Keeping the GAS (Great American Songbook) Flame Burning: “More Than You Know”

By Roger Crane, the Song Scout

Background/Discussion

Vincent Youmans’ “More Than You Know” (from the 1929 musical Great Day) may be a perfect song – musically. But, if that is too reverent, how about a “perfectly” wonderful ballad. Let’s start with the well-written verse in E-flat minor, which is nearly a complete song in itself. Although it could stand alone, the verse leads naturally into the slow and tender chorus. And then there is the unusual almost rhapsodic bridge, consisting of eight different downward-moving phrases, most of them positioned against minor chords. The melody makes a very unusual leap of a tenth from the low b at the end of its first phrase to the high d at the beginning of its second. The contrast with the main refrain is memorable – when it returns it’s a ray of sunlight breaking through the ominous cloud cover of the bridge. But you don’t have to know music to appreciate the innovative musicality. zIt all lands beautifully on the ear.

While the other major composers of his era teamed with lyricists of originality and wit – Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, Larry Hart – Vincent Youmans used a revolving door of mediocre-to-fair lyricists and, so, his songs, including “More Than You Know” contain few verbal pleasures. But Edward Eliscu’s text does work with the melody and in the hands (and throats) of the better singers, the song can be very affecting.

The beauty of “More Than You Know” was quickly recognized by many singers. It was first popularized by Jane Froman, Helen Morgan and Ruth Etting who had a hit record in 1930 as did Mildred Bailey in 1937. Perry Como’s recording reached nineteen on the charts in 1946,
(His rendition was the B-side to his number one hit “Surrender.” Instrumentalists also gravitated to the song. For example, at the peak of his fame, Benny Goodman recorded it with a trio. Three years later in 1939, Teddy Wilson (pianist on that Goodman date) would call on the song at a session under his own leadership where it served as a showcase for Billie Holiday. Soon vocalists as diverse as Cher and Mario Lanza recorded this sophisticated gem. A number of tenor saxophonists also gravitate to the song, including Sonny Rollins on a 1954 session with Thelonious Monk. Dexter Gordon also recorded it a few times, once with pianist George Cables in 1978, and the “Hawk,” Coleman Hawkins, included the song on his 1961 The Hawk Relaxes session.

Although the musical Great Day spawned three standards (e.g. “Without a Song” and “(It’s a) Great Day” are the other two) the show closed after only a 36-day run. However, several films featured “More Than You Know,” including the first screen version of Hit the Deck in 1930 and the British film Encore in 1952. Tony Martin sang it in the 1955 screen version of Hit the Deck. In 1957, Gogi Grant sang the song for Ann Blythe in the Helen Morgan Story. Barbra Streisand sang it in Funny Lady, the 1975 film biography of Fanny Brice. Lastly, Michelle Pfeiffer performed “More Than You Know” in the 1989 movie The Fabulous Baker Boys.

A Few Sample Recordings

INSTRUMENTAL VERSIONS

The Benny Goodman Trio with Teddy Wilson

Joe Pass, solo guitar

VOCAL VERSIONS

Mildred Bailey with Ben Webster in 1937

Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson (Benny Carter on saxophone), 1939

Lee Wiley from her 1951 Night in Manhattan recording.

The incomparable Sarah Vaughan in 1978 with tasty piano by Oscar Peterson

* * * * * * * * * * * *
You may also wish to investigate worthy recordings by the following. Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Toni Tenille, James Moody, Steve Lawrence, Art Tatum, Jane Monheit, Andre Previn, Johnny Mathis, Shirley Horn and Rosemary Clooney just to cite a few names.

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