Category Archives: Great American Songbook


Six Versions of “My Man” – From Fanny Brice to Glee, Ballad to Broadway

I am fascinated by the different ways people can interpret the same song. Last week, I wrote a post about Billie Holiday and how I came to appreciate her and how the song that helped me to appreciate her was”My Man.” While I was looking up Billie Holiday’s many versions of the song on youtube, I came across several other versions and it was interesting to trace the evolution of the song: ballad, jazz, Broadway; from storytelling to an emotional display. So just for fun, here are six different versions of the song “My Man.”

Fanny Brice recorded this in 1921. She performed the song in the 1921 Follies for Florenz Ziegfeld and also had a hit record. The way she sings, it sounds like a torch song, though it is often described as a ballad. She sings it at the pace of a ballad. She was especially identified with this song. Primarily a comedian, she was also known to be able to break the hearts of her audience. I can understand why. Possibly sung as an interlude and not part of an overall plot, it has a self-contained storytelling quality to it and she even talks some of it.

In 1937, Billie Holiday recorded a jazzy version with Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra. I don’t think it has the depth of her later versions, though, though her work with Teddy Wilson is considered some of the greatest jazz ever recorded.

The words that come to mind are emotional pyrotechnics. In 1964, Barbra Streisand starred in the musical “Funny Girl,” with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill. The story is inspired by the life of Fanny Brice and the musical was later made into a movie in 1968 and included the song “My Man”. An entirely different singer from Fanny Brice, here Barbra Streisand lets ‘er rip, with a touch of defiance for good measure. I’ve always liked Barbra Streisand, partially because she was one of my mother’s favorite singers.There’s something electrifying about her performances and I can’t help getting swept up in it, even if it’s not always subtle.

I am not familiar with Glee, apart from hearsay, but I thought this clip was interesting since it is a direct homage to Barbra Streisand’s version. We’ve come a long way from 1920s ballads/torch songs and 1930s jazz. It’s funny, but although Barbra Streisand sang in Broadway musicals, I never thought of her as a Broadway singer. I think of her as a superior pop singer (that may not be an entirely fair assessment – she is versatile and could sing jazz, pop and Broadway). But this is pure 21st Century Broadway belting. The word for this song is waterworks (cousin to Anne Hathaway’s tearful, choked-up version of “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables). It is a style of singing that places more emphasis on the emotion the singer is personally feeling than on the words being communicated by the singer. But she seems too young to be singing this song.

Here is a unique example I came across from the soundtrack for Boardwalk Empire (another show I am only familiar with by hearsay). Regina Spekter is the singer and the best word I can think of to describe this song is ironic. She drips irony. She seems to be mocking the genre, the torch song, the eternally suffering woman. Or is she mocking something else? I would be curious to know the context in which this song features in the show. It made me think of a drinking song.

I can’t help including my favorite version of the song again, even though I featured it on my previous post. I mentioned that the girl from Glee was too young; here is Billie Holiday’s most mature and moving version and makes the last several versions seem shallow in comparison. This is the only version I have found where the performer displays heartache and yet dignity at the same time. Most versions I’ve heard are meant to be a raw display of emotion, but so much emotional honesty can also turn you into an object of pity. To have a breakdown in front of someone is to give a little piece of yourself away (Frank Sinatra once said of Judy Garland that “every time she sings, she dies a little”). There is no self-pity with Billie Holiday. She is telling us about her love; it is her decision and she has accepted it. She is not asking for pity. In that way, she retains her autonomy from the audience. She has reserved a part of herself for herself and apart from others and while the song is tragic, you respect her, too. And like Fanny Brice, she has slowed the song way down and is engaging in a sophisticated form of storytelling.


Posted by on May 22, 2015 in Great American Songbook


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Billie Holiday Sings “My Man”

Billie Holiday with Louis Armstrong from the movie New Orleans

Billie Holiday with Louis Armstrong from the movie New Orleans

When I first became interested in American popular music – the music that is now referred to as The Great American Songbook – the singers I most often listened to were Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Doris Day. They are extremely accessible singers, particularly Ella Fitzgerald, and one of the factors that particularly led me to Ella Fitzgerald were the songbook albums she recorded. Her first songbook recording was The Cole Porter Songbook in 1955. She went on to record a songbook for Harold Arlen (most famous for the songs in The Wizard of Oz), George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer (a lyricist more than a composer) and Jerome Kern. There is no better introduction to all these composers or to the Great American Songbook than these albums by Ella Fitzgerald.

