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W. C. Handy: Memphis Blues

Handy’s first hit, “Memphis Blues,” was self-published as a piano rag, which Handy sold, lock, stock and barrel, to a clever music publisher visiting Memphis on business in 1912. The loss of royalty income due to this transaction haunted Handy for the remainder of his life. The following year saw two pivotal developments in Handy’s career. He founded Pace and Handy Music Publishing Company with the brilliant businessman Harry Pace; and his “Memphis Blues” was issued as a song, with words by George Norton, who had another smash hit with “Melancholy Baby.” Norton’s words extolled Handy and his band, and the song caught on immediately and nationally, making Handy, a successful regional bandleader, famous, somewhat to his surprise, from coast to coast.

In her performance of “Memphis Blues” in “Belle of the Nineties” (1934), Mae West exemplifies the pizzazz of vaudeville. West, one of the biggest stars of early talking pictures, was steeped in the milieu of early 20th-century stage comedy, and she swaggers through “Memphis Blues” with authority. The house band in the film, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, plays along with a bit of hokum involving a drum stick, without losing a beat. Though “Memphis Blues” wasn’t composed until 1912, Handy had come to prominence as a minstrel band cornetist, conductor, and arranger in the 1890s, and the use of this song as a marker of nostalgia is highly successful.

“Memphis Blues” has a happy ending. Handy’s copyright lawyer, Abbe Niles, kept an eye on the date the song would enter the public domain, and Handy gained control of the property in 1940, in time to profit from his first hit toward the end of his life.

Duke Ellington/Marshall Barer: C’est Comme Ça

Most of you have certainly heard of Duke Ellington, but how many of you are familiar with the work of the lyricist Marshall Barer (1923-1998)? He had his greatest Broadway success as the lyricist for the musical Once Upon a Mattress, written with composer Mary Rodgers, whose songs are part of this week’s NYFOS “Rodgers, Rodgers, & Guettel” concerts. Barer is often referred to as the greatest lyricist you have never heard of.

I had the pleasure of meeting Marshall at a party in Los Angeles in 1989. I was just getting my bearings, adjusting to life back in the U.S. after working in Europe for five years, and in walks the strangest thing on two feet that I had ever encountered. It soon became apparent that he was also one of the most brilliant and clever people one could hope to meet. As I had no car at the time (NOT recommended when you’re living in Los Angeles), he offered to pick me up and drive me to his place in Venice Beach so he could hear my music. Up pulled his car: a Mercedes-Benz covered entirely in denim. Yes, denim. And it had a zipper up the front of the hood. During the entire drive to his place, he never once fully came to a stop—honestly, not once—and seemed to pay scant attention to what other cars on the road were doing or if a traffic light had changed color. We ended up writing several songs together, and I’ll always cherish the memory of working with such a consummate artist and a truly unique human being.

Marshall wrote with many different composers over the years, and often spoke to me about how much he loved working with Duke Ellington on the score of the ill-fated 1966 musical Pousse-Café, which flopped on Broadway after only 3 performances. It was a heart-breaking experience for Marshall, but what remains are some wonderful songs. One of my favorites is “C’est Comme Ça,” sung here in a beautiful live performance by B.J. Ward, from her wonderful CD devoted entirely to Marshall’s songs. It’s a great example of economy in songwriting. Notice how the melodic shape of the first phrase of the song gets repeated several times, climbing higher and more passionate with its reiterations, and taking us through some delicious Ellington harmonies—yet never straying too far off course that we can’t appreciate the exquisite simplicity of the lyric.

In a funny way, Marshall Barer is my own personal conduit to the composers NYFOS is honoring this week. He knew Richard Rodgers, wrote extensively with Mary Rodgers, and even wrote with Adam Guettel. I’m very grateful that the brakes on his old Mercedes-Benz didn’t fail completely, and that I’m still here to talk about him.

