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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

It's New Year's Eve, a time when many of us will be gathering with friends and family to ring in the New Year with a party. For Sara Fishko of WNYC, the holiday season brings to mind a particular song that like no other has insinuated itself into these type of social gatherings. Here's her story.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

SARA FISHKO: It doesn't take more than a couple of beats to tell what the song is. And the impulse is to just join in. That's what traditionally happened when anyone started playing the jaunty bass part of the song "Heart and Soul." Somebody was always around to run over and play the melody. You just had to. One person told me she lived next door to someone and they both had pianos, so they'd play "Heart and Soul" through the wall, one playing the bass in one apartment, the one next door pounding out the melody in octaves. It was infectious.

What nobody remembers now is what "Heart and Soul" actually was. No, not a folk tune. Not some traditional song that's been around forever, but a fully composed pop tune. A hit of another era. Music by Hoagy Carmichael, lyrics by Frank Loesser. The year was 1938. It was their first collaboration.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Heart and soul. I fell in love with you heart and soul. The way a fool would do madly, because you held me tight and stole a kiss in the night. Heart and soul.

Mr. WILL FRIEDWALD (Author): Both Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser were in Hollywood and they both were under contract to Paramount Pictures.

FISHKO: Will Friedwald is the author of "Stardust Melodies." He reminds us that as unlikely a pair as these two songwriters were, the Indiana born Carmichael in mid-career, the New York boy, Loesser, just starting out, there was this moment that was theirs.

Mr. FRIEDWALD: They worked on quite a few projects in that particular period, which is about three or four years from the late '30s going up until World War II.

(Soundbite of song, "Small Fry")

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Small fry, dancing for a penny.

FISHKO: Their song "Small Fry" was written around that time too. "Heart and Soul" was one of their hits. It was introduced in a short film called "A Song is Born" with Larry Clinton and his orchestra. Clinton had discovered a young singer in her late teens named Bea Wain. She'd sung an eight-bar solo on the radio and Clinton said he knew right away she was what he wanted in a singer.

Ms. BEA WAIN (Singer): And he called me after "The Kate Smith Hour" and he says I'm starting a band and I'm looking for a girl singer and I'd like you to work with me. And I said to myself, he's crazy.

(Soundbite of song, "Deep Purple")

Ms. WAIN: (Singing) When the deep purple falls over...

FISHKO: Wain spent about a year and a half with Clinton and they had their share of hits. If you listen to the Clinton-Wain original version of "Heart and Soul," which, by the way, it went to number one in 1939, that familiar vein is right in there, that jagged rhythm that later piano players picked up on.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

Ms. WAIN: Heart and soul...

FISHKO: It's all conjecture of course, but pianist and writer Stuart Isacoff thinks the rhythm is a big part of what helped "Heart and Soul" take off to become the phenomenal favorite of party piano players.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

Mr. STUART ISACOFF (Pianist): It's easier to play a jagged rhythm and to stay in time than to play something smoothly and stay in time. So it's...

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

Mr. ISACOFF: In the sense, maybe this funny, raggy rhythm was a hook, and it just fired people up at the time and made the thing as popular as it is.

FISHKO: The raggy rhythm turned up in another Clinton-Wain hit of the same year, "My Reverie." But that song had a much more complicated melody. With "Heart and Soul," the two parts, top and bottom, were simple, and they presented themselves so clearly.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

Mr. ISACOFF: And then the same pattern again on a higher pitch.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

Mr. ISACOFF: And then downward.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

FISHKO: So it became this obsessive duet among amateurs. And the melody and chord structure were in a loop so you could keep playing it over and over and over again.

Mr. ISACOFF: Most people then play...

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

Mr. ISACOFF: That is not a part of the song. Somewhere along the way someone thought let's make it even more logical by just continuing the downward steps. Actually, I have the music here, and what Carmichael did was...

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

FISHKO: Because of its life as a party piano favorite, everybody knows the tune, but when it comes to singing it, everyone goes - heart and soul, bada, bada, bada.

Mr. ISACOFF: I can't think of that many cases where the lyric has even been done in the last 50 years. It's not known that much as a song with a lyric, even though it is a very nice lyric by Frank Loesser.

FISHKO: Nobody knows the bridge.

Ms. WAIN: (Singing) Oh but you're lips were thrilling.

(Speaking) That's the bridge.

(Singing) Oh so thrilling. Never before were mine so strangely willing.

Ms. WAIN: That's the bridge.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

Ms. WAIN: (Singing) But now I see what one embrace can do. Look at me.

FISHKO: After it hit, the singer Bea Wain took it out on the road to college proms.

Ms. WAIN: We played at Yale. We played at Harvard. And the kids would scream for the songs, "Heart and Soul" and so forth.

FISHKO: The fact is, it was really Bea Wain's song for a while. She sort of owned it and she put her stamp on it.

Ms. WAIN: I went for one of the high notes because on "My Reverie" it became because I took a high note at the end. And so I did that on "Heart and Soul" too.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

Ms. WAIN: (Singing) Heart and soul.

FISHKO: Plenty of people recorded it later.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) But now I see what one embrace can do. Look at me.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Heart and soul. I fell in love with you heart and soul.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

FISHKO: But the way "Heart and Soul" caught on, the way it delighted and excited piano players, well, that was something different, one of life's mysteries perhaps. Although Bea Wain has her own idea of why it was such a success story.

Ms. WAIN: Musically, '38, '39, the early '40s, those were the best times for our kind of good music. The songs were wonderful. And people could sing them themselves. And that's how they became hits as well.

FISHKO: This song though was more than just a hit. It was in the minds and hearts and souls and fingers of generations of kids hammering it out over and over.

(Soundbite of song, "Heart and Soul")

FISHKO: For NPR News, I'm Sara Fishko in New York.

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