Sunday, April 26, 2009

#81: It's Only a Paper Moon

Yes, it's only a canvas sky
Hanging over a muslin tree
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me
Without your love
It's a honky-tonk parade
Without your love
It's a melody played in a penny arcade
It's a Barnum and Bailey world
Just as phony as it can be
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me

Harold Arlen's "Paper Moon" hopping rhythm and skipping melody are an infectious combination -- a world that is, like the song implies, almost too good to be true. Interviewed by Walter Cronkhite, lyricist and frequent Arlen collaborator Yip Harburg said his colleague's music had “a particularly wonderful creative quality-imaginative, new, fresh and having identification. His songs live! His songs seep into the heart of a people, of a nation, a world, and stay there." This song was part of a show called, "The Great Magoo," written for a cynical carnival barker who falls in love. The show may have flopped in the Thirties, but the song caught on in the Forties, thanks to both Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald. Everyone from Bobby Darin to Marvin Gaye to Rufus Wainwright has recorded "Paper Moon," but let's hear Nat "King" Cole, and then his daughter, Natalie, share their takes.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

#82: I Thought About You

And every stop that we made,
Oh, I thought about you
When I pulled down the shade
Then I really felt blue
I peeked through the crack,
Looked at the track
The one going back to you
And what did I do?
I thought about you

In 1939, composer Jimmy Van Heusen played this soaring melody for Johnny Mercer, who was leaving that evening for Chicago. He rode the Denver Zephyr and mined the trip for inspiration, producing a lyric full of longing. The imagery is classic Mercer, putting us right in the car and cinematically taking us step by step -- from being alone, to spying a sliver in the floor of the car exposing the speeding track, back to "you." Mercer and Van Heusen generally worked with other musicians, but they had a magical moment in "I Thought About You." I'm told that the original artist, Mildred Bailey, performed this memorably, but I can't find a recording on the Web, so Sinatra will be her stand-in.

Friday, April 24, 2009

#83: How Long Has This Been Going On?

I could cry salty tears
Where have I been all these years
Little wow, tell me now
How long has this been going on?

Written by the brothers Gershwin in 1927, this emotional roller-coaster of a song has been tossed around a bit. It was dropped from the musical, "Funny Face," before it hit Broadway -- but was later included in the movie version thirty years later, sung by Audrey Hepburn. It appeared earlier on stage in "Rosalie," a show about a princess from a mythical kingdom who falls in love with a West Point cadet, but was dropped from the movie version, when Cole Porter wrote all new music and lyrics. Musicologist Allen Forte must have liked it, however; he wrote eight pages of analysis on this song, noting in the bridge, “Ira gives us his all, with the erotic lyric ‘Oh, I feel that I could melt; into heaven I’m hurled’--erotic for that time, that is."

Originally made famous by Peggy Lee and then rediscovered by Sarah Vaughn, this one has attracted performers as diverse as Van Morrison, Bon Jovi and Cher, but I personally like the Kristin Chenoweth version from her album, "Let Yourself Go." Also, check out this live performance by Judy Butterfield at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which has a different opening verse and has a slower tempo than I'm used to, but is still quite lovely.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

#84: Something Good

Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth
But somewhere in my wicked miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth
For here you are standing there loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good
Gentle readers: know that I would not post just any Sound of Music number on this list. This is a special one, written later than most "standards" (1965) and a Richard Rodgers song with an unusual lyricist (himself). Since his long-time collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein II, passed away right after Mary Martin opened on Broadway as Maria, Rodgers was on his own when Sound of Music hit the big screen with Julie Andrews, and he replaced "An Ordinary Couple" from the stage production -- with which he and Hammerstein had apparently always been dissatisfied -- with "Something Good." While I absolutely love the earnest, confessional nature of this near-hymn and like to think of it as a plaintive reply to The King and I's "Something Wonderful," it's a little weird for Maria to sing it; sure, she's a nun who's a free spirit (and has a great voice, so why not use it?), but Captain Von Trapp is the jerk in the relationship. It works better when Elaine Stritch used it poignantly as the encore of her one-woman show, At Liberty; after pouring out her life history of drunken missteps, she thanks the audience for a blessed career despite it all.

