Cupid’s musical sense of humor

Dale Merrill

Staff Writer

 

“My funny Valentine. Sweet comic Valentine.”
Not really the type of opening lines one would use to express feelings to someone they are trying to woo and court.

For one song though, it has become part of love’s musical lexicon.
Written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart for the 1937 play “Babes in Arms,” “My Funny Valentine” was, at first, a song that poked fun at the sappy sentimental hearts, flowers and boxes of candy that people used to show their affection to someone.

It was a funny little song from a happy-go-lucky play of to cheer people up during the throes of a worldwide depression.
At the time it wasn’t one of the show’s centerpieces. It was basically a throwaway in some sorts.

Somehow though, the song has taken a life of its own to the point where if anyone recalls the original play, or the 1939 film version of it, it is mostly likely the one people will cite over the much larger production numbers from it such as “The Lady is a Tramp” and “I Wish I Was in Love Again.”
“Your looks are laughable. Unphotographable.”
   Though the song was revived in 1945, where it had minor chart success in a version done by Hal McIntyre’s big band, it would be close to a decade later where the song would make a really big splash.
In 1952, jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan quit his gig in Stan Kenton’s group and formed the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, featuring young trumpet player Chet Baker.

Their instrumental take on the song took it to the top of the charts and helped start laying the foundation of the song becoming a standard, but the world’s first big introduction of what would be known as the west coast “Cool Jazz” sound.
Following Mulligan’s arrest and imprisonment from heroin charges, the Quartet broke up.

Baker set out on a solo career, further making the song his own. It was around this time that Baker was not only being noted for his horn playing, but his singing as well.

 

Photo by Karen Hornton under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Karen Hornton under a Creative Commons license.

“Yet you’re my favorite work of art.”
With a sleepy eyed croon that sounded like it was iced down with menthol on a dewy summer morning, which matched Baker’s smoldering and sultry horn playing.

Factor in his matinee good looks at the time with this and he was a shoe-in for success.

In 1956, the Pacific Jazz label, released the album “Chet Sings” which, obvious from the album title, concentrated more on his voice and less on the instrumentals. That version made the girls swoon and the guys wish they were as suave as him.
Baker not only scored a hit for a second time in less than four years, not only made it a mandatory tune on any hipsters mixtape for romance for close to six decades now, but also set the standard that most arrangements of the song have been based off since.

“Your figure less than Greek. Your mouth a little weak when you open it to speak”
Another jazz artist who had recorded the song several times was trumpet player Miles Davis.

First in 1956 on his album “Cooking,” but it wasn’t until 1964 when he recorded the song at the Philharmonic Hall of New York’s Lincoln Center, now known as Avery Center Hall, did he take it to places that the song hadn’t been before.

The song, which also the album this version bears the name of, was made at a time of turmoil.

Davis, who was still shaken by the death of the JFK and the civil rights struggles of the time, played the concert, which was co-sponsored by the NAACP, in hopes of bringing attention of a country in discontent, to a more fanciful audience.
The young band he had formed, which included such future notables as Herbie Hancock on piano and Tony Williams on drums, played intensely.

Not only because the mood of a nation, but also because they found out none of them would be receiving any pay for their performance that evening.
Expanding the song’s normal three minute mark into an expansive and looping fifteen.

It ebbs. It flows. One moment it is like a lullaby. At others it’s screaming for life.
It’s a version that has one foot firmly placed in the traditions and respect for the song. The other foot though firmly kicks the hell of those same traditions.
“Don’t Change A Hair For Me. Not If You Care For Me.”
Nico, born Christa Päffgen, led a very strange but at times, very charmed life.
Born in Germany, she was raised without a father, who suffered brain damage during World War II, and was then used by Nazi doctors for medical experiments until he died in a concentration camp.

In her late teens she started modeling and acting, including a bit part in Federico Felini’s “La Dolce Vita.”

From there the stunning blonde with high cheekbones pursued a career a singing; first working with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones.

Not long after that she was “discovered” by Andy Warhol, who placed her in the spotlight of fronting a band he was managing called the Velvet Underground.
Though the band objected to the idea, her ice queen chanteuse vocals featured on their 1967 debut album, “The Velvet Undergound & Nico,” have become part of the primer for anyone interested in the roots of punk, alternative and indie-rock.

After exiting the band she was courted by Bob Dylan, recorded his song “I’ll Keep it With Mine,” and embarked on a solo career of six strange and, at times, difficult albums which ended with her death after having a brain hemorrhage from falling off her bicycle in Ibiza, Spain in 1988.
Her final album was 1985’s “Camera Obscura.

   Amid tracks of experimental nature and some that have been cited as precursors to current day electronic, there is a faithful version of “My Funny Valentine.”

Accompanied by sparse cabaret jazz piano and blasts from a single trumpet, Nico’s thick, low and somber Teutonic voice resembles dark clouds on a winter day with slights bits of sunshine coming through the grayness.
“My Funny Valentine” still lives on as song for the day of flowers, candy and kisses as artists continue to record it and put their own little twists on it.

Thumb through any version of the “Great American Songbook” and it always appears in the first few pages.

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