“Ethel Waters, the gleaming tower of regality who knows how to make a song stand on tip-toe.” Brooks Atkinson
Ethels’ power to get a song up on its feet was never more evident than in her rendition of Quicksand written especially for her by the team of Al Dubin and James Monaco for the WWII morale booster, “Stage Door Canteen.” Charming the Canteen crowd and orchestra leader Count Basie with her radiant smile, Ethel makes drowning in quicksand sound like a good thing. As one of nineteen songs featured in the film and sandwiched in between a bit by gossip columnist, Elsa Maxwell and a “strip” by Gypsy Rose Lee – Quicksand goes by like the rest of the numbers: a pleasant diversion performed by a well-known personality.
While most of the Dubin/Monaco songs from “Stage Door Canteen” were published and one was even nominated for an Academy Award, Quicksand fossilized into the celluloid. Ethel Waters probably never sang it again. No sheet music, no recordings. Dubin and Monaco’s creation was forgotten in the files -no one even remembered to copyright it until 1994. Quicksand is a weird and wonderful tune that had the disadvantage of being stuck in the wrong movie. It is a lowdown song of defeat in a film whose sole purpose is to keep spirits up and hopes high.
Al DUBIN AND JAMES MONACO
Al Dubin and James Monaco had written their first war song together in 1917. Though quite a bit worse for wear come WWII, they managed to marshal their resources to fire off eleven tunes for “Stage Door Canteen.”
“The two songwriters, aging hypochondriacle Monaco and obese junkie Dubin, made quite a pair.” *
While composing for the film, Dubin and Monaco had each taken a room at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood; Monaco with his wife, and fifty-two year old Dubin with his teenage girlfriend and her mother. The girlfriend wanted to be in the movies and saw the lyricist as her ticket to stardom. The mother had been hired at one time as Al’s nurse and was now his chief drug supplier. Heavy in every way, Al Dubin was going down.
In his heyday, Dubin’s lyrics were heard at New York’s famed Cotton Club. Al’s specialty was writing what his partner at the time, Jimmy McHugh called “knock down drag outs.” A couple of decades later, Dubin was knocked down and dragged out himself, unable to keep a regular work schedule with Monaco. According to Dubin’s daughter, Patricia Dubin McGuire (Lullaby of Broadway: Life and Times of Al Dubin), “Instead of writing lyrics to Monaco’s tunes as he had always done in the past, Al would write a lyric and slip it under the composer’s door in his room at the Knickerbocker.”
Monaco’s assignment then was to take Dubin’s Quicksand, full of devils and dead end streets and compose a tune suitable to the great Ethel Waters. The result of this marriage is a melody that dips and swirls down and around Al Dubin’s declaration of despair.
Despite their less than ideal working relationship and personal crises, Dubin and Monaco still had it in them to compose cornball toe tappers like, Don’t Worry Island, Sleep Baby Sleep In Your Jeep and She’s A Bombshell From Brooklyn. Quicksand is different. Just try to hum the tune after one listening. Then listen to it again. Strip away the movie and you are left with the song itself- one of Dubin’s old “knock down drag outs.” Listen to it another way and it could be the song that was playing itself out in Al Dubin’s room at the Knickerbocker Hotel.
*The Memory Lingers On: The Great Songwriters and their Musicals/ Roy Hemming