Picture the scene
Picture the scene. It’s 21 June 1977 in South Dakota, and Rapid City’s Rushmore Plaza Civic Center is witnessing a final attempt at a comeback by one of the most famous entertainers on the planet. It’s well into the concert and, in a change of pace, Elvis Presley settles down behind a piano for a solo version of an enduring classic ballad. Though haunted by ill-health, he has surprised people with the energy of his performance thus far. Now, with trademark curled lip still capable of enlivening adjacent bloated jowls, his familiar southern drawl takes up the haunting refrain: "There is no disputin’/ There is no refutin’/ We’re all indebted to Sir Isaac Newton".
Well no, that’s not quite the way it happened. The ballad Elvis did perform that night was Unchained Melody, whose words had been penned by lyricist Hy Zaret back in 1955. And while Elvis lasted just 56 days after that concert, Zaret made it to a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday, dying on 2 July this year. Of course Unchained Melody was the tune that made Zaret’s name; had he not penned such a gigantic hit, however, he might have had to fall back on another facet of his lyrical prowess - and we’d have savoured Elvis extolling the virtues of gravity.
In the late 50s Zaret collaborated with Lou Singer on a collection of records entitled Singing Science, in which they espoused and explained many aspects of the physical sciences. Clearly aimed at kids, the recordings had an enthusiastic period charm and often, in their own way, exhibited a sort of demented doggerel genius. As one might expect, the passage of time led to them sinking into an obscurity which was rendered all the more complete by the extinction of vinyl. Fortunately, enthusiast Jef Poskanzer has done us all an excellent service by converting an old set of Singing Science LPs to digital form. These can be heard in their full glory on his website.
The aforementioned homage to Newton is from The Ballad of Sir Isaac Newton which appeared on the Space Songs LP. Chemistry doesn’t get much of a look in on that one, but does play a bigger part on some of the others. On the Energy and Motion disc, for example, we find Chemical Energy. This is a jaunty little number, strangely reminiscent of the soundtrack to the wedding at the start of The Godfather (although I suspect that Don Corleone’s mumbled "Someday, and that day may never come." speech would have lost a bit of its dramatic impact if accompanied by ’Mama Mia, what is this chemical energy?’ warbling in the background). Rocks and Gems and Minerals follows a pattern typical of many of the tracks - a sing-along of sub-Sesame Street complexity topping and tailing a friendly, didactic voice-over which enthuses about slate formation. Other chemical related songs include the folksy Ultra Violet And Infra Red, the barking mad What’s Inside Our Earth? (’the Earth is like a great big grapefruit’) and We Know The Air Is There, whose title would not have been out of place a decade later in the psychedelic 60s.
’Hip-hooray! We’ve got atomic energy!’ they joyously proclaim in Thumbnail Sketch Of Atomic Energy, before name checking Becquerel, Bohr, Fermi and others, and then changing tone somewhat to reflect the fears of the time (’Hope and pray, we use the power constructively’). This is probably the most historically interesting of the lot as, even though it’s aimed at children, Zaret can’t separate technological pride from the simmering Cold War. The optimistic and the paranoid - a bit like the 50s Zaret and the 70s Elvis really. What we need now is a celestial collaboration, with Zaret giving old Elvis lyrics a chemical slant. Tartrate Hotel maybe? (’It’s down at the end of Chiral Street’). I’m sure Chemistry World readers can come up with other suggestions!