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Stella By Starlight (1946)

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Origin and Chart Information
“The song itself became a dramatic focal point when Milland’s character Rod serenades his Stella...”

- JW

Rank 10
Music Victor Young
Lyrics Ned Washington

Victor Young and His Orchestra introduced “Stella by Starlight” in the 1944 Paramount film, The Uninvited, a ghost story starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey and Gail Russell. While Young’s composition was written as the film’s recurrent theme, the song itself became a dramatic focal point when Milland’s character Rod serenades his Stella, played by Russell. Looking out the window while Rod is at his grand piano Stella asks what he is playing. Rod replies, “It’s a serenade. ‘To Stella by Starlight.’”


More on Victor Young at JazzBiographies.com

The Uninvited garnered generally good reviews when it was released and to this day receives high marks from home video consumers. Lewis Allen directed with restraint, using almost no graphic images, demonstrating how effectively chilling a ghost story can be when more is left to the imagination. Allen’s frequent light touches are engaging and keep the film moving at a steady pace.

In May of 1947, “Stella by Starlight,” recorded by Harry James and His Orchestra, rose to number 21 on the pop charts. Two months later, in July, Frank Sinatra’s recording of the song with Axel Stordahl and His Orchestra also reached 21st place.


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

Although “Stella by Starlight” was composed as a theme song, it was to everyone’s advantage to enhance the Young composition. The addition of lyrics would increase the chances of the song becoming a pop hit, and a vocal hit could promote the film and vice-versa. When Young turned “Stella by Starlight” over to Ned Washington, he also posed the lyricist a bit of a problem. The song had already been titled, and Washington had to incorporate the phrase into his lyrics. The lyricist found he could only fit the title one place in the song, and as a result “Stella by Starlight” is unusual in that its title is not at the beginning or end of the song but about three-quarters of the way through.


More on Ned Washington at JazzBiographies.com

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

“Stella by Starlight” is most often characterized as “haunting” and is usually performed somberly. The song is frequently described as “beautiful” and “rhapsodic,” apt descriptions considering that Young’s compositional influence was Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) whose melodies are often described in similar terms. The song was also set apart from other pop hits of the day because of its A1-B-C-A2 form.

Another film composer who borrowed from Rachmaninoff was Miklos Rosza (1907-1995) who won Academy Award nominations for his work on The Thief of Bagdad, Sundown, The Jungle Book, and Academy Awards for Spellbound, A Double Life, and Ben-Hur. Rozsa said of Young, “He wrote in the Broadway-cum-Rachmaninoff idiom which was then the accepted Hollywood style.” -JW

Musical analysis of “Stella By Starlight”

Original Key G major, with two brief false key changes to C major and D major.
Form A1 – B – C – A2
Tonality Primarily major. All minor harmonies serve voice-leading functions as the piece wavers from one key to another.
Movement It initially descends to the low range, moving up to the high range in section “C,” then drops in an arc movement. About 90% of the motion is by step; there are a few skips and only two downward leaps of a fourth or larger. Over half of the melody consists of long, sustained tones.

Comments     (assumed background)

Section "A1" opens with a iiø7/iii, followed by a V7/iii and a deceptive resolution to the ii chord of Am (actually Am11 when the melody note is included.) As the listener would expect, this ii is followed by V7. The first surprise comes when this V7 (D7) turns minor in the following measure. The G7 resolving to C that comes after this strongly implies a false key change to C.

In section "B," the C major tonality is somewhat reinforced by the F7(IV7/I in C). However, if one considers it a VII7, as a mixolydian substitute for V7, this F7 chord is the harmonic pivot leading back to the original tonic key of G. The second half of section "B" begins with a I - vi - iii progression that is not by itself unusual - in fact, this particular progression is found in a number of standards and popular tunes, especially after 1950 ("You Are My Special Angel" is perhaps the best known example). In context of "Stella," however, it has a less emotional and more "impressionistic" flavor - especially due to the chord that leads into the new, temporary key of "D" in section "C." In the original sheet music edition, this chord is identified as a second inversion Em7(b5). On one hand, this could be construed as a i in the key of D. However, the presence of Bb in the bass would seem to make this a "French augmented sixth chord" (Fr+6), which corresponds to a Bb7(b5) in the key of D. In terms of pitch classes, all three of these chords are identical, and in this case, serve an identical function - as a substitution of the ii7 chord. Bypassing the V7 altogether, the progression now turns very briefly to the key of D major. It does not rest there long, however; this new, extremely temporary tonic of D is followed by a third inversion vii˚7, created by diatonic stepwise descent of the bass line. Normally, the ear expects a vii˚7 to resolve to I. In this case, the resolution is to a chord that shares three pitches in common with the temporary I chord of D, but because the root is not present and the bass note is F#, the chord becomes a iiø7/III - essentially - being followed by V7/III - the pivot chord that eventually leads back to G major. This original tonic is not heard again until the end of section "C," however.

