist. In this segment from my interview with Evans, he talked about the writing of “Silver Bells,” probably his best-loved song.
"Silver Bells is from a Bob Hope movie called 'The Lemon Drop Kid,' which was based on a Damon Runyon story about New York. Bob played a tinhorn gambler and the mob was after him to pay up his debts to them. So he hid out by dressing up as a Salvation Army Santa Claus on a street corner, and we had to write a song for him to sing. We didn't want to do it. We thought there were enough definitive Christmas songs around like 'White Christmas' and 'Silent Night'so who needed another one? So we kind of half-heartedly wrote a little song called "Tinkle Bells" about the bells Bob Hope would be ringing while standing on the street corner.
"Luckily, when Jay went home that night after we wrote the song, he told his wife about it and she was aghast. 'You wrote a song called "Tinkle Bells?" Don't you know that the word "tinkle" has a double meaning?'