Listening to a note perfect song is one of the many small joys afforded us by life. Of course, it’s an entirely subjective experience because music comes in all different flavors and we listeners have a wide variety of palates. Be that as it may, I would argue that the Great American Songbook ranks among this nation’s greatest gifts to the world, and within this wealth of tunes there’s an absolute abundance of musical perfection.
The term ‘Great American Songbook’ is used to describe the canon of American popular songs primarily birthed from musicals of the American stage and screen during the first half of the 20th Century. It was an era of great songwriting and craftspeople like Richard Rodgers, the Gershwin Brothers, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter were just as well known as the vocalists who brought their music to life; Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby among them. Terrific musicians working with amazing singers, interpreting gorgeous, lushly arranged songs - who could ask for anything more?
One of the best things about the Songbook is that a great many songs are found in an even greater variety of expression. It’s like a musical salad bar with overwhelming combination. If you like the taste of, “The Way You Look Tonight” you then get to pick between assorted arrangements and gifted performances by Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and so on.
A personal favorite is, "The Nearness of You” by Hoagy Carmichael, but until last week I’d never heard the duet version recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong accompanied by the Oscar Peterson Quartet. I was in my car listening on Pandora and as soon as it ended I said aloud (to no one in particular) “That was f-ing perfect.” From the bluesy, opening piano lick to the final note, not one misstep.
Hoagy Carmichael was a multi-talented man. A bandleader, singer and actor, Carmichael was best known as a pianist and composer. Originally from Indiana, he’s responsible for memorable songs like “Heart & Soul”, “Georgia on my Mind” and “Stardust”. For “The Nearness of You” Carmichael wrote the music while the words were work of lyricist Ned Washington who also gave us “When You Wish Upon a Star”, “Wild is the Wind” and “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin” (the theme song from High Noon).
Originally, the song was intended to be featured in a film version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but the production fell through and the song didn’t find wide release until it was picked up and popularized by the Glenn Miller Orchestra in the 1940s.
In 1956 the tune would find itself in front of the inimitable duo of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong as they recorded their first joint album, Ella & Louis, for Verve Records (they would ultimately record three in total). The Oscar Peterson Quartet provided the musical accompaniment; with Oscar Peterson on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass and Buddy Rich on drums, the group was a murderers row of legendary jazz talent - not to mention the fact that Louis Armstrong also chimed in on trumpet. They couldn’t miss.
My favorite, however … Ella Fitzgerald. My parents gave me a four CD set a few Christmases back of her performing live at the Crescendo Club in Hollywood. I remember putting it on immediately after we opened presents. As she launched into the first song my dad and I both looked at each other, smiling wordlessly because, like Bing Crosby once said, “Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest of them all.”
“The Nearness of You” is simple, tender, and earnest. You’ll never find it more beautifully expressed than right here. Long live the Great American Songbook.