Never on Sunday

"Ta Pediá tou Pireá" ("The Children of Piraeus"), composed by Manos Hadjidakis, is the theme song for Never on Sunday. Directed by New Yorker Jules Dassin, this scenic Greek-and-English-language film from 1960 starred Athens-born Melina Mercouri, who sang the song onscreen in Greek; it received the Oscar for Best Original Song, the first winner in a language other than English since the category had begun 26 years earlier. Alternate lyrics written by Billy Towne changed the meaning to include the 'Never on Sunday' reference; a version by The Chordettes reached the top 20. A French translation by Italian superstar Dalida ("Les Enfants du Pirée") was number one in France. The famous "Lili Marlene" singer Lale Anderson (first name pronounced "la-la") did it in German as "Ein Schiff Wird Kommen," which topped Germany's music charts and also reached the Hot 100 in the U.S. By sheer coincidence, the most popular American recording was an instrumental by producer, arranger, songwriter and record executive Don Costa; it was his biggest hit as an artist, highlighting a multifaceted three-decade career.

A native of Boston, Costa was drawn to playing guitar during his teens and began doing studio session work after moving to New York in the late 1940s. He struggled to gain a foothold during those early years, writing arrangements for lesser-known bands and auditioning for small record labels. In 1955, at the age of 30, he had two singles on the Philadelphia-based Essex label, starting with "Hop-Toad," a strangely repetitive big band/rock tune billed to Don Costa with the Frogmen (featuring a drone-like voice reciting the title more than 30 times). A chance meeting with Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence led to a contract in '56 with the newly-founded ABC-Paramount Records, where he quickly became the company's director of Artists and Repertoire, working closely with his soon-to-be-married-for-life friends. Over the the next few years he produced and/or arranged major hits for George Hamilton IV, Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones ("Black Slacks") and Lawrence ("Footsteps"), as well as R&B acts Lloyd Price (the mega-hits "Stagger Lee," "Personality" and "I'm Gonna Get Married"), The Falcons and many others.

While at ABC, several orchestral singles appeared under his name: "Heart of Paris," "Magic Melody" (a mostly-spoken effort featuring singer Ginny Gibson) and one of many versions of "Around the World" (…in 80 Days, the theme for the year's must-see big screen experience). He induged his predilection for guitar, recording under a makeshift "nursery rhyme" name, Muvva (Guitar) Hubbard, releasing three singles at exact one-year intervals: original composition "Ponytail" in late 1956, a cover of Bill Justis's "Raunchy" in late '57 and "Whirlpool" in late '58, with a mixed bag of Costa-credited band instrumentals ("Tennessee Tulip," "Bolero Rock") in between.

Paul Anka, ABC-Paramount's hottest star of the late '50s, owed much to Costa, whose savvy production standards helped him reach the upper regions of the national charts again and again; he produced and arranged Anka's 1957 breakthrough "Diana" and several million-selling follow-ups. In the fall of '59, Steve and Eydie signed (together and as separate acts) with United Artists; Costa joined them and again took a top position in A&R. He recorded several instrumental albums over the next few years, sometimes using unusual titles and group names (Music to Break a Sub-lease by Don Costa's Free Loaders!), and enjoyed a few instrumental hits starting with "I'll Walk the Line" in '59, a slightly-retitled take on the three-year-old Johnny Cash smash.

"(Theme from) The Unforgiven (The Need For Love)," a Dimitri Tiomkin-Ned Washington song from director John Huston's western film starring Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn, entered the top 30 in July 1960 at about the time "Because They're Young," a song Costa had written with Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold (but didn't have anything to do with the production), became a major hit for "twangy" guitar slinger Duane Eddy, the most successful in Costa's sideline songwriting career. Next came "Never on Sunday," the unexpected hit with two distinct stages of popularity. Released in July, it entered the charts immediately, made a chess-bishop-type move of more than 30 positions into the top 30 a few weeks later, then zig-zagged around the region for the next few months, reaching a top 20 peak just before Halloween.

