In Stardust Melodies: A Biography of Twelve of America’s Most Popular Songs, author Will Friedwald takes these legendary songs apart and puts them together again, with unprecedented detail and understanding. Each song’s history is explored — the circumstances under which it was written and first performed — and then its musical and lyric content.
Friedwald, the author of Jazz Singing: America’s Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond and Sinatra! The Song is You, discusses the songs that make up his terrific book in a Jerry Jazz Musician interview.
Interview hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.
JJM What was your inspiration for this book?
WF There were two basic ideas behind it. The first was that I wanted to show how the whole continuum of American music, particularly classic popular music — including music from Broadway and Hollywood — is essentially one music. There are all different subdivisions of it, but basically it’s the same music. Virtually all of American classic pop and jazz is an interconnected music, to a degree more than may have been realized. The obvious connecting points are the songs themselves. They are the lifeblood of what drives everything in this form of music. The other idea is that I wanted to demonstrate that the American popular songs are the only form of music that really demands different and unique interpretations, because when you get to the world of classical music, it doesn’t really make sense to play Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony any other way than the way Beethoven intended it. You could play it slightly faster or slower, and you could interpret certain sections, but you couldn’t do any massive re-imagination of it. It wouldn’t pay to do the Pastoral Symphony as a mambo or a polka or the blues. On the other hand, with pieces like “My Funny Valentine” or “St. Louis Blues,” the only reason for performing these songs is to do them in a new way. Because the song has been done so much, you wouldn’t want to do it the way someone else did it before. This is fairly unique among world music. I don’t think it’s something that is true of Irish music, or Tex-Mex, or world folk music, or world popular music. I don’t think it’s really true of songs by the Beatles or Bob Dylan, or even to an extent pure jazz compositions. You wouldn’t necessarily want to do a song by Thelonious Monk either, but it is one of those defining characteristics of American popular music.
JJM I find that real interesting. Towards the end of the book, you suggest that one of the ironies of jazz is that the songs that were composed specifically as jazz pieces are rarely improvised.
WF That is true. Certain jazz compositions do and others don’t. The major works by Charles Mingus, Monk or Billy Strayhorn are performed pretty much as written, and they frequently include some of the composers own idiom.
JJM You wrote in your introduction, “The potency of pop music derives from its immediacy and intimacy, empowering the music to move us on a deep level, and in a way that few other artistic mediums can.” How did you settle on the songs you chose to profile?
WF I was not trying to stand up and declare that these are the best, most popular, or most frequently recorded songs. In fact, I am sure there are way more recordings of “These Foolish Things,” or “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” which are songs not chosen for the book, than a song like “Lush Life,” which I did choose for the book. The idea was that I wanted to pick songs where there was a real history, and where there were numerous unique interpretations. One song that we had to consider was “White Christmas,” which may be the single most popular song of all time. The only thing wrong with that is that there aren’t many different versions of it. There are Latin versions of it, and there are R&B versions of it, but they are all sort of similar. They are all kind of reverential, they are all slow, and they all play essentially like a sacred holiday song. There are very few versions of “White Christmas” that really swing, that are treated irreverently, and for that reason we decided not to include it. Plus, I didn’t think I could listen to 100 different versions of it!
JJM Sure, if you are going to do a book, you may as well have some fun with it.
JJM I especially liked the sociological profiles of the songs. Were you surprised by what you learned from any of these stories?
WF I found that quite interesting too. For instance, in “St Louis Blues,” W.C. Handy would deliberately try to come up with a song, trying to use blues melodies he didn’t really claim to have written — he just claimed to have heard them. He tried to put together a compilation, almost, in a single song, of blues melodies that would really touch people, that would reflect an idiom of black music that existed in 1914. He consciously and deliberately tried to pick tunes for this purpose. One of the things he did was include a Latin strain. There already was this wide set influence in the black community and the American mainstream community for tangos and Latin music and he deliberately incorporated that in to “St Louis Blues” as early as 1914.
JJM How did “Stardust” get to the point of being the most played staple of the swing era?
