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The Popular Song: AM I BLUE?

Recently I screened a 1929 film musical titled On With the Show and was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of a wonderful song that I have heard performed many times by diverse artists over the years. The film was nothing much, though it was a smash hit in 1929. Its claim to be the first full-color, feature-length musical "talkie" is largely irrelevant since the color negative has long since disappeared (one reel survives in the archives). There were a handful of popular artists from the period who performed in it, notably Joe E. Brown and Betty Compson, but the real moment of joy came from the deliriously good Miss Ethel Waters, who performed "Am I Blue?" and "Birmingham Bertha" in two stage sequences that seemed extraneous to the plot since Miss Waters doesn't really appear anywhere else in the production. Nevertheless, it is these scenes that are the most memorable thing about the picture.

"Am I Blue?", composed by Harry Akst with lyrics by Grant Clarke, was an infectious tune from the start. Four different films in 1929 alone made sure to include it, and it has been an integral part of the scores of more than forty movies over the years! This popular standard has earned its place in the "Great American Songbook".

Among the notable covers of this song is one recorded in 1954 by Dinah Washington for her album After Hours with Miss D. Her supporting cast included Clark Terry on trumpet, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis on tenor sax, and Jackie Davis, who provides the smooth organ sound accompanying Miss D's vocals.

Just three years later, a completely different "take" on the song would be recorded by proto-rocker Eddie Cochran. Hard to believe this rockabilly classic is the same tune!

In 1969, Ray Charles recorded the song at a much slower tempo, stretching out the notes and lyrics to emphasize the painful sentiments of the singer's loss. Below is a clip of his performance in Paris. That's Johnny Coles on the accompanying trumpet, with an equally plaintive sound. Brother Ray's rendition is remarkable for testing the full range of his vocal instrument.

A favorite "cover" of mine is the duet by the great Hoagy Carmichael and Lauren Bacall in the 1944 film To Have and Have Not. Everyone knows my undying respect for the writing of Ernest Hemingway, the country's most important 20th Century author. But his novel To Have and Have Not was a failed experiment in my view (I just reread it recently and it was a chore), but Hem was a big star, so Warner Bros. purchased the rights to the book and then proceeded quite reasonably to throw away almost everything except the title! This was the film where the 44-year-old Humphrey Bogart, playing an American ex-pat, fell crazy in love with the sultry-eyed 19-year-old Bacall (in her very first picture) and did sparks fly! Their chemistry on screen was fairly palpable. Soon they became one of Hollywood's most enduring couples. Hoagy's piano tempo turns the song into a ditty.

Other artists who have tried their hand at this song include Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, Cher, Billie Holiday, and Linda Ronstadt when it became a thing for contemporary artists to tackle the "Great American Songbook", as Miss Ronstadt famously did on her album What's New when she was accompanied by the legendary Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra. I also wouldn't want to leave out a memorable tip of the hat to the song "AM I Blue?" from this classic Warner Brothers cartoon from 1944! (Excuse the introduction in Espanol!) Here is a clip:

Still, the best rendition, I think, belongs to Ethel Waters. Her version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame back in 2007. As you can see from this film clip taken from On With the Show, Miss Waters is depicted picking cotton in the fields, in front of a painted scrim of a plantation, making her more than entitled to sing the blues. She is accompanied by the Harmony Four Quartette. Sadly, this clip and her rendition of "Birmingham Bertha" were snipped from the prints of the film circulating in most Southern states. That's why these songs were included as segments of a larger show within the film, a common practice with African-American performances, so they could be excised easily when the prints of the film were distributed throughout the racist South. For your pleasure I will also include Miss Waters' second number from the show. Enjoy!


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