Posts Tagged ‘Song Roundup’

The much-acclaimed 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis spins the tale of a St. Louis family from summer 1903 to spring 1904. A posh production helmed by Vincente Minnelli, it’s at once nostalgic and not, dreamy and dour, with most of the songs dating to the early 1900s or before. However, the film is spiced by a handful of new tunes by songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine: “The Boy Next Door,” the Oscar-nominated “The Trolley Song” and a song that’s since become a seasonal classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

This NPR/Fresh Air page delves into the song’s history; this Wikipedia page does, too. But if you choose not to click through, what you really should know is this: Martin’s and Blaine’s first version was rejected by Judy Garland, co-star Tom Drake and Minnelli. As Martin explained to Fresh Air host Terri Gross in 2006, “The original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, ‘If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they’ll think I’m a monster.’ So I was young then and kind of arrogant, and I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry you don’t like it, Judy, but that’s the way it is, and I don’t really want to write a new lyric.’ But Tom Drake, who played the boy next door, took me aside and said, ‘Hugh, you’ve got to finish it. It’s really a great song potentially, and I think you’ll be sorry if you don’t do it.’ So I went home and I wrote the version that’s in the movie.”

Garland’s rendition was released as a single and, though it only rose to No. 27 on the pop charts, became a hit with U.S. service members fighting in World War II. It’s easy to hear why; she captures the nuances of the lyrics, which are simultaneously hopeful and yearning, cherishing the days that used to be while wishing to forge similar memories again: “Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow/So have yourself a merry little Christmas now….”

Here she is performing it on the radio in 1944:

In 1957, Frank Sinatra – who first covered it in 1948 – asked Martin to change the line “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” to something a tad more upbeat, as he wanted to re-record it for his A Jolly Christmas LP and found that line depressing. As a result, it became “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” It zaps some of the song’s strength, I think.

In the years since, it has joined the Great American Songbook and been performed by hundreds upon hundreds of artists; SecondHandSongs lists 1575 recorded renditions, for example, and that’s likely an undercount. Simply put, it tugs at the heartstrings like few others; and, in some respects, could well be the theme song for Christmas 2020. In any event, here’s a Song Roundup of renditions that have captured my ear through the years and also this morning…

Ella Fitzgerald sings it from her 1960 Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas LP. Note that she sticks with the “muddle through” line…

…while Lena Horne, on her 1966 album titled Merry From Lena, does not.  

The a cappella jazz vocal ensemble Singers Unlimited perform the “highest bough” version song on their 1972 Christmas LP.

In 1987, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders deliver a stirring rendition of the Sinatra version for the A Very Special Christmas CD compilation. (Interesting to note, but it was after this record that the song’s popularity jumped into hyperdrive.)

In 1992, the Stylistics put their soulful spin on it and make it sound brand new, though they, too, sing the “highest bough” line.

Linda Ronstadt also “hangs a shining star” on her 2000 A Merry Little Christmas album. 

In 2004, Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight joined together for this moving rendition, which appeared on Warwick’s My Favorite Time of Year album; they actually make me not mind when they sing “highest bough” line. 

Also in 2004, Chris Isaak channels his inner Sinatra for this version from his Christmas album, but sings the original “muddle through” line.

In 2011, She & Him (aka Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) covered the Sinatra version for their A Very She & Him Christmas set.

First Aid Kit shared their beautiful version, which they performed on BBC Radio 2, in 2017. They, too, “muddle through.” 

Finally, the rendition that ignited this journey: Malin Pettersen and Darling West, who shared their cover a few weeks back. As I said at the time, it’s a hauntingly beautiful rendition of a haunting beautiful song. (And, note, that they also sing the original “muddle through” line.)

Is there a better song than “Moon River”? Perhaps. Yet there’s no denying that it’s one of the greatest songs of all time. Composed by Henry Mancini and featuring lyrics by Johnny Mercer, it features prominently in the 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where it’s first heard as an instrumental during the classic opening sequence…

…and, later, when Audrey Hepburn sings it while sitting on her apartment’s window ledge. Initially, Paramount executives considered dubbing a trained singer’s voice and, after an early screening, then cutting the scene altogether. The former was taken care of Mancini, who specifically composed something within Hepburn’s range; and Hepburn herself took care of the second threat, insisting it remain. (Good thing she did: It won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the next year’s Academy Awards.) 

