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Skylark (1941)

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Origin and Chart Information
“Carmichael’s easygoing delivery and everyman drawl are offset by the sophistication of a band including such luminaries as Art Pepper and Jimmy Rowles.”

- Ben Maycock

Rank 62
Music Hoagy Carmichael
Lyrics Johnny Mercer

In 1942 “Skylark” appeared on the pop chart four times. The first recording was by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra featuring vocalist Ray Eberle, and it rose to number seven. All told, the hit recordings were

  • Glenn Miller (1942, Ray Eberle, vocal, #7)
  • Harry James (1942, Helen Forrest, vocal, #11)
  • Dinah Shore (1942, with Rosario Bourdon and His Orchestra, #5)
  • Bing Crosby (1942, with John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra, #14)

More on Glenn Miller at JazzBiographies.com

More on Ray Eberle at JazzBiographies.com

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

Hoagy Carmichael originally wrote the composition that would become “Skylark” for a musical about his deceased friend, Bix Beiderbecke. The song’s melody is said to have been based on Beiderbecke solos, at least the phrasing, a claim supported by the composition’s original title, “Bix Lix” (“Bix Licks”). Though the musical did not get produced, Carmichael reworked the composition and passed the melody on to Johnny Mercer who, some months later, called Hoagy and sang him “Skylark.” By that time Carmichael had forgotten he wrote it!


More on Hoagy Carmichael at JazzBiographies.com

More on Johnny Mercer at JazzBiographies.com

Young Man with a Horn was to have been the title for the Beiderbecke musical, the same as the1938 novel by Dorothy Baker that was partially based on Beiderbecke’s life. In 1950 Warner Brothers produced the film Young Man with a Horn, based on Baker’s novel and starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day. In the film Douglas portrays a trumpet player (dubbed by Harry James) in a downhill battle with alcohol after he marries a wealthy neurotic played by Bacall. Hoagy Carmichael narrates the tale as well as playing a substantial role as Douglas’ piano playing friend. Movie critics generally find something to like about the film and are almost unanimous in their praise for the musical score, which includes many standards.

“Skylark” was the second in what Richard Sudhalter in his Carmichael biography Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael calls Carmichael’s “musical aviary.” First came “Mr. Bluebird” (1935) with lyrics by Carmichael, and finally there was “Baltimore Oriole” (1942) with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster (“I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good”).

In his Mercer biography titled Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer, Philip Furia explains the yearning expressed in “Skylark” as a voicing of the lyricist’s longing for Judy Garland with whom he had a stormy affair. Mercer told a friend that he wrote “I Remember You” for Garland and that “One for My Baby” (1943) bemoaned her loss.

Johnny Mercer claimed that “Skylark” was not inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (1792-1822) poem, “To a Skylark,” although the similarities cannot be ignored. Both men were sad geniuses who turned to the skylark for answers: Mercer, with regard to romance queries, “Won’t you tell me where my love can be?” Shelley, with broader concerns, requests, “Teach me half the gladness, That thy brain must know...”

More information on this tune...

Richard M. Sudhalter
Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael
Oxford University Press
Hardcover: 432 pages

(Carmichael’s biographer devotes two pages to an analysis of the music and lyric.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

In Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs, William Zinsser characterizes Carmichael’s composition as “graceful and confident” and “matched by lyrics that have all the right down-home images…” He goes on to say, “its complex bridge, making two changes of key in eight bars, is a model of freshness and surprise.”

With a 2-bar introduction, no verse and a 32-bar A1-A2-B-A3 form, Johnny Mercer’s lyrics lead off each A section with the word “Skylark” and follow with questions about his romantic fate, ranging from “Won’t you tell me where my love can be?” to the final line, “Won’t you lead me there...” Mercer’s phrases are rich with imagery (“a meadow in the mist,” “a valley green with spring,” “a blossom-covered lane”) and masterfully support the changing moods of Carmichael’s composition. -JW

Musical analysis of “Skylark”

Original Key Eb major with false key change to Ab in thebridge
Form A1 – A2 – B – A3
Tonality Primarily major; some “minor blues” tonality in mm. 4-5 of “B”
Movement There are upward leaps, arpeggiated descents and ascents, and some step-wise movement throughout. The melody seems to soar (like the lark?)

Comments     (assumed background)

Like “Star Dust,” this melody appears to have been strongly influenced by Bix Beiderbecke (years after his demise). The melody soars up and down over the range of a tenth, using all manner of embellishing tones and even some “blue notes.” Harmonic progression contains familiar elements: “A” begins with a relatively simple I – V7 – I – IV – I – IV – I. An ascending bass line, creating inversions, and the use of a coloristic, half-diminished, passing chord between the third I and second IV add sophistication and complexity. A vi – II7 – ii7– V7 leads into the first ending, where a I – II7 – V7 turnaround takes place. The second ending is a simple I – V7 – I; however, the melody over V7 contains the #9th, giving it more color. (Carmichael wrote a Bb7(+5) here.) The I chord adds a 7th, becoming a V7 of the new key of the subdominant(in the original, Eb – Ab).

Section “B” uses an ascending I – vii˚7/ii –ii7 – V7 sequence, returning to the I. It then modulates to the relative minor (F minor in the original), using a viiø7 – III7 modulation and going into the dark, “bluesy” section of the song. Soon, however, the minor cloud begins to break as F minor makes its way back to Ab major, and then–SURPRISE! Without any warning, the sun bursts out in the form of a sudden key shift to G major. After a brief I – vi – II7 – V7 – I in this new “key of the moment,” there is yet another direct modulation back to the original tonic of Eb by way of a Bb7.

