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Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?) (1942)

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Origin and Chart Information
“The definitive version of the song. Holiday’s reverence for not only the song but the sentiment is unmistakable.”

- Ben Maycock

Rank 7
Words and Music James Edward Davis
Ram Ramirez
Jimmy Sherman

In her 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Billie Holiday recounts that “Jimmy [Davis] was in the Army when he wrote ’Lover Man’ and brought it straight to me.” Unfortunately, before she could record the song, Davis was shipped back to Europe and Holiday never saw him again. While the singer does not mention Jimmy Sherman she does lament “Ram Ramirez gets all of the credit for ‘Lover Man,’ but that’s only part of the story.”


More on James Edward Davis at JazzBiographies.com

More on Jimmy Sherman at JazzBiographies.com

More on Ram Ramirez at JazzBiographies.com

“Lover Man” was originally published in 1942, but, because of a dispute between the musician’s union and the recording companies, the song was not recorded by Holiday until 1944. In August of 1942, the president of the American Federation of Musicians called for a recording ban, demanding the studios pay royalties instead of flat fees for nearly all recording by AFM member musicians and orchestras. Holiday’s primary label at the time, Columbia, was a hold-out and, subsequently, one of the last to sign the AFM agreement late in 1944.

Holiday was anxious to start recording again. Her friend Milt Gabler had taken a job with Decca (a company that signed the AFM agreement in October of 1943) and was head of Commodore Records. Holiday had recorded a number of songs including “Strange Fruit” with Gabler, recordings Holiday insisted that “got Gabler in solid at Decca.” She approached Gabler with “Lover Man.” “I went on my knees to him, I loved it so. I didn’t want to do it with the ordinary six pieces. I begged Milt and told him I had to have strings behind me.”


More on Billie Holiday at JazzBiographies.com

Gabler championed her cause and after a long struggle with Decca management, he fulfilled her wish. Holiday recorded “Lover Man” on October 4, 1944, with Toots Camerata and His Orchestra (Decca 23391). Camerata would later recount, “When she walked in and saw the string ensemble she was so overwhelmed she turned right around and walked out.” It wasn’t until seven months later the recording went onto the pop charts for only one week, in sixteenth place.


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

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Thomas S. Hischak, in The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia, suggests that “Lover Man” “...is musically very simple and has a narrow range but manages to seem complex and textured because of the rich harmony.” Alec Wilder agrees. In American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 he says of “Lover Man,” “It’s a song of narrow range and needs the harmony to bring out its character.” He goes on to say that it has a “curious reminiscence” of a slow tempo “Fascinating Rhythm.”

“Lover Man” has been called the bluest of ballads. With its low-down, slangy lyrics the song suited Billie Holiday’s voice, which at that point in her career projected sadness and dejection. There is scarcely an optimistic line in the song until the semi-hopeful bridge, which ends with: “I go to bed with a prayer, That you’ll make love to me, Strange as it seems.” Then, as the song closes, a wishful fantasy is expressed for five lines, only to be tempered on the sixth with a return to reality, “Lover man, oh, where can you be?” -JW

Musical analysis of “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be)”

Original Key Five flats, starting in Bb minor and migrating to the relative major key
Form A – A – B – A
Tonality Even mixture of major and minor; some key center ambiguity
Movement Series of upward leaps from an embellished note; followed by scale-like patterns that rise and fall.

Comments     (assumed background)

Not a “blues” in the strict sense, this tune is certainly suggestive of blues. The composer plays with a series of ii7– V7 cadences that, while resolving normally, often play tricks on the ear. The piece starts on the minor tonic of Bb minor, but because of the melodic contour and the fact that it is followed by an Eb7, one might hear it as a ii7 – V7 in Ab. However, the Eb7 turns minor and alternates with Ab7, now suddenly giving the aural impression of ii7 – V7 in Db. Because it resolves to Db minor followed by a Gb7, this does not really sound like the tonic, giving the sound of ii7 – V7 in the key of B (Cb). From the Gb7, the harmonic progression goes to A7, which turns out to be an augmented sixth chord – a +6/V7 in the key of Db. Section “B” also consists of a chain of ii7 – V7 cadences, starting on Fm7, going through the circle of fifths until it arrives at F7 – V7 in the key of Bb minor as it transitions back into the final “A” section.
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

The universality of a lyric is one of the premiere elements that makes up any great song, and this opening line, “I don’t know why I’m feeling so sad,” immediately delivers that lonely perspective that everyone can identify with. I switch the song to third person, and still the identification with “she” (instead of “I”) gets that imagery across.

