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Blue Skies (1927)

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Origin and Chart Information
“Henderson’s superb work with “Blue Skies” was featured during Goodman’s appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and is an electrifying performance.”

- Chris Tyle

Rank 129
Words and Music Irving Berlin

This perennial favorite was introduced by Belle Baker in the 1926 musical Betsy. The following year the tune went big with the public, especially the version by Ben Selvin and His Orchestra recording under the pseudonym, The Knickerbockers.

  • Ben Selvin and His Orchestra (1927, Charles Kaley, vocal, #1)
  • George Olsen and His Music (1927, #2)
  • Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra (1927, Frank Munn, vocal, #9)
  • Johnny Marvin and Ed Smalle (1927, #9)
  • Harry Richman (1927, #13)
  • Vaughn Deleath (1927, vocal, #15)
  • Johnny Long and His Orchestra (1941, Bob Houston, vocal, #22)
  • Count Basie and His Orchestra (1946, #8)
  • Benny Goodman and His Orchestra (1946, #9)
 

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

More on Belle Baker at JazzBiographies.com
 

The songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart had written the music for the Ziegfield show Betsy. Actress/vocalist Belle Baker, unhappy with the piece the two had written for her solo (“This Funny World”), contacted old friend Irving Berlin in hopes he might have something that would suit her needs. Berlin had, in fact, just put the finishing touches on a number dedicated as a Christmas gift to his newborn daughter, Mary Ellin. Baker liked the song, and it was inserted into the musical, much to the chagrin of Rodgers and Hart, who were not consulted and wouldn’t have allowed the change. The tune was the hit of the show, and Baker received 24 encores on opening night, December 28, 1926. Despite this, the show itself was a disaster and closed a month later.

 

More on Irving Berlin at JazzBiographies.com
 

The introduction of “Blue Skies” in Betsy brought the number a great deal of attention and resulted in its first recordings. But a technological landmark across the continent brought it to the attention of millions. The first feature-length motion picture with sound, The Jazz Singer starring vocalist Al Jolson, premiered on October 6, 1927, and “Blue Skies” was one of the nine tunes performed by Jolson. Not only was the film a huge success, but it spelled the end of silent films. Soon Broadway musicals would be filmed for the silver screen, and songwriters Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and others would relocate to Hollywood or have bi-coastal careers.

“Blue Skies” continued to be a hit in films. After The Jazz Singer it returned in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, a 1938 biopic loosely based on composer Berlin’s life; a 1946 film named after the tune and sung by Bing Crosby; and a 1954 reprise by Crosby (along with Danny Kaye) in the film White Christmas.

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


(Educator Allen Forte devotes five pages to the history and a musical analysis of “Blue Skies.”)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Berlin’s lyrics are, like many of his tunes, a reflection of what was going on in his life, and by late 1926 he was in a personal upswing: “Blue Skies’ smilin’ at me,” and “blue days, all of them gone.”

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Musical analysis of “Blue Skies”

Original Key D minor/F major
Form  A - A - B - A
Tonality Starting in minor, shifting to relative major
Movement “A” begins with an upward leap of a fifth, followed by a short descending stepwise figure (major third), embellishing the dominant before jumping down a major sixth and stepping up to the tonic. “B” rises up the scale from the tonic to the dominant, then descends with a series of “turns,” returning to the original pitch.

Comments     (assumed background)

The descending harmonic and bass movement of “A” moves in contrary motion to the generally upward direction of the melodic line, creating interesting counterpoint. Although the written chord progression here is Dm - A7 - F - G7 - Bbm, the inversions should be kept so as to retain the descending chromatic bass line.

While “A” is harmonically complex, the melody is slow-moving and relaxed. “B,” on the other hand, is simpler (scale patterns over a I - iv progression) yet rhythmically more active (many eighth-note passages) than “A.” While there are few improvements that could be made on Berlin’s original “A,” the “B” theme may yield different rhythmic and harmonic possibilities for the adventurous jazz performer (for example, the substitution of an Eb9 for the Bbm).

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

Teaches relation of minor to relative major, the interval of P5, and both ascending and descending leaps. Bridge goes into upper range, with some blue notes and open vowels. Nice verse.

Marty Heresniak, Voice Teacher, Actor, Writer, Singer

Quoted from: Heresniak, Marty and Christopher Woitach, “Changing the Standards -- Alternative Teaching Materials.” Journal of Singing, vol. 58, no. 1, Sep./Oct. 2001.


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

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


(1 page including the following types of information: lyric analysis.)

William G. Hyland
The Song Is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950
American Philological Association
Hardcover: 336 pages


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

David Ewen
American Songwriters: An H.W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary
H. W. Wilson
Hardcover: 489 pages


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

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: history and 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.)

Max Morath
The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Popular Standards
Perigee Books
Paperback: 235 pages


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

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.)

Max Wilk
They're Playing Our Song: Conversations With America's Classic Songwriters
Da Capo Press; 1st Da Capo Press ed edition
Paperback: 296 pages


(2 pages including the following types of information: anecdotal.)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Pantheon
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.)
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

Bandleader/arranger/pianist Fletcher Henderson had, by 1937, given up his band but was quickly employed by clarinetist Benny Goodman as chief arranger. Henderson’s superb work with “Blue Skies” was featured during Goodman’s appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and is an electrifying performance.

