This post was originally uploaded at my old blog in June 2013; it’s been revised here.
About three years before graduate school, I began listening to the Great American Songbook in seriousness. It began in the latter half of the 1990s, probably 1997, when I was browsing CDs at the now-defunct Tower store in the University District in Seattle.
I still remember that afternoon well. I was browsing CDs on the second floor while music was played over the store’s speakers. The first floor carried pop, rock, and alternative while the second floor had classical music, jazz, and easy listening and other sorts. Store clerks played a different CD on each floor to reflect the materials kept there. I remember two things on that particular day: for a time I was the lone customer on the second floor, and the volume was rather low.
I must have been looking at some classical CDs when the store’s music caught my ears. It sounded like a big-band song, and pretty fast-moving. All I could remember hearing while straining my ears was something like “gimme gimme gimme gimme…” No, it wasn’t ABBA but, as I learned later, an obscure tune called “Miser’s Serenade.” I kept an ear on the CD while browsing. After three more songs, I finally recognized something: the classic Italian song – Neapolitan, to be exact – called “Come Back to Sorrento.” I grew up hearing it in Vietnamese – it was called “Trở Về Mái Nhà Xưa: Return to the Old Home.” The lyrics were written (or, as they said in South Vietnam, freely “adapted”) by Phạm Duy, the Vietnam’s greatest popular songwriter. Lush and sentimental, “Torna a Surriento” (its Italian title) was recorded by Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Pavarotti, among others. Elvis Presley’s version, renamed “Surrender,” sounds almost like an unintended parody of the original.
“Who,” I asked the clerk, “is the singer?” He pointed at the CD cover, which said Chris. The name refers to Chris Connor, whom I’d never heard before. The album was released in 1954, and had been re-formatted into CD recently. I bought a copy and listened to it several times in a row.
A few days later, I returned to the store and bought a copy of the other CD of hers there: Chris Connor Sings Lullaby of Birdland. It was her very first album, released not long before Chris. If hooked by the first album, I was mesmerized by this one. After six or seven years of listening to and reading about classical music and the Beatles, I was ready for something new. It was the beginning of a listening adventure that went on until I went to grad school.
Given the appearance of the song’s title in the title of the album, “Lullaby of Birdland,” indeed became one of Connor’s signature songs. It was a collaboration of two musicians named George: the English blind pianist George Shearing wrote the music and the American George David Weiss penned the lyrics. The song title later became the title of Shearing’s autobiography.
Weirdly, they didn’t seem to know each other at all. Shearing states simply in his book, “While I’m on the subject of lyrics, a man by the name of George David Weiss put the lyrics to ‘Lullaby of Birdland’.” It’s the only reference to Weiss in the autobiography. “Birdland” refers to the jazz club of the same name in New York City, which in turn had been named after Charlie Parker, whose nickname was Bird. Listeners, of course, take “birdland” to mean something more abstract and romantic. Written in 1952, the song quickly became a favorite for instrumentalists and singers alike and is still recorded and performed today.
In the next two decades, I came upon dozens of versions of this songs on CDs and YouTube. Below are some great or interesting recordings of the song over the year, starting with Connor’s. It differs from all others for starting with a short phrase: Here’s a lullaby / a different lullaby.
Compositions for the Great American Songbook peaked in the 1920s and 1930s and came to an end in the 1950s as rock ‘n’ roll arose in popular culture. So “Lullaby” was born in the last decade of this history, and it shows. There is neither the sort of wittiness and sophistication found in lyrics from the earlier decades, nor the characteristically unanticipated rhymes. They are mushy and rather well-matched for the postwar rise of teenagers and the Baby Boom. It is only a few steps between the lyrics of this song and, say, those of “Sealed With a Kiss,” first released in 1960.
The melody, however, hums quite well and makes up plenty for the lyrics. Indeed, jazz moved from swinging dance music in the 1940s to music for audience in the 1950s. Big bands were replaced by trio, quartets, quintets, and sextets. This shift gave more prominence to instrumental solos, both single solos and chorus solos. For almost 65 years now, Lullaby has provided a terrific melody for pianists and other instrumentalists to showcase their talent after the vocalist sings through the lyrics the first time. As for vocalists, they began to improvise more during the 1950s. As seen in some of the videos below, Lullaby offered a great structure and melody to do just that.
