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I Cover the Waterfront (1933)

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Origin and Chart Information
“I have been here so long that even the sea gulls must recognize me.”

- From Max Miller’s I Cover the Waterfront

Rank 50
Music Johnny Green
Lyrics Edward Heyman

In the early 1930’s the American public was well aware of the phrase, “I Cover the Waterfront.” It was the title of a best-selling novel by Max Miller (1932), a hit recording written by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman (1933), and a Reliance Studios film starring Claudette Colbert (1933).

Both the song and the film were inspired by the Miller book, and while the film was still in production the song became a hit, prompting the producers to re-score the film to include the Green/Heyman composition. Even the sheet music industry jumped aboard the bandwagon. Eager to capitalize on the song’s success, even if it bent the facts, Harms Incorporated published “I Cover the Waterfront” with the cover quote, “Inspired by the United Artist Picture of the same name.”

“I Cover the Waterfront” was immediately popular with both performers and audiences. A short list of 1933 recordings includes Annette Hanshaw, Abe Lyman’s California Ambassador Hotel Orchestra (Grace Barrie vocal), Connie Boswell, and Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra.

Joe Haymes’ Orchestra recorded the first major hit of the song, rising to number seventeen on the pop charts, with Eddy Duchin’s Orchestra charting a week later.

  • Joe Haymes and His Orchestra (1933, Cliff Weston, vocal, #17)
  • Eddy Duchin and His Orchestra (1933, Lew Sherwood, vocal, #3)

More on Joe Haymes at JazzBiographies.com

More on Cliff Weston at JazzBiographies.com

Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

The 1933 performance of “I Cover the Waterfront” by Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra may be seen on the documentary At the Jazz Band Ball or on Ken Burn’s Jazz -the full performance is on Episode 2 of the DVD set.

Johnny Green was one of the many to record “I Cover the Waterfront” in 1933. A talented composer and arranger, Johnny Green and His Orchestra recorded over a dozen hit songs from 1934 to 1936. Green had also served as a piano accompanist for Ethel Merman, Gertrude Lawrence and Gertrude Niesen. In a 1933 British session he recorded what has been termed a “brilliant” piano medley of his songs, from his first, “Coquette” (1928), to his then current hit, “I Cover the Waterfront.”


More on Johnny Green at JazzBiographies.com

According to a September 27, 2003, Union-Tribune newspaper article by columnist Don Freeman, it was the San Diego waterfront that, at least indirectly, inspired the Green/Heyman song. Freeman points out that author Max Miller (1899-1967) had worked for the old San Diego Sun newspaper. He goes on to say,

Miller, a part of San Diego’s past, had been writing about the waterfront since the mid-1920s. With his seemingly effortless style, he created a book [I Cover the Waterfront] that began as follows: “I have been here so long that even the sea gulls must recognize me.”

Almost overnight, when his first book won extraordinary reviews in New York and elsewhere, Miller became an internationally known author. Soon Miller was turning out a book a year.

In his article, I Cover the Waterfront -- Life Through the Cracks, Poynter Institute Senior Scholar Roy Peter Clark describes Miller’s I Cover the Waterfront as “a series of loosely connected nonfiction yarns ...a vivid account of oceanside life ...fishermen, con artists, publicists, celebrities, smugglers, and spies, a world that Miller explores with an improbable combination of sentimentality and cynicism.”

The film I Cover the Waterfront captures the atmosphere of the book but largely ignores its storylines. Claudette Colbert plays the daughter of smuggling ship captain while her love interest is a reporter (Ben Lyon) who would like to expose her father.


More on Edward Heyman at JazzBiographies.com

Edward Heyman’s verse for “I Cover the Waterfront” is often omitted but may be heard on Jacqui Naylor’s critically acclaimed debut CD, Jacqui Naylor, 1999, Ruby Records (Ryko) and on Ken Burns Jazz Collection: Billie Holiday, 2000, Polygram Records.

More information on this tune...

Allen Forte
The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950: A Study in Musical Design
Princeton University Press
Hardcover: 336 pages

(Author/educator Forte devotes four pages to the song’s history and a musical analysis.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

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