Bassist John Kirby, an ex-Fletcher Henderson musician, fronted a small group of great musicians including trumpeter Charlie Shavers, clarinetist Buster Bailey, and pianist Billy Kyle. Shaver’s clever arrangement of “Blue Skies” is typical of the band’s output, alternating tightly arranged passages with exceptional solos.

Tommy Dorsey’s 1941 version of Irving Berlin’s tune epitomizes big band era jazz: beautiful saxophone section playing that alternates with brass riffs over a mellow statement of the melody (by Dorsey on trombone), followed by a swinging vocal (young Frank Sinatra with vocal responses from the band), then a rousing “shout” chorus out. Ex-Jimmy Lunceford sideman Sy Oliver, a fine trumpeter and vocalist, was responsible for this stellar arrangement.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian


Benny Goodman
Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert
Sony 65143
Original recording 1938
iTunes
John Kirby
The Biggest Little Band in the Land
ASV Living Era 5304

Tommy Dorsey/Frank Sinatra
All Time Greatest Hits, Volume 1
RCA 8324

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

Benny Goodman’s live 1938 recording of “Blue Skies” (Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert) gives us perhaps the definitive swing-era interpretation of the song, not to mention a highlight in the arranging career of Fletcher Henderson. A looser, more intimate and more unpredictable version can be heard courtesy of Art Tatum in 1949 (The Complete Capitol Recordings Of Art Tatum) alone at the piano. If there were one recording on which to focus, though, it would likely be Ella Fitzgerald’s 1958 recording (The Very Best Of The Irving Berlin Songbook), which allows us to hear a swinging small-group performance and a masterful interpretation of the melody and lyric, not to mention one of the best solos ever recorded on the song.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Maxine Sullivan
Moments Like This
Proper Introduction

Sullivan’s light, airy vocal performance is supported by the subtly swinging piano playing and arranging of Claude Thornhill.

Ben Webster
1944-1946
Classics
Original recording 1944

Saxophonist Webster swings assertively on this performance, which also features the soloing talents of pianist Johnny Guarnieri and influential bassist Oscar Pettiford.

Art Tatum
The Complete Capitol Recordings
Blue Note Records

It is difficult to go wrong with an Art Tatum solo performance, and this one is no exception, providing a great mix of adherence to the tune and remarkable inventiveness.

iTunes
Ella Fitzgerald
The Very Best Of The Irving Berlin Song Book
Verve
Original recording 1958

After a subtle rubato introduction, Fitzgerald offers up a hard-swinging interpretation of the melody followed by a truly stunning scat solo. Pianist Paul Smith and trumpet master Harry “Sweets” Edison are standouts among the terrific band.

iTunes
Hampton Hawes
Green Leaves of Summer
Ojc

Hawes gives us a long, creative rubato intro before eventually launching into a creative, swinging trio romp. This recording is also significant for representing his comeback after over 5 years away from music.

Earl Hines
Earl Hines in New Orleans
Chiaroscuro Records
Original recording 1977

This swinging solo piano excursion displays Hines at his late-career best, as he shows remarkable technical command and seemingly endless creativity.

iTunes

- Noah Baerman

Cassandra Wilson
Blue Skies
2002 Winter & Winter 919018
Original recording 1988
Though the upbeat band swings in support of her, vocalist Wilson is able to create a sense of tentative optimism in the lyrics with her deadpan delivery and melancholy scat.
iTunes
Bill Charlap
Written in the Stars
2000 Blue Note 27291
Original recording 2000
As the tight rhythm section sets down a toe-tapping swing Charlap eloquently mines the song with a mainstream approach enriched with historical musical asides.
iTunes
Teri Thornton
Devil May Care
1999 Original Jazz Recordings 1017
Original recording 1961
Thornton is cooking on this slow-burning, bluesy swinger that features some engaging call and response between the singer and trumpeter Clark Terry.
Junko Onishi
Live at the Village Vanguard
1995 Blue Note Records 31886

Berlin could never have imagined that his tune would have such interest for modernists such as pianist Onishi, bassist Reginald Veal, and drummer Herlin Riley. No matter how far out these explorers go, they carry a life line to the early 20th century composers. Their interpretation is affirmation of the endless improvisational significance of standards such as “Blue Skies.”

- Ben Maycock

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

Irving Berlin

Year Rank Title
1932 49 How Deep Is the Ocean? (How High Is the Sky?)
1927 129 Blue Skies
1935 187 Cheek to Cheek
1925 302 Always
1946 345 They Say It's Wonderful
1925 362 Remember
1940 404 White Christmas
1927 469 Russian Lullaby
1911 578 Alexander's Ragtime Band
1927 598 The Song Is Ended (But the Melody Lingers On)
1935 616 Let's Face the Music and Dance
1932 639 Say It Isn't So
1933 662 Easter Parade
1924 751 What'll I Do
1950 789 The Best Thing for You
1928 838 Marie
1936 884 I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket
1937 904 I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
1937 912 This Year's Kisses
1924 918 All Alone
1937 926 Change Partners
1933 959 Heat Wave
1938 970 Now It Can Be Told
1921 986 All By Myself

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