“My Funny Valentine”
Composed by Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyric).
Privately recorded by the Artie Shaw Gramercy Five in Hollywood in June of 1954.
Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Hank Jones, piano; Joe Puma, guitar; Tommy Potter, bass; Irv Kluger, drums.
In recognition of Valentine’s Day, and perhaps as an opportunity to pause and be immersed in warm, beautiful music at a time when the forces of crass commercialism surround us threateningly, I am presenting another one of the great Rodgers and Hart songs, “My Funny Valentine.”
For considerable detail surrounding Artie Shaw’s last Gramercy Five, which made this recording, click on the link below which will take you to another post on this blog about another terrific Rodgers and Hart song “Bewtiched, Bothered and Bewildered.” (At left: Artie Shaw – 1954.)
The music: Artie Shaw’s approach to “My Funny Valentine” features his nonpareil singing clarinet paraphrasing Richard Rodgers’s lovely melody through the first chorus. Guitarist Joe Puma plays next, exploring the harmonic underpinning of the melody. He is followed by pianist Hank Jones, playing elegant, warm jazz. Shaw returns, improvises, and leads the group to the conclusion of this outstanding example of chamber jazz.
I always wonder when hearing a great song how it came to be created. The composer Alec Wilder, in his landmark study of American music, American Popular Song …The Great Innovators – 1900-1950, analyzed “My Funny Valentine.” “This song must have meant a great deal to both of its writers. The lyrics show Hart’s ability to keep his detachment and sympathy in perfect balance. The structure is new for Rodgers (though one should always keep in mind that these departures from conventional form may have been the result of the lyric, in the event it was written before the music). The form is A-A1-B-A2-tag, and what I have called the tag is a repetition of measures nine and ten.” (At right, Richard Rodgers at keyboard, Lorenz Hart, sitting on high stool.)
“The principal idea is extremely simple. It is a phrase of six notes, each a step away from the next. Then it is repeated. The harmony is basically C-minor for four measures, shifting slightly each measure due to an essential chromatic whole note descending line which I’ve never known any good composer to ignore. In the second four measures, the idea is elaborated. Then the idea is stated a minor third higher with the same chromatic line as at the beginning (all variants of C -minor), with a further elaboration. Finally, a new idea is introduced with major rather than minor harmony”
“The first idea returns and builds to a remarkable climax, which is the same idea, an octave higher,with fuller harmony and fitting the climax of the lyric ”stay, little Valentine, stay!’ It then drops down to the same notes of measures nine and ten, and resolves in E-flat major. This is as finely detailed a theater song as I have ever heard.” (1)
The Story: “My Funny Valentine” was written by Rodgers and Hart for the 1937 Broadway musical comedy Babes in Arms. The book for the production was also written by Rodgers and Hart. It concerns a group of small-town Long Island teenagers who put on a show to avoid being sent to a work farm by the town sheriff when their actor parents go on the road for five months in an effort to earn some money by reviving vaudeville (which was still very much alive in 1937). This show included several of Rodgers and Hart’s best songs: “Where or When,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Johnny One Note,” and “My Funny Valentine.”
Although Babes in Arms was produced by MGM as a feature film in 1939 starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, that film, incredibly, had little of Rodgers and Hart’s music in it. (It was designed as a vehicle for Mickey and Judy, not as a showcase for Rodgers and Hart’s music.) Not until the Columbia Pictures production of Pal Joey in 1957, would Hollywood really present “The Lady is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine,” and several other Rodgers and Hart classics in a way that effectively showcased them. The key was that Frank Sinatra, then at the peak of his vocal powers, sang a number of those songs.
That film, which was loosely adapted from the Broadway musical production of Pal Joey, starred Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. Jo Ann Greer sang for Ms. Hayworth as she had in previous films. Kim Novak’s singing voice was dubbed by Trudy Erwin. (2) George Sidney directed while the dance sequences were choreographed by Hermes Pan. At Sinatra’s behest, Nelson Riddle wrote the musical arrangements for these Rodgers and Hart standards: “The Lady is a Tramp,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” and “There’s A Small Hotel” (replicating the Axel Stordahl/Tommy Dorsey style of the late 1930s), and “My Funny Valentine.”
Frank Sinatra, who was flying very high in filmland when Pal Joey was made, did not receive top billing, which went to Rita Hayworth. Sinatra was, by that time, a bigger star, and his title role was predominant in the film. Yet he insisted that Ms. Hayworth receive top billing. When asked about this, Sinatra replied that, as it was a Columbia film, Ms. Hayworth should have top billing because, “For years, she WAS Columbia Pictures.” That was a very noble gesture on Sinatra’s part.
The setting of the film Pal Joey is mid-twentieth century San Francisco, though there is far less footage of that magical city in Pal Joey than was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which was filmed right after Pal Joey. (Vertigo was also Kim Novak’s next film, and the one that had a lot to do with making her a major star.) Sinatra, as Joey Evans is a good singer who is a rogue, notorious for his ways with women (calling them “mice”), yet charming and funny. When Joey meets Linda English (Kim Novak), a chorus girl, he is immediately attracted to her. However, that does not stop him from seducing a wealthy but lonely society widow Vera Prentice-Simpson, known to Joey from her previous career in show-business as a stripper billed as ‘Vera Vanessa, the undresser…with the Vanishing Veils,’ played by Rita Hayworth. (Ms Hayworth’s striptease, done to the song “Zip,” is a highlight of the film.)
Soon Joey is involved with Vera, each using the other for his/her own selfish purposes. Joey’s objective is to get Vera to finance a lavish nightclub that he can run called Chez Joey. But Joey’s continues to be drawn to Linda. Ultimately, Vera jealously demands that Joey fire Linda who is to be featured singing “My Funny Valentine” at Chez Joey. When Joey refuses (“Nobody owns Joey but Joey!”), Vera closes Chez Joey. Linda visits Vera and agrees to quit the show in an attempt to keep the club open, so Joey and the other performers and staff will not be hurt. Vera then agrees to reopen the club, and even offers to marry Joey. But Joey rejects her. Chez Joey is now closed permanently. As Joey is leaving San Francisco, Linda runs after him, offering to go wherever he is headed. After a half-hearted refusal, Joey gives in and they walk away together, united. The happy ending of the film contrasts with that of the stage musical, where Joey is left alone at the end. (3) (Above left: Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak in the film Pal Joey.)
The film Pal Joey was far less hard-boiled than the original stage production had been. Broadway audiences have always been a couple of decades ahead of general movie audiences in what they will accept. Indeed, Sinatra, who was not a comedian, added multiple humorous flourishes to his portrayal of Joey in the film, usually in his interactions with the chorine Gladys, played to perfection by the curvaceous, wise-cracking Barbara Nichols.
Here is the lovely scene in the film Pal Joey which presents the alluring Kim Novak and the threatened Rita Hayworth (with Sinatra as the man in the middle) acting, and the talented Trudy Erwin singing “My Funny Valentine.” The subtle yet emotionally powerful arrangement, which includes only Bobby Sherwood playing guitar and a small choir of strings, was done by Nelson Riddle.
(1) American Popular Song …The Great Innovators 1900-1950 by Alec Wilder (1972), 206-207.
(2) Trudy Erwin, and George Duning, an arranger who also provided a number of arrangements used in this film, were both alumni of the Kay Kyser band.
(3) The synopsis of the film Pal Joey contained in this post is based on the one posted on Wikipedia.
The Artie Shaw recording of “My Funny Valentine” was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.