Navigate the site using the links below

Big Spender

This is a unique song. I can think of no other that even distantly resembles it.

It comes of course from the great 1964 stage musical Sweet Charity with music by Cy Coleman. It occurs early in the show, when we've met Charity but haven't seen her colleagues, the Fan-Dango Ballroom dance hostesses, at work. Of course in the 1960s there was no such creature as a dance hostess; the girls should be prostitutes for the story to make sense. Anyway, Big Spender shows us these jaded ladies go through the motions of pretending to be turned on by and interested in the sorry losers who show up as their prospective clients. Ethan Mordden describes the number as ".. an exhibition piece for the Fan-Dango girls, posing and beckoning at a bar they hold, sit on, straddle, pet and all but make love to, while the music gets so merrily filthy that it does in sound what Fosse does in movement."

The reference to Fosse reminds us what a huge impact he made with his staging of all the numbers in Sweet Charity, but Big Spender is also a great triumph for Coleman and Fields. From the six notes in the unforgettable vamp, and the first line of the lyric The minute you walked in the joint, the song grabs the listener's attention. Unusually, Coleman and Fields worked at the piano together on this song, melody and lyric developing alongside one another.

Dorothy Fields' celebrated skill in the use of colloquialisms is well on display in this lyric; her sure ear for contemporary speech is astounding for a woman in her sixties.

The minute you walked in the joint,
I could see you were a man of distinction,
A real big spender.
Good-lookin', so refined,
Say, wouldn't you like to know what's going on in my mind?
So let me get right to the point.
I don't pop my cork for ev'ry guy I see.
Hey! Big Spender,
Spend a little time with me.

The phrase I don't pop my cork for ev'ry guy I see is the perfect illustration of Dorothy Field's maxim to "inhale the idiom" rather than reproduce clichés. She created that expression, just right for the characters.

The lyric closes with Nickie's spoken proposition "How 'bout it, palsy?" (recalling a song written with McHugh in 1935, Palsie Walsie) followed by the girls chorusing "Yeeeaaah".

A great moment on stage (and in the faithfully recreated screen adaptation) but how does it fare on disk?

I have three cast recordings and Big Spender is excellent on all of them. The original Broadway and London casts have very similar versions, but I'd give the edge to London; the orchestra is livelier, and the girls put more oomph into so refined and wouldn't you like to know what's going on in my mind. They let loose a bit more on the triple cries of Hey! big spender as well.

The JAY studio cast recreates the score as performed on stage and the Big Spender track starts with a tearful reprise by Charity of You Should See Yourself. The scene shifts, the Big Spender vamp starts, but instead of going straight into the song, we hear the girls calling out to the clients. Each of the first few remarks starts with the word "Hey":

Hey mister, can I talk to you for a minute, what's the harm in a little talk?
Hey good-lookin', I like your hair.
Hey mister, got a cigarette for me?

When they start the song, the version is very similar to the other cast recordings.

Several singing ladies have recorded versions of Big Spender. (As have Queen, but I haven't heard their version.)

Peggy Lee and Shirley Bassey have had big hits with it. Personally I can only enjoy Bassey when she's dealing with a song which is already eccentric (or in the case of Goldfinger knowingly preposterous). She and Big Spender certainly suit each other - a knock-out performance. Peggy remains Peggy. Her stock-in-trade is not salaciousness, but a more restrained, knowing sexiness, and her version is delicious - she finishes the song with a high note on the last spend a little time with ME.

Dorothy Fields herself sang it in her recorded concert, with Cy Coleman at the piano and joining in with the final Hey! big spenders. Not a definitive rendition, but nice to hear.

Julie Wilson included it in her cabaret tribute to Cy Coleman. In the live recording she plays with the audience a little ("Are you shy?"). Her ravaged voice, splendid as it is, can not blare out the Hey! Big Spender lines, and this weakens the impact somewhat.

Morag McLaren's fine version is the closest to the stage treatment, including ending with a How 'bout it, palsy?

The most unusual arrangement is the one on Randy Graff's Cy Coleman tribute disk. Graff has the perfect voice for this song - penetrating and rich, but with great control. It took me a while to get over my conservative tendencies and appreciate this version, but I've grown to like it a lot. There is an accompaniment by what sounds like the organ from a carousel, and the swirling tempo gathers pace as the song progresses. It finishes with the sound of a coin dropping, spinning and settling. Neat.


All rights reserved.......... © Jon Aldous 2006.......... Contact Me