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But Beautiful (1947)

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Origin and Chart Information
“...Melody, rhythm, and lyrics combine to create an aesthetically intriguing and charming musical statement.”

- Allen Forte, Author

Rank 133
Music Jimmy Van Heusen
Lyrics Johnny Burke

Bing Crosby introduced “But Beautiful” in the fifth “Road” film that he made with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. Road to Rio outgrossed every other film in 1948 and also introduced “You Don’t Have to Know the Language” and “Experience.” It was scored by composer Jimmy Van Heusen and lyricist Johnny Burke, who collaborated for over a dozen years and produced dozens of hits and award-winning songs.


More on Johnny Burke at JazzBiographies.com

More on Jimmy Van Heusen at JazzBiographies.com

“But Beautiful” charted four times, all performances by vocalists:

  • Frank Sinatra (1948, four weeks, topping at #14)
  • Bing Crosby (1948, with the Victor Young Orchestra, three weeks, topping at #20)
  • Margaret Whiting (1948, with the Frank DeVol Orchestra, two weeks, topping at #21)
  • Art Lund (1948, with the Johnny Thompson Orchestra, one week, topping at #25)

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

According to Allen Forte in his book Listening to Classic American Popular Songs Tex Beneke’s recording of the song appeared on the popular radio program Your Hit Parade on February 14, 1948. “...It stayed for nine weeks and rose to third place once, which was quite a record for a song that sophisticated.”

Forte goes on to say, “The lyrics for the song exemplify Burke’s considerable talent as well as his more modern approach to lyric writing, in which he used a combination of blank verse and rhymed verse. It is perhaps his most elegant production.” Burke opens the song by describing the vagaries of love with three contrasting emotions in a triple rhyme: “funny or sad,” “quiet or mad,” “good thing or bad.” And he continues, “tearful or gay,” “problem or play,” “heartache either way,” ending each group of phrases with “but beautiful.”

Forte also describes in detail how well matched the lyrics are to the melodic and rhythmic motives of the song. “...Melody, rhythm, and lyrics combine to create an aesthetically intriguing and charming musical statement.”

“But Beautiful” has been a favorite of pop and jazz vocalists for generations and continues to be tapped by contemporary singers Dena DeRose, Wesla Whitfield, Bobbe Norris, and Tiziana Ghiglioni. Pianists Chick Corea and Kenny Drew, Jr. as well as guitarists Mimi Fox and Ron Eschete have recorded the song. Vocalist Jimmy Scott and saxophonist Stan Getz with the Bill Evans Trio entitled albums But Beautiful.

More information on this tune...

Allen Forte
Listening to Classic American Popular Songs
Yale University Press; Book & CD edition
Hardcover: 219 pages

(Educator Forte devotes five pages to the history and musical/lyrical analyses of “But Beautiful” and includes the printed song lyrics. The book has a companion CD.)

- Sandra Burlingame

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Visitor comment:

I’ve been searching out the original sheet music (haven’t found it yet, but still working on it) but based on the early recordings (Bing, Billie, Doris Day, others) it seems the chords are G -G#o7 -Ami -A#o7. The Bm7(b5) -E7(b9) motion that you refer to seems to be the changes jazz folks use as alternates, not the original.

Mike Titlebaum, Director of Jazz Studies

Ithaca College School of Music

Musical analysis of “But Beautiful”

Original KeyG major
FormA - B1 - A - B2
TonalityPrimarily major
MovementUpward leaps followed by downward steps. Ending consists of a sequence of descending fifths that ultimately resolve to the tonic.

Comments     (assumed background)

The performer should watch for the chromatic lower neighbor and passing tones in this tune. Harmonically, the opening is a variation on the rising chord progression of “Memories of You” and another Van Heusen work, “Call Me Irresponsible.” Instead of the common tone vii°7/ii (in this case, G - G#°7), Van Heusen substitutes a iiiř7- V7(b9) leading to the ii (G - Bm7(b5) -E7(b9)). Since a dominant chord with a flatted ninth is virtually identical to a diminished seventh chord (the latter turns into the former when a note one-half step lower than any given pitch is sounded in the bass), this is an easy and logical substitution.
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 "But Beautiful" may be found in:

Allen Forte
Listening to Classic American Popular Songs
Yale University Press; Book & CD edition
Hardcover: 219 pages

(5 pages including the following types of information: history, lyric analysis, music analysis and song lyrics. (Book includes CD).)

