Back in the early 1980s—before jazz CDs, remastered reissues and the Internet—I used to trudge down to Lincoln Center's Library of the Performing Arts in New York at least once a month just to hear one song from one album in the library's LP archive.
That song was Skylark, and it was from a rare Jackie Paris LP of the same name from 1953 on the Brunswick label.
The album featured vocals by Paris in a range of settings. The first song, Skylark, was the killer though, and it was actually was a lush remake of the same song Paris had recorded in 1947 and released in 1948 to huge acclaim.
In the late 1940s, Paris' cool, modern singing style earned him the recognition and admiration of many jazz artists and vocalists, including Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan. He appeared in clubs on 52d Street, and his hip, wise sense of space did for jazz vocals what Birth of the Cool would do in 1949 for jazz instrumentalists. Before Chet Baker, before Mark Murphy, before Bob Dorough, before Frank D'Rone, there was Jackie Paris.
The 1953 remake of Skylark took Paris' vocal style to another level, providing him with a richer backdrop for his hugely optimistic approach. No matter how many times I have listened to that track, it still gives me goose bumps. In the early 1980s, I couldn't imagine there was a better version of the Hoagy Carmichael-Johnny Mercer tune. After all these years, I have come to the conclusion that there isn't. Plenty of other artists have recorded Skylark, of course, but none have aced it like Paris on that Brunswick LP.
More on Paris in a moment. First, a little background history on Skylark, the song.
In 1939, Hoagy Carmichael had a big idea. He was in the offices of a Broadway producer and friend pushing his idea for a play about the life of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. Called Young Man With a Horn, the dramatic play as he envisioned it would feature an actor on stage playing Bix while a musician offstage would provide the cornet playing. Hoagy had even written a song for the play called Bix Lix.
The concept for the play inched forward, with Burgess Meredith cast in the lead part. But for reasons that remain a mystery, the show never moved into production. Young Man With a Horn, of course, eventually was made into a film in 1950, starring Kirk Douglas, Doris Day and Hoagy.
But back in late 1939, when Hoagy's theatrical concept fizzled, he turned Bix Lix over to Johnny Mercer for lyrics. Mercer struggled with the words for some time—"a matter of weeks, months or years, depending on the account," according to Richard Sudhalter in Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael (2003).
When Mercer was finished writing the lyrics in 1942, the result was Skylark. What makes Skylark so special—besides Hoagy's beautiful chorus—is its soaring bridge, which softly changes key and then resolves naturally back to the song's home key. The song grabs your heart in two different places using two different approaches.
While Mercer's lyrics are pastoral and nostalgic, he likely had helping hand from Hoagy, notes Sudhalter in his Carmichael biography:
"A penciled worksheet in the composer's hand, found among his papers in Bloomington, [Indiana], contains what appears to be a preliminary draft for the [song's] text... It takes no leap of imagination to picture Carmichael giving Mercer the melody and, at sometime midway through the writing process, the lyricist contacts him, perhaps by phone, to read off what he's done so far; Hoagy copies it down, telling Mercer, yes, he likes it, perhaps offers a suggestion or two, and exhorts him to keep going in that vein.
'Johnny would often check with his collaborators on a lyric on which he was working,' said lyricist and Mercer biographer Gene Lees, a close friend. 'He seemed to be plagued with doubt. In some instances he wrote two or even three versions of a lyric and submitted them to a composer. That, and Johnny's fondness for what I'd call 'bird songs' and bird imagery, convinces me that he called Hoagy during the writing process, just to check with him and be sure they were on the same wavelength.'
Writes Gene Lees in Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer (2006):
"John [Mercer] could worry a tune, revising it endlessly, as I suspect was the case with Skylark. Andre Previn remembered: 'One weekend when we got together, he handed me this beautiful lyric to one of my tunes. The next weekend, he'd rewritten it. And the next weekend, he'd rewritten it again. I said, 'Johnny, why are you rewriting these? They're perfectly beautiful.' And Johnny said, 'Hell, I'm still rewriting Goody Goody.' "
Jackie Paris turned those lyrics into a masterpiece—twice. The recording of August 1953 included George Barnes on guitar and Billy Taylor on piano, as well as 10 strings arranged and conducted by Neal Hefti.
The recording opens with a series of dramatic declining chords by the string section, which sets up Paris' ascending opener. A beautiful contrast. The natural joy and hipness Paris brings to the tune that follows mixes early 1950s innocence with controlled intonation, and the result remains unmatched.
The only other version of Skylark that comes close for me is Carmen McRae's recording on Birds of a Feather for the Decca label. But this is one of those rare instances where Carmen finishes at No. 2.
As for Paris, he had a troubled career after his rapid rise. In the late 1940s, the signer was admired by most jazz musicians and poised for stardom. But just as he was gaining visibility, MGM canceled his contract. The reasons, according to a recently released documentary on his life called Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris (2006), are still being debated. Some believe problems arose over his ego while others say his troubles started when he rejected a mob offer to manage his career.
Paris recorded sporadically in the 1950s for assorted labels and by 1962, after a recording with Hank Jones, George Duvivier and Roy Haynes, Paris disappeared, resurfacing only rarely. Paris died in 2004, before the completion of the documentary. To see the Jackie Paris web site and read more about him, go here.
Back in August 1953, Paris aced Skylark—and in my opinion the recording remains the definitive version of the song.
Wax tracks: When Jackie Paris' album Skylark was reissued in the late 1990s on a remastered CD in Japan (with a glossy mini LP cover), I snapped it up.
Fortunately you don't have to pay a fortune for the CD. In fact, you don't even have to buy the album. I notice that Skylark, the album, is available on iTunes. Which means Skylark, the song, can be yours for 99 cents.
If you want Carmen McRae's version of Skylark, you'll also find Birds of a Feather at iTunes.
Wax clip: Jackie Paris is one of the great enigmas of jazz vocalese. While the 2006 documentary on Paris' life—Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris—isn't available yet on DVD, you can see the compelling trailer here.