It wasn’t uncommon to see different recordings of the same song coming out the same year. The same year of Chris Connor’s recording also saw another from Sarah Vaughan. For my money, this recording, the first in the album that bears her name and Clifford Brown, is the most enduring interpretation of the song. (Brown, however, doesn’t play in this particular recording.) It begins with a short added-on phrase, just like Connor’s, but there the similarities desist. The added-on phrase comes not in words but scatting. So distinctive is this phrase that, to my knowledge, no one else has imitated it. (Vaughan ends the song with the same phrase.) Some other singers have begun this song with scatting, but never this particular melody. Hearing the scat off the bat makes one expect to hear more during the musical break–and Sarah Vaughan did exactly that.
I have a soft spot for the Chris Connor recording for the sentimental reason of the aforementioned experience in Seattle, but I love Sarah Vaughan’s because it is possibly the most well crafted of all recordings of this song that I have listened. Note, for instance, the slowing down at certain spots, especially the stretching of her enunciation at 0:35: “magic we make with our lips”; or at 1:08: “High in the sky up above.” Or, her scatting that starts at 2:15 and weaves wonderfully along with the flute played by Herbie Mann.
Ella Fitzgerald naturally comes to mind when it comes to scatting, and she might have remained the greatest scat singer. “Lullaby” was a big hit for her, and the following live performance shows her scatting plenty. She opens the song scatting, she fills in the middle with some scat, and of course she ends with some more.
The versions above illustrate the overall qualities of each vocalist. Ella Fitzgerald’s voice is typically clear and strong in both versions; Sarah Vaughan’s is smoky; and Chris Connor’s carries a low and quasi-nasal register. What I’ve found most interesting is that they select different words and syllables for lilting or emphasis.
Ella Fitzgerald strikes early in the first verse – Never in my word land could there be ways to reveal – somewhat stronger in the second version. Sarah Vaughan, on the other hand, waits until the next line to raise her note a notch: in a phrase how I feel. Chris Connor waits even longer, or until the last syllable: in a phrase how I feel. (Even there, the lilt is rather gentle.) What was it, I wonder, that led each of them to decide where or when to go for emphasis?
“Lullaby of Birdland” has been sung mostly by women, but there are a few versions from men. One comes from Mel Tormé, himself a terrific scat singer. In the following recording, he scats delightfully after singing through all the lyrics the first time. At one point, he even sneaks in a phrase from his signature song Blue Moon. No slouch either is the accompanying band, especially the trumpet.
Mel Tormé’s recording is the fastest of the recordings so far. The next one is even faster: a live recording by Peggy Lee from the late 1950s – and accompanied by none other than Shearing himself. I always love Peggy Lee’s intonation to samba or cha-cha beats. (Google, for instance, her name and “I Could Have Danced All Night.”) It’s a remarkable performance, with her characteristically pronunciation and intonation. Except that it’s quite fast. It’s even more remarkable that Lee sings with it with apparent ease.
The song has been translated into several languages, including French. One recording from Europe came from Les Blue Stars, a primarily French group that later evolved into the cleverly named Swingle Singers. It was founded by Blossom Dearie, an American lounge pianist and vocalist who performed into her 80s. (Atypical of jazz vocalists, she used to wear dark-framed glasses.) This recording was a minor hit in 1954, shortly after Chris Connor’s recording, I believe. In his autobiography, Shearing claims to have “helped with a vocal treatment” of the song for this version.
The above versions came from the Fifties and Sixties: the golden age of this song’s recordings. Many have performed it at concert or recorded on album: Chaka Khan, Mariah Carey, and Amy Winehouse, among others.
