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Yesterdays (1933)

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Origin and Chart Information
Roberta starred Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers and once again was well received on the strength of the Kern-Harbach score* as well as the Astaire-Rogers dance routines.

- JW

Rank 9
Music Jerome Kern
Lyrics Otto Harbach

On November 18, 1933, “Yesterdays” was introduced to a New Amsterdam Theater audience. The song was included in the score of Roberta, a Broadway musical that would enjoy a successful run of 295 performances. “Yesterdays” was an instant hit, appearing on the recording charts a week after the show opened. The recording by Leo Reisman and His Orchestra (Frank Luther, vocal) would climb all the way to third place.


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

Roberta, based on Alice Duer Miller’s novel, Gowns by Roberta, told the story of a college football player who inherits a dress shop in Paris. The plot was panned as overly romantic and just plain ridiculous; however, the songs purportedly saved what was to be Jerome Kern’s last successful Broadway show. Along with “Yesterdays” the score included such notable songs as “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” “Let’s Begin,” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” The Herald Tribune reported that there was a “sudden outburst of public whistling, humming, and crooning of its score.”

Hot on the heels of its Broadway success, Roberta found new life as a 1935 Hollywood musical. The film starred Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers and once again was well received on the strength of the Kern-Harbach score* as well as the Astaire-Rogers dance routines. The 1952 remake, Lovely to Look At, was not as well reviewed.

Another major strength of the original Broadway run was a stellar cast that included Tamara, Lyda Roberti, Sydney Greenstreet, George Murphy, Bob Hope and Fred MacMurray. Fay Templeton was given the honor of performing the lovely “Yesterdays.”


More on Fay Templeton at JazzBiographies.com

Jerome Kern was slow to embrace new styles, and there is considerable discussion about his 1930’s melodies clinging to the qualities of an operetta. Author-editor-publicist Eric Myers says, “Jerome Kern had planned Roberta as a semi-operetta along the lines of his previous hits, The Cat and the Fiddle and Music in the Air. What finally emerged was closer to traditional musical comedy, although the refulgent melodies of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’ ‘The Touch of Your Hand’ and ‘Yesterdays’ definitely have their roots in the florid ground of operetta.”


More on Jerome Kern at JazzBiographies.com

More on Otto Harbach at JazzBiographies.com

*According to Clive Hirschhorn’s book Hollywood Musicals the film Roberta retained four of the show’s original numbers, “Let’s Begin,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Yesterdays,” and “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” the latter with new lyrics by Bernard Dougall. Three more were used as background music and two were commissioned from Kern and lyricist Dorothy Fields: “Lovely to Look At” and “I Won’t Dance” which was originally written by Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II for a London show called Three Sisters.

More information on this tune...

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

(Author/educator Forte devotes five pages to a musical analysis of the song.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Written without a verse, “Yesterdays” is not as well known in the pop world as the other Roberta hit “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” As a jazz standard, however, it has been recorded by nearly twice as many instrumentalists and vocalists, due in part to its chord progressions.

Operetta qualities, beyond Kern’s melody, come through in such Otto Harbach lyrics as “Joyous free and flaming life” “Forsooth was mine.” His message is not one of lost love, as with “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” but of lost youth. The lines, “Sad am I,” “Glad am I,” speak of the mixture of pain and joy in remembering “mad romance” and “gay youth.” -JW

Musical analysis of “Yesterdays”

Original Key C minor
Form A – B – A – B
Tonality Minor throughout
Movement Slow; sustained pitches in the lower range, followed by an eight-note ascending scale and more sustained pitches in the upper range

Comments     (assumed background)

This is a dark and haunting tune. The melody has little substance, but the chord progression – similar to “Alone Together” in the first four bars (i – vi – ii7 – V7) and the chromatic descent of “My Funny Valentine” in the second four (in the present key, Cm – G7/B – Eb/Bb – Am7(b5) – has proven popular among jazz improvisers. A cycle-of-fifths progression in mm. 9-12, leading to Ab and Db, surprises the ear as it moves up a half-step to ii7 and then descends chromatically back to the tonic.
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

“Yesterdays” is a great jazz standard penned by one of the most prolific of the American Songbook’s writers, Jerome Kern. The melody is strong and easily played or sung, and the tune works at any tempo. The changes consist of a simple minor turnaround that’s repeated, a middle section with a cycle of dominant chords, and a quick resolution to a major. The progression is fun to play on and lends itself to endless variations and embellishments. It’s a little gem.

