Jazz Standards.com : Jazz Standards : Songs : History : Biographies
Home Overview Songs Biographies History Theory Search Bookstore About

Pennies from Heaven (1936)

Share your comments on this tune...

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 links on this page for additional references.

- Jeremy Wilson

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

Copyright 2005-2015 - JazzStandards.com - All Rights Reserved      Permission & contact information

Home | Overview | Songs | Biographies | History | Theory | Search | Bookstore | About