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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (1931)

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Origin and Chart Information
“I should hate you
But I guess I love you
You’ve got me in between
The devil and the deep blue sea”

- Ted Koehler

AKAThe Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Rank 157
Music Harold Arlen
Lyrics Ted Koehler

Vocalist Aida Ward introduced this Ted Koehler-Harold Arlen tune in the Cotton Club show Rhyth-Mania, which premiered in March, 1931. Featured in the production was Cab Calloway’s Orchestra which hit the charts with the tune that year:

  • Cab Calloway and His Orchestra (1931, vocal, #15)
  • Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra (1932, vocal, #12)
  • Boswell Sisters (1932, vocal, #13)

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

Rhyth-Mania was the first collaboration of Koehler and Arlen for Cotton Club revues, and they would do three more together. Although the duo collaborated on a total of nine tunes for the show, only three in addition to “Devil...” made a splash. Calloway recorded two--“Kickin’ the Gong Around,” a follow-up to his successful “Minnie the Moocher,” and “Trickeration.” Calloway’s recording of “Kickin’the Gong Around” made the charts in 1931, as did Louis Armstrong’s performance. Another tune from the show, “I Love a Parade,” hit the charts in 1932, performed by the Victor Arden-Phil Ohman Orchestra, and Calloway performed a brief version of it in the 1934 film short Cab Calloway’s Hi-de-Ho.


More on Cab Calloway at JazzBiographies.com

Unlike some standards which made a splash the first year of release only to resurface years later, “Between the Devil...” continued to be performed and recorded on a regular basis over the years.


More on Ted Koehler at JazzBiographies.com

More on Harold Arlen at JazzBiographies.com

The term “between the devil and the deep blue sea” is the same as “between a rock and a hard place,” which means caught in a difficult situation or state of mind. Koehler’s lyrics echo this sentiment nicely: “I don’t want you, but I hate to lose you” and “I forgive you, ‘cause I can’t forget you.” The lyrics to the bridge are especially witty: “I ought to cross you off my list, but when you come a-knocking at my door, fate seems to give my heart a twist, and I come running back for more.”

More information on this tune...

Henry Martin
Enjoying Jazz
Schirmer Books
Paperback: 302 pages

(Martin analyzes the music, discusses the performers, and includes a jazz solo transcription in his book.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Musical analysis of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”

Original KeyF major: false key change to “A” in mm. ??? of “B”
FormA - A - B - A
TonalityMajor throughout
Movement“A” is strongly arpeggiated, leaping in both directions; some chromatic passing tones give it a “bluesy” sound. “B” is made up of descending scale patterns and repeated notes.

Comments     (assumed background)

The chord progression of “A” is really a variation of “rhythm changes” but without the vi chord between I and ii (this could easily be added but is not present in the original published version). The final notes of “A,” on which the title lyrics are sung, are quite challenging and have actually become a favorite “lick” used by jazz instrumentalists in their improvisations.

Although of simple melodic construction, “B” is clever in its use of what is essentially the same descending scale pattern in two different places. Coming out of “A,” there is an abrupt harmonic drop from I to VII, which becomes the V7 of the new key (A major in the original). Composer Arlen gets back to familiar tonal territory by dropping another diatonic step, getting the song back to the dominant key of the song. A similar harmonic progression was used in the “B” section of “I Apologize.”

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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Reading and Research
Additional information for "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" 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.)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Hardcover: 736 pages

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

Henry Martin
Enjoying Jazz
Schirmer Books
Paperback: 302 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: music analysis, performers and jazz solo transcription.)
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

Although vocalist Cab Calloway’s 1931 rendition of this tune is among the first jazz recordings, he takes a back seat to Louis Armstrong’s version from 1932 which is superb (and is available in two different versions). Armstrong’s work during this period really set the template for jazz soloists with big bands and would become the standard for the swing era.

Bob Crosby, brother of popular vocalist Bing Crosby, was hired in 1935 by a collective group of musicians previously under the employ of drummer Ben Pollack. Bob’s band went on to make a name for itself during the swing era by playing an arranged Dixieland style that featured the great soloists in the band including New Orleans players Eddie Miller (tenor sax) and Irving Fazola (clarinet). Their recording of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” is a marvelous, swinging adventure.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Cab Calloway
The Early Years, 1930-1934
JSP Records 328

Louis Armstrong
Sony 44093

Bob Crosby
South Rampart Street Parade
GRP Records 615

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

Though his is not the earliest successful version of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” Benny Goodman’s 1935 recording (1935) with Helen Ward offers a swinging performance and a straightforward interpretation of the melody, courtesy of Helen Ward’s vocals. The same things could be said of Ella Fitzgerald’s 1955 recording with Benny Carter (Ella: Legendary Decca Recordings), the first of her numerous interpretations of the song. Thelonious Monk’s contemplative1967 solo piano recording (Straight, No Chaser) is spiky, creative and a great example of the song in a more modern context.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Benny Goodman

Original Recording 1935

Some nice singing from Helen Ward is the centerpiece of this all-around swinging performance. Goodman’s clarinet gets plenty of room to shine as well.

Count Basie
Essential Basie 2
Original recording 1939

This classic Basie performance features the soulful vocals of Helen Humes, along with great playing by the band, particularly Lester Young on saxophone and Basie himself on piano.

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella: Legendary Decca Recordings
Grp Records
Original Recording 1955

The earliest and most subtle of Fitzgerald’s recordings of this song features her reading the melody faithfully with the swinging and lushly-orchestrated backing of Benny Carter’s Orchestra.

Sonny Stitt
Personal Appearance
Original Recording 1957

This very swinging small-group performance reinvents “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” in a hard bop context, with muscular tenor playing by Stitt and some fine piano work by Bobby Timmons.

Ellis Larkins
A Smooth One
Black & Blue

The always-elegant pianist Larkins had a strong relationship with this song, and here we get to hear him stretch out, which he does with creativity and his usual sense of swing before handing the baton to bassist George DuVivier.


- Noah Baerman

Modern Jazz Quartet: 1957
2002 Wounded Bird Records
Original Recording 1957
It was this kind of musicmaking that caught the attention of the listening public and kept the MJQ together and at the top for over two decades. Their instrumentation--piano, vibes, bass and drums--was unique as was their creativity and artistry. Every cut on this CD is a gem.

- Sandra Burlingame

Donald Byrd
At the Half Note
2004 Blue Note 90881
Original recording 1960
This energetic, tight, live performance is from one of the great bebop trumpeters. Teamed with like-minded saxophonist Pepper Adams and a solid rhythm section, Byrd is able to stretch himself fully. Largely unheralded bassist Laymon Jackson is featured here playing the melody.
Annie Ross
1996 DRG 8470
Original recording 1956
Vocalist Ross plays it rather straight here, but there are glimpses of the musical mischief she stirred up as a member of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Robert Burns’ clarinet gives the song an upbeat, joyful spirit.
Thelonious Monk
Straight No Chaser
Original recording 1967
Monk is at his creative finest on this unaccompanied piano piece as he reveals the skeleton of the piece and reconstructs it note by note: a prime example of this genius’ eloquence and attention to detail.

- Ben Maycock

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

Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler

Year Rank Title
1933 106 Stormy Weather (Keeps Rainin' All the Time)
1931 157 Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
1929 169 Get Happy
1932 184 I've Got the World on a String
1934 234 Ill Wind
1934 365 As Long As I Live
1933 480 Let's Fall in Love
1941 485 When the Sun Comes Out
1932 528 I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues

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