Fred Astaire sang this beautiful song to Ginger Rogers in the 1936 movie Swing Time. It won the Oscar that year for Best Original Song. Uploaded by dreamydays.com.
Every so often I have to pay homage to the Great American Songbook, and one of my favorites is “The Way You Look Tonight.” I have it on my iTunes by both Michael Bublé and Tony Bennett, though it was originally sung by Fred Astaire in the movie Swing Time, in which it won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1936.
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Jerome Kern wrote the music, and Dorothy Fields followed up with the lyrics. She said, “The first time Jerry played that melody for me I went out and started to cry. The release absolutely killed me. I couldn’t stop, it was so beautiful.” Which reminds me, it’s time to feature Jerome Kern on this list…
Obviously, the song was released long before the Top 40 era, but it has managed to make the charts. The Lettermen recorded it as their first hit, and it went to number 13 in 1961.
“Someday, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold, I will feel aglow just thinking of you – and the way you look tonight.” Does it get any more romantic than that?
As a businessman, he co-founded Capitol Records. As a singer, he had a number of hits. But his real strength was songwriting, particularly lyrics, at which he's one of the music industry's all-time best. Uploaded by cdn.mos.musicradar.com.
This Georgia boy brought a Southern sensibility to popular music in the 1930s-1960s, and became a noted singer as well. Primarily he was a lyricist, writing words for such composers as Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Henry Mancini and, occasionally, himself.
Mercer first made his mark among the Tin Pan Alley songwriters of New York, but soon realized the future was writing music for films, causing him to move to Hollywood. His songs were recorded by Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and many other prominent singers of that era.
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A partial list of the songs Mercer contributed to the “Great American Songbook” include:
“Goody Goody” (1936) * “I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande” (1936) * “Hooray for Hollywood” (1937) * “Too Marvelous for Words” (1937) * “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” (1938) * “Jeepers Creepers” (1938) * “And the Angels Sing” (1939) * “Fools Rush In” (1940) * “Blues in the Night” (1941) * “I Remember You” (1941) * “Tangerine” (1941) * “This Time the Dream’s On Me” (1941) * “That Old Black Magic” (1942) * “Skylark” (1942) * “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” (1943) * “Dream” (1943) * “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” (1944) * “Laura” (1945) * “Come Rain or Come Shine” (1946) * “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (Academy Award, 1946) * “Autumn Leaves” (1947) * “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” (Academy Award, 1951) * “Glow Worm” (1952) * “Something’s Gotta Give” (1954) * “Moon River” (Academy Award, 1964) * “Days of Wine and Roses” (Academy Award, 1964) * “I Wanna Be Around” (1964) * “Summer Wind” (1965)
As if songwriting weren’t enough, Mercer had a successful recording career, and sang with several big bands. And he was a co-founder of Capitol Records. He was nominated for 19 Academy Awards, and won four. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971, and the organization presents an annual songwriting award in his name.
Linda Ronstadt tackled the mostly male rock and roll culture of the 1970s, and became one of the biggest stars of the decade. And, by the way, she was quite the babe. Uploaded by morrisonhotelgallery.com.
There are those who are just good singers. “Just” isn’t meant to be pejorative; certainly we welcome all the good singers we can find. Heaven knows there are enough bad ones. But the true artists, the people we return to year after year know how to interpret songs. They make us feel them as well as hear them. That’s what I love about Linda Ronstadt.
Ronstadt has excelled in several musical genres. She made her name as a rock singer, but she’s also excelled interpreting standards, in country-rock, in Latin, and in Gilbert and Sullivan on Broadway.
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The first we heard of her on the national stage was with her band The Stone Poneys. They had one top 20 hit, “Different Drum.” She went solo in 1969, and became the leading female pop singer of the 1970s. Her hits included “You’re No Good,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “Heat Wave,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Blue Bayou,” “It’s So Easy,” “Ooh, Baby Baby,” and “Hurt So Bad.”
She then took what was an unusual leap at the time, recording songs from the Great American Songbook with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. She recorded three albums – What’s New, Lush Life, and For Sentimental Reasons – that combined to sell more than 7 million copies in the U.S. alone.
Then in 1987 Ronstadt drew upon her family’s Mexican heritage to record the album Canciones di me Padre. Though she was born in Arizona and lived all her life in America, Ronstadt has described herself as a Mexican-American. The album was well received, and achieved double platinum status.
She has won Grammys and an Emmy, and been nominated for a Tony and Golden Globe. Two of her albums were selected among Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. And VH1 had her at number 21 in the 100 Greatest Women of Rock & Roll.
What would you call the most popular female jazz singer over a period of 50 years? Who won 13 Grammys and sold more than 40 million albums? You could only be talking about Miss Ella, and you’d call her “The First Lady of Song.”
Ella and I have something in common, besides our golden voices. We were both born in Newport News, Virginia. But Ella endured a difficult early life – a father who left early, a mother who died when Ella was 15, a brief time in a reformatory after being orphaned. Only one thing got her through, and that was singing.
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An appearance at an amateur night at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem gave her the confidence to know that performing is where she felt truly at home. She mastered the art of scat singing as no one has before or since. She finally had her first million seller, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” at the ripe old age of 21.
Ella was greatly admired by her fellow musicians and those who wrote her songs. “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them,” was how Ira Gershwin put it. The “Great American Songbook” was her text, and she was a master interpreter.
“I know I’m no glamour girl,” Ella said, “and it’s not easy for me to get up in front of a crowd of people. It used to bother me a lot, but now I’ve got it figured out that God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing.”
Copyright 2009-2011, Robin G. Chalkley. All material on these pages, and the listing of items as Great American Things, is copyrighted. The exceptions are the photographs and videos, which remain the property of their respective owners.
Header photo used courtesy of Flickr photographer too melo.