For a slowed-down jazzy glimpse of "Something Good," check out Adrian Sicam on Microsoft Music. Or watch Karen Walker be silly on Will & Grace.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

#85: Something Wonderful

He will not always say
What you would have him say
But now and then he'll do
Something wonderful

Captain Von Trapp. The King of Siam. Billy Bigelow. I like to think that the women who love these headstrong, hard-hearted Rodgers and Hammerstein men don't have low expectations; they see something truly special that forgives all of the drama these blokes bring. This particular early Fifties ballad tugs at the heartstrings with its closed melody that opens up like a flower every time it hits the phrase, "Something Wonderful." While I would stay away from operatic interpretations of the song and am partial to Shirley Bassey's full-throated performance here, I also like this stirring, softly soulful version of Amel Larrieux's 2007 album, "Lovely Standards," which rescues this tune from well-meaning sophomores playing Lady Thiang in their high school productions of "The King and I," from where this song originates.

Friday, April 17, 2009

#86: Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)

Electric eels, I might add, do it
Though it shocks 'em, I know
Why ask if shad do it?
Waiter, bring me shad roe

From educated fleas to chimpanzees, Cole Porter catalogues the romantic habits of most of the animal kingdom -- not to mention most of the United Nations (from the Dutch, to the Argentines, to the Siamese) -- with this naughty valentine. Full of double-entendres and witticisms, this 1928 gem got on the radio because of its parenthetic title addendum ("Let's Fall In Love"), which slipped the insouciant tune passed the censors. Since then, everyone from Mary Martin to Joan Jett to Molly Ringwald has done it -- that is, fallen in love with this classic. Do not watch the pretty terrible Kevin Kline - Ashley Judd flick, De-Lovely; you'll get the gist watching Alanis Morrisette singing in this production number on YouTube. Better yet, try Eartha Kitt's more intimate version, where her eyes alone are worth the watch.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

#87: Moonglow

It must have been moonglow
Way up in the blue
It must have been moonglow
That led me straight to you
I still hear you saying
Dear one, hold me fast
Then I start in praying
Oh lord, please let this last

This beautifully simple jazz number, written by composer Will Hudson in 1933 as a theme song for his Detroit band and lyricized soon after by Eddie DeLange, is just a few notes, and maybe that's why it feels as ethereal and magical as its subject. The bridge -- "we seem to float right through the air" -- glides right down the scale.

"Moonglow" became a go-to song for clarinetist Benny Goodman and his quartet, and it's still going strong with interpreters like the young New Orleans trumpeter and vocalist Jeremy Davenport on his album, "Maybe In a Dream." Here's Billie Holiday on YouTube with her 1952 take. Oh lord, please let this last, indeed!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

#88: You're The Top

You're the top!
You're Mahatma Gandhi.
You're the top!
You're Napoleon Brandy.
You're the purple light
Of a summer night in Spain,
You're the National Gallery
You're Garbo's salary,
You're cellophane.
You're sublime,
You're a turkey dinner,
You're the time
Of a Derby winner
I'm a toy balloon that is fated soon to pop
But if, baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top!

What was considered cool in 1934? Cole Porter'll tell you -- in rhyme, no less. Written first on a lark (it reads like it was penned as a party-game, doesn't it?) and then adapted for the musical "Anything Goes," satirists have rewritten the lyrics many times over to fit every occasion. Ethel Merman has sung this name-dropper with everyone from Bing Crosby to Kermit the Frog, but here's a version with Frank Sinatra. (Those are two people you don't usually think of in the same sentence.) Or try Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. Or Cary Grant, playing an extremely flattering and sanitized version of the Indiana-born, Yale-educated composer in a 1946 biopic. Then see this footnoted version of the lyrics from to get the skinny on Porter's famous list.