In October 1961, Mancini’s re-recorded orchestral version was released as a single alongside the album Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Music From the Motion Picture. The 45 peaked at No. 11 on the charts that December, while the LP went to No. 1. Hepburn’s winsome rendition, however, could only be heard in the movie until after she passed in 1993, when Music from the Films of Audrey Hepburn was released on CD. (Mancini is quoted as saying, “‘Moon River’ was written for her. No one else has ever understood it so completely. There have been more than a thousand versions of ‘Moon River,’ but hers is unquestionably the greatest.”)

Jerry Butler’s rendition was released concurrently with Mancini’s orchestral rendition, and also reached No. 11. 

Over in the U.K., Danny Williams – aka Britain’s Johnny Mathis – scored a No. 1 hit with the tune in 1961. (His was an interesting life. Born in 1942 South Africa, he won a talent contest at age 14, joined the Golden City Dixies and, when that act visited London in 1959, was signed to EMI.) 

Back in the U.S., meanwhile, a whole host of singers began covering the song – most notably Andy Williams, who covered it on his 1962 Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes album. He also sang it at the 34th Academy Awards and, then, adopted it as his theme song…but, oddly, never released it as a single. 

One of those “whole host of singers”: Ben E. King, who infused a “Spanish Harlem”-like vibe into his version, an album track on his 1962 Ben E. King Sings for Soulful Lovers LP.  

Bobby Darin recorded it in early 1963, though it sat in the vaults until 1999, when it was included on the Unreleased Capitol Sides compilation (and again, a few years later, on the five-star Legendary Bobby Darin CD).

Here are a few – of many – memorable renditions from the 1960s:

I’ll jump forward – and skip many other worthwhile renditions – to 1987 for one of my favorite versions, which hails from the Irish singer Mary Black’s 1987 album, By the Time It Gets Dark. At the time, it wasn’t included on the LP or cassette, just the CD. 

CD bonus tracks became all the rage by the early 1990s, of course, as music companies pulled out the stops while striving to get fans to re-purchase albums for the second (or third) time – LP/cassette —> first CD release —> CD reissue. In 1992, I.R.S. did just that with R.E.M.’s early albums, including their classic sophomore set from 1984, Reckoning. It featured five bonus tracks, including their take on “Moon River.”  

Michael Stipe & Co, though initially classified as “college rock,” weren’t the only alternative-minded rockers to cover it. In 1996, the Afghan Whigs released a cover of it as a bonus track of their “Going to Town” CD single. 

I’ll skip ahead to the next decade, when former and future Belly frontwoman Tanya Donelly shared her sweet version of “Moon River” on the 2010 Sing Me to Sleep: Indie Lullabies compilation.

The next year, the retro-minded Puppini Sisters – whose close harmonies are a thing of wonder – sang it on their Hollywood album.  

The British singer-songwriter Rumer, who pretty much makes every song she sings hers, included a version of it on her 2014 B-Sides & Rarities set. 

Frank Ocean surprised fans in February 2018 with his rendition of the song…

And, finally, here’s the rendition that sent me on this journey: Melody Gardot’s. Her luminous version can be found on this year’s Sunset in the Blue.

Is there a better song than “Up on the Roof”?

According to Rolling Stone, the answer is yes – 113 songs, to be precise, as the original rendition by the Drifters, which was released in 1962, ranks No. 114 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, which was put together in 2004.

I rate it higher.

Written by the husband-and-wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the single peaked at No. 5 on the pop charts and No. 4 on the R&B charts in early 1963. In the years since, it’s been covered by an array of artists, both in concert and on vinyl. The idea for the song came to King – who was all of 20 at the time – while she was out for a drive; her original title was “My Secret Place.” Goffin suggested the roof as the escape destination, as he was a West Side Story fan, and penned poetic lyrics that echo a universal truth. (American Songwriter delves deep into the song’s sophistication here.) 

