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Laura (1945)

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Origin and Chart Information
“With nothing satisfactory on paper, Raksin read a ‘Dear John’ letter from his wife, and the haunting melody seemed to write itself.”

- JW

Rank 35
Music David Raksin
Lyrics Johnny Mercer

Conceived amidst conflict, the title theme for the 1944 Twentieth Century Fox film Laura was composed almost as an afterthought. According to author William Zinsser in his book, Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs, director Otto Preminger had chosen Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” as a theme for Laura, but composer David Raksin felt it did not suit the character. Raksin was given the weekend to come up something new. By Sunday, with nothing satisfactory on paper, he read a “Dear John” letter from his wife, and the haunting melody seemed to write itself.

Shortly after Laura was released, Abe Olman of Robbins Music asked Johnny Mercer to write lyrics for Raksin’s theme. Although Mercer had seen the film, he confessed that he really didn’t remember the tune. Olman provided Mercer with the music and advised him that the title had to be “Laura.” After a few weeks, Mercer grew to love the song and completed the lyrics. In 1945 five separate recordings of “Laura” appeared on the pop charts with the Woody Herman and His Orchestra’s rendition becoming a million-seller hit:

  • Woody Herman and His Orchestra (Woody Herman, vocal, #4)
  • Johnnie Johnston (with Paul Baron and His Orchestra, #5)
  • Freddy Martin and His Orchestra (#6)
  • Jerry Wald and His Orchestra (Dick Merrick, vocal, #8)
  • Dick Haymes (with Victor Young and His Orchestra, #9)

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

In 1946 “Laura” made it to number one on the Hit Parade for 14 weeks and five years later Stan Kenton and His Orchestra made it to #12, featuring Art Pepper’s alto sax.


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Laura, starring Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews, and Vincent Price has enjoyed great popularity and is considered one of the best-scripted and wittiest examples of the 1940’s and 1950’s film noir wave. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Webb), Best Director (Preminger), and Best Screenplay, and won for the category Best Cinematography, Black-and-White. Oddly enough, in retrospect, the score went unacknowledged.

The sophisticated dialogue and stylish atmosphere, in juxtaposition with the underlying themes of murder and betrayal, make the film particularly intriguing. In his book Great Hollywood Movies, Ted Sennett says of Laura, “...its principal fascination lies in the many perverse and distasteful implications that are concealed beneath its surface.”

Raksin’s theme and variations are played throughout the film and, with a few exceptions, constitute the soundtrack. Film critic Roger Ebert comments, “That Laura continues to weave a spell--and it does--is a tribute to style over sanity. No doubt the famous musical theme by David Raksin has something to do with it. The music lends a haunted, nostalgic, regretful cast to everything it plays under, and it plays under a lot.”

Indeed, in a self-conscious gesture, the film’s characters even refer to the soundtrack theme. Detective McPherson (Andrews) enters Laura’s apartment with her mentor Waldo Lydecker (Webb) and her fiancee Shelby Carpenter (Price). McPherson turns on the phonograph and plays “Laura.”

Lydecker: “Would you mind turning that off?”
McPherson: “Why, don’t you like it?”
Carpenter: “It was one of Laura’s favorites, not exactly classical, but sweet.”

Nearly two decades after winning the “Laura” debate with Preminger, Raksin further demonstrated his leadership skills becoming President of the Composers and Lyricist Guild of America (1962-70). In that capacity he took a delegation of American composers to Brazil for a popular song festival where, upon request, he sang “Laura” for an audience of 18,000, adding a Portuguese finale!


More on David Raksin at JazzBiographies.com

When Olman asked Mercer to add lyrics to “Laura,” Mercer was faced with a double challenge. He would not only have to write quality lyrics for a complex and established song but also pen words that would perpetuate the weighty intrigue of a character with whom the public was already acquainted. Mercer created what many feel is an example of his finest work, immortalizing a tune that might otherwise have drifted into obscurity.

