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The Melody Lingers On: The Eyes Have It

"If you are playing what people want to hear you can't go wrong...'' In this delicious column Tony Thornton tells of his days as a cruise ship musician - and of a large American lady who loved Spanish Eyes.

In 1952, when I was a young boy, my parents took me on holiday to Edinburgh. We went to a variety show starring Al Martino (my mother swooned at the mention of his name). His big hit that year was Here In My Heart which the first ever top of the hit parade – the charts began that year.

Al Martino also had another hit with Spanish Eyes – a rather ponderous song with a predictable melody line but pleasant enough. My mother loved it and almost wore out the record.

Twenty years later I was with a cabaret trio that had just joined a P&O cruise ship. We were playing in a lounge during the afternoon where passengers took tea, talked and listened to the music. We had just completed a medley of ‘songs from the shows’ when a lady approached. She was American, six feet tall and big – if you know what I mean!

She drawled: “Hey! Can you guys play Spanish Eyes?” Well, of course we could and said so. She chatted for a while and ended with: “I’ve been on this boat for two weeks and I still haven’t got laid!” We played Spanish Eyes as she breezed away. At the same time she caught a waiter’s eye, pointed him our way and a round of drinks soon arrived.

That evening, we were playing in one of the ship’s nightclub bars when the drummer spotted the American coming in through the door. “Spanish Eyes is here,” he called. “Play the music!” We struck up smartly. The lady cocked an ear then smiled across at us in appreciation as she headed for the nearest unattached man. She caught a waiter’s eye, pointed him our way and another round of drinks arrived.

We were new to the cruise ship scene but it didn’t take us long to refine this unexpected windfall. We were regularly asked to play requests and the drummer got the job of matching music to faces. He scanned the door for people on his list (he could do this because he wasn’t reading music!) and called out the music title when one of them came in. We switched immediately to the requested tune, which never failed to delight.

Although it’s true that we valued the stack of drinks that built up behind the bandstand (a musician’s pay was poor in those days), we were genuinely pleased to be satisfying our customers. They felt special, singled out and flattered. If you are playing what people want to hear you can’t go wrong.

To this day, whenever I hear Spanish Eyes, in my mind’s eye I can see that American lady – and I wonder: did she ever get laid?

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