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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 links on this page for additional references.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

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

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