C’est Comme Ça
Music by Duke Ellington
Lyrics by Marshall Barer

Ellington: Heaven

I briefly considered continuing to worship at the altar of my mezzo-soprano idols as I have been doing here over the last several days (Oh, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Frederica Von Stade, don’t think I have forgotten you!) And I was so close to featuring Handel, because I think he wrote the most beautiful melodies on the planet, and I’d love to pay homage to that musical era, which is very close to my heart. And I also thought of my dear Ella Fitzgerald… and Patsy Cline… neither of whom I wanted to neglect (I swear there are some male singers I admire, too!). BUT I decided that for day #5 instead of bringing you an old favorite, I’ll share something that is a newer discovery for me, and something that might be brand new to you.

I admit to not being that up on my jazz – I have a few great albums that I got in high school that I’ve listened to many many times over the years (Thelonious Monk, John Coltraine, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and several Ella CDs), but my knowledge of the genre is far from thorough. Since I tend to be partial to jazz that’s on the traditional side, I’ve always really liked everything I’ve heard from Duke Ellington, but I had no awareness of the music he wrote for classically trained singers!

I was introduced to it when soprano Candice Hoyes unearthed a whole album’s worth of Ellington rarities for her debut album, On a Turquoise Cloud, in 2015. This track, “Heaven,” is from Ellington’s Sacred Concerts, which the composer called “the most important thing I’ve ever done.” It premiered right here in New York in 1968 at St. John the Divine Church, but no recording of this has surfaced.  It’s hard to believe this Harlem gem was little known, but it’s very exciting that a singer of my generation has chosen to interpret it.

Hoyes is made to sing this repertoire – she has the soprano chops to soar into the stratosphere as well as the style and range to pull off the soulful jazzy low notes. I knew her as a high operatic soprano (I’ve had the joy of singing opera and art song repertoire with her many times), so when I went to hear her sing jazz at Minton’s in Harlem for the first time, I was blown away! Her cool, confident performance would have made Ellington proud, I have no doubt.

Hoyes’ recording of this song really captures the soul, beauty, and versatility of Ellington. I love how she employs such a variety of vocal colors, and I love how the arrangement builds and ends with her super soprano-y riffs! This song (and her album in general) is so soothing and dreamy, not to mention that it’s a really cool aspect of New York song history. Enjoy!

It’s been such a treat to write for the NYFOS blog this week. Thanks for going on this journey with me!

Song of the Day: February 5

SusanBottiThis week our SoTD curator is composer Susan Botti who will host and curate the second installment of NYFOS Next 2016 on Febuary 11th alongside fellow Manhattan School of Music faculty member, Richard Danielpour. Botti is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Rome Prize. Orchestral commissions include works for the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. In addition to performing her own vocal works, she specializes in the vocal performance of contemporary music by a diverse range of composers. Thank you, Susan!

Down to the wire… my last song…Oh no… what about…???

Stevie Wonder, Hugo Wolf, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Joni Mitchell, Al Green, Oumou Sangare, The Beatles, Tracy Chapman, Bacharach/David, Bolcom, Mancini, Sondheim, Weill, Caccini, Britten…???!!!

Well, Valentine’s Day is around the corner, so let’s make this a theme-based choice. How about 2 songs that savour the anticipation of a kiss…

Ellington’s sophisticated musically and lyrically, sinuous and chromatic…

Prelude to a Kiss (Duke Ellington/Irving Gordon/Irving Mills) –
with fabulous melodies and lyrics “a Schubert tune with a Gershwin touch”. Here, sung by the great Sarah Vaughan:


Purcell’s Pandora’s box of a kiss –temperature imagery in the words (cool, freeze, fire) and tempos(!) in the music tell the story…

Sweeter than Roses (Henry Purcell) (1695)

(here, sung by the virtuosic David Daniels)


And here’s a snowy Valentine to NYC – and the (first?!) blizzard of 2016… exquisite words by e.e. Cummings (from his play HIM) – thanks again, NYFOS!:

New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • info@nyfos.org