A live version I really like comes from Lizz Wright, who sings gospel and rhymth & blue in addition to jazz. In this performance, a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, she renders the lyrics with considerable care. She enunciates the syllables as if going at a slightly slower pace than that of the accompanying band. It works to enhance the emphasis on the voice over instrument. I do think that after the instrumental break, she toys with the melody to mixed results. Nonetheless, the timbre of her voice is quite lovely to carry the rendition.
Lizz Wright was born in 1980. Fourteen years younger is the Canadian Nikki Yanofsky, who first came to renown at the Vancouver Olympics when she was twelve. On YouTube, there are almost a dozen of videos of different performances of “Lullaby” from her. You can tell she loves this song.
Here is one: a duet she does with Haewon, vocalist of the South Korean jazz group Winterplay. (The instrumental solo comes from the group’s trumpeter.)
Nikki Yanofsky is energetic. If the video above isn’t an indication, google her name and “The Way You Look Tonight” to see her in hyper-active glory. Even while sitting among Winterplay, she flings her arms and head so often that it seems as if she were moving around a stage. The demure mien of her duet partner serves as a perfect foil for her extroversion. The same is true of their vocalizing style: the Canadian’s aggressive style in contrast to the Korean’s smooth one. See, for instance, Yanosky’s emphasis at 1:53 – HAVE you heard two turtle doves… It is as if she was shouting the first syllable. It could be much to hear Yanosky alone. Here, however, her style fares well because it is paired to Haewon.
Indeed, Haewon brings us to the next couple of videos from East Asia. The song seems to be a favorite for Japanese jazz singers, as there are many videos on YouTube. A favorite of mine comes from Natsuki Morikawa, who brought out an album of American jazz songs in the early 2010s. The singing below comes from that album. The intonation is a tad too honeydew-sweet: a result of the slower pace. Dominated by the piano, instrumentation is a bit a throwback to earlier versions.
Across from Japan is a band of two young South Koreans called J. Rabbit. “Rabbit,” because they were born in the year of the rabbit, and “J” because they share the sure name Jung without being related to each other. They look a good deal younger than their age, and they are fun to watch. On YouTube they have released many videos of Korean songs and Western covers. There is an inescapably amateurish feel about the duo. Note, for instance, the heavy in-breath taken by the vocalist before each line: a terrible mistake. But I include it here because they elicit and express a youthful and infectious exuberance.
Moving from Asia to Europe, I like this live version of Andrea Motis, a Spaniard who both sings and plays the trumpet. She has her own band, called the Andrea Motis & Joan Chamorro Quintet. For this performance, they are joined by the American saxophonist Scott Hamilton. Starting with almost two minutes of a piano prelude, it showcases several instrumental solos along with Motis’ singing with a cute accent. She is only twenty-one years old as of this writing, and will probably play this song many more times in the future.
Converting the usual beat of “Lullaby” into samba or cha-cha could be a tall order. But I think Deborah Carter, born in the U.S. but better known in Europe and Asia, has pulled it off – almost. In this version, she adds quite a few words that actually work out well with the upbeat tempo. The arrangement isn’t spectacular, but it’s a nice change in beat and rhythm.
Next to last is an a cappella version by an “American Idol” contestant. No, it’s not Lilly Scott who competed in the 2010 season; she sang while playing the acoustic guitar. Rather, it’s Casey Abrams who competed the year after. I don’t think he performed this song during competition, but recorded it earlier. He dubs all voices, eight of them, and they aren’t too shabby.
Which version, I thought, to end this post? It took all of three seconds to go for a riveting live performance by Amy Winehouse. It’s different from all versions above, and may not be matched for some time.
Backed by a strong brass band, Winehouse goes for power rather than finesse. Her voice is far from being teasing or seductive; rather, it hits you on the head and wakes you up from any remaining mushiness from the Fifties. She goes about it as if intent on deconstructing the lyrics and shredding completely the romantic illusion inherent to the content. Yet there’s a kind of finesse in her prowess. Note, for instance, how she breaks the syllables at the start: “Lul – la -by of birdland – that’s – what – I…” I especially like her vocals after the instrumental break. Anyway, here is Amy Winehouse, RIP.