July 26, 1966
“The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” by Jack Jones
#1 on the Billboard Easy Listening Singles chart, July 23-29, 1966
Miguel Cervantes’ 17th Century novel Don Quixote — often considered the first true novel — is often described as one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Nevertheless, the attempts to adapt the tale of the “mad knight” and his romantic, fantasy-strewn journey are notoriously plagued with difficulties, with artists from Walt Disney to Orson Welles to Terry Gilliam falling prey to the Quixote curse.
Ironically — or perhaps appropriately, given the Don’s improbable quest — it was a production that seemed destined for obscurity that became the definitive 20th Century version of the Quixote legend.
When it opened in 1965, the musical Man of La Mancha faced competition from such now-established classics as Sweet Charity and Mame. Its source was a 1959 made-for-TV production I, Don Quixote, which writer Dale Wasserman had already unsuccessfully attempted to adapt into a non-musical play.
Composer Mitch Leigh was a jazz musician whose previous credits consisted mostly of commercial work and incidental music. Lyricist Joe Darion was a late substitute for famed poet W.H. Auden, whose lyrics were considered too dark and satirical for a mainstream production. Even the title Man of La Mancha was potentially too obscure for general audiences, who might know Don Quixote as little more the nutjob who tilted against windmills.
Against the odds, however — much like Quixote himself — Man of La Mancha became the hit of the season, eventually garnering five Tony Awards in 1966, including Best Musical.
Much of Man of La Mancha’s success can be credited to its breakout song, “The Impossible Dream,” Quixote’s statement of purpose for why he chooses to embark on his unlikely journey. In fact, “The Impossible Dream” is the only song most people know from the musical, and it’s repeated several times to ensure that the audience is humming its soaring melody long after they exit the theatre. Appropriately, a month after the Tonys, “The Impossible Dream” climbed to #1 on the easy listening charts in a version by young vocalist Jack Jones.
Jones’ version modified the lyrics somewhat — replacing references to loving “pure and chaste from afar” and marching “into hell for a heavenly cause” with more generic lines — and switched out the show’s distinctive brass- and guitar-dominated score with a more strings-heavy, typically pop orchestration.
Yet Jones also retains the song’s aptly off-kilter 9/8 time signature and inspirational spirit, where glory comes not from triumphing over the odds, but in facing the odds that are solidly against you and striving anyway. “This is my quest, to follow that star / No matter how hopeless, no matter how far” Jones/Quixote sings in the song’s most stirring section, nobly striding into inevitable failure. The song’s parenthetical subtitle, “The Quest,” further emphasizes the importance of the process over the result.
Jones was well-suited for as interpreter of “The Impossible Dream” — not only because his tasteful but impassioned reading keeps the song from veering into slick, motivational-poster kitsch, or because his father, actor and singer Allan Jones, became famous for classic film musicals like Show Boat (1936) and The Boys from Syracuse (1940). (Coincidentally, the elder Jones starred in a stage production of Man of La Mancha in the early ’70s.)
More personally, however, Jack Jones had a similar man-out-of-time quality as Don Quixote, who yearned for the days of chivalry and knights errant. Jones was only two years older than John Lennon, but he seemed to be of an earlier generation, one that dressed in tuxedos to sing ballads from Broadway shows.
While pop culture turned toward rock ‘n’ roll, Jones carried on performing the music he loved. Despite the fact that he’d never become the major celebrity he might have been a decade or two earlier, it was his quest, and he followed his star.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.