Some musicologists disagree that section "A2" is indeed an "A" section at all, considering it a "D" section with a reference to "A." It is useful to keep in mind that songwriters and composers of this period were true craftspeople, often with formal musical education. A trained composer would have striven to achieve some kind of compositional unity and balance through the use of structure. The difference between "A1" and "A2" is small, the variation being found in the last four measures. The melodic contour of these measures in section "A2" is nearly a mirror of that found in section "A1." The real divergence comes at the end. Whereas section "A1" leaps downward, "A2" remains on pitch.

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
“Stella By Starlight” was included in these films:
  • The Nutty Professor (1965, Jerry Lewis singing to Stella Stevens)
  • Sabrina (1995, as part of the track, “The Party Sequence,” which includes “When Joanna Loved Me”/”The Shadow of Your Smile”/”Call Me Irresponsible”/”Stella by Starlight”)
Reading and Research
Additional information for "Stella By Starlight" may be found in:

Thomas S. Hischak
The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 552 pages

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

Randy Halberstadt (Author)
Metaphors for the Musician: Perspectives from a Jazz Pianist
Sheer Music Co

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

Charlie Parker, in addition to being a seminal figure in jazz history, had an exceptional ability in choosing repertoire that had previously been overlooked by jazz players. A perfect example is the tune “Stella by Starlight.” Parker was responsible for making the first recording of it in a jazz context in January, 1952. Parker was influenced by tenor saxophonist Lester Young, as was another tenor player, Stan Getz, and Getz’s version of “Stella” was recorded in December, 1952. As the tune caught on, in 1953 there would be versions by pianist Bud Powell and the powerful big band of Stan Kenton.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker, 1950-1952
Classics 1314

Stan Getz
Melodie Jazz Classic
Original recording 1952
Bud Powell
Bud Powell Trio Plays
Blue Note Records 93902

Stan Kenton
Concerts in Minature, 1953
Sounds of Yesteryear

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

Many recordings of “Stella By Starlight” have been made in a ballad style. The definitive recording of the tune starts gently, but evolves into a hard-swinging performance. This performance is courtesy of Miles Davis and his sextet (The Complete Columbia Recordings: Miles Davis & John Coltrane), captured during a transitional moment. John Coltrane and Paul Chambers are carry-overs from the classic quintet of the mid-1950s, while Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb round out the group.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
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Miles Davis and John Coltrane
The Complete Columbia Recordings
2004 Sony 65833
Original recording 1958
Never has this tune swung harder than in the hands of Miles’ classic, under-recorded sextet. Miles shines here, as do John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans.
Miles Davis
Highlights from the Plugged Nickel
Sony 67377
Original recording 1965
With his classic 1960s quintet, Miles deftly takes this tune in so many directions that it hardly seems as though it could be a single performance.
Bill Evans
Conversations With Myself
Polygram Records
Original Recording 1963
This lush, elegant performance documents Evans’ controversial foray into overdubbing multiple piano parts. The controversy abated with time and with the awareness of how tastefully he was using this technology.
Joe Henderson
State of the Tenor
1994 Blue Note 28874
Original recording 1985
Henderson plays tastefully and emotively in an interactive trio with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster.

- Noah Baerman

The Monty Alexander Quintet
Ivory & Steel
1990, Concord 4124
Original recording, 1980
Pianist Alexander’s Quintet features the fabulous Othello Molineaux on steel drums. His improvisations on “Stella by Starlight” are a highlight of the CD which contains jazz compositions by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Nat Adderley, and Milt Jackson.
Chris Connor
Sings Lullabies of Birdland

This CD combines two marvelous 10-inch LP’s which Connor recorded in 1953 plus a few big band sides. “Stella” is from the Lullabys for Lovers LP with bassist Vinnie Burke’s unusual quartet of accordion, guitar and drums embellished by the flute and clarinet work of Ron Odrich (whose name is mispelled on the original LP). The group swings the tune lightly and Connor’s sensual alto lends the song intimacy and joy. Lovely improvisations by Odrich and accordionist Don Burns add to the uniqueness of this rendition.

- Sandra Burlingame

Tony Bennett
1990 Sony 40424
Original recording 1964
Vocalist Bennett and orchestra lend a gentle swing to “Stella by Starlight.”’
Joe Lovano
I'm All For You
2004, Blue Note 91950

Saxist Lovano delivers “Stella by Starlight”’ with reverence yet still manages to tweak its core to give it new passion. This quartet recording, featuring the great Hank Jones on piano, was played live to disc.

- Ben Maycock

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

Ned Washington and Victor Young

Year Rank Title
1946 10 Stella By Starlight
1949 103 My Foolish Heart

Bing Crosby, Ned Washington and Victor Young

Year Rank Title
1932 66 (I Don't Stand A) Ghost of a Chance (With You)

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