Tuesday, September 29, 2009

#49: Darn That Dream

Darn that dream
I dream each night
You say you love me and hold me tight
But when I awake and you're out of sight
Oh, darn that dream

Rodgers and Hart's adapation of A Comedy of Errors, The Boys From Syracuse, had been a hit, so why not a swingin' Shakespeare musical? A racially integrated musical using A Midsummer Night's Dream, set in Louisiana, called Swingin' The Dream -- with Benny Goodman in the pit, Agnes DeMille in the choreographer's chair, and Louis Armstrong and the Dandridge Sisters on stage -- sounded like perfection. But while the show only ran two weeks (too much Shakespeare, one critic said), audiences are still enjoying one of the show's haunting tunes, "Darn That Dream," with music by Jimmy Van Heusen and lyrics by Eddie DeLange. Van Heusen turned out to be a music-writing machine, writing 40 songs in the year after "Darn That Dream."

I can't find Lena Horne's version of these lovelorn lyrics, though do check iTunes. Alas, here are two other performances, a male and a female: Kenny Hagood and the Miles Davis orchestra, on the 1950 album, "Birth of The Cool," and Nancy Wilson in 1969.

Monday, September 28, 2009

#50: My Baby Just Cares for Me

My baby don't care for shows,
My baby don't care for clothes,

My baby just cares for me.

My baby don't care for furs and laces,

My baby don't care for high toned places.

My baby don't care for rings,

Or other expensive things.

She's sensible as can be.

My baby don't care who knows it,

My baby just cares for me!

While Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn wrote this tune in 1928 for the Ruth Etting-Eddie Cantor show,
Whoopee, it found a permanent home when singer and pianist Nina Simone adopted it as her signature song, performing it on her first album, Little Girl Blue, in 1958. There's definitely something Donaldson-esque about this song; this hit reminds me of two others -- "My Blue Heaven" and "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby,"the latter also from Whoopee -- perhaps it's a shared jolliness.

Enjoy a very ve-de-o-do version with
Jack Payne and the BBC Dance Orchestra, or check out Nina "Little Girl Blue" Simone, satiating an audience for her signature song. For more current renditions, try George Michael or Ed Norton, the latter singing and dancing to "My Baby" in Woody Allen's song-filled movie, "Everybody Says I Love You."

Saturday, September 26, 2009

#51: Tea for Two

I'm discontented with homes that are rented
So I have invented my own;

Darling this place is a lover's oasis,

Where life's weary chase is unknown.

Far from the cry of the city

Where flowers pretty caress the streams

Cozy to hide in, to live side by side in,

Don't let it abide in my dreams.

Picture you upon my knee
Just tea for two and two for tea,

Just me for you and you for me alone.

Nobody near us to see us or hear us,

No friends or relations on weekend vacations,

We won't have it known, dear,
That we own a telephone, dear,

Day will break and you'll awake

And start to bake a sugar cake

For me to take for all the boys to see.
We will raise a family,

A boy for you, a girl for me,

Oh, can't you see how happy we would be?

A plea for a simpler life needs a simple melody, and composer Vincent Youmans sticks to a few adjacent notes to get the point across. A popular musician of the Twenties, Youmans partnered with Irving Caesar on the show, No, No, Nanette, in which "Tea For Two" was the breakout song. Caesar later claimed that he wrote these lyrics in five minutes. His speed shows in the nearly inane chorus, but I think the verses are quite inventive.

When No, No, Nanette was transformed into a 1950 film with the then-rising star Doris Day, it was renamed Tea For Two, and you'll notice the melody all over the trailer. The tune has been reinvented a number of times, including this dancetastic version from the Julie Andrews Hour in the early 1970s, a slow and thoughtful ballad from master standards interpreter Blossom Dearie, and even a wacky backwards version from the Muppet Show. Most recently, "Tea For Two" appeared on the big screen when Drew Barrymore captured the essence of Edie Beale, scooping notes and mangling lyrics in the cinematic version of the famous Maysles documentary Grey Gardens.

