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Tea for Two (1924)

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Origin and Chart Information
Tatum’s legendary recording brought “Tea for Two” into the jazz canon ...

- Chris Tyle

Rank 59
Music Vincent Youmans
Lyrics Irving Caesar

“Tea for Two” was introduced by Louise Groody and John Barker in the Broadway musical, No, No, Nanette, which opened on September 16, 1925, at the Globe Theater and ran for 321 performances. The song was known to the public well before its official introduction, as the pre-Broadway run of No, No, Nanette was so successful in Chicago that its producer, Harry Frazee, let it play there for over a year.


More on Louise Groody at JazzBiographies.com

More on John Barker at JazzBiographies.com

The Benson Orchestra of Chicago was the first to see their recording of “Tea for Two” on the pop charts. Their instrumental rendition was recorded in August of 1924 and entered the charts the following January, rising to number five. That same month a Marion Harris recording climbed the charts to number one and held that position for three weeks. All told, the charting hits were:

  • The Benson Orchestra of Chicago (1925, instrumental, #5)
  • Marion Harris, (1925, #1)
  • Ben Bernie and His Orchestra (1925, instrumental, #10)
  • Ipana Troubadours (1930, #15)
  • Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra (1937, instrumental, #18)
  • Art Tatum (1939, instrumental, #18)
  • Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, led by Warren Covington (1958, as “Tea for Two Cha Cha”, instrumental, #7)

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

Also starring Charles Winniger, No, No, Nanette is about a wealthy Bible manufacturer accompanying his ward (Nanette) and her girl friends to Atlantic City for a weekend. Problems arise when her boyfriend, her father’s girlfriends, his wife, and lawyer arrive unexpectedly.

The show’s score, by composer Vincent Youmans and lyricists Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach, produced a second jazz standard, “I Want to Be Happy” (lyrics by Caesar).

For those familiar with baseball history, Harry Frazee, former owner of the Boston Red Sox, is said to have financed No, No, Nanette using the proceeds of his $100,000 sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919. Red Sox fans have long blamed the transaction for the demise of their franchise, calling it “The Curse of the Bambino.”

According to Glenn Stout, author of Yankees Century: 100 Years of New York Yankees Baseball, “Frazee has become a malevolent figure like other local symbols of evil such as the Boston Strangler, Bucky ‘Bleeping’ Dent, and Don Zimmer.” Stout goes on to say that, while it’s a nice story, Frazee did not use the $100,000 to finance his play. Frazee was, at that time, embroiled in an assortment of complex legal and financial struggles, but they did not involve his theatrical interests. If anything, he intended to use the money for his ongoing lawsuits, or possibly new ball players.

No, No, Nanette was adapted to the big screen in 1930 and again in 1940, both films, at best, mediocre. In the 1950 Doris Day vehicle entitled Tea for Two, little of the No, No, Nanette story line was retained, but for Day fans it is considered one of her better musicals.

In 1971 No, No, Nanette was revived as No, No, Nanette - The New 1925 Musical. The successful show opened January 19, 1971, at the 46th Street Theatre, ran for 861 performances and won four Tony awards including Best Actress for Helen Gallagher. The revival is also remembered for bringing tap dancing star Ruby Keeler back to the stage after 30 years.

For his lyric’s “hook phrase,” Irving Caesar used the term “Tea for Two,” originally an 18th Century English street cry. A vendor wanting to attract business would lower the price of a pot of tea from thruppence to tuppence by shouting, ‘tea for two.’ In the 19th century, when Victorian ladies and gentlemen would meet in the afternoon for tea, the order of “Tea for Two” was often an early sign of courting.

There are a number of stories relating how Youmans came up with the melody for “Tea for Two.” Some have him so overjoyed with his creation that he got Caesar out of bed to write the lyrics. But, according to David Ewen in his book, All the Years of American Popular Music, “Tea for Two” was written many years before, while Youmans was still in the Navy. All accounts do agree, however, that when he presented the melody to Caesar, Youmans wanted a lyric then and there. Caesar wrote what he thought was a “dummy lyric,” promising to write the real one the next day. Apparently Youmans and Caesar reconsidered in the morning and retained the quaint lyrics with what Philip Furia in his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists calls “the tritest of rhymes,” the ee-oo pair.


More on Vincent Youmans at JazzBiographies.com

More on Irving Caesar at JazzBiographies.com

More information on this tune...

Philip Furia
The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Paperback: 336 pages

(The author devotes three pages to the song’s history and an analysis of its lyric.)
See the Reading and Research links on this page for additional references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Recommendations for This Tune
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Bud Powell
Complete Bud Powell on Verve
Polygram Records
Original recording 1955
Powell was very influenced by Art Tatum, who had earlier made a technically stunning recording of "Tea for Two."' Powell's version, in a trio with Ray Brown and Buddy Rich, is also stunning, but in a very different way. After he introduces the tune by himself in free time, he brings Brown and Rich for a romp at breakneck speed that puts the focus on Powell's flowing right hand lines.
Tommy Dorsey
2002 Classics 1237
Original recording 1939
Shortly after Dorsey's death, his "ghost band"' had a big hit with the "Tea for Two Cha-Cha."' This early recording, anchored by the swinging drums of Dave Tough, is where it all started.

- Noah Baerman

Thelonious Monk
2003, Sony
Original recording, 1963, Legacy
Pianist Monk is at his slyest on two takes of the song. Both tracks are highly imaginative with touches of humor and a vibrant splash of ragtime. Bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop are the perfect foils for Monk's improvisations.
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella and Basie
1997 Polygram 539059
Original recording 1963
Fitzgerald, backed by the typically swinging Basie band, offers a charming and relaxed version of "Tea for Two."'
Lester Young, Oscar Peterson Trio
Lester Young with Oscar Peterson Trio

"Tea for Two"' in the hands of tenor saxophonist Lester Young is bouncy and sharp. The incomparable 'trio' that accompanies him is made up of Oscar Peterson at the piano, Ray Brown on bass, Barney Kessel on the guitar and J.C. Heard on the drums.
Erroll Garner
That's My Kick & Gemini
1994, Telarc 83332
Original recording, 1967, Octave Records
Hand drums set a highly rhythmic pace before pianist Garner comes in--on harpsichord! The unusual Latin setting seems oddly right for the ancient instrument. Switching to piano for the mid-section, Garner keeps it swinging very hard and fills in the harmony. He closes the tune on harpsichord with insistent, Monkish single lines.
Anita O'Day
Ultimate Anita O'Day
1999, Verve
Original recording, 1958
O'Day blazes through an up-tempo take of "Tea for Two" that stands in stark contrast to her more relaxed performance of the tune in the 1940s as a member of Gene Krupa's band.
Gerry Mulligan
The Original Quartet With Chet Baker [2-CD SET]
Blue Note Records
Original recording 1953
This classic cool jazz performance centers around baritone saxophonist Mulligan's clever arranging and his interplay with trumpet star Chet Baker.
Jacky Terrasson/Cassandra Wilson
1997 Blue Note 55484
Original recording 1997
Pianist Terrasson and vocalist Wilson combine to deliver an almost unrecognizable version of “Tea for Two.” Under their care the song is slow and melancholic.

- Ben Maycock

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