WF “Stardust” was one of these compositions that had an incubation period in the twenties, and a lot of major jazz musicians of the next generation grew up with it. By the swing era it was a piece all the bands had to play, because it was one of the defining works, sort of like the national anthem that everybody had to play. It was a staple of the swing era and almost every band had their own version of it. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and even Duke Ellington played “Stardust.” At that point it was still being done as a dance piece in tempo, and over the years it has gotten slower and slower. It was never done as a red hot, screaming fast piece, but it was always a dance number, even though it was more meditative and contemplative than other jazz works of the same era. The piece was always somewhat slower than other pieces but over the years that increased. Bing Crosby was the first to sing it as a very slow ballad with a verse, and to sing it like a love song. Since then, the song has become grander and grander and ever more meditative and contemplative, to the point where you have an epically slow, beautiful Nat King Cole/Gordon Jenkins version of the late fifties. Then you have the Sinatra record of 1961, which makes the piece into such a tone poem, and it only uses the verse. Sinatra was trying to make the point that you could everything you want with the song with just the verse, you don’t even have to sing the chorus.
JJM What is the definitive big band version of “Stardust?”
WF Artie Shaw would tell you it was his version, but there are so many great ones. The Benny Goodman, a couple of nice versions by Glenn Miller, too. I am pretty sure that you won’t get much of an argument if you say the Artie Shaw version. It is a wonderful treatment. There is the famous 1941 version, and there is a 1940 version that is a little bit more conventional. The 1941 version is fairly unique in that there are just three solos, whereas the 1940 recording is more like a dance band piece, and has more of a beat to it. The earlier one only existed as an air check, but it is quite lovely too. In fact, Artie Shaw said he likes that one as much as the more famous 1941 version.
JJM “Stardust” once matched the unlikely duo of Johnny Hodges and Lawrence Welk. What did you think of that recording?
WF It’s ok. It doesn’t sound like Lawrence Welk, it sounds more like a regular studio band. It’s not a very wonderful arrangement of it. They give you a lot of Johnny Hodges, and there is nothing wrong with that. Of course, its not as good as other Johnny Hodges records, but it’s not an embarrassment.
JJM W.C. Handy, who wrote “St. Louis Blues,” created music that attempted to take the entire black experience and make it palatable to white listeners and dancers. Was “St. Louis Blues” his first success with this concept?
WF The story goes that he had originally written a song called “Memphis Blues” that was a big hit. However, in his naiveté, he allowed the songs to be stolen from him, so he was not able to benefit from its success. But when he wrote “St Louis Blues” just a few years later he made sure that he owned it, and that he kept the publishing rights. It was an even bigger hit than “Memphis Blues.” He had improved his craft to the point where he wrote a song that spoke of the black experience to the entire mainstream audience, in which appeared the first radically successful use of the word “blues” in a popular song. Handy was probably the first to claim that he actually used the blues at all, but it certainly can be documented it was the first time the word “blues” was in such a big hit song — where a large mainstream audience became aware of the concept of the blues.
JJM Why is it that bebop bands only rarely addressed this song?
WF By that point it had outlived its welcome, although there are some versions. Dizzy Gillespie did it quite a few times, and there are some other noble bop versions, but bop had their own version of the blues to play. In the fifties and sixties, the older songs they were playing were not the up-tempo blues numbers, they were going for the ballads. They were more likely to play a piece like “Body and Soul,” which is one that has never wore out its welcome, right until this very day.
JJM The most famous version of “Mack the Knife” may be Ella Fitzgerald’s, on which she seemingly loses track of the lyrics and creates her own, scatting throughout. Was her rendition of this song staged?
WF I don’t know. The version you refer to was in 1960, in Berlin, where she makes a big show out of forgetting the lyric. She might have. The way it came out was so perfect, but on the other hand, Ella was a great improviser. I could go either way. I could believe to a degree that it was staged, but I could also believe that it was completely spontaneous. She was consistent because on the other occasions she sang “Mack the Knife” she does scat, but she never gets up and claims to have forgotten the lyrics again other than that one time. Even when she scats, she doesn’t do the words, but she drifts off into this scat without making a point of forgetting the words. So, it could be either way. She didn’t contradict herself, although it could be that there was a tape from Berlin the next night or the previous night that I have never heard, where she also makes a show out of forgetting the words, so who knows?
JJM Louis Armstrong needed to be convinced to record this song because he thought it was a little bloodthirsty…
WF Yes. I heard that he had to be talked into it, but at the same time, I have another story that has producer George Avakian insisting that when Louis heard it for the first time, he said, “I used to know guys like that in New Orleans.” I am not sure which of those is true. According to Avakian, who was there when Armstrong heard it for the first time, he agreed right away to sing it. But, according to other accounts, he thought it was a little bloodthirsty. Many of these songs have conflicting stories, which make them more interesting.
