Keeping the GAS (Great American Songbook) Flame Alive: “It Had To Be You”

By Roger Crane the Song Scout

When I meet jazz performers, composers and fellow music fans I often inquire as to their favorite songs. I recall that the masterful jazz pianist Dave McKenna chose “I’ll Be Around,” giving particular praise to Alec Wilders’s bridge (where his lyrics state “Goodbye again.”). Another jazz pianist, Gerry Wiggins, after a short pause, selected the Rodgers and Hart standard “Spring Is Here.” Noted lyricist/composer Johnny Mercer told an interviewer that the 1924 “It Had to Be You,” written by Isham Jones with Gus Kahn lyrics, was his favorite. Mercer never explained why he singled out this song, but I would guess that being a gret wordsmith he responds to the nonchalantly resigned prosaic tone of “It had to be you” that perfectly matches Jones\\’ casual melody.

That beautiful melody is a perfect blend of words and music and a model of beguiling simplicity and directness. Its musical premise is simple but effective – a five note pickup leading to the major seventh of the scale of G major, f sharp, with a G chord supporting it was by no means typical of the pop songs of the early ‘20s. Interesting harmonic changes give the music a quality of inevitability. You hear it once and you can hum it, you hear it a second time and you have likely learned Kahn’s words which, wedded to Jones’ music, are a strong contributing factor to the song’s lasting popularity.

Those lyrics fit the tune like a glove, as if they had been created in tandem. Kahn’s lines (like his more famous text for “Making Whoopee”) lack the gushiness of so many songs of the decade and mark a step forward in treating romance in a more down-to-earth manner – as a reminder.


Isham Jones (the first name is pronounced with a long “I” as in “ice) is a mostly forgotten figure in American music, yet in his day this contemporary of Paul Whiteman led one of the finest dance bands in the nation. (Woody Herman eventually assumed leadership of his band.) Jones was also a talented arranger and composer and his legacy lives on in the jazz world through his songs, which include “(There Is) No Greater Love, “On the Alamo,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “The One I Love (Belongs to Somebody Else” and “It Had to Be You,” which had six top selling records in its first year.

True to its status as a world-class standard, the song has been featured in over fifteen films. Just to cite some examples, singer Ruth Etting performed it in the 1936 film Melody in May and Priscilla Lane sang it in the 1939 movie The Roaring Twenties. It was sung by Dooley Wilson in Casablanca (1942). George Murphy performed the song in the 1944 Show Business and Betty Hutton featured it in the 1944 Incendiary Blonde. Due to those two film musicals the revived song was on “Your Hit Parade” for 12 weeks. It was also sung by Doris Day and Danny Thomas in the Gus Kahn biography I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951). Diane Keaton sang “It Had to Be You” in Woody Allen’s 1977 Annie Hall. Some film buffs will recall that Harry Connick Jr. performed the song in the popular 1989 movie “When Harry Met Sally. The American Film Institute’s 100 Years – 100 Songs named “It Had to Be You” the No.60 greatest song from an American film.

Six Sample Recordings

1) Here is the original 1924 version by the Isham Jones orchestra. (Nice video by the uploader.)

2) Vocalist Betty Hutton with Paul Weston in 1944. She includes the well-written verse.

3) Dick Haymes and Helen Forest with the Victor Young orchestra, 1944

4) Doris Day with Paul Weston, from her 1955 Day in Hollywood recording

5) Here are the pine-woods tones of Brother Ray. From his 1959
Genius of Ray Charles recording.

6) Last but not least, the charm of Tony Bennett who includes the verse.
The pianistics are by Ralph Sharon (maybe 1964)

You may also wish to investigate worthy recordings by the following.
1) Vocalists Midred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald (with and without Louis Armstrong), Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Patti Page, Harry Connick Jr., Shirley Horn, Bing Crosby, Ann Hampton Callaway.

Instrumental versions include saxophonists Zoot Sims, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges and Illinois Jacquet. Pianists Art Tatum, Hank Jones and George Shearing have recorded renditions. Horn players include Ruby Braff and Pete Fountain.


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