This is the 41st post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Twenty years ago this week, “The X-Files” aired what would be remembered as its most notorious episode: the dark and violent “Home.” Set in rural Pennsylvania, the episode focused on the inbred Peacock brothers, the eldest of whom fathered the other two, and whose limbless mother was kept under a bed on a rolling cart. At night, the Peacocks would drive around town in a Cadillac, bludgeon people, and listen to Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful! Wonderful!”
The episode made enough fans – and executives – squeamish that it only aired on Fox one more time, in 1999. It was the most graphic and disturbing hour of the series, which says something for a show that featured a fluke monster, a man who crawled through toilets, and aliens whose faces melted into green goo.
Johnny Mathis was apparently so turned off by the episode that he didn’t give permission for the show to use his version of “Wonderful! Wonderful!” Instead, the version heard in “Home” is by a “sound-a-like” named Kenny James.
In a 2015 interview with The New York Times, “Home” writers Glen Morgan and James Wong explained how the episode took on its own mythology, and why it was so important that “Wonderful! Wonderful!” be the song used in the episode. Morgan explained,
I personally find sweet melodic pop songs creepy. My mom had been a big Johnny Mathis fan and I always found the tone of “Wonderful, Wonderful” creepy and unsettling and had been looking for a situation to use it in a show. It has nothing to do with the words. It is the orchestration and that odd lonely whistle that disturbs me. I don’t know why. When I write horror, I listen to the Rhino CD box set “Have a Nice Day: Super Hits of the ’70s.” I just find it all disturbing. Maybe as that is the music from my teenage years and that is the most horrifying stage of anyone’s life.
And now anyone who sees the episode will find that song creepy, too. Morgan and Wong have imprinted themselves — and their characters — onto the history of the song. But they are only part of the song’s history, and a rather late addition to it at that, as the song was almost 40 years old when “Home” aired in 1996.
Johnny Mathis grew up performing and singing, as his father had worked in vaudeville. By his late teens, Mathis had a manager, Helen Noga. She had found out that George Avakian, an executive at Columbia Records, was on vacation near Ssn Francisco, where Mathis lived. She arranged a meeting, and after Avakian heard Mathis sing, he sent a telegram to his colleagues to tell them to send blank contracts to sign Mathis.
Mathis attended San Francisco State University on a sports scholarship as a high-jumper. In 1956, he was asked to try out for the US Olympic Team. He passed, instead going to New York to make his first recordings. Though his self-titled 1956 debut album received praise from critics, it did not chart. But a September 1956 recording session with Ray Conniff And His Orchestra And Chorus resulted in “Wonderful! Wonderful!”
Written by Sherman Edwards, with lyrics by Ben Raleigh, “Wonderful! Wonderful!” became Mathis’ first hit, reaching Number 14 in the Billboard charts. It was a pretty innocuous song about the shared moments between the two halves of a couple:
Sometimes we walk, hand in hand by the sea
And we breathe in the cool salty air
You turn to me, with a kiss in your eyes
And my heart feels a thrill beyond compare
Then your lips cling to mine, it’s wonderful, wonderful
Oh, so wonderful, my love
Sometimes we stand, on the top of a hill
And we gaze at the earth and the sky
I turn to you, and you melt in my arms
There we are, Darling, only you and I
What a moment to share, it’s wonderful, wonderful
Oh, so wonderful, my love
And yet there’s a part that will sound a little dated to modern ears:
Some quiet evening, I sit by your side
And we’re lost in a world of our own
I feel the glow of your unspoken love
I’m aware of the treasure that I hold
And I say to myself “It’s wonderful, wonderful
Oh, so wonderful, my love”
In hindsight, with our knowledge of the heteronormative culture of the 1950s, it’s easy to cringe at that line, “I’m aware of the treasure that I hold.” But even when sung by women, that line is weird, because the premise of referring to your partner as a “treasure” to “hold” is, well, just unsettling.
English singer Gary Miller released a version in the sumer of 1957. With loud horns at the beginning that sounded like the 20th Century Fox theme and drums that had the cadence of a march, Miller’s “Wonderful, Wonderful” sounded more like a song to sing to USO audience rather than a partner. Even his vocals had a theatrical quality, as he managed to make “my love” have at least five syllables.
That same year, English singer Ronnie Hilton released a slower version of the song, in which he stretched out the words even more than Miller had. Over lush, soaring strings, Hilton sang each word thoughtfully, as he were picking each word then and there.
And stretching out the words even more was opera singer Jan Peerce, who sang it as if it were a song in an old-timey musical. Mathis sang it like a breezy, jazz-inspired pop song, but Peerce sang it as if he was telling a story to a rapt audience. Or singing at a funeral.
In the late ’50s, the song had its first of many jazz interpretations. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins recorded an instrumental jazz version for his third album, “Newk’s Time.” The sprawling six-minute version meandered into many tangents from the original arrangement, with some great sax and piano solos.
English jazz musician Tubby Hayes recorded an even longer “Wonderful! Wonderful!” — coming in at more than eight minutes — for “Tubbs,” released in 1961. Hayes went down some diverging paths, but stayed a little closer to the source material than Rollins.