JJM Apparently, Turk Murphy did the arranging for this particular song, and when he gave the music to Armstrong to consider, Armstrong lost it?
WF Yes, he had a valet that was supposed to be taking care of it, so he had to learn it again at the station where he was playing the actual recording session. He was somewhat familiar with the song, but he was going to sight read the entire arrangement on the date. But he was a great sight reader and it wasn’t that complicated of a song.
JJM The song “Ol’ Man River” is so connected with one performer, Paul Robeson, and his one performance. How important was his performance of “Ol’ Man River” to your decision in choosing to profile this song?
WF “Ol’ Man River” is such a staple of American popular music that it was a song we pretty much had to do. Yes, Robeson was amazingly important. He was the inspiration for the song, but, interestingly, he wasn’t the first to sing it. It was written for him, more or less, but by the time it was actually completed, Robeson was in Europe and had obligations to fulfill over there. Consequently, he couldn’t do the Broadway opening. He did the very next production, the one that opened in London a few months later. Of course, he played it over and over for the next few years. He played it in the 1932 Broadway revival, and he played it in the 1936 film. It very definitely was written for him and for a Robeson-like figure in mind. I don’t think it could have been written without him. It was written for a very simple, home-spun sort of character who was also capable of thinking these deep, profound thoughts which is then expresses in poetically simple language. It is a contradiction between the deep and profound and the simplicity of the language.
JJM There was some doubt among the writers and investors about whether or not this song would be a hit. The Hope Diamond was at stake here?
WF Well, that is one story. The original version of Showboat was four hours, and they were desperately looking for something they could cut. Ziegfeld felt they should cut “Ol’ Man River,” which made absolutely no sense since it was the number one song in the show. One of Ziegfeld’s investors was the woman who owned the Hope Diamond. This is show business lore, and there may be no way to substantiate this, but the story goes that the woman who owned the diamond made Ziegfeld promise to keep the song in, and if it wasn’t the hit of the show, she would make him a present of the Hope Diamond. Of course she was right, so she didn’t have to give up the Diamond when the show opened. It was a blockbuster, a big, big song that spawned tons of recordings, and was very widely distributed. It is a song that crept into the American vocabulary very early on. It’s a song that affected people, but it wasn’t an immediate jazz standard. Right from the beginning there were all kinds of jazz bands who were swinging it rather than playing it as a reverential anthem. They were making it an up-tempo jazz number, and musically it is really not all that different from “I Got Rhythm.” When you hear swing versions, there is a similar melody.
JJM You write in the book, “On this classic version of ‘Body and Soul,’ Coleman Hawkins and the tune are friendly for about two bars, getting along marvelously, before they unexpectedly part company. Hawk may be thinking about the tune here and there, maybe even stealing a glimpse at it, but he never looks straight at it.” Can you talk a little about Coleman Hawkins and the significance of his recording of “Body and Soul?”
WF Hawkins is the one who made the switch from what they used to call “melodic improvisation,” where a tune is personalized by playing it fast or slow, to “harmonic improvisation,” where you look at the chord changes and what you play is based on the tune. Chord changes amount to free flowing improvisation based on these changes as opposed to the melodic line. Hawkins was probably the musician most responsible for doing that. In fact, the player that really made harmonic improvisations the norm for jazz was Charlie Parker, who was very deeply affected by Coleman Hawkins. After Hawkins and Parker, it was really difficult to go back to just playing the melody.
“Body and Soul” was the perfect song for Hawkins because it was so harmonically rich, and in addition to having a great melody, it is such a musically challenging song. Johnny Green, the man who composed the tune, was a real boy genius, an absolute musical maven who was knee deep in harmonies and chords and coming up with anything musically. He put all of that into “Body and Soul,” and as a result the song is really a challenge, or, as Gary Giddins would put it, “a gauntlet thrown down for every major improviser.” It was as popular as any song or as important as any song in the development of the sea change in jazz, to a great degree in part due to what Coleman Hawkins did with it.
