Crying a River for Years

Crying a River for Years

December 15, 2010
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal

'Please, cry me a river about 'poor Obama,'" exclaimed a conservative commenter on the message board for a November CBSNews.com story on Republicans winning control of the House. A few months earlier, a commenter of a different persuasion at the site CrooksandLiars.com used the same phrase to express distaste for conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck. "Boo, hoo. Hey Beck, cry me a river why dont ya?"

Yes, it seems that, heated as their disagreements are, many Americans on both sides of political arguments agree on the best way to express passionate indifference—if not joyful glee—at the misfortunes of opponents.

And it's not just political discussions that conjure up that four-word phrase. "Cry Me a River: Tiger Woods Loses $22 million in Endorsements," blared the headline to an article in BlackVoices.com on the financial consequences of the golfer's numerous affairs. "Cry me a river" has also been used regarding the self-inflicted woes of celebrities ranging from philandering South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford to perennial parole violator Lindsay Lohan.

The expression is gaining renewed currency at a time when the song that inspired its use is having a remarkable resurgence. "Cry Me a River" was first released in 1955, and in the last two months of that year the jazz-pop singer Julie London began climbing up the music charts with her soft yet forceful crooning of these opening lyrics: "Now you say you're lonely / You cried the whole night through / Well, you can cry me a river / Cry me a river / I cried a river over you."

This jilted lover's revenge song soared to No. 9 on the Billboard pop charts in December 1955, inspiring hundreds of cover versions ever since, not including Justin Timberlake's original pop song from 2002 with the same title. Everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Björk to Aerosmith has recorded the 1950s composition, and in the past year, two of the world's biggest pop artists have lent to their voices to the river of remakes.

After Susan Boyle became a sudden singing sensation on "Britain's Got Talent" in 2009, a 10-year-old audio track of her belting out "Cry Me a River" found its way onto YouTube. Ms. Boyle rerecorded the song for her album "I Dreamed a Dream," which has sold more than nine million copies since its release in November 2009.

If that weren't enough, the song also found its way onto another multimillion-selling album released late last year. "Cry Me a River" is the opening track on "Crazy Love," Michael Bublé's fourth album, which debuted at No. 1 on both the Billboard pop and jazz album charts.

Known for interpretations of both standards and original songs, such as his self-penned hit "Haven't Met You Yet" from the same album, Mr. Bublé now opens his concerts with "Cry Me a River" and chose it as one of two songs to perform before Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. Mr. Bublé had long been attracted to what he sees as the song's sheer vindictiveness.

"A lot of the standards that you hear are very sweet, simple, sentimental songs about love—missing, loving, hoping and soft love," Mr. Bublé said in an interview. "With this song, there is a real depth. There's almost a darkness that sort of distinguishes it from so many other songs. Even if you listen to Julie London's version, it's very dark."

To dramatize this darkness and lust for revenge in the lyrics, Mr. Bublé and famed producer David Foster gave the song a background that recalls the classic James Bond movie themes. Recorded with a full symphony orchestra, "It's four minutes of theater," Mr. Foster says.

And at that recording session at Capitol Records' studio in Los Angeles, Mr. Foster invited a very special guest to be in the audience: Arthur Hamilton, the composer of "Cry Me a River," who has served as a sort of ambassador of the song to artists who have wished to record it over the past five decades.

Mr. Hamilton, who won't reveal his age except to say "I'm not 12," hugged Mr. Bublé after the session. (Says Mr. Bublé: "I should give him another hug, because these are songs that just come along once in a lifetime.") Mr. Hamilton marvels at the song's success over the past year and at the everyday use of the phrase, which he swears he never heard before he came up with it as the title for his work.

Mr. Hamilton said in a phone interview: "I had never heard the phrase. I just liked the combination of words. . . . Instead of 'Eat your heart out' or 'I'll get even with you,' it sounded like a good, smart retort to somebody who had hurt your feelings or broken your heart."

One concern he had with the title, though, was that listeners would think the song was referring to a river in the Crimea region of the Soviet Bloc. "I was nervous about that sounding like a joke, but sitting down and playing the melody and coming up with lyrics made it a nonissue," he says.

Still, the song was a tough sell. Mr. Hamilton recalls that 38 artists rejected the song, including top performers such as Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore and Perry Como. So he shared the song with London, a former high-school girlfriend who was trying to revive a stalled singing career.

After adding it to her set in a Los Angeles nightclub, London put the song on her first album, "Julie Is Her Name." The song became an instant hit and launched both London, who died in 2000, and Mr. Hamilton into new realms of success.

For Mr. Hamilton, who now lives in Beverly Hills and is still composing, the bitter song he wrote has meant contentment and financial independence. And he is gratified not only when he hears a creative cover of the song, but when its title is used as a clever retort.

"Its general use as a put-down phrase has continued to delight and amaze me," Mr. Hamilton says. "Whenever my wife and I are watching a film or TV show, and the phrase is used, we laugh and gently punch each other."