Keeping the GAS (Great America Songbook) Flame Burning,”Body and Soul”

By Roger Crane, the Song Scout


Composer Johnny Green wrote some very fine songs although very few. His justly famous landmark “Body and Soul” was interpolated in the 1930 musical revue Three’s a Crowd which starred Clifton Webb and Libby Holman, who sang the song. Note I said “interpolated,” since the song was written a bit earlier for English actress/vocalist Gertrude Lawrence. As writer/jazz critic Will Friedwald has pointed out, she was searching for new material, so composer Johnny Green and his lyric team (Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton) came up with four tunes for her – a rhythm song, a ballad, a comic song and a torch song. That torch, of course, was “Body and Soul.” Once Lawrence heard the four suggestions, she embraced “Body and Soul,” sang it on the radio and brought it back to England with her. Via her performance and various British bands, the song became a sensation in London. But it was not published in the US until some months later when the song was included in the above-mentioned Arthur Schwartz’ production of Three’s a Crowd.

As wonderful and memorable as the “Body and Soul” chorus is, the verse and the bridge are, to my ear, even more interesting. By the way, Friedwald notes that Green did not write the highly unusual bridge specifically for “Body and Soul.” Rather, he simply reused his original bridge/release from his earlier 1928 song “Coquette,” which bandleader Carmen Lombardo had rejected two years earlier. With its modulations and descending chords that complex bridge is an innovative delight. “Body and Soul” also has an unprecedented but seldom performed verse. It is of standard length (16 bars) but quickly changes key twice. (All told, there are six changes of key signature throughout the song.) Since even the lyrics are of interest I have no idea why the exceptional verse is so seldom heard. Singers Morgana King (see below) and Ruth Cameron included the verse in their recordings.

Along with “How High the Moon” “Body and Soul” was, at one time, likely the most played melody in all of jazz. The unusual nature of the chords provides a large degree of improvisational freedom for jazz players. I chose the word “played” because the words are often awkward. A good lyric must be at least reasonably conversational and even my Jewish friends do not say “My life a wreck you’re making.” The melody is clearly more special than the 3-man committee lyric. In fact during the tryouts for “Three’s a Crowd” things were apparently not going too well. Libby Holman understandably did not like the lyrics and asked Howard Dietz (Schwartz’ lyricist) to rewrite them for her. Edward Heyman also realized that the words were not worthy of Green’s great melody and, in parallel, was scrambling around and coming up with alternate lyrics. However, only the original three lyricists (Eyton was British and may have only crossed a “T” or dotted an “I”) are today shown on the sheet music.

Just about every notable vocalist and instrumentalist has had a hack at “Body and Soul.” Although Louis Armstrong made a recording at the time of the song’s release, “Body and Soul” most often showed up in the repertoire of white dance bandleaders. In fact, the first American recording was by Leo Reisman and his orchestra with trumpeter Bubber Miley and pianist Eddie Duchin. Paul Whiteman and his band had a hit record in the fall of 1930 with a vocal by Jack Fulton. It was also recorded in 1930 by two popular vocalists of the day, Annette Hanshaw and Ruth Etting (both still sound good). Art Tatum, Henry Allen and Benny Goodman all enjoyed Top 20 hits with the song before Coleman Hawkins famous (in jazz circles) 1939 recording. (in which he barely hints at the melody). After his celebrated rendition, “Body and Soul” became the ultimate measuring rod for tenor players of all generations. And, surprisingly, the general public not only accepted such an innovative song but continued accepting it for decades.

“Body and Soul” has appeared in many films. For example Ida Lupino sang it quite effectively in the 1946 The Man I Love. It was heard in the 1956 Eddie Duchin Story. Gogi Grant, dubbing for Ann Blythe in the title role, sang it in the 1957 Helen Morgan Story.

A Few Sample Recordings

1) Coleman Hawkins astounding “Body and Soul” never dates and still sounds like the most spontaneously perfect of all jazz records. It is unquestionably one of the milestones in jazz recording history. He made no compromises to popular tastes in his whirlwind 64-bar solo but it was nonetheless popular with non-jazz fans. This 1939 cut, which only briefly touches on Green’s melody, is available on many compilations.

2) Anita O’Day included “Body and Soul” on her masterful 1958 recording titled “Anita O’Day Sings the Winners” with leader-arranger Russ Garcia. The O’Day-Garcia approach uses some of Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 licks but has more in common with the earlier 1938 Chu Berry-Roy Eldridge version.

3) Billie Holiday – as she so often did, musical story-teller Holiday gives life to oft awkward lyrics, partially by her choice of which ones to include. For instance, instead of “My life a wreck you’re making” she sings “My life a hell you’re making” which give the story being told more punch. She also changes words in the bridge with phrases such as “My life revolves around you.” This is from her 1940 recording with Roy Eldridge, trumpet, and Sonny White at the piano.

4) Lester Young with Nat King Cole – compare Young’s graceful tenor style and tone with Hawkins’ exuberance. This is from a 1942 Los Angeles session where the players stretch the song to over five minutes.

5) Chu Berry – Roy Eldridge. “Body and Soul” had been a test piece for advanced players since Armstrong made it a jazz standard in 1930. But its position was reinforced by this 1938 Eldridge-Berry version. Roy almost steals the record with his daring, doubling the tempo (something new in 1938 on a ballad)

6) Benny Goodman with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa, 1935. Notice especially Wilson’s playing which reflects his lovely attention to melody/

7) Morgana King accompanied by Bill Mays. Note that she includes the interesting and haunting verse. This is from her 2000 Tender Moments recording.

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You may also wish to investigate worthy recordings by the following

As mentioned above most of the better vocalists have recorded “Body and Soul,” including Sarah Vaughn (with Clifford Brown), Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Krall. In 1947 even the great Frank Sinatra recorded it with an Axel Stordahl arrangement.

Many saxophonists of course favor the song, including Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, John Coltrane, Joe Lovano, Art Pepper, Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon in 1970. (I find Gordon’s 11-minute approach to be one of the loveliest jazz ballad performances.)

Among the many pianists, Thelonious Monk, Keith Jarrett, Jimmy Rowles (solo), Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum have recorded this masterpiece.


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