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.
- "Close Your Eyes" (1933) by Chris Tyle
- 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/
- Internet Music Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0677675/ (Accessed 11/16/07)
- Obituary in Variety Magazine