Friday, September 25, 2009

#52: You Do Something to Me

You do something to me
Something that simply mystifies me

Tell me why it should be
You have the power to mystify me

The first song in Cole Porter's madcap 1929 musical, Fifty Million Frenchmen, "You Do Something to Me," feels a bit lazy. Mystify rhymes with itself. Power is one syllable. But it somehow works and makes into the Great American Songbook for its simple, yet terribly clever, bridge alone:

Let me live 'neath your spell
Do do that voodoo that you do so well

So many people have been enchanted with this tune since the classic version of the Twenties. Here's Leo Reisman's recording; notice how he treats the bridge, with a Charleston-like rhythm. I prefer Lee Wiley, who actually began her career with Leo and sang her version of "You Do" in the 1940s, but you may like Doris Day or the "Emperor of Easy," a young Andy Williams, with his own ring-a-ding flourishes, in the 1950s. Used again and again in films -- Night and Day (Jane Wyman in 1946), The Helen Morgan Story (Gogi Grant in 1957), and Can-Can (Louis Jordan in 1960) -- there's also this touching little scene on television between Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra in the early 1960s -- and a elegantly-orchestrated, beautifully-lit, and bizarrely-sung rendition by Sinead O'Connor on the Arsenio Hall Show from the early '90s. You may also recall Hank Azaria singing it in the 2001 Julia Roberts-Catherine Zeta-Jones movie, "America's Sweethearts." So, pick a decade, and get caught in the spell.

Monday, September 14, 2009

#54-53: Get Happy / Happy Days Are Here Again

It was called "a meeting of god and titan exponentially more genuine and torch-passing than the Bill Clinton-J.F.K. photograph." While Barbra Streisand had reinvented the old FDR theme song, "Happy Days Are Here Again," as a slow vamp for a 1962 album, it was Judy Garland's idea to combine it with one of her own favorites, "Get Happy," for their duet on Garland's television show.

Written a year apart, "Happy Days" (1929) was both Milton Ager and Jack Yellen's most famous song, while "Get Happy" (1930) was Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's first together. After the television performance of two legends -- one a 21-year-old just starting her career and the other a star for decades -- Judy reprised the song at the London Palladium with another powerhouse, her daughter, Liza. Want someone other than Judy? Shame on you. Okay, fine. Here's Broadway rockstars Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald giving the intertwining "Happy" tunes a whirl.

Monday, September 7, 2009

#64-55: Garland-Carroll Sing Arlen-Rodgers

It's 14 songs -- and two divas -- for the price of one blog entry. In 1964, Judy Garland hosted Diahann Carroll on her variety show for a Harold Arlen-Richard Rodgers medley, featuring:

It's Only a Paper Moon (Arlen, with Yip Harburg and Billy Rose), previously featured as #81.

#64: Dancing on the Ceiling (Rodgers, with Lorenz Hart) was introduced in the 1930 show, Evergreen, in which the daughter of an aged singer surprises the music world by pretending to be her mother -- and, of course, looking quite good for her age. Here's the enchanting Jo Stafford with her rendition.

#63: That Old Black Magic (Arlen, with Johnny Mercer) spent 14 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts in 1943. Years later, Sinatra sang "That Old Jack Magic" at Kennedy's inaugural festivities, and Marilyn Monroe warbled it in the film version of Bus Stop. Check out the bossa nova-like version by Vikki Carr.

#62: The Gentleman Is A Dope (Rodgers, with Oscar Hammerstein II) sounds like a response to the Rodgers and Hart song, "The Lady Is a Tramp," and comes from the 1947 musical Allegro, which bucked the traditional R&H string of musical comedies by dealing with the corruption of large institutions. While the show did not do well, Jo Stafford sure knows her way around a Rodgers tune.

#61: Ill Wind (Arlen, with Ted Koehler) is a haunting tune written for the collaborators' last show at the Cotton Club in 1934. Used in the movie Cotton Club, Arlen has captured the feeling of a strange storm with his use of churning lows and frenzied highs musically.

#60: It Might As Well Be Spring (Rodgers, with Oscar Hammerstein II) won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1945, appearing in the film State Fair. With its use of lattice-like musical intervals and alliterative, assonant lyrics to match ("as restless as a willow in a windstorm" and "jumpy as a puppet on a string"), it's deservedly one of the most popular R&H cabaret numbers more than a half-century after Shirley Jones sang it on the Danny Thomas show.

Not making it on the Top 100: Hit the Road to Dreamland (Arlen, with Johnny Mercer). I'm not feeling it.