JJM There are many different versions of the lyrics…
WF Yes. It’s funny, the song was first heard in England, and then they brought it over to be in a Broadway show, Threes a Crowd. It was a hodge-podge where there were lots of different composers and lyrics in the same show. They kept trying to rewrite the lyrics to “Body and Soul,” and the end result is that nobody really quite remembers what the original lyric was or what it was supposed to be. At least two or three different versions of it are out there, particularly in the thirties. One singer would do one lyric to “Body and Soul,” and another would do another lyric. It gets a little confusing. I don’t think that Henry Red Allen, for example, does the same lyrics as Billie Holiday. Eventually they came out with a set sheet music edition, and that itself was a hodge-podge of the best of all the various versions.
JJM Why was George Gershwin’s Girl Crazy such a major event for jazz music?
WF Girl Crazy was a big pop culture event on several levels. For one, it was a Gershwin show with lots of pep and energy. There were wonderful lilting melodies and wonderful ballads and torch songs, like “But Not For Me” and “Embraceable You.” But basically the thrust of the show was rhythmic. The climax, the big number, and the most important song in Girl Crazy was “I Got Rhythm,” which was a piece that not only became a great show tune and made a huge star of Ethel Merman, but it instantly became a great piece of jazz as well. It went on to inspire generation after generation of jazz musicians, starting with the very same musicians who were in the pit band of Girl Crazy.
During that time, a traditional Broadway pit band had two pianos, lots of strings and some horns. Because it was such a rhythmically driven show, they wanted a really jazzy sound from the ensemble, and for that reason they got an all star jazz group, including the orchestra leader Red Nichols, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Jimmy Dorsey. May of the musicians in that band would go on to become celebrity band leaders in a few years, most notably Goodman.
“I Got Rhythm” is the one piece of music that could really stand for everything that the American musical idiom had to offer, whether it was pop music, show music or jazz. It was an absolute rallying cry that united all the different factions of American music in that single 32 bar song.
JJM How did Gershwin settle on Ethel Merman for the part in Girl Crazy?
WF The story she always told is that Ginger Rogers, who was already cast, heard her performing in a vaudeville theatre, and invited her to meet the producer, who was looking for a second female lead. The producer loved her and introduced her to the Gershwin brothers, who also loved her. At that point she was working as a stenographer, and one of the things that amused Gershwin was when they read her the lyrics, she took them down in shorthand. He also told her don’t ever forget how to do shorthand in case she needed to go back to it. It was thought that Gershwin wrote “I Got Rhythm” for Ethel Merman, but it had actually been written by the time they met. When the audience heard Merman’s projection, tone, and energy combined with the song’s rhythm, it was an absolute show stopping event. The show could actually not continue until Merman had sung it a couple more times.
JJM That must have been something to see
WF Yes. She held this one note for something like 16 bars or 32 bars, depending on which account you read or what you ascribe to the power of human lung power. In any case, she was able to hold this one note a very long time, and while she admitted it wasn’t beautiful or sensitive or sweet, it was exciting for her to get up and blast out a note like that. It absolutely tore the house down. It was a sensation that has never been forgotten.
JJM “As Time Goes By” was immortalized in the film Casablanca. Something I found interesting about this piece is that Nat Cole never recorded it. Maybe you could explain why?
WF My own theory is that the song became so identified with the iconic image of the black character Sam, who sings and plays the piano in Casablanca. He became an absolute American icon. I have a feeling that Nat Cole didn’t want to correspond to that, and he didn’t want to feel as though he were recapitulating that particular image. Of course, this is just a theory. Nat Cole was quite generous and if large numbers of people wanted him to sing and play “As Time Goes By,” it’s likely he would have done it. But, I believe for that particular generation, many of the major black entertainers like Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine and Ella Fitzgerald, didn’t want to be perceived as being somehow comparable to Dooley Wilson’s Sam in Casablanca. For that reason, I am saying they may have avoided the song. It is purely conjecture, but when you look at the history of this song, it seems that most of the black musicians of that generation avoided the song. It is also quite interesting that Bobby Short, who may be the most logical musician to perform it, so far hasn’t.
JJM It seems as though, as you say, they didn’t want to connect their career with the Dooley Wilson character
WF In the movie, Sam is on some level Rick’s best friend and seems his equal, but on many other levels he is often quite subservient. I can see how black entertainers trying to stress their own independence and their own freedoms would not want to be connected with Sam at that point.
