How many did you get right yesterday? Hey, it doesn't really matter. The important thing is we had a chance to look at how 10 popular songs and jazz standards got their start. It's funny how most of the songs began as fairly straight renditions. Then artists with higher profiles and an extra something gave the songs just the right spin, making them hits.
The secret of hit-making back in the 1940s and 1950s relied less on pressure and cash and more on the talent delivering the single. After all, not every version of a popular song became a hit. A hit rendition had to click on several levels. As a Tin Pan Alley executive told me recently, back in the 1950s, a song with lyrics did monster business only when its story fit the artist's public image and singing personality like a glove. "You can't sell the public what it doesn't want, no matter how much cash changes hands," he said.
To satisfy all those who emailed "More!," Here are five additional standards, the artists who recorded them first and, when possible, a clip:
1. Autumn Leaves—Cora Vaucaire (1948). This ode to seasonal change was written in 1945 by Joseph Kosma (music) and Jacques Prévert (lyrics). The French song was called Les Feuilles Mortes ("the dead leaves"). Yves Montand introduced it in a 1946 film called Les Portes de la Nuit. English lyrics were written in 1947 by Johnny Mercer. Cora Vaucaire was the first to record it commercially in 1948, in French. Here's Yves Montand singing it in a 1951 film:
Fools Rush In—Bob Crosby (1940). This song written by Rube Bloom and Johnny Mercer was crooned by Marion Mann, who today is all but forgotten, as is bandleader Bob Crosby, Bing's brother. You can sample or download the clip here.
3. In Other Words (Fly Me to the Moon)—Kaye Ballard (1954). Written by Bart Howard, the song was first performed in 1954 by cabaret singer Felicia Sanders. Following Ballard's recording, the song gained popularity in 1960 when Peggy Lee sang it on The Ed Sullivan Show. Lee had convinced Howard to change the song's name to Fly Me to the Moon. But it didn't become a hit until 1962, when Lee’s conductor Joe Harnell recorded it as an instrumental bossa nova. The song peaked at No. 14 on the charts. You can hear a clip of Harnell's version here. Take a look at this less-than-perfect clip of Lee singing the song in a 1961 on a U.K. television special.
4. You Belong to Me—Sue Thompson (1952). Recorded with the Dude Martin Band, Thompson had a teen voice that sounded a bit more knowing when backed by Martin, a cowboy-obsessed musician from the San Francisco Bay area. Thompson would go on to record Norman and a handful of other hits. You can sample and download the Thompson track here. Months after Thompson's recording, Jo Stafford recorded the song. Sounding almost like Thompson's mom by contrast, Stafford turned You Belong to Me into a No. 1 hit and her biggest selling single.
5. Caravan—Barney Bigard (1936). Written by Duke Ellingon trombonist Juan Tizol, Caravan technically was first recorded by Bigard and his Jazzopaters. But this group really was an offshoot of the Ellington orchestra. The personnel included Cootie Williams (trumpet), Juan Tizol (trombone), Bigard (clarinet), Harry Carney (baritone sax), Duke Ellington (piano and the song's arranger), Billy Taylor, Sr. (bass) and Sonny Greer (drums). As you can see from the label, Tizol originally was listed as the sole writer. Later issues include Irving Mills and Duke Ellington. You can sample and download the track here.
A special thanks to Dick Rosemont of the Originals Project, a site devoted to listing the first recordings of pop songs along with images of their labels.