By Joel Francis
“Kiss me once, then kiss me twice, then kiss me once again.”
Sammy Cahn’s lyrics spoke to millions of couples separated by … well the song doesn’t say, but everyone who sent it to No. 1 in two different versions at the end of 1945 knew all too well.
For six years the specter of World War II hung over America. A nation split by heated debates over participation until Pearl Harbor forced the nation’s hand became united through victory gardens and war bonds. The country was also united in its separation, as selective service split up thousands of couples when the men were called overseas.
But when Bing Crosby’s sweet voice sang “It’s Been A Long, Long Time,” the turmoil and anxiety of the war was finally fading. Effortlessly capturing the hope and sentimentality of the lyrics, Crosby couldn’t have needed more than a couple takes. What made the recording more interesting, though, was Les Paul’s guitar playing.
If Crosby’s voice was a bird chirping at the sunrise, Paul’s arrangement was the first rays of light piercing the horizon. His tone is just as mellow and natural as Crosby’s vocals. After opening with a few understated chords, Paul kicks into gentle jazz mode, strumming a countermelody that’s nearly as interesting as the one Jule Styne penned. The solo is understated, echoing the vocal line with a couple flourishes that show why Paul continues to influences the guitar gods of the 21st century.
That voice and that guitar was all the song needed to jump to No. 1. Sure, there’s a rhythm guitar in the background, but it’s only there to reassure the hapless listeners who couldn’t find the rhythm on their own.
Paul died last Thursday. He was 94. The legendary guitarist is best-known for “How High the Moon,” his signature Gibson guitar and recording innovations. Although his performance here predates those advances, it is no less inventive.
Crosby got most of the glory for “It’s Been A Long, Long Time,” which is probably right. The song and his singing resonate with the tenor of the times. (A competing version by Harry James with Kitty Kallen also hit No. 1 that winter.) Paul, however, visited the song repeatedly throughout his career. He cut a version with his wife Mary Ford in the 1950s and came back to it nearly 30 years later on the first “Chester and Lester” album with Chet Atkins. All readings are sublime, but none capture the wistful sentimentality and promise-filled romance of his pairing with Crosby.
There’s nothing harder than not knowing or being able to do anything about the well-being of a loved one. When I hear this song, I think about my grandparents. Both sets were separated by husbands who served in the war. I think about their joyful reunions and how they are now – temporarily – separated by the grave. But Les and Bing reassure us. And then we close our eyes and lean in for that kiss. Again.