The melody itself is haunting. It begins with a minor feeling and then shifts back and forth to major, back to minor--occasions of hopefulness then doubt, if you will. The bridge is conflicted as well with a clear shift to a relative major harmony, then descent back into the minor. And the lyric on the final A section is always a direct assault on anyone’s senses--“whisper sweet little things in my ear...” --whew! Then, of course, it ends with the both hopeful and simultaneously desperate plea, “Oh Lover Man, where can you be?” ending on the major harmony!

That complexity is one of the reasons jazz players like working on this song--the almost unidentifiable shifts back and forth between the minor and major. As well, I have recently taken the song into a rather funk (hip-hop beat actually) groove, and it works fantastically--another mark of a great composition, i.e., that it can be retranslated and still be effective in mediums and styles other than its original.

Robert Moore, vocalist, trumpeter, harmonica player, songwriter

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Soundtrack information
“Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” was included in these films:

And on the small screen,

Reading and Research
Additional information for "Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)" may be found in:

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

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

Gary Giddins
Visions of Jazz: The First Century
Oxford University Press; New Ed edition
Paperback: 704 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: anecdotal.)
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

It’s interesting to find two versions of a piece, recorded months apart, that seem to be separated by light years.

Eddie Heywood, a fine swing style pianist, laid down a version of “Lover Man” with his sextet in December, 1944. Heywood’s group had accompanied Billie Holiday on a series of recordings a few months earlier and was to have recorded “Lover Man.” But Holiday wanted a group with strings to back her on the tune.

In stark contrast, Dizzy Gillespie’s rendition of “Lover Man” with vocalist Sarah Vaughan is a bebop classic, featuring Gillespie’s trumpet and the great alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. It no doubt had more to do in making the tune a standard than Heywood’s swing version.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Eddie Heywood and His Orchestra
Classic 1038

Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie 1945-1946
Classics 935

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?).” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Billie Holiday is the jazz artist most closely associated with this song. Her 1944 recording of “Lover Man” (Complete Dial Sessions Master Takes) is one of her defining moments. Sarah Vaughan, meanwhile, also developed a deep relationship with “Lover Man,” beginning with a 1945 recording alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. It is her 1954 version (Swingin’ Easy), though, that shows her ballad style in full maturity. Parker’s own version on Dial (Complete Dial Sessions Master Takes) is a landmark moment in his recording career, albeit a somewhat unsettling one given the rawness of the performance.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Charlie Parker
Complete Dial Sessions Master Takes
Definitive/Disconforme SL
Original recording 1947
Recorded in the midst of a mental and emotional collapse, this version of “Lover Man” is one of Parker’s most emotionally raw moments. While it is certainly not his most polished recording, it is breathtakingly poignant.
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday: The Complete Decca Recordings
Verve 601
Original recording 1944
Billie Holiday always had a way with songs expressing angst and her heartbreaking version of “Lover Man” is second to none.
J.J. Johnson
The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson Vol. 1
Blue Note Records 32143
original recording 1953
With a tight ensemble featuring Clifford Brown on trumpet, Johnson shows off his well-developed sense of lyricism.
Sarah Vaughan
Swingin' Easy
1992 Polygram 14072
Original recording 1954
Vaughan finds a remarkable balance here, alternating between a reverent reading of the song and striking embellishment of the rhythm and melody.
Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee
Newest Sound Around
2004 BMG International 174805
Original recording 1961
Accompanied sensitively by Blake’s piano, Lee stays true to the song’s spirit while taking some striking chances.
Ray Bryant
Alone With the Blues
1996 Original Jazz Classics 249
Original recording 1958
As he does so often, Bryant here finds the perfect balance between lyricism and bluesy grit.

- Noah Baerman

Benny Carter
A Gentleman and His Music
1990, Concord 4285
Original recording, 1985
The alto saxist gives “Lover Man”’ a gentle touch in great company: Scott Hamilton (ts), Gene Harris (p), Joe Wilder (t & flug), Ed Bickert (g), John Clayton (b), and Jimmie Smith (d). Happily the seldom heard “Idaho”’ is included on the CD.

- Sandra Burlingame

Jimmy Smith
House Party
2000, Blue Note
Original recording, 1957
Hammond organist Jimmy Smith gives the song some funk to go with the blues on a track that features drummer Art Blakey.
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Meets Hawk!
1999 Polygram 63479
Original recording 1963
Saxophonist Rollins does what he does best, taking “Lover Man” to some intriguing new heights. His solo is highly creative but never disrespectful of the song’s original spirit.
Ella Fitzgerald
Whisper Not
2002 Verve 314589478
Original recording 1966
Fitzgerald gives “Lover Man” elegance without detracting from its honest despair.

- Ben Maycock

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

James Edward Davis, Ram Ramirez and Jimmy Sherman

Year Rank Title
1942 7 Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)

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