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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 links on this page for additional references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Art Tatum
The Complete Capitol Recordings
Blue Note Records

Tatum's 1949 solo performance here is technically and harmonically stunning, yet relaxed and controlled. He was without a doubt one of this song's definitive interpreters.
Art Tatum
20th Century Piano Genius
1996 Polygram 31763
Original recording 1955
This 1955 performance, recorded live at a party in California not long before Tatum's untimely death, equals the 1949 performance in inventiveness, but is less inhibited and more energetic. Tatum had clearly lost none of his edge by this point.
Django Reinhardt
Jazz in Paris: Nuages
2003 Wea International 18428
Original recording 1953
This recording documents the tail end of Reinhardt's career and features noteworthy French jazz musicians Martial Solal and Pierre Michelot early in their careers. Reinhardt plays the electric guitar here, and it is striking to hear the manner in which he exploits the electric guitar's capacity to sustain notes. The results are strikingly melodic and restrained.

- Noah Baerman

Billie Holiday
The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 9
Sony 47031

This is an exquisite recording of Holiday at her very best. She is soft and seductive without losing that world-weariness that makes "I Cover the Waterfront"' more than a simple song.
Hank Jones
Live at Maybeck 16
Concord Records
Original Recording 1991
Jones gives the tune a pert but gently swinging reading in this solo piano recital. He also performs it solo on altoist Frank Morgan's1992 CD, You Must Believe in Spring.
Erroll Garner
Complete Savoy Master Takes
Savoy Jazz
Original Recording 1949
This trio performance offers a striking early example of Garner's unique, florid style. The tempo is slow, but Garner is inventive and playful throughout.
Sarah Vaughan
At Mister Kelly's
1991 Polygram 32791
Original recording 1957
This performance begins with some particularly light-hearted stage patter from Vaughan. Make no mistake, though, once the song begins, it is performed with Vaughan's typical focus and intensity.
Jackie McLean
A Long Drink of the Blues
1994 Original Jazz Classics 253
Original recording 1957
McLean was only 25 at the time of this recording, but his gritty yet lyrical ballad style is shown here to be quite mature already. Mal Waldron's accompaniment on piano adds a great deal of depth to the performance as well.
Terence Blanchard
The Billie Holiday Songbook
1994 Columbia 57793
Original recording 1994
Trumpeter Blanchard’s wonderfully lyrical take on the tune has as much to do with Holiday’s beautiful reading of the song as the song itself. It is undeniably romantic in its heartbreaking melancholia.
Adam Makowicz
A Tribute to Art Tatum
2000, VWC 4108
Original recording, 1997
Makowicz was inspired to pursue jazz when he heard Tatum on Willis Conover’s radio program, Voice of America, as a child in Poland. Make no mistake, Makowicz has the technique to elevate this tribute to the level of the master.
Shelly Manne & His Friends
Shelly Manne & His Friends, Vol 1
2001, JVC Classics
Original recording, 1956, Contemporary
Pianist Andre Previn is delicate and deliberate on this highly inventive rendition of the song. Drummer Manne and bassist Leroy Vinegar step lightly. Unfortunately this is only available as a pricey import, but Manne and Friends made several other recordings.

- Ben Maycock

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