By Roger Crane, Song Scout
When composer-musicologist Alec Wilder’s highly literate book “American Popular Song – the Great Innovators” was published by the Oxford Press in 1972 one of my favorite pastimes was making two lists.
1) Superior songs that he missed or for which he did not share my enthusiasm.
2) Songs that he included that did not, in my estimation, merit discussion.
Wilder’s book was the first to treat pop songs as worthy of serious (but never solemn) discussion. His prose is lively, most readable, and he examined about seventeen thousand songs and cited with comments three hundred of those. In his musical examples he quoted from nearly five hundred more songs. Perhaps rightly so, he excluded his own well-written songs. Since Wilder is not a “plain vanilla” writer (contrarily, an eager vendor of opinions) he is a fun man to disagree with but, even so, both of my above lists were quite short. Examples of songs in that first “overlooked” list include “I Remember You,” For All We Know” and “Easy Living” which I discuss in this article.
“Easy Living” was composed for Preston Sturges’s 1937 screwball comedy also titled Easy Living which starred Jean Arthur and Ray Milland. The prolific Ralph Rainger composed the music and Leo Robin the lyric. Rainger was a student at Brown University’s law school but, upon graduation, decided to make his living in music – as a pianist, bandleader and arranger. He was soon writing songs for Broadway reviews and teamed up with another one-time law school student, lyricist Leo Robin. That partnership produced dozens of superior songs until Ralph Rainger’s early death at only 41 years of age in a plane crash. Some of their other popular songs include “I Wished on the Moon,” “Thanks for the Memory” and “If I Should Lose You.”
One of the earliest recordings of “Easy Living” was pianist Teddy Wilson’s feature for Billie Holiday (see link below). Their recording was a Top 20 hit but few vocalists adopted the song over the next decade. However, in the 1950s other singers and instrumentalists gradually picked up on the song. Ballad treatments by jazz artists such as George Shearing, Clifford Brown and Peggy Lee did much to establish the song in jazz circles. Pianist Bill Evans featured the song on his 1956 date for Riverside Records and Miles Davis included it with an unconventional rhythm section of bassist Charles Mingus and Elvin Jones, at the drums (Blue Moods, 1955).
As noted “Easy Living” appeared as an instrumental in the 1937 movie of same name. Three years later in the excellent Barbara Stanwyck movie Remember the Night it appears once again. Billie Holiday’s version is playing in a supper club where Fred MacMurray takes Stanwyck for dinner. The song was also performed by Audrey Young in a 1949 film titled Easy Living, but which has no connection to the original 1937 comedy of same name. Victor Mature and Lizabeth Scott were the stars of this later movie that was based on an Irwin Shaw novel. Perhaps most memorably “Easy Living” was sung by Johnny Hartman in Clint Eastwood’s’ romantic 1995 Bridges of Madison County (see link below).
A Few Sample Recordings
1) As the expression goes Billie Holiday “owns” this song. She recorded it twice, first in 1937 with Teddy Wilson’s combo (including Lester Young) and, later on, her own session in 1947. Below is a link to that first version. Buster Bailey opens the first few bars on clarinet and then the masterful Young and others play soulfully behind Lady Day who sings it for what it is – an anthem to young love.
2) The master balladeer Clifford “Brownie” Brown’s regal version of “Easy Living” was recorded in 1953 on Blue Note. It has since been anthologized many times, including the 2002 The Definitive Clifford Brown (which also includes a lyrical version of “Stardust” and vocals by Sarah Vaughan).
3) Alan Broadbent included the song on his 1995 Pacific Standard Time CD (Concord). The elegant refined Alan Broadbent Trio includes Putter Smith on bass and Frank Gibson on drums.
4) Little is as romantic as the burnished baritone of Johnny Hartman singing a ballad. Clint Eastwood agreed and included his songs in the 1995 movie Bridges of Madison Country. Just close your eyes and visualize Robert (Clint) and Francesca (Meryl Streep) lovingly dancing in her Iowa farmhouse kitchen. Hartman’s version was from a 1980 recording titled Once in Every Life (Bee Hive) which included such jazz stalwarts as Joe Wilder, Frank Wess and Billy Taylor.
5) Saxophonist Paul Desmond and guitarist Jim Hall make a glorious pairing and I consider their many collaborations (18 recording sessions) to be essential jazz. This 1964 take on “Easy Living” can be found on various compilations including a Bluebird CD titled Easy Living and also The Complete Paul Desmond, RCA Victor Recordings Featuring Jim Hall, Desmond follows Hall’s autumnal intro with a piping reading of Rainger’s lovely melody on this glorious seven-minute rendition.
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You may also wish to investigate recordings by the following artists.
1) Additional vocal renditions – Mary Ann McCall, Etta Jones, Ann Hampton Callaway, Dinah Washington, Bobby Darin, Rosemary Clooney, Nancy Wilson, Kurt Elling, Ella Fitzgerald and even an early rock and roll doo-wop version by The Coasters.
2) Saxophonists like the melody – Phil Woods, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Frank Morgan, Ike Quebec, Lee Konitz, Bill Perkins, Wardell Gray and the three Sonny’s (Rollins, Stitt and Criss)
3) Piano versions include Hampton Hawes, Ahamd Jamal, and John Lewis
4) In addition to Brownie and Miles, trumpeters Ruby Braff, Lee Morgan and Roy Eldridge have recorded “Easy Living.”