It's All In The Game
Van Morrison sings as if he's inherited the entire rhythm and blues tradition and it's his job not only to nurture it but to keep it growing and expanding. That's a metaphor Charles Dawes, a Chicago banker who served as Vice President in the second Calvin Coolidge administration, might have appreciated, though Dawes might not have been so happy with what happened to the wordless tune he composed as "Melody in A major" in 1912.
In 1951, lyricist Carl Sigman devised words for Dawe's song and Sammy Kaye, Carmen Cavallaro, Dinah Shore, and Tommy Edwards all recorded it. It was Edwards a smooth balladeer in the Nat Cole mold, who did best with the song, getting it to Number 18 in Billboard. Though Edwards was a black man, there was nothing of rhythm and blues in his rendition; the arrangement was straight pop.
By 1958, Edwards was still looking for a follow up. MGM Records offered him one last session, on which they wanted him to rerecord "It's All In The Game", so they'd have a stereo master to reissue. Edwards went them one better, rearranging the song with an R&B beat -- it was still a ballad but he gave the song an emotional coloration reminiscent of the new wave of rock and roll singers. Within 6 weeks, the new version had eclipsed the old, going to Number One in both the US and the UK.
There "It's All In The Game" lay for two decades. Cliff Richard nudged it onto the Top 30 in 1964; The Four Tops got about as high in 1970. Neither version was especially memorable. "It's All in The Game" was just another pop tune lying fallow.
In 1979, Van Morrison made his first album for Mercury Records, after spending more than 10 years with Warner Bros. Maybe that change made him feel retrospective. Maybe retrospect was just where his always ruminative muse led him that year. In any event, Morrison's Mercury debut LP, Into The Music, was one of his strongest and strangest, a record utterly out of sync with fashion made by a man completely in tune with his soul and his sound.
In America, no one released such eccentric music on singles any more; the sole purpose of singles was airplay on Top 40 radio. Nobody at Top 40 was going to play anything on Into The Music, and that went double for the album that followed, Beautiful Vision. But in England, where airplay is less important, singles are issued as a matter of course. And the one they released from Beautiful Vision distilled both albums with rare efficiency. The A side was "Cleaning Windows", Van's song about the day job he held as a kid, and the records he used to buy back then, and his own bemusement at how far he'd come. The B side was "It's All In The Game".
I'm not sure why Van Morrison coupled those songs. Maybe the record company just went ahead and did it without asking him. But there's no doubt that the two tracks function as an elegant comment on each other, as if "It's All In The Game" were the direct product of all that musing about his youth, as if "Cleaning Windows" was written in the wake of some chance encounter with a favorite old record like Tommy Edward's "It's All In The Game", the one that inspired him to record that song in the first place, and Van never just got around to finishing the new song for Into The Music.
Van's lyrics to "Cleaning Windows", I should add, suggest nothing so unhip as a teenage kid listening to sentimental R&B ballads -- he talks only about listening to blues heroes like Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmy Rogers, and Sonny Terry. But truth to tell, the song Van wrote isn't nearly as powerful as the song that he stole.
And steal is just what he does. Tommy Edwards suggests "It's All In The Game" has potential as a rhythm and blues song. Morrison excavates all those nuances; his performance is a tour de force of blues gesticulation,filled with gutturals asides and half swallowed interpolations, the kind of thing that could only be done by a guy who'd spent a lifetime trying to figure out how to beat Ray Charles at his own game. The beat never rises above Edward's moderate tempo, but Morrison makes it feel so much intense that by the end, he might as well be screaming and quaking with gospel passion. Tucked away on a B side, it's one of the most emotionally revealing travels through the history of pop music, from 1912 or some point in an even more distant beyond to the moment it clutches your gut.