Keeping the GAS (Great American Songbook) Flame Burning: “Laura”


Roger Crane Song Scout
Roger Crane Song Scout


By Roger Crane, the Song Scout


Admittedly I lose objectivity when discussing the song “Laura.” In fact, I love the song so much that a friend once recorded eighty-three versions (yes, 83!) for me, ranging from trumpeter Clifford Brown to the Four Freshman to saxman Sonny Stitt.

Of course, my affection for this classic is not uncommon. For example, Cole Porter declared that “Laura” was the one song he most wished he had written. I also love the source movie and Vera Casparay’s excellent mystery novel it was based on. And who does not love Gene Tierney’s portrayal of Laura Hunt in that 1944 film.

Surprisingly, David Raksin’s evocative theme almost never made it into the film. He was not brought in as composer until after the shooting had been completed. The director, Otto Preminger, had originally wanted to use Gershwin’s “Summertime” but couldn’t secure the rights. He next chose Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” as the theme.

Raksin protested. “What?” said Preminger, “You don’t like it?” “Of course I like it,” said Raksin.” Everybody likes it. But it has nothing to do with your movie.” Preminger gave him the weekend. “Come in Monday with something you like better, or else we use ‘Sophisticated Lady’.”

All else is history. Raksin’s haunting melody can be heard throughout the movie whenever detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) drifts into a reverie over the lovely Laura whose murder he is investigating. Although the general public and jazz musicians embraced Raksin’s melody from the start, it was generally considered too complex for a popular song. But an instrumental version became so well-known that moviegoers pleaded with 20th Century Fox to turn it into a song.

Oscar Hammerstein penned some lyrics as did Irving Caesar but neither satisfied Raksin who finally chose Johnny Mercer. And happily his poetic lyrics bring Raksin’s difficult but lovely music to life with such imagery  as – –

“Laura is the face in the misty light
Footsteps that you hear down the hall
The laugh that floats on a summer night
That you can never quite recall”

Raksin’s ethereal melody was an ideal vehicle for the West Coast cool jazz performers. For example Dave Brubeck recorded it with both his Octet and his Trio. In 1949 Gerry Mulligan wrote an arrangement of “Laura” for Claude Thornhill and then recorded it on several occasions with his own bands. In 1955 Clifford Brown recorded a sublime rendition with strings. Charlie “The Bird” Parker also recorded a “with strings” version that is highly valued in the world of jazz. Another personal favorite is Nat Cole’s instrumental rendition in his 1952 Penthouse Serenade recording, Pianist Bill Evans also included “Laura” with Claus Ogerman’s orchestra.

Most of the jazz versions have been instrumentals. But many of the better singers have recorded “Laura” including Frank Sinatra initially with Axel Stordahl in 1947 and a decade later with Gordon Jenkins. Perhaps the best selling jazz vocal is by Ella Fitzgerald in a 1964 recording.

A Few Sample Recordings

1) The Classic (in jazz circles) Charlie Parker with Strings.

2) Sinatra with Gordon Jenkins in 1957 (incl. lovely video)

3) Ella in 1964 from her Johnny Mercer Songbook recording

4) Last but not least, the lovely trumpet of Clifford “Brownie” Brown with strings

You may also wish to investigate recordings by the following.

Cal Tjader (with Paul Horn) from Monterey Concert, 1959

Patricia Barber from “Live-A Fortnight in France,” 2004

Bill Evans with Claus Ogerman, 1963


One thought on “Keeping the GAS (Great American Songbook) Flame Burning: “Laura”

  1. I love Laura as well as Raksin’s theme for “The Bad and the Beautiful”. Talk about complicated melody! Mark Murphy put words to it but I think it sounds better as an instrumental. It is quite magnificent. Raksin also wrote the theme for “Forever Amber”, another favorite. His songs have a way of touching you someplace you didn’t even know was there. When I look back on some of my favorite movies, like the three above, I find that his melodies are woven into the experience and that the movie wouldn’t have been the same without them. He is one of our greatest unsung artists.


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