Keeping the GAS (Great American Songbook) Flame Burning -“You Don’t Know What Love Is”

By Roger Crane, the Song Scout

Background/Discussion

Surprisingly, two top jazz standards “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “I Remember April” were both written for 1941 slapstick Abbott and Costello movies “You Don’t Know What Love Is” was dropped from Keep ‘em Flying before the movie was released but performed by vocalist Carol Bruce a short time later in another 1942 comedy, the Ritz Brothers Behind the Eight Ball. “I’ll Remember April” appeared in Abbot and Costello’s 1942 raucous western Ride ‘em Cowboy. Since both are torchy, melancholy ballads few songs were less suitable for inclusion in cornball comedies. In addition to these two songs, Gene de Paul and Don Raye also wrote “Star Eyes” another favorite of jazz-influenced performers. Again, although, a lovely ballad, strangely it was also written for a comedy, the 1943 I Dood It which starred Red Skelton.

“You Don’t Know What Love Is” is a deeply romantic song embraced by both vocalists and instrumentalists. Raye’s perfect lyrics accentuate the heartbreaking feeling staged by de Paul’s exquisite melody. Jazz artists especially respond to this musical and lyrical richness. Few compositions are as genuinely haunting. For example, composer-musicologist Alec Wilder termed it “gloom in the raw” with “no fake melodrama.” Music-writer Will Friedwald labeled it “a profound love song” that is “harmonically stylish.” It especially rewards vocalists who respect the value of nuance and understatement and, thankfully, the glib “look-at-me” vocalists generally leave the song alone.

“You don’t know what love is

Until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues,

Until you’ve loved a love you’ve had to lose,

You don’t know what love is.”

In the final months of 1941 “You Don’t Know What Love Is” was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Harry James and Earl “Fatha” Hines, as well as other bandleaders. The song then fell out of favor but returned to prominence in the early and mid 1950s. Chet Baker recorded it with strings in 1953 and as a vocal in 1955. Miles Davis performed the song on a 1954 date for the Prestige label. Sonny Rollins is noted for ballads and his version on the classic 1956 Saxophone Colossus recording is most memorable. Lennie Tristano’s 1955 rendition on The New Lennie Tristano is also most worthy. By the second half of the decade “You Don’t Know What Love Is” had become a staple of jazz recordings and live performances. In fact it has become one of the most recorded of all standards and 1,077 different versions are listed in the basic jazz discography.

In addition to the above-mentioned Abbot and Costello movie “You Don’t Know What Love Is” was featured in the 1990 Love at Large, the 1999 Anywhere But Here and the 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley in which Jude Law was dubbed by Alan Barnes. It is a perfect song for a film noir but, apparently, has never been so featured. One can easily imagine a sleepy-eyed Robert Mitchum sitting in some smoky night-spot (with a name like The Bamboo Club) enjoying a beautiful, alluring woman in a tight dress singing “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”

Six Sample Recordings

VOCALS

1) Chet Baker who had great taste in tunes recorded the song at least twice. This is a link to his vocal version from the 1955 Chet Baker Sings and Plays, sparse in accompaniment and subtle in delivery.

2) Billie Holiday’s performance from her Lady in Satin (1958) recording cuts through the unnecessarily thick layers of orchestration and syrupy strings with the heart-breaking vulnerability of her singing.

3) Cassandra Wilson from her 1993 recording Blue Light Till Dawn. Wilson is a genre-free singer who refuses to be pigeon-holed. She is all over the musical map but always has great timing and certainly a blues sensibility.

INSTRUMENTALS

4) Sonny Rollins from his 1956 Saxophone Colossus recording. Rollins’ rich horn fills all the corners with his forlorn sound. This is arguably the definitive instrumental performance of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”

5) Charlie Haden/Kenny Barron. Night and the City, 1996. Bassist Haden and pianist Barron explore the song with soul and tenderness in this performance recorded live in New York City.

6) Keith Jarrett live At the Dear Head Inn. 1992. This is a haunting trio version, with Gary Peacock, bass and Paul Motian, drums. Jarrett also recorded “You Don’t Know What Love Is” on his Live at the Blue Note CD, 1994.

You may also wish to investigate worthy recordings by the following.

1) Vocalists

Karrin Allyson, Tony Bennett (with Bill Evans), Billie Eckstine, Dena DeRose, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, Etta James, Kurt Elling, Eliane Elias

2) Instrumental

Thad Jones, Hank Jones, Phil Woods, John Coltrane, Pat Martino, Freddie Hubbard, Lucky Thompson, Bud Shank, Eddie Higgins

 

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