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Tag Archives: Great American Songbook

“My Funny Valentine”

My Funny Valentine” was written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for the musical “Babes in Arms” in 1937. Oddly enough, the song did not make it into the 1938 film adaptation with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney (they passed up having Judy Garland sing that song!), but has since become a standard. And since today is Valentine’s Day, here are a number of interpretations of this lovely song.

Ella Fitzgerald

Barbra Streisand

Chet Baker

Miles Davis

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2017 in Movies

 

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Irving Berlin During the 1920s

imagesNovember 16th was National Flapper Day over at Movies Silently and I had wanted to join in with a post of my own on the music of the era. However, I was unable to do so last week, owing to a variety of activities. Today, however, I am on the ball!

I just finished reading Irving Berlin: American Troubadour and the breadth of his career amazes me. He only played on the black keys of the piano, had very little schooling and no official musical training, but he was extraordinary. His first hit came during the 1910s and he was still writing songs in the early ’60s.

Jerome Kern once said that “Irving Berlin had no place in American music – he is American music.” Berlin could adapt to the different musical tastes of the times (until rock, that is – no one adapted to rock, as far as I can tell) and wrote rag, ballads, novelty songs, holiday songs, patriotic songs, nearly every kind of song there is.

He also believed in hits. Unlike Rodgers and Hammerstein, he was not as interested in having his songs fully integrated into the story, though he certainly intended them to make sense in the context of the story. But he liked his songs to be stand-alone hits outside of their original musical. This is why far fewer of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs are now jazz standards compared to Rodgers and Hart or Berlin or Cole Porter.

But because Irving Berlin liked hits, he liked the revue format rather than the musical story format. One of his best scores was composed for “As Thousands Cheer” in 1933, which was a revue starring Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb, and Ethel Waters. He wrote “Heat Wave,” “Easter Parade,” and “Supper Time.” The conceit was that different newspaper headlines would morph into musical numbers. It was also the first show were an African-American performer (Waters) received top billing with other white performers.

But quite a few hit songs we now associate with Irving Berlin were written during the 1920s for different musical revues. He composed the music for a Ziegfeld Follies. He also co-owned a theater – The Music Box Theatre – where he put on several Music Box Revues.

What follows is a brief survey of several of Berlin’s enduring hits written in the 1920s.

“Blue Skies (1926)

“Blue Skies” was dedicated to Berlin’s first daughter, Mary Ellin, when she was born. The song was actually interpolated into a musical – “Betsy” – which was being scored by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The actress, Belle Baker, was not pleased with their songs and asked Berlin for a song she could sing. A year later, Al Jolson would make history by singing it to his mother in The Jazz Singer. The song was recorded by a number of people during the late 1920s, along with the bandleader Ben Selvin and His Orchestra.

The Song Is Ended But the Melody Lingers On (1927)

I couldn’t find out anything at all about this song, except that it was published in 1927. This version is sung by Annette Hanshaw, an even more popular singer than Ruth Etting, it seems. Her years of greatest popularity spanned from the late twenties to early thirties. Her trademark was to say “That’s all” at the end of singing and she was the quintessential flapper/singer.

What’ll I Do (1924)

Introduced in Irving Berlin’s third Music Box Revue, this version is sung by Walter Pidgeon, who I had not realized could sing. Reportedly, when the song was heard in England, many people wanted to know what a “whattle” was.

Always (1926)

Irving Berlin wrote for and literally gave this song to his wife, Ellin, when they were married. All royalties for the song belonged to her. Their romance had been a strained one. Her wealthy father disapproved and tried to detach Ellin from Irving Berlin, partly because he was Jewish. Eventually, Berlin and Ellin eloped, but were hounded by the press. It was only after many years later, after Berlin and Ellin unexpectedly lost their newborn son, that Ellin’s father reconciled with the family.

The performer is Nick Lucas, both singer and guitarist, who’s career spanned the 1910s to 1980s.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2016 in Music

 

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“I’m Old Fashioned” – Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercery

Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth

Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth

“I’m Old Fashioned” was introduced by Rita Hayworth in You Were Never Lovelier (1942). Well, sort of. It was introduced by Nan Wynn, dubbing for Rita Hayworth (she dubbed Hayworth’s voice in several films). I’ve always wondered what people how Rita Hayworth and Cyd Charisse really sounded like when they sang, since they were invariably dubbed. Vera-Ellen was always dubbed, but I heard her sing on the 1944 Broadway Cast Recording of Connecticut Yankee and I can see why they never let her do her own singing (listen for her, here). Her voice could possibly pass as an Ado Annie, but does not match her dancing.

Jerome Kern has always seemed to me to be one of the most hummable, lyrical and deceptively simple composers of his era. He’s rarely flashy and “I’m Old Fashioned” seems like a quintessential song for him. Gorgeous, gorgeous melody. Fred Astaire did complain during the making of Swing Time that Kern’s music rarely swung (as Duke Ellington put it, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing), but for me the beauty of his melodies is high compensation.

As JazzStandards notes, many songwriters loved Fred Astaire as a singer. He introduced more hits than nearly anyone else, by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin. He didn’t have an amazing voice, but, and I wish I could remember in which book I read this (it might have been Puttin’ On the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography), he sang a song exactly as the song was written and when one wishes to study the songs of these composers, there’s no better singer to turn to than Fred Astaire.

I used to be rather lukewarm about Rita Hayworth’s dancing. It’s hard to put my finger on why. I don’t feel the same feeling of flow; every move feels a bit like a discrete move rather than one continuous whole. Like it’s not coming easy and she’s very conscious of her dancing. But maybe it’s just me. And I’ve been warming to her dancing. But in any case, it is still a gorgeous, extraordinarily romantic dance. One of Fred Astaire’s most romantic.

The music in the background is provided by Xavier Cugat’s Orchestra.

And now for the lady who has introduced me to nearly all the great songs by the great composers. It would feel incomplete without her.

I’ve not traditionally been as big a fan of the saxophone as an instrument and been a little bit intimidated by John Coltrane. However, I’ve been listening to his ballads recently and have become enchanted. His version of “I’m Old Fashioned” is my favorite so far.

I think what’s been challenging for me is that John Coltrane is not someone I just put on in the background. I have to really listen and hear and when I listen and hear, there is so much depth and richness in his ballads…it’s very moving.

Cassandra Wilson is a jazz singer I have only recently become aware of, because she’s a contemporary singer and my knowledge of contemporary performers is quite poor. However, I’ve been reading about jazz and trying to become acquainted with the jazz of the present era. Her version of “I’m Old Fashioned” is quite a bit more up-tempo. JazzStandards writes that “Wilson reinvents the song, taking it from melancholy ballad to frenetic love letter.” She shows that even Jerome Kern can be exhilarating.

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2016 in Music

 

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