Monday, April 13, 2009

#89: Rhode Island Is Famous For You

Minnows come from Minnesota
Coats come from Dakota
So why should you be blue
'Cause you, you come from Rhode Island
Don't let 'em knock Rhode Island
It's famous for you

Called "a punning inventory of the most famous products of almost every state in the Union," this ode to the home of Providence and Newport came from the pen of Howard Dietz, clearly a diligent student of Gilbert and Sullivan. Dietz and Arthur Schwartz collaborated on the 1948 Broadway revue, "Inside U.S.A.," which featured this cheeky geography lesson ("New Jersey gives us...glue!") sung by Jack Haley, perhaps best known for being the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz." Dietz and Schwartz would go on to write "That's Entertainment," which is third fiddle only to "Hooray For Hollywood" and "There's No Business Like Show Business" as one of the classic actors' anthems.

While legendary chanteuse Blossom Dearie is in a league of her own with "Rhode Island," I do like Erin McKeown's version with her raucous band on her recent "Sing You Sinners" CD. Listen to a subdued version of Erin on YouTube.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

#90: They All Laughed

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round.
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound.
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly.
They told Marconi
Wireless was a phony.
It's the same old cry.
They laughed at me wanting you.
Said I was reaching for the moon.
But oh, you came through,
Now they'll have to change their tune.

They all said we never could be happy,
They laughed at us and how!
But ho, ho, ho!
Who's got the last laugh now?

Mimicking a popular advertisement of the day (see photo, above), this Gershwin brothers' tune pairs well with Jerome Kern's "Smoke Gets In Their Eyes," where "laughing friends deride tears I cannot hide." Here, who's got the last laugh now? Written for the 1937 film, "Shall We Dance," this swingin' romp through American explorers and inventors (including "Hershey and his chocolate bar!") celebrates the improbability of love. The song starts on the off-beat, unconventionally hits the rhyme on the downbeat, and then reaches for an unexpected key, catching the listener off-guard each time, just like the singer's message. Genius!

While Ginger Rogers sang this tune to Fred Astaire on the silver screen, I think Stacey Kent's version is both sweet and sassy. Enjoy it on YouTube.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

#91: Just One of Those Things

Cole Porter, the master of breezy sophistication, brilliantly unsentimentalizes love in his much recorded, now-standard "Just One of Those Things." Written for the 1935 musical Jubilee, this tune out-Porters Porter in its cool take on the loss of love. Hey, it was just one of those nights...just one of those fabulous flights...a trip to the moon on gossamer wings...just one of those things. And really, if we'd thought a bit of the end of it (when we started painting the town), we'd have been aware that our love affair was too hot not to cool down.

With its uptempo beat and trademark inner rhyming in the refrain, Porter reminds us all that romance may not last, but hey, why should we be sad and sentimental? After all, it was great fun! And really just one of those things. Watch Ella in Amsterdam, 1957:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

#92: Everybody Eats When They Come to My House

Have a banana, Hannah
Try the salami, Tommy
Get with the gravy, Davy
Everybody eats when they come to my house

"His High-de-Highness of the Ho-de-Ho," Cab Calloway and his band co-headlined Harlem's famed Cotton Club with Duke Ellington in the 1930s. While Calloway's most famous song may be "Minnie the Moocher," I love the jaunty, rhyme-licious "Everybody Eats," written by Jeanne Burns. Look out for Calloway's Yiddishisms ("do have a bagel, Fagel" or "look in the Fendel, Mendel"), which are not only cute -- but also make transparent the intertwining of Jewish and African-American cultures in this distinctly American art form. While John Lithgow dusted off this song for a kids' album ten years ago, I'd listen to Mr. Calloway in this YouTube clip.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

#93: Them There Eyes

My heart is jumpin'
Sure started somethin' with
Them there eyes
You'd better watch them if you're wise
They sparkle
They bubble
They're gonna get you in a whole lot of trouble
You're overworkin' them
There's danger lurkin' in
Them there eyes

This 1930 tune literally winks at you. "Them There Eyes" is a jazz-band favorite and gets a lot of its bounce out of its heart-fluttering tempo, flirty theme and quick, paired rhymes. Made famous by Billie Holiday (who took melody as a suggestion, rather than a given), it's been sung by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Chaka Khan. Maceo Pinkard and William Tracey collaborated on this naughty number with the 23-year-old Doris Tauber, who went on to write Bette Midler's famous "Clams on the Half Shell" revue 45 years later. Once a flirt, always a flirt.

