Keeping the GAS (The Great American Songbook) Flame Burning: “The Way You Look Tonight”

Roger Crane, the Song Scout
Roger Crane, the Song Scout

by Roger Crane, the Song Scout


When Chelsea Clinton got married, her father, the jazz-loving Bill Clinton showed up with a recording of Frank Sinatra singing the  Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields’  “The Way You Look Tonight.” This was the ex-President’s choice for the Bride-Father dance. (“Good selection, Mr. President.”)

Fred Astaire introduced this lovely, warm song in the 1936 film Swing Time but, in a departure, didn’t show his feet even once. Rather, he is seated at the piano as he sings the song to Ginger Rogers who, in an even less elegant posture, is in the bathroom with shampoo in her hair (see the first link below). Astaire’s recording of this elegant standard became a number one hit in October 1936 and the song went on to win an Academy Award for best song.

Contributing to the success of “The Way You Look Tonight” is Dorothy Fields’ especially touching lyric which contains such memorable lines as “that laugh that wrinkles your nose touches my foolish heart” and which weds nicely to Kern’s melody.

A couple months after the release of Swing Time, pianist Teddy Wilson went into the recording studio with hopes of capitalizing on the success of Kern’s new song. He brought along a 21-year old  Billie Holiday. Unfortunately, however, he and Ben Webster and Billie take the tempo too fast. I love Billie and I love the song but this time the pairing did not work. Somewhat surprisingly, no other major star recorded the song until Benny Goodman’s rendition in a 1942 feature for Peggy Lee – a slower and more effective version with Mel Powell on a celeste. Frank Sinatra also cut an early version for a wartime V-disc but his treatment from a 1964 Capitol session with Nelson Riddle is the recording everyone – including President Clinton – remembers today.

Some Memorable Versions

1)  A timeless scene.  Fred Astaire from the 1936 “Swing Time.”


2)  Mel Torme with Marty Paich in 1957.

 Paich and Torme is another one of those musical collaborations that was perfection (like Sinatra and Riddle below). This version, from Mel Torme Sings Fred Astaire, swings.

3) Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett recorded “The Way You Look Tonight” three times (1958, 1997 and 2011). The link below takes you to a sublime 1997 version with Ralph Sharon at the piano.The cut is from a recording initially titled Rarities, Outtakes and Other Delights, Vol. 2.

4)Frank Sinatra with Nelson Riddle fall into that grouping. Here they are in 1964.

  You may also wish to investigate recordings by the following.

> A version by Dave Brubeck with his Octet (1950) is certainly

> Another instrumental version that is easy to recommend is
Charlie Parker’s live at the Onyx Club (1948)

> Ella Fitzgerald recorded this gem with Nelson Riddle on her 1963
Jerome Kern Songbook Verve album

> Speaking of “songbook” albums, I don’t know of a better one than
vocalist Sandy Stewart’s 1985 Kern LP on Audiophile.
She is accompanied  by Dick Hyman at the piano.(The song is
misidentified twice as “The Way to Look Tonight.”)




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