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Polka Dots and Moonbeams (1940)

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Origin and Chart Information
“Sinatra enjoyed a succession of several dozen hits with the Dorsey band, his first being the ballad ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’...”

- JW

Rank 79
Music Jimmy Van Heusen
Lyrics Johnny Burke

The 1939 recording of “All or Nothing at All” is sometimes credited as Frank Sinatra’s first hit, but in actuality it didn’t make the charts until its re-release four years later in 1943. Harry James had hired Frank Sinatra after hearing him on a New York radio station, and they recorded the song shortly before Sinatra left to join Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra in 1940. Sinatra enjoyed a succession of several dozen hits with the Dorsey band, his first being the ballad “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” which hovered at eighteenth place on the charts for one week. In 1942 Sinatra struck out on his own, appearing that year on the charts with “Night and Day.”

 

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

In the late 1930’s and throughout the 1940’s Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen wrote mostly for Bing Crosby, and Crosby’s films and were so successful that they became know as the Gold Dust Twins. Not all their compositions were written for films. “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and “Imagination” (1939) were both written for the Tommy Dorsey band, and neither had any screen affiliation.

 

More on Jimmy Van Heusen at JazzBiographies.com
 
 

More on Johnny Burke at JazzBiographies.com
 

More information on this tune...

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Pantheon
Hardcover: 736 pages


(This book contains a short biography of Johnny Burke and over eight pages of his lyrics, including those for “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.”)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

While there is no doubt that “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” has an appealing melody, it is a wonder that the song is so often performed with lyrics as corny as they are. William Zinsser in Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs describes the words as “…too cute for any but the strongest stomach…” He may have been referring to lyrics such as:

I saw polka dots and moonbeams sparkled on a pug-nosed dream

and

…in a cottage, built of lilacs and laughter I know the meaning, of the words: “ever after.”

The literal meaning of the lyrics, however, may be somewhat irrelevant to a vocalist. In Singing Jazz: The Singers and Their Styles, by Bruce Crowther and Mike Pinfold, vocal artist Stacey Kent is quoted as saying,

If I love the feel or the melody of a song, it might not matter what the lyric is. Of course, the lyric matters! But I almost feel that I can make any lyric work…I can sing “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” earnestly and honestly, without even bothering to think that I myself might not ask a pug-nosed dream, dressed in polka dots, to dance.

-JW

Musical analysis of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”

Original Key F major; false key change to A major in the bridge
Form A1 – A2 – B – A2
Tonality Primarily major
Movement It moves primarily step-wise, ascending and descending, with occasional leaps and skips; melodic contour is very wave-like.

Comments     (assumed background)

This is not one of Van Heusen’s more sophisticated pieces; however, because of its relative simplicity, jazz performers have been able to use substitutions and extended harmonies. The harmonic sequence in the first half of “A” and the entirety of “B” is based on I – vi – ii7 – V7 – I (“Blue Moon,” “Heart And Soul”). Contemporary players have substituted iii for I in mm. 3-4 of “A”.

In the second half of “A,” the ii7 proceeds to III7 as a dominant, leading to vi. Today, a vii˚7 is usually inserted before the III7 (Dm7b5 - G7 in the original key). On its way back to the tonic, Van Heusen used a rather tasteful and unusual sequence. Instead of simply going vi – ii7 – V7 – I (which works, but is bland sounding), the progression ascends by step so that vi is followed by bVII9 (a substitution for V7 and a “common-tone modulation,” since the 9th of this chord corresponds to the root tone of the tonic key). Modulation into the new key of section “B”–a major third higher than the tonic (from F major to A major in the original)--is accomplished via a seventh chord a half step lower than I (vii7 functioning as V7 of the new key). Returning to the tonic key for the final “A” is easily accomplished through the cycle of fifths.

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
“Polka Dots and Moonbeams” was included in these films:
  • Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, as part of a medley by Dick Hyman)
  • The Sensible Thing (1996)

Interestingly, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” was almost included in the 23-song soundtrack of the Oscar-nominated, 1995 documentary A Great Day in Harlem. First-time producer Jean Bach found that one song could cost 20 percent of her film’s $500,000 budget. In the International Herald Tribune she is quoted as saying, “The publisher wanted $100,000 for Lester Young playing ‘Polka Dots And Moonbeams,’ so we dropped that one.”

