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

Rpger Crane Song Scout
Rpger Crane Song Scout

By Roger Crane

What is left to say about the lovely and iconic “Over the Rainbow?” Well, some basics. The music is by Harold Arlen and the lyric by E. Y. “Yip” Harburg. As many of you know, it was written for and featured in the 1939 Judy Garland movie The Wizard of Oz. The song became Garland’s piece de resistance and has, since its introduction, been recorded by just about everybody (a few examples below).

By the way, 1939 was a spectacular year for well-written songs. Just to cite a small handful, in addition to “Over the Rainbow,” “All the Things You Are,” “Darn That Dream,” “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “I Thought About You,” “Day In-Day Out,” and so many more were published in that year. None of these songs has in them a clichéd note.

Here is something maybe you did not know. The original composer assigned to write the songs for The Wizard of Oz was Jerome Kern. But he suffered a mild stroke and was unable to accept the assignment, So, Harold Arlen accepted the task. Then, the deal to have Shirley Temple play the leading role of Dorothy Gale fell through. Instead the part went to an unknown actress named Judy Garland who, at age 16, was asked to play a 12-year old. Interestingly, Frank Baum’s Oz books never mention a rainbow but the lyricist Harburg thought that a little girl in barren monotone Kansas would find color in her life only by looking at a rainbow.

Surprisingly, initially few liked the centerpiece big ballad “Over the Rainbow.” ”In fact, the producers hated the song so much that they cut it out of the movie not once, but three times. Studio head Louis B. Mayer griped that it slowed down the film. They especially didn’t like that delightful opening octave leap “Some-WHERE.” Only Arthur Freed, the associate producer (and himself a songwriter), persuaded the powers-that-be to leave the song in the final cut.

Of course, all else is history. The young Judy and the public loved “Over the Rainbow” and it won the Academy Award for Best Song of 1939 and has since attained the rare status of a beloved American classic. It was ranked number one on the “Songs of the Century” list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America. The American Film Institute named it the greatest movie song of all time.

Although featured in a young person’s movie, the song easily made the transition to the dance halls and the swing bands of the era. In fact, before the end of 1939, the song had entered the repertoires of Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Miller’s version, which was recorded before the film was released, was a number one hit for his band. “Over the Rainbow” spent six weeks as the number one hit on the radio show Your Hit Parade. “Over the Rainbow” has been featured in several films besides The Wizard of Oz. James Stewart (yes, THAT James Stewart) sang it in the 1940 The Philadelphia Story. Eileen Farrell dubbed it for Eleanor Parker in the 1955 film Interrupted Melody and Elizabeth Hartman hummed it in the 1965 A Patch of Blue.

Some Recordings

Since its initial appearance,”Over the Rainbow” has never totally fallen out of favor among jazz players nor among vocalists who focus on the GAS repertoire.
1) Judy has to be included, of course. Here she is in 1939 with Victor Young and his orchestra. In 1981 this record was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

2) The under-valued altoist Art Pepper recorded it many times. This version is from a 1978 Galaxy session. That is Stanley Cowell, piano, Roy Haynes, drums and Cecil McBee, bass.

3) Even the great Ray Charles can find something new to add to the maleable melody. Here is ”the genius” in 1963 with an arrangement by Marty Paich.

4) Unfortunately, Eva Cassidy died at only 33 (of cancer) before she became a star She was the rarest of the rare – a truly genre-free vocalist – rock, pop, gospel, jazz, folk. Eva just sang and to heck with labels. Her impassioned 5-minute version became a posthumous hit (especially in England) in 1992.

5)Dave Brubeck has noted that his 1952 Storyville performance of “Over the Rainbow” is one of his favorites among his own recordings. Those final mournful but lovely notes of course are by Brubeck’s right-hand man, saxophonist Paul Desmond.

Many of the best GAS singers past and present have recorded “Over the Rainbow,” including Joe Williams (with Sweets Edison) from their live 1961 recording. Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan as well as Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day and even Willie Nelson have recorded this evergreen.

You jazz fans might wish to also take a listen to Sonny Rollins recordings of “Valse Hot” which is a piece that he wrote based on Arlen’s “Over the Rainbows” chord changes (but with a changed meter) This song was also a 1953 virtuoso keyboard show piece for the magnificent Art Tatum. Another pianist, Keith Jarrett recorded an achingly beautiful version for his 1964 Live in Tokyo album

Enjoy. As always, comments welcomed.
Roger, the Intrepid Song Scout


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