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Mean to Me (1929)

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Origin and Chart Information
Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra, with vocalist Billie Holiday, saw their rendition on the charts for four weeks. Their version can be heard on Musical Romance (Billie Holiday and Lester Young).

- JW

Rank 75
Words and Music Fred Ahlert
Roy Turk

Ruth Etting introduced this Ahlert/Turk torch song in 1929. “Mean to Me” had on its flip side the B.G. DeSylva/Lew Brown song “Button Up Your Overcoat” (from the 1929 Broadway musical comedy about championship golf, Follow Through).


More on Ruth Etting at JazzBiographies.com

More on Fred Ahlert at JazzBiographies.com

More on Roy Turk at JazzBiographies.com

The record sold over a million copies and both songs hit the charts: “Mean to Me” rising to number three and “Button Up Your Overcoat” peaking at number fifteen. Also in 1929, Helen Morgan’s recording reached number eleven, and in 1937 Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra, with vocalist Billie Holiday, saw their rendition rise to number seven for four weeks. Their version can be heard on The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 4 or on the compilation CD, Musical Romance (Billie Holiday and Lester Young).


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

Diana Ross sang this and other standards in the film Lady Sings the Blues (1972), and, according to Clive Hirschhorn in Hollywood Musicals, she sounded “more like Motown than Harlem.”

While Ross’s version of the song may have sounded less than genuine to some, “Mean to Me” is far more convincing coming from the person to whom Lady Sings the Blues is a tribute, namely Billie Holiday. It was a staple of Holiday’s repertoire and came to symbolize the personal relationships which she brought to the song.

More information on this tune...

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

(In his encyclopedia of American song Hischak discusses the style of “Mean to Me” and lists the performers and the films in which the song has appeared.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

“Mean to Me” has stood the test of time well and might even have been ahead of its time. In American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, Alec Wilder says, “I find the bass line unusually inventive for 1929.”

And the lyrics are novel, using the phrase “Mean to Me” first to imply unkindness, “Why must you be mean to me?” and then concern, “Can’t you see what you mean to me?” Philip Furia comments in The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists that “Sometimes lyricists undercut both musical and lyrical repetition by taking the standard Alley gimmick of repeating the title phrase at the beginning and end of the chorus but using it to give the phrase different meaning.” -JW

Musical analysis of “Mean to Me”

Original Key G major with some C major and A minor tonaility in the bridge
Form A1 – A2 – B – A3
Tonality Primarily major
Movement Leap down and step up through most of the song; everything else either steps or arpeggiates.

Comments     (assumed background)

Section “A” of this piece uses three different common chord progressions – I – vi7(b9) – ii7 – V7 (“Sweet Lorraine”), I –I7(V7/IV) – IV – iv (“I Got A Gal In Kalamazoo”) and I – iv – ii7 – V7 (“Blue Moon”). Section “B” starts off in major with a I - ii7 – V7 turnaround, then cleverly shifts to minor by turning the IV into a +6/V7 of the new minor key. The minor sequence goes though the i - +6(bVI7) – V7 once before turning into a II7 of the original key on its way back to 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

This song just may fall into the category of overdone, but that’s for a reason. Its beginnings are ensconced in our jazz history with singers like Billie Holliday crying the lyrics to a Harlem audience in a dark, smoke-filled club back in the 1930’s. It’s hard not to add this to any vocal repertoire because you’ll have to pull it out of the bag when it’s inevitably requested. This is a jazz standard vocal staple.

Amanda Carr, jazz vocalist/pianist

“Mean to Me” is based on the most common song form, known as A-A-B-A. The A section features a common chord progression (also found in “Easy Living,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and “Witchcraft”) which has a natural rise and fall. The bass line moves up in half steps from C to F, then back down from F to C.

The melodic contour follows the same arch form. The three-note shape applied to the words “mean to me” is repeated slightly higher (“why must you be”), then higher (“mean to me”), and higher still (“gee, honey”) before the melody begins to descend (“seems to me”) in parallel with the harmony. This harmonic and melodic arch form creates a natural tension and release that is attractive to composers, improvisers, and listeners alike.

The eight-bar bridge consists of two parallel four-bar phrases, one in F (“You treat me coldly each day in the year”) and one in D minor (“You always scold me whenever somebody is near, dear”). It’s very “user-friendly”: if you understand the first half, the second half is easy to follow.

Randy Halberstadt, jazz pianist and professor

I use this for women who “heavy up” their bottom range. It starts middle and goes high, with many intermediate leaps to the bottom. No pseudo-depth allowed! Useful for the chromatic character of the low portions of melody. In a fast tempo it can help a gasping breather learn to relax.

