“Get Happy” is the first of three songs on this program, which we perform back to back, with music by Harold Arlen. Most famously performed by Judy Garland in the 1950 film Summer Stock, and subsequently featured throughout her career, it was originally sung twenty years earlier by Ruth Etting in the stage musical The Nine-Fifteen Revue. It was also the first collaboration between Arlen and lyricist Ted Koehler; the pair would write several more hits together, including the torch standard “Stormy Weather.” It references the spirit of a Christian revival meeting, in which listeners “get happy” and “shout hallelujah” as they anticipate entering the promised land to wash their sins away.
Arlen wrote “Over the Rainbow” with lyricist Yip Harburg for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Judy Garland, as Dorothy Gale, sings it within the first five minutes, after Aunt Em tells her to “find yourself a place where you won’t get into trouble.” It was nearly cut, because MGM executives thought it slowed down the film, but would, of course, go on to become Garland’s signature song. It was voted the greatest song of the 20th century in a joint survey by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America, and the greatest movie song of all time by the American Film Institute.
Johnny Mercer was Arlen’s lyricist for “Come Rain or Come Shine,” which made its debut as a duet in the 1946 all-black stage musical St. Louis Woman. According to Michael Feinstein's American Songbook, the lyricist exclaimed, "I'm gonna love you like nobody loved you," and Arlen quipped, "Come hell or high water." Mercer replied, "Of course, why didn’t I think of that? 'Come rain or come shine,'" and the songwriting duo finished the ballad that night. The singer promises that no matter what obstacles arise in the relationship, she'll stand by her man. It has been recorded by a host of artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Margaret Whiting, Jo Stafford, numerous male singers (most prolifically Frank Sinatra) and Sarah Vaughan, whom it represents on tonight’s program.
George Gershwin wrote the opera Porgy and Bess primarily with DuBose Heyward, on whose novel and play, Porgy, the opera is based. “Summertime” is the first song—or aria, if you like—heard in the show, sung by the character of Clara as a lullaby to her restless baby. The introductory orchestral music transitions the operagoer into the languid world of the Charleston, South Carolina, tenement street called Catfish Row. The song has been taken up as a jazz standard by many singers, among them Ella Fitzgerald on the album Porgy and Bess with trumpeter Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong introduced the song “Mack the Knife” to American audiences with his jazz rendition in 1955. It began life in 1928 as the opening murder ballad of the musical stage play The Threepenny Opera, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertholt Brecht. In the original, “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” is sung by a street singer with barrel-organ accompaniment (though at the premiere the barrel organ failed and had to be covered by the jazz band in the pit) to introduce the character of Macheath. The words familiar to English speakers come from Marc Blitztein’s translation of 1954, which toned down both Brecht’s political message and the account of Mackie’s grislier crimes, presenting them in the song almost tongue in cheek.
Georgia-born Thomas A. Dorsey (not to be confused with Tommy Dorsey of big band fame) began his musical life playing jazz and blues in Atlanta and the south side of Chicago, organizing the Wild Cats Jazz Band for Ma Rainey before devoting himself to music of the church. Known as the “Father of Black Gospel Music,” Dorsey wrote some 300 gospel songs, many under the influence of jazz and the blues. He wrote “Precious Lord” in response to the death of his wife, Nettie, and their son during childbirth. It was said to be Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite song, often sung by Mahalia Jackson, and sung at Jackson’s own funeral by Aretha Franklin.
In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Billie Holiday tells a story in which she loaned money to her mother, Sadie, to open a restaurant, but when Billie in turn needed money, her mother refused to lend it to her. In her anger, she stormed off with the words “God bless the child that’s got his own.” After some weeks, she and her frequent songwriting collaborator Arthur Herzog Jr. wrote “a whole damn song” in response. That song was “God Bless the Child.” Holiday first recorded it in 1941.
The husband-and-wife songwriting duo of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson wrote “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for the Motown Tamla division. Simpson says it was inspired by the mountainous skyscrapers of Manhattan, when he was determined that New York City would not get the best of him. First recorded in 1967 as a duet by Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye, it came out a year later on the duets album Diana Ross & The Supremes Join the Temptations. Two years after that, it became the first #1 hit for Diana Ross as a solo act.
