Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ten Great Recordings of Blue Moon

Blue Moon blogging,

from Benny Goodman (1935)
to Julie London (1961)
to She Keeps Bees (2012),

essay 2 of 2

In my first essay on “Blue Moon,” I traced the strange evolution of the story within the song from its original Rodgers and Hart composition through the Elvis Presley dismantling and finally to the Cowboy Junkies rewrite.  I’m including all three highlighted versions here, too, because they really are favorites of mine.

Some obvious versions are missing from this selection simply because they aren’t my favorites.  So you won’t find Mel Torme’s jazzy hit from 1949, The Marcels’ doo-wop classic from 1961, Bobby Vinton’s teen-dream version (best utilized as the American Werewolf in London centerpiece), or The Mavericks smooth country reupholstering of the Elvis interpretation.  All were big hits and remain easily accessible, via YouTube and other channels.

Finally, I’ve left off some dazzling instrumental jazz interpretations largely because I’ve decided to maintain a focus on the interpretation of Lorenz Hart’s lyrics.

The order is chronological, with two bonus tracks at the end:

Benny Goodman in 1935:  There was a lot of “Blue Moon” activity in the mid-1930s, with different versions battling for chart supremacy.  Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra sold best, with Benny Goodman’s arrangement a close second.  I’ll take Goodman for the unaffected vocal by Helen Ward and the closing trombone solo by Jack Lacey.

Billie Holiday in 1952:  Lady Day deserved the love she sang about so playfully here.  It’s an unusually ironic take on the song, with Holiday gently kidding the very notion of love at first sight.  But she’ll enjoy the moment just fine while it lasts.

Jo Stafford in 1952:  Stafford is such a justifiably self-confident singer that she loses a little of the vulnerability inherent in the lyric.  Nevertheless, this is pitch-perfect and a marvel of subtle phrasing.  Lou McGarity’s trombone perfectly complements Stafford’s high style.

Elvis Presley in 1954:  As I posted in the first essay, I love the still-teenage Elvis hitting those spooky high notes.  His wordless improvisation fundamentally changes the song, and brilliantly so.

Ella Fitzgerald in 1956:  In the 1950s, Ella Fitzgerald set about reinterpreting the great pop standards and that included the American songbook of Rodgers and Hart.  She plays it absolutely straight, delivering what may be the most romantic interpretation of them all.

Julie London in 1961:  London delivers a sly understated and sexy “Blue Moon,” as she knowingly trades off with a slinky guitar riff.  It’s pure 60s and irresistible.

Bobby Bland in 1962:  Straying far afield from his traditional swaggering blues attacks, Bobby Bland and his ace arranger Joe Scott cleverly adapted “Blue Moon” for a funky horns-dominated party atmosphere.

Cowboy Junkies in 1987:  While “Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)” is technically a new song—a wrap-around elaboration of the Presley “Blue Moon”—I’m choosing to include it here as an authentic extension of the original.  I stand by my contention, asserted in the previous essay, that the new lyric emerges naturally from the Rodgers’ melody.

My Morning Jacket in 2002:  I wasn’t expecting this!  Lead singer Jim James takes the Elvis falsetto addition and completely re-imagines it—a new melodic twist that works with the original bridge and closing verse that Elvis had abandoned.  Very cool.

YouTube video of “Blue Moon” by She Keeps Bees.
She Keeps Bees website, with link to the single.

She Keeps Bees in 2012:  There’s no nostalgia in Jessica Larrabee’s vocal, just a smart, hoarse, and spare late-night exploration of love in the 21st century.  “Blue Moon” still matters.


Shirley Ross in 1934:  From Manhattan Melodrama (1934), Shirley Ross sings the song “The Bad In Every Man,” Lorenz Hart’s second attempt at putting lyrics to Richard Rodgers’ “Blue Moon” melody.  His fourth try would finally yield the standard “Blue Moon.”

Harpo Marx in 1939:  Although Groucho might urge you to move on (“I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over”), here’s Harpo Marx playing “Blue Moon” on his harp in At the Circus (1939).

© 2014 Lee Price

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