Jazz guitarist René Thomas did a funky, instrumental version of “Wonderful, Wonderful” for his 1963 album, “Meeting Mister Thomas.” It was stream-of-conscious, moving from mellow guitar to organ parts that sounded like they played by a ballpark organist. Which is not a bad thing.
The Tymes was a vocal group from Philadelphia, originally called The Latineers. The group’s 1963 debut album, “So Much In Love,” had three charting singles: the title track, which reached Number One; “Somewhere,” which peaked at Number 19; and “Wonderful, Wonderful,” which peaked at Number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. Stylistically, The Tymes’ version of “Wonderful, Wonderful” didn’t sound drastically different from Mathis’ version. But it was an enjoyable version nonetheless, with its snaps, harmonies, and “oooohs” and “ahhhhs.”
Bobby Rydell, whose 1960 song “Wild One” peaked at Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, released a version of “Wonderful! Wonderful!” in 1963, the same year he appeared in the film adaptation of “Bye Bye Birdie.” His version, like The Tymes’, was faithful to Mathis’, such that it was nearly impossible to distinguish the backing instrumentation.
The Supremes recorded “Wonderful, Wonderful” for its 1966 album, “I Hear a Symphony.” Diana Ross’ voice will stand out on most tracks, so this version sounded different from the previous versions from the second she began singing. But beyond that, the subtle horns and strings separated the instrumentation from the others, which were nearly identical to each other.
Susan Rafey’s album “Hurt So Bad” featured a version of “Wonderful, Wonderful” that had a certain dreamy Holland-Dozier-Holland feel to it such that it had more in common with the contemporary pop music of the mid ’60s than the orchestral sound of Mathis’ 1956 version.
Lo-fi band Sebadoh recorded a slowed-down “Wonderful, Wonderful” that sounded like it was recorded in a basement. Specifically the creepy basement from “The Blair Witch Project.” Appearing on “Sebadoh III,” this version featured Lou Barlow crooning over fuzzy drums and distorted guitars that sounded appropriate for a Halloween funhouse.
Fred Lipsius, who played saxophone and keyboards for Blood, Sweat & Tears, released an instrumental version on his 2006 album, “Pure Classics.” Unlike Rollins’ jazz version, Lipsius’ “Wonderful, Wonderful” didn’t stray much from the original arrangement.
That same year, English/Australian singer Anita Wardell featured a version of “Wonderful, Wonderful” on her album “Noted.” Wardell’s history of singing scat informed this version, as half the words were, well, not really words at all, but just sounds she sang along with the music. And it was pretty good. Wonderful, even.
The following year, jazz singer Amy London’s album “When I Look in Your Eyes” featured a slower “Wonderful, Wonderful.” Sung over piano, this version sounded perfect for a cocktail lounge, or a cruise ship. Or a cocktail lounge on a cruise ship.
Whenever there are multiple versions of a song in one particular genre, it’s worth looking at why that might be. Particularly when discussing a song that has several covers in a style separate from the way in which it was first performed. When I reviewed “Kids In America,” I remarked on how many punk and emo bands had covered the song, especially when Kim Wilde’s source material was new wave, not punk. My theory there was that the post-punk scene, particularly the then-burgeoning new wave, was ripe for much of what had defined punk, and a song about youthful energy seemed like the perfect fit for punk, a genre known for youthful energy.
Similarly, it makes sense that a song first sung by Johnny Mathis would lend itself to jazz interpretations. His take on “Wonderful! Wonderful!” might not be considered jazz, but he has delved into the genre, as it suits his voice and style so well. In a 1982 review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Perhaps underneath the polished balladeer, there is still a jazz singer struggling to get out.”
But for all the great vocalists and jazz musicians who have performed this song, it’s hard to not think of its connection to pop culture. And by that, of course, I mean “Home,” though “The X-Files” is not the only TV series to use the song dramatically.
When “Desperate Housewives” ended its eighth and final season in 2012, the series finale included a montage of the show’s characters participating in three big events: the wedding of two characters, the birth of two other longtime characters’ baby, and the death of another character. That montage was set to Mathis’ “Wonderful! Wonderful!” and even incorporated the song, as the character who died played the song over and over on a record player until dying. I typically abide by the rule that if a show has been off the air for five years or more, the show’s plot spoilers are fair game. As it’s only been four years since “Desperate Housewives” ended, I won’t name who got married or who had a baby or who died, just in case. If you haven’t watched the series but plan to, watch the clip below at your own risk. And have the tissues nearby.
But as moving and affecting as that scene is (and let’s be clear, I choke up ever time I watch it), “Wonderful! Wonderful!” didn’t have the same lasting impression with “Desperate Housewives” as it did with fans of “The X-Files.” Perhaps because being moved by emotion doesn’t stick with you as much being scared shitless and repulsed?
If you haven’t watched “Home” or if you’ve never watched any episode of “The X-Files,” this might sound hyperbolic and melodramatic. But if you won’t take my word for it, poll your friends. Seriously. You could play that “Wonderful! Wonderful!” in a room of people, and I promise you that anyone whose seen that episode will have a noticeable reaction. Just as Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses” is tied to the deranged Buffalo Bill in “The Silence Of The Lambs” and Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck In The Middle With You” is marked by “Reservoir Dogs,” the feral Peacock family is now part of “Wonderful! Wonderful!”