Sunday, December 6, 2015

#5: Someday, when you're awfully low, when the world is cold . . .

. . . just play this record and you'll feel a whole lot better. "The Way You Look Tonight" was written in 1936 by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields for the Astaire-Rogers movie Swing Time. Almost three decades later it was arranged by Nelson Riddle for Sinatra's Days of Wine and Roses album:

It's Bob Belvedere's #6 pick:
Mrs. B. and I always dance to this recording when it’s played at weddings — it’s one of Our Songs.
I know they aren't alone. "The Way You Look Tonight" has it all.

Mark Steyn, in his great piece on the song, quotes Miss Fields, one of his favorite songwriters, on the melody her partner had written:
"The first time Jerry played that melody for me, I went out and started to cry," Dorothy Fields recalled. "The release absolutely killed me. I couldn't stop, it was so beautiful."
It surely is beautiful, and her lyrics are deeply romantic. Mark on the release:
The middle section - the release - keeps the song's flowing quality. Most composers will opt for contrast - a legato middle following a choppy, staccato main theme - but Kern's "release" seems just that: a natural development of the principal strain, moving in the sheet from E flat to G flat and then noodling back in one of those quintessentially Kern transitions:

With each word your tenderness grows
Tearing my fear apart
And that laugh that wrinkles your nose
Touches my foolish heart...

That's beautifully poised. The lyric trembles on the brink of grandiosity, but then settles for a rueful, human, goofy sentiment - the potentially overblown fear-tearing balanced by the nose-wrinkling, an image of great intensity and intimacy and true tenderness. Lesser writers were wont to give serious love songs to the serious love interest and funny songs to the comedy couple and ne'er the twain shall meet. But most of us are serious and funny, romantic and hokey, sensuous and foolish all at the same time – and few songs walk that tightrope as adroitly as this one.
And in the hands of Sinatra and Riddle, the whole lovely thing swings, awesomely. Mark Steyn again:
"Once while I was driving," said the trumpeter Zeke Zarchy, "I heard an old record by Frank and Nelson, and I had to get out of the car and call the radio station. It was 'The Way You Look Tonight", the greatest thing I have ever heard! I defy any instrumentalist to swing like he does with his voice on that record."
How about the way Frank comes in with that last "lovely"? I wait for it every time, and it never fails to satisfy.

On the humming near the end, Will Friedwald, author of Sinatra! The Song Is You, writes:
"The Way You Look Tonight"[...] finds the two men [Sinatra and Riddle] making particularly effective use of the extralyrical four-note "humming" phrase that Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern incorporated in the melody. The strings play it in a slightly different register at the end of each A section until the end of the track. At that point, Sinatra, who has rarely exuded so much energy, warmth, and vitality, splits the phrase with the ensemble as if they were breaking open a bottle of Chianti Classico together. (p 262-3)
That humming is friend @paulgallagher's favorite part of the whole song. I like it, too. It's perfect.

Be sure to read all of Mark's essay, which includes some advice on love from The Man himself (Sinatra, not Steyn). I'll be back soon with more crème de la crème from the Sinatra songbook.

***Do not miss Mark's latest podcast, The Song Is You, episode one, A SteynOnline Sinatra Century Audio Special. Can't wait for episode two!***

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