JJM Concerning “Night and Day,” you wrote, “If any one tune can be said to have established the Astaire aesthetic – his combination of elegance, rhythm, and pure passion – it’s “Night and Day.” You go on to say that, “Fred Astaire is widely acknowledged as having introduced more standards into the American songbook than any other vocalist.” Can you talk about the “Astaire aesthetic?”
WF The amazing thing about Astaire is that nobody ever considered him being a singer or possessing a great voice in the way Vic Damone or Robert Goulet have great voices. He was primarily a dancer, yet nobody was ever more prized by the great theatrical and upper echelon of American songwriters and Broadway composers than Astaire. He had a great ability to make a song a hit and beyond that, to make a song into a really memorable experience. Everybody wanted to write for him – Irving Berlin, the Gershwins. In fact, the only major team who did not write for Astaire were Rodgers and Hart, and it turns out that they had actually written the whole score to the Broadway show On Your Toes for Fred Astaire. While it is easy to imagine him doing it, at that point he was strictly committed to Hollywood and was not about to do another Broadway show. In the end they got Ray Bolger, who was not a bad second choice, and that score made a big star out of Bolger for a few years. So, everybody wanted to write for Fred Astaire because nobody could make an event out of a song the way he could.
“Night and Day” came from a show called Gay Divorce, and when Hollywood filmed it, they trashed the whole score because they didn’t want to pay out the royalties to Cole Porter to use his music. This was fairly common and it is why whenever you see a film of a Broadway show none of the original songs are in it, because they didn’t want to pay the royalties. But, they had to keep “Night and Day” because it was the big hit from the show — the song that drove the whole show. It was one of the biggest hits of the entire decade. By the end of 1932, absolutely everyone knew all the lyrics to “Night and Day.” It became a classic American standard, and it was a song that never went away. Unlike other songs that were popular, went away, and experienced a revival, “Night and Day” was done over and over again from the beginning, and it almost never fell out of favor. There are versions of it from every single year, and it was especially popular during World War II. They couldn’t take it out of the Gay Divorcee, the film of Gay Divorce, so they made it the centerpiece of the film, and it really established the Astaire tradition of having this big romantic partner dance with Ginger Rogers in the middle of the movie.
JJM It was very popular in Europe as well, wasn’t it?
WF Yes, there were tons of European versions. It is very interesting because when Porter was a young man at the turn of the century and into the twenties, America looked to Europe for sophistication, and everything that was swanky and first rate and elegant came from Europe. By the time Porter wrote “Night and Day,” it was just the opposite. You had all these Parisians and Londoners and people from far flung parts of the world, trying to be as sophisticated as Cole Porter’s New Yorker.
JJM Regarding the song “Stormy Weather,” Ethel Waters referred to songwriter Harold Arlen as “the Negro-est white man I ever knew.” He wrote songs with black performers in mind, and worked on shows with “all colored casts.” Who did Arlen have in mind when he wrote “Stormy Weather?”
WF “Stormy Weather” was originally written for Cab Calloway. The beginning of the song is quite dramatic and Arlen imagined Calloway doing it. It is an easy connection to make. Even today you can imagine Cab Calloway doing it. As it turned out, it was written for a Cotton Club review, and they didn’t get Calloway, so they wound up getting Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington, which as far as Arlen was concerned was even better. They were trying to get Waters to do the Cotton Club review but she didn’t want to do it. For some reason, she was wary of appearing at the Cotton Club, and the song that finally changed her mind was “Stormy Weather.” When they played that song for her and told her it would be part of the show and that she could sing it, it made all of the difference. The song for a long time was very closely identified with Ethel Waters, who introduced it. Her record of it was something of a hit during the depression. Ellington cut an instrumental version of “Stormy Weather” at around the same time, and his record was also a very big seller, which was unusual for a black man to have a record that was played all over the place. The recording was a big cross over.
“Stormy Weather” was a song that had many masters. While Ivie Anderson didn’t sing it at the Cotton Club, she did sing it on the road with Ellington, and she sang it when they played in London. She made a fantastic impression with that song, and for many years it was very closely identified with her, almost as much as it was Ethel Waters, although she didn’t record it until many years later. After that, Lena Horne took over the song when she sang it in the 1943 Century Fox film, which was one of the only really big all black Hollywood musicals.
JJM You point out that “Stormy Weather” was played as a World War II propaganda song sung by both sides.
