Saturday, January 19, 2008

Indestructible Songs: 'My Funny Valentine'

This is the first of a semi regular feature on the blog, that takes a look at songs that are so well constructed, that they can stand up to virtually any interpretation (although Rod Stewart's take on any of the Great American Songbooks strains this concept!). It seems that songwriting is given short shrift these days ("You Remind Me of My Jeep", anyone?), I thought it would be interesting to look at songs that are sometimes romantic, sexy or sad, but always durable. I have a short list and would love to get your suggestions to flesh this feature out.

I'm going to start with one of Rodgers and Hart's most famous recordings, 'My Funny Valentine'. Originally recorded in 1936 for the musical 'Babes in Arms', the song is on over 1300 albums and has been recorded by over 600 artists, ranging from Frank Sinatra to a sample on Kanye West's album 'Late Registration'. It also appears in at least 16 movies, including Sinatra's "Pal Joey", "Waiting to Exhale" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley".

To give you an example of how 'Indestructible' this song is, I first heard it sung by an actress not known for her vocal ability, Michelle Pfeiffer. Over the closing credits of one of the best films about the life of musicians that I've ever seen, 'The Fabulous Baker Boys', I heard this haunting, melancholy piano by Dave Grusin accompanied by a sad soft vocal that forced me to sit through the credits, which I rarely do. Not a great singer, Ms. Pfeiffer is respectable and her performance feels heartfelt, complimented by a sympathetic string session.

Shortly thereafter, I saw vocalist-percussionist Vinx do a live version with a single drum as his accompanyment. The drum gave the song a feel of urgency and his vocal was pleading, almost in desperation to be heard. I realized that this was a special song if it could stand up to two radically different interpretations and each version be equally effective.

I'm going to give you a brief list of my favorite versions. Most are available for download on iTunes.

Chet Baker: 1952. One of the best known versions, Baker plays trumpet and sings. You can hear his broken heart.
Ella Fitzgerald: 1956. Ella includes the opening stanza that Baker and most other vocalists leave off. The arrangement and presentation sounds like it was flown in on gossamer wings.
Miles Davis: 1965. The 'Prince of Darkness' recorded a live 15 minute version.
Etta James: 1995. This is the version Kanye West sampled.
Anita Baker: 1994. If ever a song was made for Anita, this is it.
James Ingram: 1999. I like this one because it's just crazy! Incredibly speedy tempo, with hi-tech production, you have to love the way Ingram starts soft and just attacks the song. And the song is still standing when he's finished.
Johnny Mathis: 1956. This is my favorite version. The arrangement is simple, a tasty and guitar and Mathis singing so delicately it feels like it all might break at any time.

Here's a tip. For the last couple of years I've made a cd compilation of 16 versions of the song and given it away during Valentine's Day. It's always well received.

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