Mercer’s lyrics extend the feeling of mystery and intrigue in the introductory verse,

“You know the feeling of something half remembered,
Of something that never happened, yet you recall it well.”

and subsequently by describing Laura through a series of elusive attributes: a face in the misty light, footsteps down the hall, a floating laugh, and as a woman on a passing train. With no variations and just a sixty-two-word refrain, the lyrics are handled economically as well as effectively.


More on Johnny Mercer at JazzBiographies.com

More information on this tune...

George T. Simon
Big Bands Songbook
Barnes & Noble

(Author/drummer Simon devotes four pages to the story behind the song and the musicians who have performed it. H also includes the sheet music.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Musical analysis of “Laura”

Original Key Two flats, but with so much wandering tonality and irregular resolution as to make a key designation meaningless. Begins with a Gm9, with a tonality of F major ending on a Bb.
Form A -B1 -A -B2
Tonality Starts minor, alternating back and forth between minor and major before ending on major.
Movement Primarily skips (3rd and 4ths), with liberal use of chromatic embellishing tones.

Comments (assumed background)

This is one of the most beautiful of the lush ballads emerging from the late 1940’s. There is strong Impressionist influence with constantly shifting keys, which nonetheless have a definite descending pattern. In the first three key changes (mm.1-12), each new key is a whole step lower than its predecessor. This makes aural sense, because each “I” chord of the moment turns minor, becoming a ii leading to V7 of the new key (bearing some relation and resemblance to the progression used in “How High The Moon”). In the fourth key change (mm.13-16), a “common-tone” modulation is used, in which the melody tone-the root tone of the moment-becomes the flatted 5th of a ii7chord leading to the V7 of the starting tonality of F major. The second time this happens (mm.25-26), the common tone chord is formed by the bass descending a minor third, forming a chord that functions as a ii7 for an entirely new key (in the original, Bb). While unusual and even exotic, the chord progressions use fairly standard modulations. The trick to learning this tune lies in paying attention to these modulations and trusting one’s ear.
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
Musicians' Comments

This is one of the greatest film scores (along with Johnny Mandel’s The Sandpiper) because David Raksin uses bits and pieces of the theme throughout the movie in some of the best ways ever. I’m also intrigued by the song’s exceptional lyrics. The tune (in the key of C) has a short but wonderful verse that starts in the key of G, then goes to Bb, then to D, before getting into the tune in C. The melody offers unique opportunities for some great chromaticism (e.g: bars 2, 6, the Ab [on a D7, flat 5 & 9 chord] in bar 13 and the Eb [comprising a flatted 9th on a D7 chord] in bar 29). I’ve recorded it twice--with Red Mitchell and with Terry Clarke and Neil Swainson.

Bill Mays, pianist, composer and arranger

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Soundtrack information
“Laura” was included in these films:
  • Laura (1946)
  • Bird (1988, Charlie Parker, saxophone; Barry Harris, piano; Chuck Berghofer, bass; John Guerin, drums)
  • The Spike Jones Story (1988, Spike Jones and His City Slickers)
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997, Kevin Mahogany)
And on stage:
  • Dream: The Johnny Mercer Musical (1997) Broadway revue
Reading and Research
Additional information for "Laura" may be found in:

William Zinsser
Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs
David R. Godine Publisher
Hardcover: 279 pages

(3 paragraphs including the following types of information: anecdotal.)

George T. Simon
Big Bands Songbook
Barnes & Noble

(4 pages including the following types of information: anecdotal, song writer discussion, performers and sheet music.)

Alec Wilder
American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Hardcover: 576 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: music analysis.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 552 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: film productions, history and performers.)

Philip Furia
Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer
St. Martin's Press; 1st edition
Hardcover: 320 pages

(2 pages including the following types of information: anecdotal and lyric analysis.)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Hardcover: 736 pages

(Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.)
Also on This Page...

Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research

Jazz History Notes
Getting Started
CD Recommendations
Listen and Compare
By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

Saxophonists seem to be the musicians who latched on to this tune first, followed closely by a version recorded by pianist Erroll Garner, who had a number of firsts with tunes of this genre. Don Byas is the saxophonist who gets the credit for making the first recording in 1945 for the short-lived indie label American. Veteran soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet’s version from 1947 showed that he wasn’t daunted by more current material than he normally performed.

Probably the most famous of the early recordings is the one by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, accompanied by a string orchestra. Parker’s wonderful performance on this album was a critical success and led to many other “artist with strings” concept albums.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner 1945-1946
Classics 924

Don Byas
Don Byas, 1945
Classics 910

Sidney Bechet
Up a Lazy River
Classic 1112

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker with Strings: The Master Takes
Polygram Records 23984
Original recording, 1950
Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “Laura.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Erroll Garner’s 1945 reading of “Laura” (1945-1946) was a landmark recording of the tune and still sounds impossibly lush for a piano trio performance. That lushness carried over, as many of the most significant versions to follow were those featuring lush string backdrops, most significantly Charlie Parker’s version from 1950 (Charlie Parker with Strings: The Master Takes). Julie London’s classic version from 1955 (Julie Is Her Name, Vol. 1-2), accompanied by only bass and Barney Kessel’s guitar, is a wonderful starting point for vocal fans.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee
Newest Sound Around
2004 BMG International 174805
Original recording 1961
Lee and Blake offer a sparse and truly haunting version of “Laura” on this groundbreaking album.
Oscar Peterson
At Zardi's
1994 Pablo 20118
Original recording 1955
The bulk of this performance features a subtle, lyrical performance by Peterson with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis. Peterson book-ends this with dramatic, ornate solo piano explorations at the beginning and end of the tune.
Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown with Strings
Polygram Records 558078
Original recording, 1955
The relative merits of Neil Hefti’s string arrangements here are open to debate. Whatever your feelings about strings may be, however, Brown’s interpretation of the melody to “Laura” is definitive.

- Noah Baerman

Julie London
Julie Is Her Name Vol 1 & 2
1992 Capitol 99804
Original recording 1955
In a rare female vocal treatment of “Laura,”’ London gives it the sultry, intimate treatment that is her trademark. Since the lyric is written in third person, this works well. The CD contains London’s signature song, “Cry Me a River,”’ as well as several other standards.
Four Freshmen
Four Freshmen In Person/Voices & Brass
Collector's Choice

This rendition of “Laura” features the close, modern harmonies of the vocal group, the Four Freshmen, highlighted by a trombone choir conducted by arranger Pete Rugolo.

- Sandra Burlingame

Teddy Edwards Quartet
Good Gravy
1991 Orig. Jazz Classics 661
Original recording, 1961
The tenor saxophonist leads this tight quartet through a highly refined rendition of “Laura”’ that highlights bassist Leroy Vinegar’s exemplary playing.
Kevin Mahogany
Portrait Of Kevin Mahogany
2000, Warner Bros.

Vocalist Mahogany delivers an emotional reading of the song that is all the more haunting given Mahogany’s rich, evocative baritone.
Charles Mingus
Mingus Three
1997, Blue Note 57155
Original recording, 1957
Bassist Mingus, pianist Hampton Hawes, and drummer Dannie Richmond perform a stripped down rendition of the tune that allows each musician ample room for thoughtful improvisation.
Ellis and Branford Marsalis
Loved Ones
1996, Sony, 67369
Original recording, 1995, Columbia
“Laura” is the perfect vehicle for Branford’s soprano sax with its plaintive sound. In the liner notes, Branford acknowledges his borrowing from Charlie Parker’s version of “Just Friends” for his solo. The elder Marsalis provides lovely piano accompaniment.

- Ben Maycock

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

Johnny Mercer and David Raksin

Year Rank Title
1945 35 Laura

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