#59: Surrey With a Fringe on Top (Rodgers, with Oscar Hammerstein II) is the "Greased Lightnin'" of Oklahoma, where cowboy Curly is trying to impress his girl, Laurey, with his buggy. While I'm not exactly sure why this became so popular with cabaret singers, there is a romantic charm to the theme with its folksy lyrics ("chicks and ducks and geese better scurry"). It makes our list because of the diversity of renditions that it sparked, from a Vegas version by Nat King Cole to the cool-as-a-cucumber Blossom Dearie.

#58: Stormy Weather (Arlen, with Ted Koehler). All of the songs on this list, it deserves better than Garland using it to change keys in the midst of this medley -- and better than #58, actually. Enjoy it over and over again -- with the woman who made this famous, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald in a rare performance from 1975.

#57: Bali Ha'i (Rodgers, with Oscar Hammerstein II), an ode to the mystical island -- "where the sky meets the sea" and based on Ambae Island -- from the musical South Pacific and sung by Bloody Mary. It's now also a brand of lager sold in Indonesia. "Here am I your special island. Come to me, Come to me." Diahann only sings one line ("Bali Ha'i may call you"), but in it you hear that dramatic octave jump striking a sudden minor chord that gives this song its allure. For the rest, try Peggy Lee's smoky version.

What did not make the top 100: Let's Take the Long Way Home (Arlen, with Johnny Mercer), a Bing Crosby tune for which I cannot even find a version online.

#56: Manhattan (Rodgers, with Lorenz Hart), an adorable, bouncy love letter to the different sections of the famed New York island. Diahann only belts out one quick line ("I'll take Manhattan") in the above recording, so you're missing out on its tongue-and-cheekness; "Tell me what street compares with Mott Street in July...sweet pushcarts gently gliding by" is only amusing you know how hot and stinky New York can be in summer, and Chinatown is wonderful -- but few pushcarts have ever "gently glided by" there. See what else you can chuckle at in this version by Lee Wiley in 1951.

Not earning a place in our top 100: The Sweetest Sounds (Rodgers, with Oscar Hammerstein II) from the musical Cinderella. Boring.

#55: Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home (Arlen, with Johnny Mercer), from the 1946 Broadway show St. Louis Woman, takes a languid look at the lifestyle of a loose-living lady. While Lena Horne turned down the role -- created specifically with her in mind -- because of the stereotype it seemed to project, here's Susannah McCorkle and Vanessa Williams in a recording and a concert performance respectively.

Nice medley, right? Diahann had become the first African-American woman to win the best actress Tony two years earlier for the Rodgers musical, No Strings, and would later star in the groundbreaking TV show, Julia. Judy was, of course, Judy -- and had been the voice of Harold Arlen songs for years. Garland's variety show series was critically acclaimed and nominated for multiple Emmys, but it was cancelled after one season, perhaps suffering from being pitted against TV's Bonanza. Oh, America.

#65: A Sleepin' Bee

When a bee lies sleepin'
In the palm of your hand
You're bewitched and deep in love's
Long looked-after land
Where you'll see a sun-up sky
With the morning dew
And where the days go laughin' by
As love comes a-calling on you

Two bordellos competing for business in the West Indies is the setting for the 1954 musical, House of Flowers, a collaboration between Harold Arlen (after he wrote The Wizard of Oz) and Truman Capote (before he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's). Based on Capote's novella of the same name, this was his only musical. An all-star cast, including Pearl Bailey, Juanita Hall, Ray Walston and Diahann Carroll, couldn't save this show from poor reviews and a relatively short run, but Carroll's song, "A Sleepin' Bee," took on a life of its own. Months after an 18-year-old Barbra Streisand learned it for an amateur contest at a Greenwich Village bar that she of course won, she radiantly sang it for her national television debut on the Jack Paar Show in 1961; the textures she brings in this performance are remarkable. And here she is 40 years later, with a lead-in verse that explains what it means to catch a sleepin' bee. This was a signature song for Diahann Carroll as well, and she reprised it in this performance at the 1985 Tony's; artists such as Audra Ann McDonald and seven-time Grammy winner Al "Moonlighting" Jarreau have also been attracted to the dreamlike musical intervals and long, poetic phrases of this bewitching song.

#66: Bill

And I can't explain
It's surely not his brain

That makes me thrill
love him because he's wonderful
Because he's just my Bill.