“Queen of Soul: A Salute to Aretha Franklin” incorporates four of her greatest hits, the first of which, “Think,” she co-wrote with her then-husband and manager Ted White. About freedom and respect for women, the song may be associated with her feelings at the time towards White, whom she left the year the song came out. It may also reflect her friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., with whom her family was close—“free at last, free at last.” King was assassinated less then a month before the song came out.
“I Say a Little Prayer” was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Dionne Warwick, one of their numerous collaborations with her, but Bacharach never liked the record they made of it in 1967. Less than a year later, Aretha Franklin recorded it with the same backup singers—The Sweet Inspirations—and Bacharach called her version “much better than the cut I did with Dionne.”
Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin. Franklin’s early performances may have been influenced by her own struggles finding the “right” man, suggesting a deeper, more powerful meaning of self-love and empowerment.
Otis Redding wrote and recorded “Respect” in 1965, but it was Franklin’s recording two years later that became the greater hit. In it she transformed the lyrics and meaning of the song, according to the Washington Post, from a call for entitlement into a demand for empowerment, creating a feminist and civil rights anthem.
“Fever” was written by pianist Otis Blackwell (under the pen name John Davenport) and singer Eddie Cooley and recorded by Little Willie John in 1956 in a rhythm and blues style. But it became a signature for Peggy Lee, who two years later stripped down the arrangement, slowed the tempo and added her own lyrics, including the verses beginning “Romeo loved Juliet” and “Captain Smith and Pocahontas,” creating a jazzy, sultry hit.
“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” was another Burt Bacharach/Hal David creation (see “I Say a Little Prayer” above), written for the 1968 Broadway musical Promises, Promises, in which the characters of Chuck and Fran sing about the various troubles that falling in love brings. It was added to the show at the last minute, after Bacharach got out of the hospital—hence the line rhyming “pneumonia” with “phone ya.” Recorded in quick succession by Johnny Mathis, Bacharach himself and Bobbie Gentry, it became a hit for Bacharach-David protégé Dionne Warwick late in 1969 and subsequently one of her signature songs.
“We’ve Only Just Begun” was originally written for a TV commercial for a bank. Richard Carpenter saw it, recognized lyricist Paul Williams’ voice, and asked him if there was a complete song available. There wasn’t, but Williams and Roger Nichols finished it, and The Carpenters had one of their most enduring hits, released as their third single and on their album Close to You.
Dolly Parton’s song “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” grew out of the pain of her breakup with longtime musical and business partner Porter Wagoner. In her autobiography, she described the occasion of the song’s creation, driving home after a particularly difficult meeting with Wagoner at his office: “I cried, not so much out of a sense of loss, but from the pain that always comes from change. . . Then I began to sing a song to myself . . . And I swear to you on my life, the sky cleared up, it stopped raining, the sun came out, and before I got home, I had written “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.”
“Big Yellow Taxi” was written, composed and recorded by Joni Mitchell in 1970. In a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times, she said, "I wrote 'Big Yellow Taxi' on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart . . . this blight on paradise. That's when I sat down and wrote the song."
Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” has close ties to her friend James Taylor. She had been inspired by a line in his song “Fire and Rain”: “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.” While she wrote it with no one particular in mind, Taylor heard it while they were recording separately in nearby studios, and it ended up on both their albums: King’s Tapestry and Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. That year, Taylor’s version won a Grammy for Song of the Year, aJudynd King won as the songwriter.
Songwriters George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam (who make up the band Boy Meets Girl) wrote Whitney Houston’s 1985 #1 hit “How Will I Know,” and her producer asked them to write another. Their second response was “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” about which Rubicam later said this: “I pictured somebody single wishing that they could find that special person for themselves. It wasn’t, ‘I wanna go down the disco and dance.’ It was, ‘I wanna do that dance of life with somebody.’” The song would become Houston’s fourth #1 hit.
Carly Simon wrote “Let the River Run” for the 1988 film Working Girl. It was the first of only two songs composed, written and performed by a single artist to have won all three major awards—Grammy, Golden Globe and Oscar. (The other was Bruce Springsteen’s “The Streets of Philadelphia” from Philadelphia.) Simon has said that in using “River Run” in the title, she had in mind both the Hudson River (the film is based in New York City) and, “metaphorically, the universal river that runs through all of our lives.” She also took inspiration from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and William Blake for his reference to “the New Jerusalem.”