Reading and Research
Additional information for "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" may be found in:

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


(1 paragraph 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: history and performers.)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Pantheon
Hardcover: 736 pages


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

Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Soundtracks
Reading & Research

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

Jazz History Notes

Gil Evans, the masterful arranger for Miles Davis, rose to prominence arranging for band leader/pianist Claude Thornhill, and his 1947 arrangement of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” illustrates why his talents appealed to Miles.

This was also a favorite number of tenor sax giant Lester Young. He recorded it several times, first in 1949 with pianist Hank Jones, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Buddy Rich. In an interesting reunion with former boss Count Basie, he recorded a live version at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.

Two interesting sessions from May 7, 1957, feature trumpeter Donald Byrd playing “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” The first is a quartet session led by Byrd; the second is led by pianist Elmo Hope and has John Coltrane on tenor saxophone.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian


Gil Evans
The Real Birth of the Cool: Studio Sessions
Jazz Factory (Spain) 22801

Donald Byrd and Doug Watkins
The Transition Sessions
Blue Note Records 40528

iTunes
Elmo Hope
All Star Sessions
Milestone 47037

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

Frank Sinatra’s 1940 recording of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” is one of his best ballad performances and perhaps the best-loved version of the song. Sarah Vaughan’s tender 1957 version (Swingin' Easy) represents a very different approach, but an equally effective one. The influential ballad style of guitarist Wes Montgomery, meanwhile, is well represented on a landmark performance of the tune from 1960 (The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery).

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey Orchestra
The Essential Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (2CD)
RCA
Original Recording 1940
Sinatra presents perhaps the definitive vocal rendition of this song with the expert backing of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Sinatra’s wry delivery fits well with the lighthearted nature of the song.
iTunes

- Noah Baerman

Sarah Vaughan
Swingin' Easy
1992 Polygram 14072
Original recording 1954
The incomparable vocalist delivers a lovely rendition of the song within an intimate trio setting.
iTunes
Wes Montgomery
The Incredible Jazz Guitar of ...
2003, Riverside
Original recording, 1960
Hard bop guitarist Montgomery set the standard for not only the song but also the style of a generation of jazz guitarists that would follow. His lyrical version is West Coast laid-back. Note: The sound quality of the original CD release was not even as good as the LP. Be sure and get the audio CD referred to here.
iTunes
Bud Powell
The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 2
Blue Note Records
Original recording 1953
Powell is best known for his jaw-dropping pyrotechnics, but his Tatum-inspired ballad playing was significant as well. Here he gives a gentle, lush performance in a trio with bassist George Duvivier and drummer Art Taylor.
iTunes
Chet Baker
Chet Baker In New York
1991 Original Jazz Classics 207
Original recording 1958
Baker, known to many as a vocalist, sticks to the trumpet here, giving a wonderful interpretation of the melody, followed by a lyrical improvisation. Pianist Al Haig also has ample space to shine.
iTunes
Bill Evans
California Here I Come
2004 Verve 268102
Original recording 1967
This creative, super-tight performance documents pianist Evans at a gig at New York’s Village Vanguard alongside his new band member Eddie Gomez on bass and his old friend “Philly” Joe Jones on drums.
iTunes
Cassandra Wilson
Blue Skies
2002 Winter & Winter 919018
Original recording 1988
Thirty years after Sarah Vaughan's version, Cassandra Wilson gives the song a refreshing take. Wilson and trio allow themselves to explore while respecting the past, turning the tune into a modern, swinging waltz.
iTunes
Oscar Peterson
Romance: The Vocal Stylings of Oscar Peterson
Phantom
Original recording, 1956, Verve
If you’re feeling flush and can spring for an import, you won’t be sorry about this one. With the backing of Herb Ellis and Ray Brown, Peterson sings and plays a dozen standards, including “But Not for Me” and “Spring Is Here.” Purportedly he was told to give up singing because he sounded too much like Nat “King” Cole. This is his only vocal album.
iTunes

- Ben Maycock

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

Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen

Year Rank Title
1944 60 It Could Happen to You
1940 79 Polka Dots and Moonbeams
1953 100 Here's That Rainy Day
1947 133 But Beautiful
1944 147 Like Someone in Love
1939 178 Imagination
1939 783 Oh You Crazy Moon
1942 907 Moonlight Becomes You

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