While the opening to Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You" teases, "It's not that you're attractive, but -- oh -- my heart grew active," the song soon refers to its subject as "my big and brave and handsome Romeo." Not with Kern and P. G. Wodehouse's "Bill" from the epic 1927 musical Show Boat, where the torchsinger Julie goes to great lengths to detail why her boyfriend is unexceptional intellectually, physically, athletically, artistically, professionally and on. The best she can do is explain that she fits snugly in his lap. Oh, the improbable, unexplainable impulses of love! (And, yes, Oscar Hammerstein II was Kern's collaborator on Show Boat, but they pulled this tune out of Kern's trunk after it had proven too melancholy for a different show.)

Famous nightclub singer Helen Morgan played Julie in the Broadway and film versions of Show Boat and -- like her character -- struggled with alcohol. You can listen to Helen Morgan's performance in the 1936 movie, or enjoy this more recent interpretation from the always incredible Audra Ann McDonald. I happen to like this song best when it's more sultry and less operatic, but you can't argue with Audra.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

#67: Let's Fall in Love

Let's fall in love
Why shouldn't we fall in love?
Our hearts are made of it
Let's take a chance

Why be afraid of it?
Let's close our eyes

And make our own paradise

Little we know of it

Still we can try

To make a go of it

After meeting model and showgirl Anya Taranda, it was probably easy for Harold Arlen to write songs with his frequent collaborator Ted Koehler for the 1933 film, Let's Fall in Love. Harold, born Chaim Arnook in Buffalo, apparently yearned for Anya when he was in Hollywood and she in New York as he wrote the score. But he took his time proposing -- after five years into their relationship, he left her a note: "Dearest Anya - We're getting married tomorrow - 'bout time don't you think? All my love, H." They did marry, a year before Arlen was hired to write what was to become his best-known score, The Wizard of Oz.

Not to be confused with Cole Porter's "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," Koehler and Arlen's was not only the title song from the 1933 film with Art Jarrett and Ann Sothern, but it also charted at #21 when Peaches and Herb recorded it in 1967. The whole conceit of the song -- the presumption that you cannot fall in love unless you decide to do so -- is as innocent and sweet as the naivete that the singer professes ("the little we know of it"). One of the only rhyming couplets is a stretch ("close our eyes...paradise"), only heightening the feeling of awkward, new love to this song. Take a seat and listen to Diana Krall at the 2008 Sonoma Jazz Festival, or try American Idol's crooner, John Stevens, and Erika Christensen.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

#68: Cheek to Cheek

I'm in heaven
And my heart beats so
That I can hardly speak
And I seem to find
The happiness I seek
When we're out together
Dancing cheek to cheek

Written specifically for danceman Fred Astaire and first performed in the Depression Era upper, Top Hat, I've heard Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" everywhere from the score of The English Patient to a recent ringing of the town bells in Black Hawk, Colorado. This song's got a soothing, swaying melody as it climbs and descends the scale, with a dramatic minor C section -- "dance with me / I want my arms about you / the charms about you / will carry me through"-- before returning to the familiar floating "A" section. Because I'm not sure that a gambler wants his lucky streak to vanish the same way you might want your cares that hung around you through the week to do so, I think the unconventional 72-bar music takes first place to the lyrics here. My one beef is that the B section ("oh, I'd love to climb a mountain") comes across as a little sing-songy for my taste, but I defer to Berlin here.

Nothing beats the original Fred and Ginger dancing cheek to cheek in 1935, but here's actor Kenneth Branagh trying in a fanciful version from the 2000 film Love's Labour's Lost. For a recent, more standard nightclub rendition, try the lovely Jane Monheit.

#69: Honeysuckle Rose

When I'm takin' sips
From your tasty lips
Seems the honey fairly drips
You're confection
Goodness knows
Honeysuckle rose

Harlem's famed stride pianist, Fats Waller, earned a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame with his 1928 recording of sweetness syncopated. Written with Wallers' frequent collaborator, lyricist Andy Razaf, this bouncy, sassy number is one of the big duets in the Broadway musical honoring Waller's trunk of hits, Ain't Misbehavin', and is the title of a 1980 movie starring Willie Nelson and Amy Irving. Here's Fats himself serenading one of the Cotton Club girls in an up-tempo version (his eyebrows alone are worth the watch), and then Betty Grable (at about 1:45) with a whitewashed, Ziegfield-like version that reveals, if nothing else, how versatile this song proved to be. For a more modern take, check out American Idol's Ruben Studdard and Frenchie Davis (channelling the unbelievable Nell Carter) from a recent touring production.