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Angel Eyes (1946)

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“Finally Ella recorded it for Norman Granz. She’s done it four times since. I’m thrilled because she’s always included it in her shows.”

- Matt Dennis

Rank 67
Music Matt Dennis
Lyrics Earl K. Brent

According to composer Matt Dennis, Herb Jeffries was the first to record “Angel Eyes,” but the song’s popularity faltered when Jeffries’ recording company folded. Nat “King” Cole then recorded the song as the B-side to his 1953 hit, “Return to Paradise.” Dennis, however, credits Ella Fitzgerald as the vocalist who popularized “Angel Eyes” saying, “Finally Ella recorded it for Norman Granz. She’s done it four times since. I’m thrilled because she’s always included it in her shows.”


More on Matt Dennis at JazzBiographies.com

A Herb Jeffries recording of “Angel Eyes” is included on his Say It Isn’t So CD (1957).


More on Herb Jeffries at JazzBiographies.com
“Angel Eyes” can be found on a number of Ella Fitzgerald CDs. Her earliest recording of the song is with Sy Oliver and His Orchestra from June 26, 1952, and is included on 75th Birthday Celebration (1993) and The Last Decca Years 1949-1954 (1999). A July 24, 1957, recording is on First Lady of Song (1993) and Ultimate Ella (1997). The song also appears in a live concert from April 25, 1958, Ella in Rome (1988), and circa 1960, The Intimate Ella (1990). The latter CD contains duets with pianist Paul Smith, which were originally released as Songs from Let No Man Write My Epitaph, although not all of the tracks are in the film.

Fitzgerald often cited “Angel Eyes” as one of her favorite songs, and Chris Connor claims that Ella personally told her that it was her all-time favorite. Carol Sloane, on the other hand, claims Fitzgerald’s favorite was “I Want Something to Live For.” Fitzgerald delivers equally heartfelt performances of both these songs on the DVD American Masters: Ella Fitzgerald Something to Live For (1999). A New York Times article notes, “Because both songs are sad, they hint at feelings that Fitzgerald kept mostly to herself, since she infused everything she performed with a sense of joy and almost heavenly confidence.”

One early performer of “Angel Eyes” that Matt Dennis did not mention was himself. The first film to include his rendition was Jennifer (1953). The Bradshaw sheet music associated with the film has Nat “King” Cole on the cover, but notes inside say, “As sung by Matt Dennis in the picture Jennifer starring Ida Lupino & Howard Duff.”

Today Frank Sinatra is more closely associated with “Angel Eyes” than any of the aforementioned performers. He recorded the song a number of times, most notably on the album he has referred to as his favorite, Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958). His rendition is interesting in that he begins not at the chorus, but the refrain, “Hey drink up all you people...” In 1971, Sinatra gave his first in a series of farewell concerts, choosing “Angel Eyes” for his last song and “Excuse me while I disappear” for his last line.

“Angel Eyes” is often called “intimate,” “personal,” “lonely,” “weepy,” “bluesy,” “a torch song,” or “a saloon song,” the latter being a category that also contains “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” and “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” - JW

Earl Brent’s lyrics describe a patron in a bar or lounge, lamenting the absence of “Angel Eyes, that old devil sent.” Brent’s choice for the hook and title, “Angel Eyes,” has been used as a popular song title many times before and since the Dennis/Brent ballad, including a 1910 hit by Elida Morris and Billy Murray and a 1989 hit by the Jeff Healey Band.


More on Earl K. Brent at JazzBiographies.com

The term “Angel Eyes” is not only the name of many popular songs it is also the title of a 2001 Warner Brothers film starring Jennifer Lopez; numerous books, including those by Jane Adams (2002), Loren D. Estleman (1992), and Thea Devine (1991); an artbook of Akimi Yoshida’s illustrations (1994); and the nickname of Lee Van Cleef’s sadistic villain in the 1966 Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Last but not least, Angel Eyes is the name of a therapy cream for your eyes, “Nothing can replace your natural beauty, but Angel Eyes can make you more beautiful through the healing power of Oxygen.”

More information on this tune...

Philip Furia
The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Paperback: 336 pages

(In his authoritative book on lyrics, Furia analyzes the lyric for “Angel Eyes.”)

- Jeremy Wilson

Recommendations for This Tune
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Ella Fitzgerald
The Last Decca Years 1949-1954
1999 Verve 668
Original recording 1952
Fitzgerald documented her special relationship with this tune often, beginning with this haunting collaboration with Sy Oliver’s orchestra.
Tommy Flanagan
Lady Be Good...For Ella
1994 Polygram 521617

Flanagan had several significant stints as Ella Fitzgerald’s accompanist, a task that was perfect for his swinging elegance even though it took his own name somewhat out of the limelight for a number of years. This recording is a summary of sorts, allowing him to revisit and celebrate that relationship. His take on “Angel Eyes” is quietly stunning.

- Noah Baerman

Mark Murphy
1994, Original Jazz Classics 141
Original recording, 1961
Vocalist Murphy is the epitome of sophistication on this wonderful, blues-laced version of "Angel Eyes."' Conductor Ernie Wilkins punctuates Murphy's heartfelt lament with some dramatic trumpets.
Gene Ammons
Angel Eyes
1998, Original Jazz Classics 980
Original recording, 1960
Tenor saxophonist Ammons gives a hip, smoky-bar feeling to the title track. His sparse but forceful play is all the more eloquent over the gentle groove of Johnny "Hammond" Smith's organ.
Modern Jazz Quartet
1990 Atlantic 1231
Original recording 1956
The combination of elegance and blues grit inherent to this tune perfectly mirrors the divergent strengths of the MJQ. Not surprisingly, they do a fabulous job interpreting “Angel Eyes.”
Nancy Wilson
Welcome to My Love
1994, Blue Note 28980
Original recording, 1968
Vocalist Wilson beautifully delivers this torchy rendition of the song. The Oliver Nelson arrangement perfectly suits her raw eloquence with its sweeping strings and edgy horns.
Kenny Burrell
Blues: The Common Ground
2001, Universal
Original recording, 1968, Verve
Guitarist Burrell is lyrical perfection on this big band version of the song. His playing is concise and engaging, and he is elegantly supported by a rhythm section that includes bassist Ron Carter and pianist Herbie Hancock.
Andy Bey
American Song
2004, Savoy Jazz

Bey was voted Vocalist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association in 2003. He starts with the seldom heard verse and tells the story intimately in his warm baritone.

- Ben Maycock

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