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Bye Bye Blackbird (1926)

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Origin and Chart Information
Speculation has surrounded the meaning of the “lost” verses of “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

- Sandra Burlingame

Rank 126
Music Ray Henderson
Lyrics Mort Dixon

Two popular “crooners” of the 1920s recorded this standard the year it was published. Gene Austin’s version beat out Nick Lucas’ in the charts and was in the charts a total of 12 weeks:

  • Gene Austin (1926, vocal, #1)
  • Nick Lucas (1926, vocal, #4)
  • Benny Kruger and His Orchestra (1926, #7)
  • Leo Reisman and His Orchestra (1926, #11)
  • Russ Morgan and His Orchestra (1948, #20)

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

The songwriting team of Mort Dixon and Ray Henderson was a brief association from 1923 to 1927. “Bye Bye Blackbird” was their most popular song, although their first collaboration, “That Old Gang of Mine” from 1923, was a hit, too. They had moderate success with “Follow the Swallow” from 1924 and “Bam Bam Bammy Shore” the following year. Their “comedy” number, “Oh How I Hate Bulgarians” from 1924, faded quickly and has thankfully been forgotten.


More on Mort Dixon at JazzBiographies.com

More on Ray Henderson at JazzBiographies.com

Vocalist Gene Austin’s hit recording had a very large part in the Dixon-Henderson song becoming a standard. Austin had number one hits on almost all of what are now considered the chestnuts of the 1920s: “Yes Sir! That’s My Baby” (1925); “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” (1926); and “My Blue Heaven” (1927). Although not really a jazz singer, he was undoubtedly influenced by some of the good sounds he heard when singing in New Orleans in the ‘teens. He later was a great supporter of Fats Waller, recording several of his tunes and bailing him out of jail for delinquent alimony payments.

As mentioned in the history notes, “Bye Bye Blackbird” was far from being a favorite tune of jazz players in the period from 1926 to 1950, based on data from Tom Lord’s CD-rom The Jazz Discography. Lord includes Leo Reisman’s version mentioned above and a recording by trombonist Harry Raderman’s band, both of which would technically belong more to the “hot dance band” category. There are two recordings listed from the 1930s, both by English bands, and two from the 1940s, one of which was by New Orleans-born pianist Frank Froeba, who made some respectable recordings in the 1930s (he was pianist in Benny Goodman’s band prior to Jess Stacy), but by the 1940s he had descended into a kind of commercially-oriented “honky-tonk” piano style. Most likely the resurgence of the tune began with the 1948 version by trombonist Russ Morgan’s band, a popular dance band of the 1930s and ‘40s but definitely not a jazz group.

The 1955 film Pete Kelly’s Blues, starring Jack Webb as cornetist Kelly, created a great interest in 1920s music. Most musicians find the film characterizations amusing, especially Webb’s “Sergeant Joe Friday” persona and the dubious casting of tough-guy Lee Marvin as clarinetist Al Gannaway. The soundtrack music is really the film’s strong point, provided by a group of superb Hollywood studio musicians led by clarinetist/saxophonist Matty Matlock and vocals by Peggy Lee, cast in the film as vocalist Rose Hopkins. Webb, who produced and directed, deserves credit for his undying love of jazz music, and a number of the cast members were fine jazz players and not professional actors.

Dixon’s lyric played on the “blackbirds and bluebirds” theme of the 1920s and is a happy pronouncement on the pleasures of returning home to a sweetheart who is waiting, a special person who is loving and understanding.

More information on this tune...

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

(Furia offers an analysis of the lyric for “Bye, Bye Blackbird.”)

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

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