WF Yes, that’s right. There was this group called Charlie and His Orchestra, which was a Nazi sponsored swing band, if you can imagine such a thing. This band was broadcast playing American popular standards and hits with what they considered to be demoralizing anti-American, anti-English, anti-Churchill, anti-Roosevelt lyrics — in many cases very anti-Semitic. On the other hand, there are all these records of Glenn Miller playing the song with his Army/Air Force band, broadcast directly to the Germans, which did not include anti-Hitler lyrics. He played the original song and the original lyrics. He wasn’t going to stoop to Nazi Germany tactics and rewrite the words. But the Nazis did do this special version that was specifically anti-Churchill that said something like, “When I go to war with the Germans I am beaten all the time,” as sung from the perspective of Churchill. Today it would be funny if it weren’t so horrendous or sick and disgusting, but it is interesting that the same song could be considered a potent weapon of war by both sides of the conflict.
JJM About “Summertime” you wrote, “Billie Holiday not only makes ‘Summertime’ into a blues, in her hands it’s almost a civil rights anthem. The entity that will spread its wings and take to the sky is not merely an individual baby but an entire race, and, beyond that, all oppressed peoples everywhere.” Explain your interpretation please?
WF That is one interpretation. To me, her reading of “Summertime” has a very defiant, almost Afro-militant undertone to it, although all the major soloists on that record are in fact white performers, Artie Shaw and Bunny Berrigan among them. I found this undertone of militancy very interesting, and really confirms the opinion that “Summertime” is a tune that, more than most any other song, probably expresses different meanings to different people. It was written in a work, Porgy and Bess, that George Gershwin described as an opera but it wound up being billed as a folk opera, which is not necessarily a term he approved of. He didn’t want to call it a folk opera, he just wanted to call it an opera. But, “Summertime” is a piece that was written to suggest a folk or traditional lullaby, and at that point there were many crossovers of traditional music and folk music, and particularly religious music and concert music. A performer like Paul Robeson had made a career out of singing spirituals and traditional black songs like “Motherless Child” in concert settings. When the Gershwin Brothers and Dubose Heyward wrote Porgy and Bess, they were sort of feeding into that. They knew that was one outcome. At the same time, because it is black folk music, the undercurrent of the blues existed in it and made up a component of the song. So, “Summertime” can be seen as a lullaby, a show tune, a concert piece, an aria for a formerly trained singer like the woman who introduced it, and it also was a piece that was suitable for a blues type performance. Over the years, there are even more different approaches to it that evolved. I do think that the Billie Holiday version has a blues invective that comes across as defiant. When she sings those lyrics, it may not be what she had in mind, but to me the idea about somebody spreading their wings and flying suggests a message of liberation, of civil rights, of freedom and of taking a stand.
JJM You suggest that “Summertime” is perhaps the most enduring of the songs that you profile
WF There are just so many different versions of it. There are fast and lively, and slow. It’s a song that has been done in so many different ways by so many different performers, and it’s also practically the only song ever that you are as likely to find in an opera singer’s repertoire as a blues singer’s or as a pop singer’s or a jazz singer’s. It’s a piece you don’t even have to adapt because there is already this inherent tradition of doing it in all these different mediums.
JJM It’s a song that fans latch on to for whatever reason. When I see an album that I am intrigued by, if “Summertime” is on it, I am more likely to buy it than one where it isn’t. It is fun to listen to how people treat the song.
WF It’s true.
JJM How did “My Funny Valentine” emerge from all the other great songs in Babes in Arms?
WF “My Funny Valentine” had the unfortunate and fortunate circumstance of being in an amazing hit show called Babes in Arms, in which there were so many wonderful songs. Rodgers and Hart had two major shows in 1937, and the other was I’d Rather Be Right. It was a rare example of a Rodgers and Hart show where the songs were not the driving force in the production. The driving force in I’d Rather Be Right was returning the legendary song and dance man of the turn of the century George M. Cohen to the theatre, playing Franklin Roosevelt. It was such a great idea that everybody went to see the show for that purpose alone, and it was icing on the cake that you had this great Rodgers and Hart score. There were some fine songs in that score, but the only one that survived to become a standard was “Have You Met Miss Jones?”