Listen to this great rendition by Rebecca Kilgore.

#94: I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter

I'm gonna smile and say
I hope you're feeling better
And close "with love"
The way you do
I'm gonna sit right down
And write myself a letter

And make believe it came from you

This is either a massively passive-aggressive message ("write me, damn it!"), or it's just darn sad. Either way, it's a little odd that the melody is so cheerful (it's kinda "Tip Toe Through the Tulips" to me somehow), but perhaps because I can totally see myself doing exactly what the lyric says, I like it just the same. This tune, written in 1935 by Fred Ahlert (music) and Joe Young (lyrics), was a Fats Waller standard, later recorded by plenty of stars, including Frank Sinatra with Count Basie, but also Bill Haley and the Comets (in a rejiggered version), Tony Danza, and Danny Aiello. Me, I'd go with Nat King Cole or Sarah Vaughn.

YouTube has the Fats Waller version, snipped from a cute Sesame Street vignette. Hats off to PBS for introducing this one to the young'uns.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

#95: On A Slow Boat to China

I'd love to get you
On a slow boat to China,
All to myself alone.
Get you to keep you in my arms evermore,
Leave all your lovers
Weeping on the faraway shore.

I love all of the things happening lyrically here. In 1945, when Frank Loesser wrote this song, there weren't many trips you could take that would be longer than the crossing to Asia, so a slow boat to China would be an eternity. The singer suggests that, on such a long and romantic trip, surely s/he'll be successful at "melting your heart of stone." Sprinkle in the jealous suitors, out of breath and shaking their fists as the ship leaves port, and you've got yourself quite a drama in just a few lines.

Frank "Guys and Dolls" Loesser loved bringing the vernacular into his music. In her 1993 biography of her father, Susan Loesser explains that experienced poker players used the phrase "I'd like to get you on a slow boat to China" when their opponents were both low in skill and high on cash. She writes, "My father turned it into a romantic song, placing the title in the mainstream of catch-phrases in 1947."

While everyone from Bette Midler to Jimmy Buffett has recorded this one, I prefer the old-time Benny Goodman / Al Hendrickson version. (Sorry, Ms. M.) Listen here for a YouTube clip of a Kay Kyser recording.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

#96: Top Hat, White Tie and Tails

I'm stepping out, my dear,
To breathe an atmosphere
That simply reeks of class
And I trust
That you'll excuse my dust
When I step on the gas

Irving "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up In the Morning" Berlin never sounded more debonair than this partnership with the epitome of Depression-era escapism, Fred Astaire, for this ode to a fancy invitation.

This song positively dances, from climbing up the scale in the intro ("your presence / requested / this evening / it's formal") to skipping in the bridge, quoted above. This white tie and tails were tailor-made for Astaire. Listen here for a (kinda scratchy) YouTube clip.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

#97: I Could Write a Book

If they asked me, I could write a book
About the way you talk
And whisper and look
I could write a preface of how we met
That the world would never forget

This tune is so charming that it captures the "lovers from friends" romance perfectly in "When Harry Met Sally," despite being thick with irony in its original context. Pal Joey, the song-and-dance anti-hero in the 1940's Rodgers and Hart musical of the same name, just met a naive newcomer to the city and is already beguiling her with chapters about their storied romance through this song, despite the fact he's probably never read a book in his life.

I love newcomer Dana Lauren's interpretation on her 2008 album, "Stairway to the Stars," with one verse as a ballad and another up-tempo. Dana's story is incredible: she met Cuban trumpet legend Arturo Sandoval on her 18th birthday when he was performing at the Newport Jazz Festival; they got to talking backstage, where he learned that she was a vocal jazz student at the New England Conservatory. He asked her to perform with him, and the rest is history. In fact, she could write a book. Click here for Dana's MySpace page; then choose this song from her player.