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Pennies from Heaven (1936)

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Origin and Chart Information
“Crosby’s gamble paid off handsomely. His recording was featured on the radio show Your Hit Parade for over 13 weeks.”

- JW

Rank 81
Music Arthur Johnston
Lyrics Johnny Burke

Although under contract with Paramount Pictures at the time, Bing Crosby was occasionally allowed to make films with other studios. In 1936 Crosby took a chance and not only starred but invested some of his own money in the Columbia Pictures film, Pennies from Heaven.


More on Bing Crosby at JazzBiographies.com

Pennies from Heaven was based on Katharine Leslie Moore’s novel, “The Peacock Feather” and adapted for the screen by Jo Swerling (Blood and Sand, Lifeboat, Leave Her to Heaven, It’s a Wonderful Life, Guys and Dolls). The story can be best described as a convoluted sequence of events. Before the plot is resolved the characters find themselves alternately in prison, on welfare, under arrest, in the hospital, or sent to an orphanage. The suggestion seems to be that no matter how bad things get all will turn out in the end, a message that struck a chord with a depression-weary audience.

While the film’s plot was right for the times, it was also musical numbers such as “Skeleton in the Closet” with Louis Armstrong that made it a modest success with filmgoers. It was the title song that garnered the movie’s only Academy Award nomination. Unfortunately it would lose out to “The Way You Look Tonight” by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields.

Crosby’s gamble paid off handsomely. His recording of “Pennies from Heaven,” with Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra, was featured on the radio show Your Hit Parade for over 13 weeks. On the pop charts, “Pennies from Heaven” also did well:

In 1936

And in 1937


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

The songwriting team of Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston wrote a number of songs, although Burke more often collaborated with Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnston with Sam Coslow.


More on Johnny Burke at JazzBiographies.com

More on Arthur Johnston at JazzBiographies.com

Presumably Burke’s lyrics were written to evoke a sense of optimism in difficult times, assuring the listener that when it rains, “There’ll be pennies from heaven for you and me.” The introductory verse, however, casts a shadow across the optimistic chorus. It warns that we may pay penance for our ancestors’ lack of appreciation of the better things in life. Storms may bring us fortune, but with that fortune we must buy what we used to get for free.

In 1978 a six-part British Drama Series Pennies from Heaven aired on BBC-TV starring Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell. Written by Dennis Potter, the story is even darker than the original, replacing the prison, welfare, orphanage, and hospital with infidelity, rape, murder, and prostitution. The avant-garde production drew critical and popular acclaim for its innovative use of song and dance numbers to depict the desires of the characters and society.

The 1981, MGM film, Pennies from Heaven, is a lavish adaptation of Dennis Potter’s BBC series starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. It received widely mixed reviews and did little business at the box office.

More information on this tune...

Susan Sackett
Hollywood Sings!: An Inside Look at Sixty Years of Academy Award-Nominated Songs
Pub Overstock Unlimited Inc
Paperback: 332 pages

(In her book on Academy Award-nominated songs, Sackett delves into the history of “Pennies from Heaven” and lists performers of the song and films in which it has been featured.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Musical analysis of “Pennies from Heaven”

Original Key C major
Form A1 – B – A2 – C
Tonality Major throughout
Movement Primarily steps and small, arpeggiated skips; repeated notes

Comments     (assumed background)

Originally, the harmonic progression was quite simple: I – II7 – V7 – I in the first “A” section and I7 – IV – VI7 – II7 – V7 in the “B” section. In the second “A,” the second II7 is replaced by IV, which leads into the iv – I – II7 – ii7 – V7 ending. Today jazz players are more inclined to use extended harmonies and chord substitutions. For example, the simple progression in the beginning is elaborated into I – iii – biii˚7 (vii˚7/V) – ii7 – V7(b9), while the secondary dominant is preceded by a minor 7th chord a fifth higher (Gm7 – C7 – F, rather than just C7 – F, for example), or the use of vi in place of or preceding II7.
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).
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Soundtrack information
“Pennies from Heaven” was included in these films:
  • Pennies from Heaven (1936, Bing Crosby)
  • Cruisin’ Down the River (1953, Dick Haymes)
  • From Here to Eternity (1954)
  • Picnic (1956, instrumental)
  • Pepe (1960, Bing Crosby)
  • Pennies from Heaven (1981, Arthur Tracy with Vernal Bagneris lip-synching)
  • Angela’s Ashes (1995, Billie Holiday)
  • Corrina, Corrina (2000, Billie Holiday)
Reading and Research
Additional information for "Pennies from Heaven" may be found in:

