February 20, 2007

"Lush Life"

Billy Strayhorn (November 29, 1915 – May 31, 1967) was an American composer, pianist and arranger, best known for his successful collaboration with bandleader and composer Duke Ellington lasting two decades. The composition most closely associated with Strayhorn is "Lush Life."

Billy Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio. He began his musical career in Pittsburgh, where he studied for a time at the Pittsburgh Music Institute, wrote a high school musical and, while still in his teens, composed "Lush Life," a work that had the world weariness of an older man. (Info from the Wikipedia entry)

I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come what may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life...
From jazz and cocktails.

The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distant gay traces
That used to be there you could see where they'd been washed away
By too many through the day...
Twelve o'clock tales.

Then you came along with your siren of song
To tempt me to madness!
I thought for a while that your poignant smile was tinged with the sadness
Of a great love for me.

Ah yes! I was wrong...
I was wrong.

Life is lonely again,
And only last year everything seemed so sure.
Now life is awful again,
A trough full of hearts could only be a bore.
A week in Paris will ease the bite of it,
All I care is to smile in spite of it.

Ill forget you, I will
While yet you are still burning inside my brain.
Romance is mush,
Stifling those who strive.
Ill live a lush life in some small dive...
And there Ill be, while I rot
With the rest of those whose lives are lonely, too..

It's hard to believe a 16 year old wrote those lyrics! But that's nothing compared to the music. Here is a Stan Getz performance:

Putting lyrics and music together, here is Dianne Reeves doing a version of it from the excellent Independent Lens documentary of Strayhorn from a few weeks back (aired on my local PBS station, KERA):

In 1958, at a session for what would become Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, Sinatra attempted to record a version. It remains one his two best-known uncompleted Capitol projects (the other being a version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Soliloquy"). From Sinatra! the Song Is You: A Singer's Art, here is the story behind what happened:

Sinatra's attempt at Strayhorn's best-known vocal ballad, "Lush Life,"...was at once marked for greatness and failure. The first came in Nelson Riddle's masterful arrangement, which juxtaposes a deliberately out-of-tune piano against a Coplandesque string section. The second in that, as Bill Miller recalled, Sinatra "didn't take the trouble to learn it" correctly and tried it at an already overbooked date.

Although he turned in a stunning tune number eight, "Willow, Weep for Me," he didn't have the physical fortitude to make it through number seven, Strayhorn's ambitious air. "It's a rather complicated song, and I think Frank would have been momentarily put off by all the changes that had to go on," said Riddle. "Not that he couldn't have sung it with ease and beautifully had he tried a couple of more times." On the sole circulating partial take of the three allegedly recorded, Sinatra gets through the out-of-tempo "verse" section but breaks down in the refrain. After a characteristic Kingfish impression, he resolves to "put it aside for about a year." Sinatra later told Miller that he had decided to "leave that one for Nat Cole."
(p. 302)

Once again from the Independent Lens Strayhorn documentary, here is the only version of that "sole circulating partial take" one is likely to ever hear. It's unfortunate, because it sounds like it would have been great:

You can actually hear him slam the door to the studio as he storms out!

Sinatra would go on to record an entire album with Ellington and company years later, which was a "disaster" of a larger scale, but that's a different story/post:
Francis A. Sinatra & Edward K. Ellington (1967)

Speaking of Sinatra's great Capitol Records collaborator, arranger, and conductor Nelson Riddle, he worked with Linda Ronstadt during the eighties when she recorded her trilogy of American songbook albums, What's New (1983), Lush Life (1984), and For Sentimental Reasons (1986).

Arrangements for Ronstadt's "What's New" (1983) and "Lush Life" (1984) won Riddle his second and third Grammy Awards.

Apparently she had more time to prepare for her recording of "Lush Life," because it not only made in onto an album, but she also named the middle one in the trilogy after it. You can hear a few seconds of her version here.

1 comment:

fairest said...

it almost makes sense to me sinatra didnt record lush life..... theres a funny (not in a good way) blues riff in getz's lush life at 2:10 or so....

this was a great post, my favorite recording of the tune is strayhorn singing it and playing piano, solo. something i taped off the radio 10 years ago and once the tape died, ive not heard it again.