“Such a Wonderful Town”: A Song Is Re-born

  • Post author:
  • Reading time:8 mins read

“Such a Wonderful Town”
A Song Is Re-born

A conversation with Celia Berk & Tex Arnold

Celia Berk, who was recently honored with a Bistro Award for Vocalist, has been making a name for herself with her debut album You Can’t Rush Spring and her debut cabaret show of the same name. Both include what she calls hidden gems: lesser-known songs from great songwriters.

In preparing for the show, she came across a song that has proven to be a favorite with audiences and critics. It was given to her by Tex Arnold, an arranger and musical director known for his work with Margaret Whiting, Michael Feinstein, Carol Hall and Laurel Massé, to name just a few. Here’s how his song found a new life.

How did you meet Tex Arnold?

Celia I went up to his apartment in Riverdale last summer to run a song for an open mic he was going to be playing at. He sat down at the piano and said, “OK, what are you going to be doing?” I proudly said, “I’ve got a Lew Spence song, ‘What’s Your Name?’” And he said, “I wrote a song with Lew Spence!” He jumped up from the piano and ran into the other room.

He came back with “Such a Wonderful Town” with a 1997 copyright. He sang it for me and I asked if I could have it. He gave me the sheet music and sent me a track featuring Warren Vaché, with lyrics highlighting his horn.

Tex and Celia at the Metropolitan Room's Guinness Record event.
Tex and Celia at the Metropolitan Room’s Guinness Record event.

How did you come to write the melody?

Tex I was fiddling around in my studio and a kind of Neal Hefti Odd Couple-type melody popped into my head for no reason. My working title was “The Little Jerk.”

Who was the first to hear the song?

Tex I played the music for Margaret Whiting.

How did Lew Spence get involved?

Tex Margaret told me that Lew was in town and suggested I play the song for him. Lew wrote the lyrics fairly quickly. We did have at least one conversation and decided that the song needed a verse to set it up. In this instance, Lew wrote the words and then I set it. I always saw it becoming a comic song. With a tune like that, no lyricist would attempt anything deep or introspective.

Tex Arnold, Celia Berk, Debbi Whiting
Tex Arnold, Celia Berk, Debbi Whiting

What became of the song after that?

Tex I’ve always been disappointed that it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserved. Sally Mayes performed it, but it just didn’t take on a life of its own. Sally had hired me to play a private party for her in, of all places, Mamaroneck. We were confident that the tune would go over great, since it would be a special treat for the denizens of the wonderful town of the song. But there was one problem: It was a cocktail party. By the time we went on, the crowd was quite drunk and talking riotously amongst themselves. So the tune was received with blithe indifference, as you might expect – not Sally’s fault!”

How did the song end up in your show?

Celia I showed it to my musical director, Alex Rybeck, who said, “Oh, we’re doing this.” I thought he meant someday. But Alex has an unerring sense of what belongs in a show, and he did a great arrangement that fits perfectly. Jeff Harnar’s direction made sure we didn’t miss any of the comic opportunities. It’s been called out in almost every one of my reviews, which has made Tex so happy. That makes me so happy, because I really do love casting a bright light on songs that, for whatever reason, end up being hidden gems.

(L-R) Tex Arnold, Celia Berk, Alex Rybeck, Jeff Harnar
(L-R) Tex Arnold, Celia Berk, Alex Rybeck, Jeff Harnar

How did the Australian version come about?

Celia Fast forward to the Guinness Event at the Metropolitan Room in January. “Such a Wonderful Town” was one of the songs I did, with Tex at the piano. While we were performing, Matthew Carey at Cabaret Confessional tweeted to us, “…What a great song. I wonder what the equivalent title would be here in Australia?”

That’s all Tex needed to see. He contacted Roger Schore, a Lew Spence protégé, and they wrote an Australian version called “Such a Charming Locale.” We reached out to the great Tony Sheldon and a lovely local Australian singer Ana Lisa Bell to help us with pronunciations, and a snippet is now in my show! Nikki Aiken, an Australian singer in London, is putting it in her act. I bet Ana Lisa uses it too.

Watch Celia perform “Such a Wonderful Town”

After making such a fortuitous discovery, and having such success with it, have you asked Tex what else he may have in buried in his trunk?

Celia Of course! He’s given me a beautiful song he wrote to lyrics by Amanda McBroom. Now it’s in MY trunk waiting for its moment. And Debbi Whiting shared a “trunk song” called “A Day Away from Town” by Richard Whiting and Gus Kahn that Tex discovered in her trove of unpublished songs by her grandfather. It was complete with a melody and words, but lacked the chord structure. Tex felt it was pretty obvious what Richard Whiting had in mind, so he supplied the harmony. Now it’s published, and Tex and Debbi hope it finds its place in the Great American Songbook. Don’t be surprised if it shows up on my next album.

Have you contacted other songwriters looking for additional gems?

Celia Yes indeed! I start both my album and show with “I’ve Been Waiting All My Life” from the Broadway musical Ballroom with music by Billy Goldenberg and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. I just spent several hours with Billy looking at a number of his trunk songs, including some cut from Ballroom. And I am very proud to say that some other wonderful songwriters who are getting to know me have shared some of their material. To me, that’s the ultimate compliment.

How do you feel now that your song has a new life?

Tex I’m so grateful for Celia’s championing the song. Margaret Whiting recognized that songwriting can be a tough row to hoe. So when she thought a particular song had merit, she would try to get it noticed. I know she would be proud that Celia feels the same way.

Celia returns to the Metropolitan Room with You Can’t Rush Spring on March 28 at 1:00 pm & March 29 at 9:30 pm.