Thomas S. Hischak
The American Musical Film Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 536 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.)

Randy Halberstadt (Author)
Metaphors for the Musician: Perspectives from a Jazz Pianist
Sheer Music Co

(1 page including the following types of information: 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

Tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis was the first jazz player to record this tune in 1947. His version is a nice ballad reading of the number, illustrating his appreciation of Coleman Hawkins. He would revisit the number, in a longer version, in 1958; by that time his style was completely his own.

In 1960 trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, age 22, already had an impressive resume, including recordings with tenor saxophonists Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers, and the Montgomery Brothers (guitarist Wes and bassist Monk). “But Beautiful” was a number included on his debut session as a leader, and Hubbard acquits himself beautifully, showing off his lovely tone and sense of restraint. Tina Brooks, an underrated but marvelous tenor saxophonist, does an impressive chorus as does pianist McCoy Tyner.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis
Classics 1012

Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis
The Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis Cookbook, Vol. 1
Original Jazz Classics 652

Freddie Hubbard, Freddie Hubbard
Open Sesame
Blue Note Records

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

Billie Holiday’s late-career recording of “But Beautiful” (Lady In Satin) is unparalleled in the emotional potency with which the melody and lyric are delivered. Nancy Wilson’s 1969 version (But Beautiful), offers a somewhat more ornamented approach to the melody as well as a small-group instrumentation. Meanwhile, Bill Evans and Stan Getz recorded a melodic and inventive version of the song in 1964 (Stan Getz and Bill Evans) that stands as a definitive instrumental version.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Billie Holiday
Lady in Satin
Original recording 1958

Through the thick string textures, we are treated to some of the most wonderfully tender singing of Billie Holiday’s career. Also noteworthy is the brief but lyrical trumpet solo by Bobby Hackett.

Stan Getz with Bill Evans
Stan Getz & Bill Evans
Polygram Records
Original recording 1964

Bill Evans had an affinity for interactive playing and for the song “But Beautiful,” and both of these come into play on his first of many recordings of the song in collaboration with Stan Getz. Evans and Getz trade melody and solo segments back and forth for the entire track, accompanied by Ron Carter and Elvin Jones, in his only recorded collaboration with Evans.

Nancy Wilson
But Beautiful
Blue Note Records
Original recording 1969

Wilson provides us with a vocal tour de force on her rendition of “But Beautiful,” aided by the creative and highly interactive rhythm section of Hank Jones, Gene Bertoncini, Ron Carter and Grady Tate.

Bill Evans, Tony Bennett
The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album
Original recording 1975

Evans offers up perhaps the most intimate of his performances of “But Beautiful,” coupled with one of Bennett’s most tender vocal performances. The results are beautiful and emotionally compelling.

Clark Terry, Max Roach
Original recording 2002

Both Terry and Roach had logged a lot of miles by the time of this recording session (Roach’s last) but that works in their favor as they bring great subtlety and tenderness to their ballad performance of “But Beautiful.”

- Noah Baerman

Jimmy Forrest
Black Forrest
1999 Delmark 427
Original recording 1959
This album marks the recording debut of guitarist Grant Green, and this particular track owes much of its success to his no-nonsense approach and lyrical finesse.
Kenny Dorham
Jazz Contrasts
Original Jazz Classics 28
Original recording 1957
Dorham’s trumpet is alert and sharp over a lush background of harp and brushes featured on this track. The overall effect is dramatic, reminiscent of a movie soundtrack.
Ray Brown
Jazz Cello
2003 Verve 440065295
Original recording 1960
Russ Garcia’s wonderful arrangement allows bassist Brown, here playing cello, to take center stage. The elegant swirl of brass and woodwinds behind his poignant playing caps the romantic mood.
Shirley Horn
Close Enough for Love
1990 Polygram Records 37933
Original recording 1989
Pianist/vocalist Horn, with her long-time trio mates, takes “But Beautiful” at a molasses-slow tempo which only she could pull off. In such a setting the lyrics take on real intensity.

- Ben Maycock

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

Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen

Year Rank Title
1944 60 It Could Happen to You
1940 79 Polka Dots and Moonbeams
1953 100 Here's That Rainy Day
1947 133 But Beautiful
1944 147 Like Someone in Love
1939 178 Imagination
1939 783 Oh You Crazy Moon
1942 907 Moonlight Becomes You

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