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Prelude to a Kiss (1938)

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Origin and Chart Information
The underrated recording Indigos (1957) showcases Ellington, Shorty Baker, and Johnny Hodges on a relaxed and bluesy “Prelude to a Kiss.”

- JW

Rank 46
Music Duke Ellington
Lyrics Irving Gordon
Irving Mills

“Prelude to a Kiss” has undoubtedly become one of the top jazz standards, but its evolution to greatness was slow. On August 9, 1938, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, featuring Johnny Hodges, recorded “Prelude to a Kiss” for the Brunswick label. A second version was recorded fifteen days later for the Vocalion label. This time it was by Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra with vocalist Mary McHugh.


More on Duke Ellington at JazzBiographies.com
Johnny Hodges’ “orchestra” was composed of members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra including Ellington himself. Mary McHugh was with the Ellington band in 1938, recording a little over half a dozen songs. Along with “Prelude to a Kiss” she was the first to record “Lost in Meditation” with Ellington.

More on Johnny Hodges at JazzBiographies.com

The public liked the Mills/Gordon lyrics, and the Mary McHugh rendition went onto the charts in October rising to number thirteen. The instrumental charted a week later, rising to number eighteen.


More on Irving Mills at JazzBiographies.com

More on Irving Gordon at JazzBiographies.com

Although “Prelude to a Kiss” is more popular with jazz performers today, Ellington’s 1938 million-selling “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” overshadowed both of its initial hit recordings. Rising to number one with both the Ellington and Benny Goodman orchestras, “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” stayed on the charts for nearly six months.


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

According to several Ellington experts, “Prelude to a Kiss” was adapted from a melody by alto saxophonist Otto “Toby” Hardwick. The resulting composition is often characterized as graceful, sensual, sultry, seductive, and tender--a perfect fit for Johnny Hodges’ alto saxophone abilities. In the book Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, author Mark C. Gridley comments that

[Hodges] is particularly known for a romantic approach to ballad playing that has pervaded American music ...His work on “Prelude to a Kiss” typifies that side of his talents.


More on Otto Hardwick at JazzBiographies.com

More information on this tune...

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

(Wilder, in his definitive book on American popular song, offers a pithy, one-page musical analysis of the song.)

- Jeremy Wilson

Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Duke Ellington
The Essential Duke Ellington
Original recording 1938
This is the original recording of the tune and it is an absolute gem. Different members of Ellington’s orchestra take turns playing parts of the melody, and we are therefore treated to a great demonstration of Ellington’s ability to balance lush, cohesive orchestration with the distinct voices of his musicians.
Duke Ellington
This Is Jazz, Vol. 7
1996 Sony 64617
Original recording 1938
Here we find the tune’s second recorded version. This is the original vocal recording, with the singing of Mary McHugh and released under the leadership of saxophonist Johnny Hodges. The simultaneous trickiness and lyricism of the melody can be heard here, and the light tone of McHugh’s voice would be echoed in subsequent instrumental renditions by Hodges himself
Pee Wee Russell
Ask Me Now (Dig)
Umvd Labels

Primarily known as a Dixieland player, Russell showed the jazz world on this recording that his always daring style was well-suited to playing in a more modern context. His reading of “Prelude to a Kiss” alongside valve trombonist Marshall Brown is stunning in its tenderness and melodic invention.

- Noah Baerman

Nancy Wilson
But Beautiful
Blue Note Records
Original recording 1969
Wilson sings with phenomenal warmth on this performance alongside such all-stars as guitarist Gene Bertoncini and pianist Hank Jones.
Jim Hall With the Ron Carter Duo
Alone Together
Original Recording 1972
The lyricism of Carter and Hall and the almost telepathic quality of their interplay with one another prove to be in perfect sync with the mood of this song.
Sarah Vaughan
Swingin' Easy
1992 Polygram 14072
Original recording 1954
Backed only by her trio, Vaughan sings this tune with striking intimacy, though with complete mastery of the tune’s melodic twists and turns.
World Saxophone Quartet
Plays Duke Ellington
Original recording 1986
The World Saxophone Quartet rendition of “Prelude to a Kiss” is energetic, spunky and even a little reckless at times, while maintaining the tune’s melodic sense and rich harmonies.
Brad Mehldau
Introducing Brad Mehldau
1995 Warner Bros. 45997

Pianist Mehldau’s 10-minute arrangement of the piece is one of the most thoughtful and mesmerizing renditions of any song, let alone this one.
Joe Lovano
Rush Hour
1995, Blue Note 29269

Saxophonist Lovano is backed by an orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller on this full-bodied track. The result is lush. The jazz group is given space to improvise in the foreground while enjoying Schuller’s support rather than direction.
Claudia Acuna
Wind From the South
2000, Verve 314543521

Chilean singer Claudia Acuna provides an upbeat rendition of the song. The tempo and her Latin vocals give the Ellington ballad a touch of the exotic.
Bobby Timmons
This Here Is Bobby Timmons
1991, Orig. Jazz Classics #104
Original recording, 1960
Pianists seem to love “Prelude to a Kiss.” Timmons takes it sweetly as a solo before bassist Sam Jones and finally drummer Jimmy Cobb join him. The other eight cuts are divided between standards and Timmons’ own witty compositions.

- Ben Maycock

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