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“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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How I learned to love The Great American Songbook

away-1“They can’t take that away from me…”

It began with Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger in Shall We Dance. Fred Astaire was singing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and I thought it was beautiful. I wanted to know who wrote it and where I could hear more songs like it.

It wasn’t the first time I had heard such songs. I grew up watching musicals, but as a child I found all “slow” songs boring. I wanted dancing, comedy and funny, upbeat music.

More accurately, it really all began after my grandfather died. One thing that happens when you lose a person close to you is that you don’t know what to do with yourself. Do you sit and cry? Think? Try to forget? Is it okay to do an enjoyable activity? Is that a betrayal? If you have immediate work to do, all the better. But I didn’t have pressing work and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I wanted to watch a movie. But I didn’t want to watch just any movie.

This was because my grandfather was such a good man. He was kind, gentle, strong, and always there for you; and it felt wrong to watch the kind of movie he never would have watched. So I watched a musical. And another musical. And another. It all began with a rediscovery of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I’d never before appreciated what a genius Fred Astaire was. Or Ginger Rogers. In truth, it was the beginning of my love, not just for Astaire, Rogers and The Great American Songbook. It was the beginning of my love for old movies.

But the song that started it all was “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The music was by George Gershwin and the lyrics by his brother, Ira Gershwin. It was the last completed film by George Gershwin before he died at 38 years of age. Ira was devastated, as was Fred Astaire, who had known Gershwin for many years.

But at the time of first hearing the song, I knew nothing about it. All I knew was that there was something both touching and enduring about the song and the lyrics: “The way you wear your hat – The way you sip your tea – The memory of all that – No, no, they can’t take that away from me.”

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George Gershwin

Many people – including Fred Astaire himself – did not care for the fact that the song was sung briefly, on a ferry boat no less, with no dance. However, I rather like the setting for the song and there is something poignant about the fact that they do not dance at that moment. How the movie messed up was by not having them dance together at the end of the film to “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” instead of the rather bizarre pseudo-ballet they have instead, with the imitation Ginger Rogers, Harriet Hoctor and very little dance between Astaire and the real Rogers. The lack of a dance, however, did not prevent the song from becoming popular.

I looked up the song and found that the best way to introduce myself to Gershwin’s work was to get my hands on a collection of his songs, sung by Ella Fitzgerald: Oh, Lady, Be Good! – Best Of The Gershwin Songbook. I read a book by Michael Feinstein called The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs, which also proved an excellent way to get started.

Since then, I’ve moved on to Jerome Kern (and the sublime 1936 film Show Boat), who has remained an especial favorite, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (one of the great lyricists of his day), Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren… They are composers who wrote songs that – no matter how trite the plot of the movie or musical – transcend and endure.

The Great American Songbook refers to popular songs (often overlapping with jazz songs) that were composed during the 1910s-1950s and have since been considered standards. They are mostly romantic songs, 32 bars, but the variety and emotional range is amazing. I was once reading about Byzantine art. I don’t remember much about the book, but the author talked about how great intensity of feeling and brilliance can be achieved when artists mine an art with very specific, confined rules. It’s not that one cannot break rules (not all songs were 32 bars), but the very confinement can yield greater intensity and creativity.

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Jerome Kern

The other thing that fascinated me about the standards is how they blend African-American music, Jewish music (most of the composers were Jewish and Cole Porter used to say that his goal was to write “Jewish tunes”) and European operetta with American vernacular. I never used to know much about American music (I mostly studied western classical music in high school and college), but I have come to the conclusion that it should be given much more general attention. In fact I have the somewhat radical idea that American music AND movies should be taught in American schools. There is so much to learn and appreciate and it has been one of the best ways for me to look at  the American melting pot, racism, prejudice, the blending of traditions, creativity and resilience…and simply what it was like to be alive then.

I’ve wandered from my original point. But perhaps that is my point. To see what can start with a movie and a song! They can’t take that away from me…

This post is part of The Things I Learned From the Movies Blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Ruth of Silver Screenings and equally wonderful Kristina of Speakeasy. Be sure to check out the rest of the posts for Days 1, 2, and 3.

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Fred Astaire introduces “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” in Shall We Dance (1937). The plot is a little shaky, but the songs are sublime. In this scene, Astaire and Rogers have just married, but are planning on an immediate divorce. This plan, however, unaccountably makes them sad.

And one of several of Ella Fitzgerald’s interpretations. She sang one version with Louis Armstrong, but this version is from her Gershwin Songbook.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2016 in Music

 

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