The Misfits, another motion picture by Huston that premiered in theaters in February 1961, turned out to be a last hurrah for its top-billed stars, Clark Gable (who'd already passed in November 1960) and Marilyn Monroe (whose tragic death occurred in August 1962, before she'd succeeded in completing another film). Costa's version of Alex North's theme was issued in December 1960 and made a brief chart appearance, disappearing before the movie had made it to theaters. The nominations for Academy Awards were announced and Never on Sunday landed five, including Dassin for Best Director and Original Screenplay and Mercouri for Best Actress (the first Greek nominated in this category, she followed Supporting Actress winner Katina Paxinou, who won in 1943 for For Whom the Bell Tolls). Athenian Deni Vachlioti got a nod in the Costume Design category and Hadjidakis came away the big winner for the title song (he wrote all but the title!) at the April 17, 1961 Oscar ceremony. This prompted a return to the Hot 100 for Costa's archetypal rendition of the theme; it spent a few more weeks in the top 40 in June and remained on the charts through late July, a full year after its initial release.

Don Costa

During his time at UA, Don played a big part in scoring hits for Lawrence ("Portait of My Love"), Ferrante and Teicher (he earned his first Grammy nomination for the arrangement of "(Theme from) The Apartment"), The Highwaymen ("Michael") and fellow guitarist Al Caiola ("The Magnificent Seven"). His arrangements for Frank Sinatra on the Reprise album Sinatra With Strings are highly acclaimed and he continued working with "Ol' Blue Eyes" through the coming years. In 1962, Don made records for Columbia including an update of Clyde McCoy's 1931 standard "Sugar Blues" featuring a trumpet solo by seasoned jazzman Ernie Royal; other singles include "Diamonds," a rocking guitar cover of the U.K. chart topper by Jet Harris and Tony Meehan. He produced and arranged several albums for Johnny Mathis and worked in the same capacity on two Barbra Streisand classics, My Name is Barbra, Two and Color Me Barbra, picking up a second Grammy nomination in 1965 for arranging Streisand's "He Touched Me" and another the following year for "If He Walked Into My Life" by Eydie Gorme.

Don established his own short-lived record company, DCP International, and released about five dozen singles in 1964 and 1965. Little Anthony and Imperials became the label's most successful act with several hit singles including the top tens "Goin' Out of My Head" and "Hurt So Bad." After signing with Verve Records, he had an opportunity to extend an earlier project. Illya Darling, a musical based on Never on Sunday, began a nine month run on Broadway in April 1967; directed by Jules Dassin, it starred Melina Mercouri as Illya, the same character that had made her a household name seven years earlier; the show received six Tony nominations including Best Musical, Director and Actress. Costa's recording of the title track made the top 30 of Billboard's Easy Listening singles, his first appearance on a national chart in five years.

His producing and arranging crossed pop, rock and soul music boundaries; The Temptations and Neil Diamond are just two of the acts he worked with in the late '60s. Hard work and longstanding collaborations and friendships resulted in a fourth Grammy nomination for Costa in 1980, accompanying Sinatra on one of his signature hits, "Theme from New York, New York." In 1981 Don's daughter, nine-year-old Nikka Costa, entered the music business as a singer and scored an international hit, "(Out Here) On My Own" (penned by siblings Michael and Lesley Gore for the hit film Fame), which featured her father on guitar. It was his final music credit. Heart problems had surfaced a decade earlier and in January 1983, at age 57, he died after suffering a heart attack, leaving behind a deep and diverse musical resumé. Shortly afterwards, Casey Kasem took a moment during an episode of his nationally syndicated radio show American Top 40 to pay tribute to Don Costa, saying his friend was not just an amazing, accomplished talent, but also "a nice man."

- Michael Jack Kirby


Never on Sunday