However, there was one singer I have constantly heard described as one of the finest interpreters of the Great American songbook, despite the fact that she is known primarily as a jazz singer: Billie Holiday.

But Billie Holiday has taken me some time to appreciate. Known for her artistry as a singer, she is not known for a lovely voice. In fact, her voice has been described as “raspy” by some and she is not what I would call easy listening. You have to concentrate more on her than you do on Ella Fitzgerald.

I recently read a book called Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth by John Szwed. The book is less a biography and more of an appreciation of her art as a singer. He discusses her voice, the songs she sings, but mostly how she sings them. It is a book that requires that you periodically go to youtube to hear what he is describing otherwise his descriptions can be difficult to follow. The other difficultly I had with the book is that he seems to assume that the reader is already familiar with the “myths” of Billie Holiday. There’s been a lot written, but not a lot known for certain, especially about her early life. But I really did like his focus on her music rather than on her life and it went a long way in helping me to appreciate her.

Billie Holiday had a very limited vocal range, so one of her trademarks was to flatten the songs somewhat, repeating certain notes. She would also often slow down songs, much slower than anyone else was singing them, and she sang with a somewhat looser rhythm. Szwed described it at one point as floating above the accompaniment, though she would always catch up rhythmically when she needed to. Billie Holiday began singing in nightclubs, which had a more intimate setting, and another feature of her style was a confessional approach to singing, almost as if she were talking rather than singing.

The song that finally helped me to really hear what Billie Holiday was doing was a 1949 live performance of the song “My Man,” with Jimmy Rowles at the piano. It’s a tragic love song, about how she loves her man despite the fact that he is no good whatsoever and doesn’t love her, beats her (in contemporary recordings, the reference to beating is sometimes removed), and doesn’t even understand how much she loves him. This theme of loving a worthless man is fairly common to songs of that era (why don’t we ever hear men sitting around singing songs about how much they love their worthless women?), but the feeling behind the song, the way Billie Holiday sings it, is deeply moving.

The song “My Man” was originally written in French in the nineteen-teens and called “Mon Homme.” It was popularized in America in 1921 by Fanny Brice, Ziegfeld Follies’ singer, actress and comedian. The song is still primarily associated with her, though Barbra Streisand has also sung it in the movie Funny Girl, which is loosely based on the life and career of Fanny Brice.

Billie Holiday first recorded the song in 1937. At the time, she was making a vast number of recordings with Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra. They were recording music for jukeboxes specifically for black audiences and now those recordings are considered, some of the finest jazz ever recorded. Her recordings with Teddy Wilson are also noted for the fine interaction between Holiday, who said she wanted to use her voice like an instrument, and the improvisation of the instrumentalists.


Posted by on May 15, 2015 in Great American Songbook


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“April in Paris” – by Vernon Duke and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg


“Place du Theatre-Francais, Spring” by Camille Pissarro: wikimedia commons

Vernon Duke is not as familiar a name as his friend and mentor’s, George Gershwin. Vernon Duke was born Vladimir Dukelsky and studied to be a classical composer before he and his family fled during the Russian Revolution. In America he met George Gershwin and when he began to write popular songs, at Gershwin’s suggestion, he changed his name to Vernon Duke, though he still had an extremely prolific career as a classical composer under the name Vladimir Dukelsky.

Vernon Duke is probably best known for writing the songs for  the musical “Cabin in the Sky,” which was later made into a movie in 1943 with Ethel Waters, Lena Horne and Eddie Anderson (“Taking a Chance on Love”). His other most famous song  is “April in Paris,” written for a revue in 1932 called “Walk a Little Faster” with lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, who is familiar to most people, without being commonly known, for his lyrics to Harold Arlen’s songs in The Wizard of Oz.

Oddly enough, “April in Paris” was not considered a success after the revue closed, but seems to have gradually gained momentum through the years until now it is considered a standard of American popular songs.

This is my favorite version of “April in Paris,” sung by Sarah Vaughan with trumpeter Clifford Brown, from their album together.  This seems to personify “melodramatic lyrics and urbane music,” quoted on the invaluable site Jazz Standards from Philip Furia’s book on Tin Pan Alley.

in 1952, Doris Day and Ray Bolger starred in the film April in Paris, which was not a success, but featured the song and when Doris Day also recorded it, it was a hit for her.

According to Jazz Standards, it was this 1956 recording by Count Basie and his Count Basie Orchestra that made this song a jazz standard and not just a popular song.


Posted by on April 15, 2015 in Great American Songbook


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