John Stowell, jazz guitarist

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Soundtrack information
“Yesterdays” was included in these films:
  • Roberta (1935, Irene Dunne)
  • Till The Clouds Roll By (1946, Chorus)
  • Lovely to Look At (1952, Kathryn Grayson)

And on the small screen:

Reading and Research
Additional information for "Yesterdays" may be found in:

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

(4 paragraphs including the following types of information: music analysis.)

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

(5 pages including the following types of information: music analysis.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The American Musical Theatre Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 568 pages

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

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Hardcover: 736 pages

(Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.)

Gerald Mast
Can't Help Singin'
Overlook Press; Rei edition
Paperback: 400 pages

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

Gary Giddins
Visions of Jazz: The First Century
Oxford University Press; New Ed edition
Paperback: 704 pages

(2 paragraphs including the following types of information: history.)
Also on This Page...

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

Clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw had a great disdain for most of the output of Tin Pan Alley, which he derided on many occasions as “crap.” But then Shaw pointed out that the music of the great craftsmen of song---Porter, Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers---is music worth playing.

Shaw’s approach definitely had a strong impact on the bebop generation of musicians who tended to favor Shaw’s playing and his band over his rival, Benny Goodman. The Shaw discography lists many tunes that became standards for the next generations. A case in point is Artie’s recording of “Yesterdays,” not so much for being innovative but for the excellent arrangement and musicianship on a song not often played by swing bands.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Artie Shaw
Artie Shaw, 1938
Classics 965

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

Billie Holiday’s plaintive version of “Yesterdays” (The Complete Commodore Recordings) makes it instantly clear why so many people associate the tune with her. Among the many instrumental ballad versions, Bud Powell’s recording from 1950 (Jazz Giant) stands out and is a stellar example of his mastery of solo piano ballads.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
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Lennie Tristano
1996 Blue Note 52771
Original recording 1949
Tristano’s unique combination of lyricism and angular dissonance is finely displayed on this influential recording.
Bud Powell
Jazz Giant
Polygram Records
Original Recording 1950
Powell, still at his peak, shows off his Art Tatum inspired style of solo piano ballad playing.
Miles Davis
Highlights from the Plugged Nickel
Sony 67377
Original recording 1965
Davis revisits this tune with his ultra-flexible 1960s quintet. The tune weaves between floating introspection and confident swing and also features solos by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.
Paul Gonsalves
Gettin' Together
1991 Original Jazz Classics 203
Original recording 1960
Gonsalves, best known for his work with Duke Ellington, breaks out with a swinging version of “Yesterdays,” aided by Nat Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb.
Billie Holiday
The Complete Commodore Recordings
Original recording 1944
Billie Holiday interpreted this tune wonderfully, and here we are treated to two takes of it.
Carmen McRae
Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics
1997 Sony 65115
Original recording 1961
McRae’s masterful phrasing is particularly effective on this slow and subtle interpretation.
Buddy Rich/Max Roach
Rich vs. Roach
1991, Polygram 826987
Original recording, 1959
What seems like a novelty act actually means twice the value for the listener. The Buddy Rich Quintet dukes it out with the Max Roach Quintet in an up-tempo romp as each group is fed through opposite channels in the recording.

- Noah Baerman

John Bishop/Jeff Johnson/Rick Mandyck/John Stowell
2003, Origin Records

This contemporary quartet of drums, bass, tenor sax, and guitar creates a new, freewheeling “Yesterdays” before returning to the melody.

- Sandra Burlingame

Charles Mingus
Mingus Three
1997, Blue Note 57155
Original recording, 1957
This album contains a version highlighting wonderful dialogue between bass player Mingus, pianist Hampton Hawes, and drummer Dannie Richmond.
Fred Hersch/Bill Frisell
Songs We Know
1998 Nonesuch Records 79468
Original recording 1998
Spontaneous and intimate, “Yesterdays”’ allows guitarist Frisell and pianist Hersch to showcase their innate sense of camaraderie and obvious reverence for the music.

- Ben Maycock

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

Otto Harbach and Jerome Kern

Year Rank Title
1933 9 Yesterdays
1933 99 Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Dorothy Fields, Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach, Jerome Kern and Jimmy McHugh

Year Rank Title
1935 999 I Won't Dance

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