It might surprise you to learn that “What a Diff’rence a Day Made” (sometimes known as “What a Difference a Day Makes”) actually began as a song written in Spanish by a very talented lady who’d previously relocated from Mexico to New York City. Of course, it didn’t become a familiar song to most of us until Dinah Washington won a Grammy with it in 1959, but it began life way back in 1934 with the title, “Cuando Vuelva A Tu Lado” (“When I Return To Your Side”), written by María Grever.
Born as María Joaquina de la Portilla Torres in Mexico City in 1885, she was just a child when she moved with her family to her father’s native Spain, but she was already pointed toward music. As she grew older she studied in France, at one point working with legendary composer Claude Debussy, and she continued her musical education after moving back to Mexico as a teen. Adulthood brought marriage to an American oil company executive and an eventual move to New York, where she had a long career as a musician and as a prolific composer.
When Grever’s song was published in 1934 it was retitled and given English lyrics by Stanley Adams, making it a little more accessible to American musicians. One of the bands that recorded it that same year, the Dorsey Brothers orchestra, had a solid-selling record with the song, but it still didn’t make much of a splash for the next couple of decades. That ended in 1959 when Dinah Washington made it her first big hit record, one that would eventually show up in the Grammy Hall of Fame. (In the rare video below, she’s introduced by a future president.)
Sadly, Grever had died a few years before that but her legacy continued to build in subsequent years as her song became a popular choice for many singers. Some of the best records included those by Dean Martin, Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Sarah Vaughan, and Edie Gorme, who performed the original Spanish version on her album, Canta En Espanol.
Dorsey Brothers Orchestra w/ Bing Crosby – “What A Diff’rence A Day Made”
When reading about the music world of the 1960s and 1970s, you sometimes see the term ‘bubblegum pop’ used to describe many of the best-selling records of the era. It refers to a type of music that was characterized by a light, upbeat sound with a catchy melody and the occasional singalong chorus, all meant to appeal to young music fans. Not surprisingly, it was disparaged by ‘real’ musicians, including the group that many say had the very first #1 song of the type — the Lemon Pipers and “Green Tambourine.”
The Lemon Pipers came to life in the mid-1960s as a quartet playing student bars in the Cincinnati area, in the nearby college town of Oxford. A little unpolished at first, with a preference for psychedelic music, the group manged to make a record but it didn’t create much of a stir. The next step proved to be a key one though — Ivan Browne came aboard as lead singer, joining Bill Bartlett, Reg Nave, Bill Albaugh, and Steve Walmsley to make a quintet.
The newly enlarged Lemon Pipers soon signed a contract with Buddah Records, which did result in increased exposure and more popularity. However, the guys found that they were heavily leaned on to make the kind of music they didn’t much care for — bubblegum pop. And when “Green Tambourine” came along the producers were proven right. The record was issued in late 1967 and by early the following year it had risen to the top of the charts.
Naturally enough, Buddah Records (which reportedly had ties to organized crime) pushed the group to continue recording what the band sometimes referred to as ‘funny-money music’. Follow-ups like “Rice Is Nice” and “Jelly Jungle” did well but didn’t approach the upper reaches of the charts, and the group gradually got more control of its output, recording harder-edged songs like “Ask Me If I Care.” But sales still trended downward, and in 1969 the group dissolved.
Lemon Pipers – “Ask Me If I Care”
Pianist and songwriter Don Robertson, who is still around and now in his nineties*, is probably most remembered for his 1956 gold record of “The Happy Whistler.” But he always said that he didn’t really consider himself an expert whistler, and if you examine the arc of his career there’s little doubt that it’s been chock full of other musical happenings. He’s been especially successful as a songwriter, furnishing hits for guys like Elvis Presley and many others. (Including a chart-topper for Lorne Greene that we wrote about recently.)
Born in China, the son of a renowned doctor and scientist who was at that time a director at Peking’s medical college, Robertson was taught piano by his mother, who had many talents of her own. A poet and playwright who was also a talented pianist, she began teaching her son all about music when he was only four.
When the family relocated to Chicago the youngster continued to flourish musically during his school years, even learning other instruments to play in his high school band, and also earned a little money on side working with various small groups. But he also seriously considered followed his father into a medical career. In fact, when he entered college he majored in pre-med with a minor in music, but eventually dropped out and began to work as a music professional, mostly arranging.
World War II was winding down by then, and Robertson was finding some career traction by working as an accompanist for the Dinning Sisters, a trio that was part of the amazing Dinning Family. It was the beginning of a long and successful career for Robertson, who was soon working in Los Angeles clubs with one of the sisters, Louise (Lou), who was undertaking a solo career. He was also beginning to have some real success as a songwriter, and would eventually furnish an endless list of tunes for some of the biggest names in music, among them Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, Faron Young, and most notably, Elvis, who recorded 14 of his songs.
In addition to songwriting he stayed busy as a performer through the years, often in collaboration with some of the biggest names around, but he didn’t put his ‘whistler’ away permanently. You can hear it in the video below, along with his ‘Nashville piano’ playing style, which would provide inspiration for Floyd Cramer and others.
You can read more about Don Robertson and see a list of his songs HERE.
*Not to be confused with the classical composer of the same name, who is a couple of decades younger.
Don Robertson – “The Happy Whistler”