It’s probably de rigueur on Valentine’s Day to open with “My Funny Valentine,” the 1937 show tune from the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical, Babes in Arms. The song has become a jazz standard. There are far too many versions to post here, so I’ll stick to three, starting with “Sassy,” Miss Sarah Vaughan.
“The Divine Sarah” was a wonder, as this profile from the National Endowment for the Arts explains.
The power, range, and flexibility of her voice made Sarah Vaughan, known as “Sassy” or “The Divine One,” one of the great singers in jazz. With her rich, controlled tone and vibrato, she could create astounding performances on jazz standards, often adding bop-oriented phrasing. Along with Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, Vaughan helped popularize the art of jazz singing, influencing generations of vocalists following her. Vaughan began singing at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in her native Newark, and started extensive piano lessons at age seven. Winner of the amateur contest at the Apollo Theatre, Vaughan was hired by Earl Hines for his big band as a second pianist and singer on the recommendation of Billy Eckstine in 1943. She joined Eckstine’s band in 1944, as well as making her first recording under her own name.
After leaving Eckstine, Sarah worked briefly in the John Kirby band, and thereafter was primarily a vocal soloist. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie often sang her praises, assisting her in gaining recognition, particularly in musicians’ circles. They worked with her on a May 25, 1945, session as well, which was highlighted by her vocal version of Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” called “Interlude” on the album. Her first husband, trumpeter-bandleader George Treadwell, helped re-make her “look” and she began to work and record more regularly, starting in 1949 with Columbia Records. In the 1960s, Vaughan made records with bandleaders such as Count Basie, Benny Carter, Frank Foster, and Quincy Jones on the Mercury and Roulette labels among others. It was during this time that her level of international recognition began to grow as she toured widely, generally accompanied by a trio, and on occasion doing orchestra dates.
These large ensemble dates ranged from the Boston Pops to the Cleveland Orchestra as her voice became recognized as one of the most beautiful and versatile in all of jazz, blessed with a range that literally went from baritone to soprano. In the 1970s and 1980s, her voice darkened, providing a deeper and all the more alluring tone.
Moving to the male crooner side of the aisle, rarely do I hear Arthur Prysock mentioned these days.
I remember playing an album of him reciting Walter Benton’s 1943 poem “This is My Beloved,” till it was worn out and I had to buy another.
ENTRY April 28
Because hate is legislated . . . written into
the primer and the testament,
shot into our blood and brain like vaccine or vitamins
Because our day is of time, of hours — and the clock-hand turns,
closes the circle upon us: and black timeless night
sucks us in like quicksand, receives us totally —
without a raincheck or a parachute, a key to heaven or the last long look
I need love more than ever now . . . I need your love,
I need love more than hope or money, wisdom or a drink
Because slow negative death withers the world — and only yes
can turn the tide
Because love has your face and body . . . and your hands are tender
and your mouth is sweet — and God has made no other eyes like yours.
Prysock’s melodious and very sexy baritone voice made an quite an impression on me back in my late teens.
Arthur Prysock was an important multi-genre vocalist born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1924. During the Second World War, Prysock moved from his home to Hartford, Connecticut, in order to work in the aircraft manufacturing industry. It was during this time that he realized his impressive singing talent. He ended up leaving the aircraft industry after he was offered $3 a day to sing at a nightclub. His deep baritone voice is said to rival Billy Eckstine, and many consider him one of the best jazz singers of the mid-twentieth century.
In 1944 bandleader Buddy Johnson heard Prysock sing and offered him a position as vocalist in his touring jazz band. From this point on, he became a regular performer on the jazz circuits throughout the country. Although Prysock had more success in live performances than in his recording career, he was featured on a number of successful records produced by Decca Records in the 1940s for the Buddy Johnson Orchestra. Among these are “They All Say I’m the Biggest Fool” (1946), “Jet My Love” (1947) and “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” (1948). He would never reach the same success on the charts again after this period.
In 1952 Prysock launched his career as a solo artist and soon received an offer of a record deal from Decca Records. At this point, he was marketed as a young rival to Billy Eckstine, one of Prysock’s musical inspirations, as well as the most prominent jazz and blues baritone of the 1940s. During this decade, Prysock’s act became popular on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a series of popular clubs throughout the country that allowed African Americans to perform, usually alongside other performers. One of these other artists was his older brother and jazz saxophonist, Wilbur “Red” Prysock.
Prysock’s rendition of “My Funny Valentine” is not one you’ll soon forget.
Though trumpeter Chet Baker made “My Funny Valentine” his signature song, the instrumental that always plucks at my heartstrings is the Miles Davis’ version, recorded live at Avery Fisher Hall on Feb 12, 1964.
According to Jazzwise, Davis recorded the tune four times.
… in 1956 with Red Garland (Prestige/OJC); in 1958 with Bill Evans; on 12 February 1964 for his live at Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center album My Funny Valentine; and five months later in Japan (all on Columbia).
And the greatest of these is the Lincoln Center version. Perfectly illustrating the creative tension of having his new band tackle his old hits, Miles turns his interpretation inside out, ditching the harmon-mute of his earlier recordings. Herbie Hancock’s out-of-tempo solo introduction creates such a mood that, when he holds his last chord and Davis plays the first six notes of the song, the atmosphere is already so charged there’s no hint of sycophantic applause. Miles soon departs from the melody, going way down and then running gracefully up the scale to a long held note, and yet there’s no accompaniment except for Hancock’s infrequent chords.
Live from Lincoln Center, here’s Davis (and Hancock).
Another show tune which dealt with the peculiar impact of love and feelings was “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” from the 1940 Broadway musical Pal Joey, and also written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The lyrics, for the time, were singularly risqué, yet Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of the tune pulled it off with class and her inimitable style.
Hayim Kobi, “The Music Aficionado,” writes:
Ella sings the full version of the song, a unique occurrence not only because of its length, over seven minutes, but mostly because of the risqué nature of the lyrics farther towards the end of the song:
When he talks, he is seeking
Words to get off his chest
Horizontally speaking, he’s at his very best
Vexed again, perplexed again
Thank God, I can be oversexed again
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I
Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Mel Torme, Linda Ronstadt, and many others sing the short version. Kudos to Ella and Norman Granz for selecting to sing the full version.
Sing it, Lady Ella.
Not from Broadway, but from movieland, the standard “When I Fall in Love,” with music by Victor Young and lyrics from Edward Heyman, was in the 1952 film One Minute to Zero.
Nat King Cole performed it live in 1963 on the BBC special An Evening With Nat Cole.
In 2001, his daughter Natalie Cole reprised the song in a virtual duet with her dad, who passed on the day after Valentine’s Day in 1965. Natalie died in December 2015.
Tenor saxophonist Ben Webster’s instrumental version of the song is so lyrical, it needs no vocals.
These selections barely scratch the surface. There are thousands upon thousands of love songs, in every genre, and from every era. Think of this as a small chocolate sample.
Wishing you all a safe, sensual, and sound-filled Valentine’s Day! I can’t wait for the tunes that you’ll be playing today in the comments section.