Marty Heresniak, Voice Teacher, Actor, Writer, Singer

Quoted from: Heresniak, Marty and Christopher Woitach, “Changing the Standards -- Alternative Teaching Materials.” Journal of Singing, vol. 58, no. 1, Sep./Oct. 2001.

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Soundtrack information
“Mean to Me” was included in these films:
  • Love Me or Leave Me (1955, Doris Day)
  • Lady Sings the Blues (1972, Diana Ross)
  • Stepping Out (1991, Liza Minnelli)
  • Made (2001, Dean Martin)
  • Bukowski: Born into This (2004, Diane Schuur)
And on stage:
  • Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1978, Nell Carter) Broadway musical
  • Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1988, Nell Carter) Broadway revival
  • Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1995, Anita Pointer) touring revival
And on television:
  • Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1982, Nell Carter) NBC production
Reading and Research
Additional information for "Mean to Me" may be found in:

Max Morath
The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Popular Standards
Perigee Books
Paperback: 235 pages

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

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

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

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

The musical Dorsey Brothers--Tommy (trombone and trumpet) and Jimmy (clarinet and alto saxophone)--are featured prominently on several of the earliest jazz versions of this tune from 1929: one, by their own group (Dorsey Brothers Orchestra), then with trumpeter Phil Napoleon’s Emperors, and another accompanying vocalist Annette Hanshaw.

Some standards seem to fade in and out of popularity. No doubt Billie Holiday’s version in 1937 created some interest for a short time, but the tune takes another hiatus until it resurfaces with tenor saxophonist Lester Young’s stellar version with Nat “King” Cole and Buddy Rich in 1946.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

The Dorsey Brothers
Vol. 2
Jazz Oracle 8005

Red Nichols-Phil Napoleon
Epm Musique 157452

Annette Hanshaw
Vol. 6, 1929
Sensation 23

Billie Holiday
The Quintessential Billie Holiday Vol. 4, 1937
Sony 44252

Lester Young
The Lester Young Trio
Polygram Records 21650
Original recording 1946
Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “Mean to Me.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Lester Young is a central figure in two definitive recordings of “Mean to Me.” Billie Holiday’s 1937 performance (The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol.4: 1937) features Young and is unrivaled among vocal versions of the tune. Young would later record a brilliant instrumental version of the tune with his own trio (The Lester Young Trio), featuring the brilliant piano of Nat “King” Cole piano and the understated drumming of Buddy Rich. Sarah Vaughan produced another classic version in 1950 (Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi) with a band featuring Budd Johnson and Miles Davis.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi
Original recording 1950
This was a landmark recording session for Vaughan. The slyly swinging performance of "Mean to Me"' features some tasty trumpet work by Miles Davis behind the vocals. The primary instrumental soloist is the terrific Budd Johnson on tenor saxophone.

- Noah Baerman

Helen Humes
Songs I Like to Sing!
1991 OJC 171
Original recording 1961
The singers' singer could sing any style of music and did. She had perfect intonation and personalized phrasing that has been examined closely by many great singers. Here she is featured with Art Pepper, Ben Webster, and Jack Sheldon, to just skim the surface, and an equally prestigious rhythm section with arrangements by Marty Paich.
Nat Adderley
Work Song
1991, Orig. Jazz Classics 363
Original recording, 1960
This is one of those classic albums that belongs in every jazz lover's collection. Cornetist Adderley and guitarist Wes Montgomery work their way through nine selections with alternating personnel. On this gently swinging number they are joined by Keter Betts on bass and Louis Hayes on drums.
Betty Carter
I Can't Help It
Grp Records

A young Betty displays the idiosyncratic style which she refused to compromise and on which she built her reputation. This is a creative version of "Mean to Me,"' and the CD is a great introduction to the vocalist.
Curtis Counce
You Get More Bounce With Curtis Counce
1991 Original Jazz Classics 159
Original recording 1957
Bassist Counce and his ultra-swinging West Coast quintet offer a delightful performance of "Mean to Me,"' with a much brighter tempo than is typically associated with the tune.
Barney Kessel, Ray Brown, Shelly Manne
The Poll Winners
Contemporary 7535
Original recording 1957
Guitarist Kessel, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Shelly Manne all placed first on their instruments in the three major jazz polls in 1956. Here they cover eight standards and one Kessel composition, and the performances are perfection.

- Ben Maycock

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

Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk

Year Rank Title
1929 75 Mean to Me
1931 464 I Don't Know Why (I Just Do)
1928 531 I'll Get By (As Long As I Have You)
1930 577 Walkin' My Baby Back Home

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