By Roger Crane, the Song Scout
“I Cover the Waterfront,” an exceptional song about lost love, began somewhat surprisingly, as a best-selling 1932 autobiographical book by 28-year old Max Miller, a newspaper reporter who ‘covered” as part of his beat the San Diego waterfront and other lowlife urban areas. His book was a best seller and a lively read right from the opening sentence, “I have been here so long that even the sea gulls must recognize me.” Somehow lyricist Edward Heyman took Miller’s title and changed the meaning to fit a love ballad, with a singer now “covering” the waterfront looking for love instead of headline news.
I cover the waterfront.
I’m watching the sea.
Will the one I love
Be coming back to me?
Heyman’s lyrics were married to music by John Green (of “Body and Soul” fame) whose graceful refrain has a free-flowing melody, supported by harmonies of the major and minor seventh. Green’s bridge is particularly noteworthy. Over the course of just seven bars he inserts no fewer than four octave jumps in the melody – – three downward and one upward. Interestingly, the way the phrases alternate between high register and lower suggest a “call-and-response” written for two singers.
The song appeared in the 1933 similarly titled movie starring Claudette Colbert but as an instrumental only. Soon after the film’s release, Ben Bernie and his Orchestra plugged it on the radio and the song became a hit for both the Joe Haymes and Eddie Duchin orchestras. It was also featured in a 1933 film clip made of Louis Armstrong in Copenhagen. The song fell out of circulation in the late ‘30s but Artie Shaw recorded a memorable version in 1941 and a few months later Billie Holiday delivered a magnificent reading with Teddy Wilson’s band. In fact, more than anyone, via her many renditions, Holiday ensured the staying power of this song in the jazz repertoire. The song has since become somewhat of a standard that is embraced by many jazz and cabaret singers while also holding the interest of instrumentalists.
A Few Sample Recordings
1) Billie Holiday includes the seldom-performed verse which sets the scene. As mentioned above Armstrong recorded “I Cover the Waterfront” in 1933 and Holiday absorbed his phrasing in its best aspects. She had his knack for altering a few notes, a few accents and a few rhythmic contours. The below link is for a 1951 live recording with exquisite Bobby Tucker accompaniment. Holiday also recorded “Waterfront” in 1941 with Teddy Wilson
2) Lena Seikaly. I have not heard a better rendition and like Holiday she includes the interesting verse. This is from Seikaly’s 2013 CD titled Looking Back. Chris Grasso is the pianist.
3) On this excellent 1957 At Mister Kelly’s (Chicago) live recording a relaxed Sarah Vaughan is with an excellent trio of Jimmy Jones, piano, Richard Davis, bass and Roy Haynes, drums.
4) Henry “Red” Allen with Coleman Hawkins. This 1957 Bluebird recording is a near classic. Trumpeter Allen is in top form and his “Waterfront” has a wonderfully abstract feel.
The following 1940s recordings are available in various compilations.
5) A beautiful Artie Shaw recording with strings.
6) Lester Young with pianist Nat King Cole and drummer Buddy Rich (a Norman Granz production). These 1946 recordings and even later ones, (also on Verve or Pablo) give the lie to Young’s supposed artistic collapse after World War II.
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You may also wish to investigate worthy recordings by the following.
Additional Vocal Renditions – Annette Hanshaw, Connee Boswell, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Jacqui Naylor, Mel Torme (with George Shearing), Anita O’Day, Billie Ekstine, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine and Kay Starr
Additional Instrumental Versions – Charlie Parker, Hank Jones, Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Terence Blanchard, Django Reinhardt, Woody Herman, Harry James (in a combo), Paul Gonsalves and Clifford Brown