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 is one of the greatest melodies ever written. I recorded it with bassist Ray Drummond, and before we play Hoagy’s classic melody, we start by improvising bird song motifs because it’s about a skylark. It’s  a simple melody with every single note in the A section being just the notes of an Eb diatonic scale. In contrast, some of the “odd notes” in the bridge (the bluesy melodic twist in bar 21 and the melody in bar 22) really convey the lyric phrase “crazy as a loon.”

Bill Mays, pianist, composer and arranger

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Soundtrack information
“Skylark” was included in these films:
  • Torch Song Trilogy (1988, Marilyn Scott)
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997, k.d. lang)
And on stage:
  • Dream: The Johnny Mercer Musical (1997) Broadway revue
Reading and Research
Additional information for "Skylark" may be found in:

William Zinsser
Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs
David R. Godine Publisher
Hardcover: 279 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: lyric analysis.)

Allen Forte
The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950: A Study in Musical Design
Princeton University Press
Hardcover: 336 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: music analysis.)

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: history, music analysis and performers.)

Max Wilk
They're Playing Our Song: Conversations With America's Classic Songwriters
Da Capo Press; 1st Da Capo Press ed edition
Paperback: 296 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: anecdotal. (Page 133).)

Richard M. Sudhalter
Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael
Oxford University Press
Hardcover: 432 pages

(2 pages including the following types of information: lyric analysis and music analysis.)

Philip Furia
Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer
St. Martin's Press; 1st edition
Hardcover: 320 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: anecdotal and song lyrics.)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Hardcover: 736 pages

(Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.)
Free Chord Changes for this Tune
Chord changes and downloadable tracks at PlayJazzNow.com
Also on This Page...

Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research
Free Chord Changes

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

Jazz History Notes

Hoagy Carmichael’s lovely melody is given a first-class treatment in a 1941 recording by drummer Gene Krupa’s big band. (Krupa had played and recorded with cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, whose playing inspired Carmichael’s composition.)

Jazz great Roy Eldridge on trumpet opens up Krupa’s version with a beautifully performed half-chorus solo, lightly insinuating the melody yet avoiding some of the high note excesses that occasionally mar his playing. Following his solo is a lovely vocal by singer Anita O’Day, who had her first important gig with Krupa and then went on to become one of the top vocalists in jazz. Although the band’s arrangement of the tune is not credited, it is top notch.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Roy Eldridge, Anita O'Day with Gene Krupa's Orchestra
Sony 45448
Original recording 1941
Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “Skylark.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Anita O’Day and Roy Eldridge star on one of the definitive recordings of “Skylark,” a 1941 classic recorded by Gene Krupa’s band (Uptown). Hoagy Carmichael’s own 1956 recording of “Skylark” (Hoagy Sings Carmichael) is a classic example of his and a great chance to hear his own conception of the tune. Meanwhile, Freddie Hubbard stars on a modern classic with Art Blakey’s band (Caravan), one of Hubbard’s most significant recorded ballads.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Hoagy Carmichael
Hoagy Sings Carmichael
2000 Capitol 46862
Original recording 1956
Carmichael is heard here singing one of his classic tunes in an unusually jazz-oriented context, with a terrific band featuring alto saxophonist Art Pepper and pianist Jimmie Rowles.
Tal Farlow
Tal Farlow's Finest Hour
2001 Verve 549677
Original recording 1952
This recording features guitarist Farlow in the innovative trio of vibraphonist Red Norvo. By the time of this recording, Red Mitchell had replaced Charles Mingus on bass, but they still had some important music left in them. On this performance Farlow coaxes some surprising sounds from his guitar.
Paul Motian
On Broadway, Vol. 3
2004 Winter and Winter 919055
Original recording 1991
Drummer Motian has made quite a bit of stirring music with his unorthodox trio featuring guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano. On this recording, the group is augmented by Charlie Haden on bass and by Lee Konitz, who offers some wonderful soprano saxophone on their performance of “Skylark.”

- Noah Baerman

Stan Getz & Jimmy Rowles
The Peacocks
2000 Koch 7867
Original recording 1975
Getz plays beautifully on this ballad performance, as does his duet partner, pianist Jimmie Rowles, who is featured prominently throughout this album.
Carmen McRae
Birds of a Feather
2002 Verve 314589515
Original recording 1958
Vocalist Carmen McRae kicks off this bird-themed album with a weighty, eloquent version of "Skylark."' McRae's voice is in top form and her interpretation of the song makes it one of the finest.
Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers
1991 Orig. Jazz Classics #38
Original recording, 1962, Riverside Records
Freddie Hubbard's moving trumpet solo is the highlight of this poignant reading from one of the finest hard bop groups in jazz history.
Paul Desmond
1997, Sony 65133
Original recording, 1974, Legacy
Alto saxophonist Desmond includes two versions of the title track. Both readings feature Desmond's clear, bright tone and gift for taking a song through some intriguing musical hoops.
Kenny Barron
Green Chimneys
1994 Criss Cross 1008
Original recording 1983
Most of this album presents a 1983 trio session with Ray Drummond and Ben Riley, but a bonus on the CD version is this solo piano rendition of “Skylark” from 1987. Barron’s gentle touch and lyricism are on full display here.
Winard Harper
Trap Dancer
1999, Savant 2013

This version of "Skylark"' features trumpeter Patrick Rickman playing melody while saxist J.D. Allen weaves lines around him. Drummer Harper is at his most subtle, with Eric Revis on bass and George Cables at the piano.

- Ben Maycock

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

Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer

Year Rank Title
1941 62 Skylark

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