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Born in 1901, as a performer in Vaudeville by age five and later a stellar pianist in New York's Jazz district, Bernice Petkere earned the title of "The Queen of Tin Pan Alley." She longed to write great popular music. Her peers included Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Duke Ellington and later Lorenz Hart, Harold Arlen and many others. As these individuals turned out hit after hit for the great singers, despite her best efforts Ms. Petkere just couldn't craft something memorable.

Crooner Crosby recorded Petkere's first effort, "Starlight (Help Me Find Someone To Love)." The record enjoyed little success.

Petkere's first popular hit, with lyrics by George Young, "Lullabye of the Leaves," written in 1932, was a quaint piece of popular music appropriate for the period, but sadly has not endured because it contained none of the excitement that would get it performed outside of a dated, music-hall style venue. Other Petkere efforts were rarely-recorded flops. Bizarre or hackneyed song titles including "Rose of the Snowland," "Happy Little Farmer," and her most peculiar stab at commercial success, "Christmas Cha-Cha" just didn't sell at all.

In 1933 Petkere penned a song called "Close Your Eyes." She'd finally struck on the kind of clever juxtaposition of major and minor chords plus simple but very romantic lyrics that differentiate a "good tune" from a "Great American Standard." It was recorded by vocalists of the day, but really took off when saxophonist Lee Konitz recorded an instrumental version in 1956. In the same year, deep-voiced crooner Arthur Prysock (a Billy Eckstine sound-alike) cut an R&B version of the tune that shot up the pop charts to number one and lingered there for a week or two.

Beside Prysock, over 50 talented vocalists and instrumentalists as diverse as Harry Belafonte, The Captain and Tenille, Frank Sinatra, and Mongo Santamaria recorded the song. The most recent hit version of the song was included on Queen Latifah's album of '60s AM-radio pop "The Dana Owens Album." Although she was alive to be delighted by Prysock's big hit with her song, her old age was not without its challenges. Evicted from one apartment because it'd been turned into an expensive Co-Op, it happened a second time in 1988, but was rescued by a fan and investor who purchased her apartment and allowed her to live there rent free for as long as she liked. She quipped "I hope you won't be offended if I live a long time."

Whereas most composers have made it to the Great American Songbook over and over, Bernice Petkere has the dubious distinction of being one of two or three composers who've contributed only a single tune. Petkere passed away in 2000 in Los Angeles, California.

BrevityQuest 2007

SOURCES:

  • "Close Your Eyes" (1933) by Chris Tyle http://www.jazzstandards.com/compositions-2/closeyoureyes.htm (Accessed 11/16/07)
  • Obituary, January 12, 2000 (Reuters) re-printed on: http://slick.org/deathwatch/mailarchive/msg00005.html (Accessed 11/16/07)
  • "Close Your Eyes" and "Lullabye of the Leaves" http://allmusic.com (Accessed 11/16/07)
  • Biography on http://nfo.net/cal/tp1.html (Accessed 11/16/07)
  • ASCAP ACE® SEARCH http://www.ascap.com/ (Accessed 11/16/07)
  • Internet Music Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0677675/ (Accessed 11/16/07)
  • Obituary in Variety Magazine http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117883512.html?categoryid=25&cs=1 (Accessed 11/16/07)

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