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Song Swarm: Blue Moon

January 31st, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

It took the great songwriters Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers four attempts to arrive at the version of the song most people will know from the versions by The Marcels, Elvis Presley, Mel Tormé (my favourite, from 1961) or from the film Grease.

Rodgers and Hart originally wrote the song, with different lyrics, for a 1933 MGM film titled Hollywood Party, to be sung by Jean Harlow. The song, going by the working title Prayer (Oh Lord, Make Me A Movie Star), was never recorded, nor did Harlow appear in the film.

The following year, the songwriters dug up the song when MGM needed a number for the film Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and William Powell. It was that movie, incidentally, which the bank robber John Dillinger watched before stepping out of the Chicago cinema to meet his death at the enthusiastic hands of law enforcement. With new lyrics, the song now was called It’s Just That Kind Of Play — and was cut from the movie. However, later in the production, a song was needed for a nightclub scene. Rogers decided that the melody was still good, and Hart wrote a third set of lyrics, under the title The Bad In Every Man. This one made it into the film, sung by Shirley Ross, who would go on to work and sing with Bob Hope on film a few times before retiring in 1945.

By now, MGM had appreciated the commercial potential for the melody, but wanted more romantic lyrics. Enter Lorenz Hart again, reluctantly providing a fourth set of words — those we are now familiar with. But even then, an introductory verse was excised, which proved a good decision. Blue Moon was first recorded on 16 November 1934 by Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra (named after the hotel where they once had a standing engagement), with the band’s saxophonist Kenny Sargent on vocals. Four days later, Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra recorded it, and from there on in, a host of performers and orchestras committed the song to record. The biggest hit of these was the version by Connie Boswell with the Victor Young Orchestra, recorded on 15 January 1935 as the theme for the radio show Hollywood Hotel (Boswell changed her first name to Connee only in the 1940s).

After a flurry of versions (including by Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt and Al Bowlly), Blue Moon was intermittently recorded and also appeared in several movies, including as part of a Harpo interlude in the Marx Brothers’ 1939 film At The Circus. In the 1940s and ’50s it was mainly a jazz number, as an instrumental or in vocal versions, by the likes of Mel Tormé (who first recorded it in 1949), Ella Fitzgerald and Jo Stafford. Arguably it was Elvis Presley’s sombre 1956 version which appeared on his debut LP that returned Blue Moon to the world of popular music (the single of it was released between Hound Dog and Blue Suede Shoes). Sam Cooke released his version in 1958, as a b-side. It became a huge hit in the version by the multiracial doo wop band The Marcels, whose recording is probably the best known of the song.

As so often with popular covers that became huge hits, The Marcels recorded Blue Moon in 1961 as an afterthought. Producer Stu Phillips needed another song, one of the band members knew Blue Moon and taught it to the others, and in a matter of two takes the track had been laid down. The bom-bapa-bom intro came from a song the Marcels had in their live repertoire, which in turn was borrowed and sped up from The Collegians’ song Zoom Zoom Zoom. The Marcels were not the first to produce a doo wop version of Blue Moon, however: in 1956 The Emanons released a doo wop take on Josie Records.

The success of Blue Moon and follow-up single Heartaches (also a cover of a 1930s hit; they did a lot of that) led to extra touring for The Marcels. But in the South the band’s racial composition produced problems; those were the days when the dignified Nat ‘King’ Cole was prone to assault racists. Ultimately, the two white members of the quintet left the group.

When Rod Stewart recorded Blue Moon for his interminable series of American Songbook albums, he added something of a twist: a first verse in Rodgers and Hart’s original composition of Blue Moon which everybody else has ignored.

 

This collection of 38 versions covers all manner of approaches. There are the early jazz interpretations, most of them with vocals (though Gene Krupa, Django Reinhardt and in 1944 the Cozy Cole Allstars do it instrumentally). Then it became something of a torchsong number in the hands of jazzy crooners such as Mel Tormé, Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Julie London and Ella Fitzgerald. Nat ‘King’ Cole weighed in with a more upbeat version. In 1960, Bert Kaempfert — the first producer of The Beatles — contrived an easy listening instrumental that is very much of its time.

Elvis added a rare falsetto (that take is later replicated in tribute by Chris Isaak and The Mavericks). Around the same time as Elvis, The Emanons recorded a doo wop version, which with Sam Cooke”s might have influenced that by The Marcels, which became a huge hit.

In 1970 Bob Dylan released a rather unexpected cover, with a unique arrangement. Another unexpected performer in this compilation is Robert de Niro, who performed it in the 1977 film New York, New York, in which Bob played a bandleader. Likewise, alt-country rockers My Morning Jacket are not the first band one would think of in a mix of covers of Blue Moon.

I’ve included a playlist file, which runs the versions in the chronological order, as listed below.

Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra (1934) • Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra  (1934) • Connie Boswell & Victor Young Orchestra  (1935) • Al Bowlly with the Ray Noble Orchestra (1935) • Benny Goodman and his Orchestra (1935) • Django Reinhardt  (1935) • Gene Krupa  (1939) • Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra (1939) • Cozy Cole Allstars (1944) • Mel Tormé (1949) • Billy Eckstine (1949) • Nat ‘King’ Cole (1951) • Jo Stafford (1952) • Billie Holiday  (1952) • Oscar Peterson  (1954) • Ella Fitzgerald (1956) • Elvis Presley (1956) • The Emanons (1956) • Sam Cooke  (1958) •  Julie London  (1958) • Bert Kaempfert Orchester (1960) • Mel Tormé  (1960) • Frank Sinatra (1961) • The Marcels  (1961) • The Ventures (1961) • Bobby Vinton (1963) • Dean Martin  (1964) • Bob Dylan  (1970) • Spooky & Sue  (1975) • Robert de Niro & Mary Kay (1977) • Sha Na Na (1978) • Mark Isham with Tanita Tikaram  (1990) • Chris Isaak  (1994) • The Mavericks  (1995) • Tori Amos  (1996) • Vidal Brothers (1997) • Rod Stewart (2004) • My Morning Jacket  (2005)

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  1. halfhearteddude
    February 26th, 2011 at 01:12 | #1

    PW = amdwhah

  2. February 26th, 2011 at 17:56 | #2

    My favourite version of the song is probably the Elvis version, but above that is the Cowboy Junkie’s track Blue Moon Revisited which is lovely, and uses the song to fantastic effect. Absolutely gorgeous.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GysJ4bKIhho

  3. RonNasty64
    March 2nd, 2011 at 22:32 | #3

    I’ve always been fond of Dave Edmunds cover, which he performs on You Tube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MEEEMQU1Wbk

  4. Ravel
    March 3rd, 2011 at 07:46 | #4

    Jane Froman’s version: dramatic. My favorite. & among one of my favorite standard. You didn’t include it here but thanks for all these.

  5. March 8th, 2011 at 05:36 | #5

    Funnily enough, the Elvis version came up on iPod shuffle just the other day, and I was thinking how good it sounded until the falsetto. At that point, you wonder if he’s just arsing around in the studio and taking the piss. I think it was either Showawaddywaddy or The Darts did a decent version in the late 70s.

  6. Lordy
    March 25th, 2014 at 02:17 | #6

    I love your Sound Swarms!

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