Earlier that year they came out with Babes in Arms, which was very much a song driven show, a show where you came to see singing and dancing. Practically every song in the show was a hit. There were five absolute blockbusters, and another five really good songs. Among the hits were “Johnny One Note,” “Where or When,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” and eventually there was “My Funny Valentine.” All the other songs in the show among the big five were hits right at the time, and were widely covered and heard at the time with the exception of “My Funny Valentine,” which got overlooked because there was so much great music in that show. It was barely even recorded and there is scant record of it from 1937, when the song was new. There are tons of early recordings of the other songs, particularly “Where or When.” Benny Goodman did that song early on and there are many great versions of it.
“My Funny Valentine” was so very much overlooked that it never even appeared on the first three or four Rodgers and Hart compilation albums of the era. The song was still pretty much unknown until the early fifties when Chet Baker did it with Gerry Mulligan, and then Sinatra did it and Miles Davis as well. After that, it caught on incredibly fast, almost as if it was a new hit song in the early to mid fifties, when you got this avalanche of versions of it. People quickly discovered what a great song it was, that by the late fifties, it may have been the most covered song ever.
JJM Charlie Parker recorded it early on, and the jazz musicians seemed to fall in love with it.
WF Yes. It appealed to jazz musicians because it had such challenging harmonies in addition to a great melody. At the same time it appealed to singers because the lyric was so strong and had a great ambiguous, ambivalent lyric that could be interpreted to mean so many different things. It is a song that was not just a simple declaration of ‘I Love You,’ but it had a profound undercurrent going throughout. It was an amazing piece of material on every possible level.
JJM You say of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” that “no other song depicts the love styles of the highbrow and sophisticated as movingly as ‘Lush Life.'” How does this song reveal what you call “the dark underbelly of romance?”
WF Strayhorn is considered one of the great jazz composers, like his mentor and employer Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk, which is of course where he belongs. But Strayhorn wasn’t looking to be a jazz composer, as far as I can tell. He really wanted to be the next Noel Coward. He wanted to be Cole Porter. He wanted to write these sophisticated love songs as Porter and Coward were known for. There is this whole tradition of songs — Cowards’s could be the prototype — about the rich and sophisticated and the incredibly wealthy who one would think would be happy, and yet they are not because they have been unlucky in love. That is generally the great contrast in these songs, to think that money can buy happiness but rich people can have a broken heart and sing the blues too. That seems to be a very potent idea, particularly during the depression, “If I only had a job,” “If I only had some bread on my table I would be happy.” But all these songs communicate that even rich people are unhappy, so maybe you should feel better about yourself. That may be the underlying thing. That may be what Strayhorn was trying to write. If you have to worry about putting food on your table, you don’t have time to think about a broken heart, but if you are rich enough to not have to worry about that — if you are so wealthy that you can actually afford to jaunt off and spend a week in Paris just like that — then you are obviously quite well off at that point, and that is what Strayhorn was trying to write. He succeeded.
JJM He was real protective of this song. He wanted to keep it for his own personal property and you mention that there was really only one vocal rendition that he liked, and that was of Billy Eckstine
WF He happened to like Billy Eckstine’s, but there might have been others. That is the only instance I know where he admitted to liking a version of “Lush Life.”
JJM Is there an artist who recorded a quality version of each of the 12 songs you profiled?
WF That would be great if I could find one performer who did everything. Tony Bennett did almost all of them except “St. Louis Blues.” I don’t know if he ever did “Stardust” or “Mack the Knife,” but he did everything else. Sinatra did practically all the songs. He tried to do “Lush Life” once, but that is about as far as it goes.
JJM You mentioned Armstrong a lot
WF There was a lot of Armstrong, a lot of Ellington. The heroes of the book, or at least the players who come up in almost every chapter are Ellington, Armstrong, Sinatra and Bennett.
JJM Is there anything that you want to add?
WF This is a very rich and vibrant art form. One of the things I realize since the book came out is that I have seen all sorts of great song versions I wish I thought of. For instance, I can’t believe I left out Sidney Bechet’s version of “Summertime.” That really should have been in there, and I am not sure how it got by me. I wish I could have done a book on each one of these songs, because there is so much to say about them individually. On the whole, it has been really satisfying and as rewarding for me in writing it that I hope it is to people who read it.
A Biography of Twelve of America’s Most Popular Songs
by Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald products at Amazon.com
Interview took place on August 2, 2002
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with American popular standards expert Max Morath.