Here’s the demo for it, which features Goffin singing and King playing piano.

As wonderful as the Drifters’ single is, however, it flopped in England – but East London-born Kenny Lynch’s version made it to the Top 10.

Up-and-coming singer Julie Grant made her U.K. chart debut with the song right around the same time.

In 1970, fellow New Yorker Laura Nyro recorded it for her Christmas and the Beads of Sweat album; it became her sole single to crack the Top 100, peaking at…No. 97?!

That same year, Carole King recorded it for her debut album, Writer.

A year later, Dusty Springfield performed it on the BBC’s The Rolf Harris Show

In 1975, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band covered it in concert:

In 1979, James Taylor – who had performed it with Carole King on Writer and their early tours together – scored a Top 40 hit with it.

Jumping ahead a few decades, Neil Diamond covered it on his 1993 salute to Brill Building songs…but the orchestral touches are a tad over the top, IMO.

The British pop duo Robson & Jerome topped the U.K. charts with their faithful cover of it in 1995…

… and actor-singer Sutton Foster does a sweet version of it on her 2009 debut album, Wish.

There are far too many additional covers of the song to list here, so I’ll close with this: Carole King and James Taylor at the Troubadour in 2010. does it get any better than this?

Not long after graduating high school, Tony Joe White (1943-2018) moved from rural Louisiana, where he’d been raised on a cotton farm, to Marietta, Ga., where a sister lived, in pursuit of a better life. He played guitar and, from what I gather, had been in and out of bands back home, but it didn’t pay the bills – as it often doesn’t. He found employment as a dump-truck driver with the highway department, and it featured an odd perk: work was always called on account of rain.

Fast-forward a few years, by which point he’s kicking around the music circuit in Texas: He hears Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” on the radio, and it seems lifted from his own life, just about, inspiring him to try his hand at writing songs. Among the first out of the gate: “Polk Salad Annie,” which harkens back to his childhood, and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” which conjures the rainy nights he experienced in Marietta.

If he’d never written anything else, he would have contributed more to this world than most. “Polk Salad Annie” was covered by Elvis Presley. And “Rainy Night in Georgia”… it’s one of the greatest songs of all time. But no version – not even White’s, which sounds tentative to my ears – equals that of Brook Benton’s masterful single, which went to No. 4 on the pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1970. The texture of the veteran R&B singer’s voice was made for White’s melancholic lyrics. 

That said, Shelby Lynne included a spellbinding rendition of it (as “Track 12”) on her excellent 2005 Suit Yourself album. The grain of her voice echoes the rain, and I’d place it almost on a par with Benton’s rendition. (White plays on the track with her; they were neighbors for a spell, and friends – he appears in her recent film, Here I Am.)

The great Chuck Jackson released a version not long after Benton on what would be his final Motown album, Teardrops Keep Fallin’ on My Heart: 

B.J. Thomas also released a version of it in late 1970 on his Most of All album:

Johnny Rivers also recorded it that year:

Ray Charles covered it on his 1972 album The Genius Hits the Road:

Two years after Ray, Van McCoy (yes, of the “Hustle” fame) and his Soul City Symphony recorded an instrumental version of it for the Love Is the Answer LP. (It’s far more kitsch than cool.)

Otis Rush released his rendition of it in 1976, on his Right Place, Wrong Time album.

In 1981, Randy Crawford included a nice version of it on her Secret Combination album. Although released  as a single, it didn’t chart in the U.S.; it did make it to No. 18 in the U.K., however. 

Conway Twitty and Sam Moore recorded the classic tune for the 1993 Rhythm, Country and Blues compilation CD. 

In 2004, David Ruffin’s rendition – which was recorded in 1970 – was released on the David CD.

And, finally, Aaron Neville – with an ample assist from Chris Botti – covered the song on his Bring It On Home collection of soul classics.

Those are but some of the many versions of the classic tune, of course, and I’m sure I missed some that others think of as must-listens. (About the only person who never recorded it, but should have: Gladys Knight.)