Thomas S. Hischak
The American Musical Film Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 536 pages

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

Susan Sackett
Hollywood Sings!: An Inside Look at Sixty Years of Academy Award-Nominated Songs
Pub Overstock Unlimited Inc
Paperback: 332 pages

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

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

Many jazzmen have pet tunes that they enjoy playing regularly. Looking through a discography, one might find an artist recording several versions of a number over the span of a career. Such was the case with Lester Young and the tune “Pennies from Heaven.”

Lester was on board with the Count Basie band for their first recording session for Decca Records in 1937, when they laid down a swinging version of tune. The record was primarily a feature for vocalist Jimmy Rushing and Young was not featured. However, he started playing the tune with his own group in the 1940s, recording a version in 1950 and then twice in 1956 on a series of live recordings made of his quartet in Washington, D.C.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Count Basie
The Complete Decca Recordings
Verve 611

Lester Young
Complete Savoy Recordings
Savoy Jazz 17122
Original recording 1944
Lester Young
Lester Young in Washington, DC, 1956, Vol 4
Original Jazz Classics 963

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “Pennies from Heaven.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

The two definitive vocal recordings of “Pennies From Heaven” were made just months apart in the mid-1930s. Billie Holiday’s brilliant 1936 performance with Teddy Wilson (The Billie Holiday Collection) was followed in early 1937 by Jimmy Rushing’s irresistible interpretation, backed by the Count Basie Orchestra (The Complete Decca Recordings). Over twenty years later, Shirley Scott and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis reinvented “Pennies From Heaven” as a hard-swinging organ jazz tune (Smokin’).

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Billie Holiday
The Collection
2004 Sony 61538
Original recording 1938
This performance documents the early years of Holiday’s fruitful collaboration with pianist and bandleader Teddy Wilson. Holiday’s performance is typically relaxed, and there is an irony to her delivery of the exaggeratedly optimistic lyric.
J.J. Johnson
The Eminent J.J. Johnson, Vol. 2
Blue Note Records 32144
Original recording 1955
Johnson shows himself to have reached full maturity as a trombonist, arranger and bandleader by the time of this 1955 performance. The company he keeps here certainly helps matters as well, as his quintet features saxophonist Hank Mobley, pianist Horace Silver, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Kenny Clarke.
Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Shirley Scott

Over time, this tune wound up becoming a mainstay of groups build around organ and tenor saxophone. This finger-popping recording by saxophonist Davis and organist Scott had a lot to do with popularizing the tune in that context.

- Noah Baerman

Frank Sinatra/Count Basie
1990, Warner Bros. 1008
Original recording, 1962, Reprise
Two heavyweights of swing get together for an inspired session. Sinatra sounds genuinely inspired and Basie pulls out all the stops.
Oscar Peterson Trio
On the Town
Verve 314543834
Original recording, 1958
The incomparable trio of Peterson at piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, and Ray Brown on bass struts through a live version of the song.
Sarah Vaughan
Swingin' Easy
1992 Polygram 14072
Original recording 1954
Vaughan presents a confident, sly performance here, with tight yet unpredictable backing by the trio of Jimmy Jones, Richard Davis and Roy Haynes.
Dave Brubeck Quartet
At Carnegie Hall
2001 Legacy Recordings 61455
Original recording 1963
Considered one of the finest live recordings in any musical genre, this album features an intense delivery of the song. The quartet is tight-knit and the energy is infectious.
Joel Frahm
Sorry No Decaf
1999, Palmetto 2043

Saxophonist Frahm delivers a quirky new take on the song that allows the quartet to explore without losing the inherent personality of the original.

- Ben Maycock

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

Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston

Year Rank Title
1936 81 Pennies from Heaven

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