“How Long Has This Been Going On?”
By Roger Crane, the Song Scout
BACKGROUND / DISCUSSION
“How Long Has This Been Going On?” is an early song (1927) composed by the Gershwin brothers that expresses the delight of a first kiss. George was blessed to have a brother who was a brilliant wordsmith. In the 2001 Listening to Classic American Popular Song (YALE Press) writer Allen Forte devotes eight pages of in-depth analysis of Ira’s lyrics to “How Long,” praising the song’s integration of lyrics, rhythm and harmony. George and Ira wrote the song as a duet for Adele Astaire (Fred’s sister) and Jack Buchanan in the Broadway production Funny Face. It was not used in that show but quickly added as a solo number in Flo Ziegfeld’s 1928 Rosalie. It didn’t quickly catch on but became a standard after Peggy Lee recorded it with the Benny Goodman orchestra. Interestingly, Audrey Hepburn sang the song in the 1957 film version of Funny Face (see link below). So, it came about that this lovely ballad at last returned to the place of its intended origins and is now firmly entrenched as an entry in the Great American Songbook (GAS) canon. .
Many of the better vocalists have recorded this song, including Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Cher, Cassandra Wilson, Mose Allison and Mel Torme, just to cite a few names. Since songs from the 1920s tend to sound quaint to modern ears, modern day jazz artists, other than the trad bands, often exclude songs of this era. But “How Long” is a notable exception. It does not date and is perfectly malleable with chords that are appealingly open, uncluttered and innovative. Enjoyable instrumental jazz recordings include saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, Al Cohn and Scott Hamilton (with some British jazz players). The great Louis Armstrong cut a recording as did guitarist Joe Pass and pianists Tommy Flanagan and Bill Charlap. Trombonist J.J. Johnson, who recorded (and composed) many ballads, included “How Long” on a 1954 recording with fellow trombonist Kai Winding.
A Few Sample Recordings
Sarah Vaughan, 1957. Thankfully Vaughan includes Ira’s lengthy but well-written verse. She is accompanied by the Hal Mooney orchestra.
Audrey Hepburn, also 1957. Nothing wrong with a grand voice (such as the great Sarah) but the last thing you need to “sell” a song is great “chops.” Audrey’s voice is small, pitch maybe a bit ambiguous. But she sings with heart and her sound arrests attention. Hepburn understands that some lyrics are better whispered than declaimed.
Carmen McRae, 1981. Carmen is that rarity, a pure jazz singer who gives as much attention to lyrics as to music. Below is a version recorded live at Bubba’s, accompanied by only Marshall Otwell’s piano.
Lee Wiley, 1939. The recording quality is a bit poor but certainly not Wiley’s singing. She was the first vocalist to record a series of songs by a single composer (that is, the concept of a “songbook” album). Perhaps the best of these is the Gershwin tribute which produced a touching version of this romantic song.
Last but not least, an Instrumental link, Ben Webster, 1967. The great Webster could do it all – swing hard or break your heart with a ballad. Here he is in balladic mode, accompanied by Kenny Drew-piano, Alex Riel-drums and the great NHOP (Niels Henning Orsten Pedersen) at his bass. Big Ben is so relaxed you can almost hear him smiling.
You may wish to also investigate Peggy Lee’s recording with Goodman which was in 1941. Sarah Vaughan recorded “How Long” a second time in 1978 with Oscar Peterson. Chet Baker, who had impeccable taste in tunes, included this song on his 1958 It Could Happen to You album. In 1962 Webster also recorded a thoughtful rendition of “How Long” with Sweets Edison. Pianist Brad Mehldau is always worth a listen and he included this song on his Art of the Trio CDs (volume 5 of that beautifully crafted series)