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I Can't Give You Anything but Love (1928)

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Origin and Chart Information
Mystery now surrounds the composition credits given to “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

- Chris Tyle

AKAI Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby
Rank 162
Music Jimmy McHugh
Lyrics Dorothy Fields

This song was sung by Aida Ward and Willard McLean in the Broadway musical comedy, Blackbirds of 1928. The show featured a cast consisting of some of the best African-American entertainers, including Florence Mills, Ethel Waters, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Blackbirds ran for 518 performances, and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” was the hit from the show.

The tune’s popularity can easily be determined from the chart information, especially from 1928. But the chart also establishes the tune’s continued popularity:

  • Cliff Edwards (1928, vocal, #1)
  • Ben Selvin and His Orchestra (1928, #2)
  • Johnny Hamp’s Kentucky Serenaders (1928, Hal White, vocal, #4)
  • Segar Ellis (1928, vocal, #19)
  • Gene Austin (1929, vocal, #12)
  • Nat Shilkret Rhyth-Melodists (1929, #12)
  • Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra (1936, Billie Holiday, vocal, #5)
  • Rose Murphy (1948, vocal, #13)

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

Mystery now surrounds the composition credits given to “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” The melody, reputedly written by Jimmy McHugh, made its first appearance as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Lindy,” a dedication to transatlantic flyer Charles Lindberg which was slated for the show Harry Delmar’s Revels. The tune was pulled from the production and reappeared, with new lyrics credited to Dorothy Fields, in Blackbirds. But a number of sources, most notably Barry Singer’s book, Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf, bring the tune’s authorship into question.


More on Dorothy Fields at JazzBiographies.com

More on Jimmy McHugh at JazzBiographies.com

Razaf biographer Singer recounts a 1929 New York Post profile of pianist and composer Thomas “Fats” Waller in which Waller mentions that one of his compositions was purchased by a white songwriter who subsequently placed it in a show. As part of a “musical comedy” it became the major hit, netting royalties of $17,500 for its “composer” who had purchased the tune from Fats for $500. A number of Fats’ colleagues admitted that Fats did make a practice of selling compositions to white songwriters, often for as little as $10.


More on Fats Waller at JazzBiographies.com

More on Andy Razaf at JazzBiographies.com

Indirectly supporting the rumors is a document on the Rutgers-Newark Online website regarding their Dana Library Institute of Jazz Studies collection of Waller memorabilia, including a tune called “Spreadin’ the Rhythm Around”:

[The collection] includes several drafts of music in Waller’s hand. These are basically early attempts (first versions or rough sketches) of songs Waller was writing, made in pencil on music manuscript paper ...the collection includes some instrumental parts in Waller’s handwriting (for “Walkin’ The Floor” and “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around”).

Though the 1935 copyright of “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” attributes the music to Jimmy McHugh, the fact that these parts are in Waller’s handwriting argues strongly that he, not McHugh, was the original composer of the song (see Machlin, “Fats Waller Composes,” Annual Review of Jazz Studies 7, 1994-95, pp. 1-24).

Biographer Singer adds more grist to the mill by recounting another story directly involving Razaf. Gladys Redman, widow of saxophonist/arranger/bandleader Don Redman, visited Razaf in the hospital in the early 1970s. Mrs. Redman asked Razaf to sing the favorite of all his lyrics, and to her amazement he complied with a whispered chorus of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

Despite the controversy over the tune, no one has come forth over the years to question the authorship of the other Fields/McHugh tunes from the show, which are excellent and occasionally resurface in jazz versions: “Digga Digga Doo,” “I Must Have That Man,” and “Doin’ the New Lowdown.”

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

(Author/educator Furia relates anecdotes and analyzes the lyric.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Music and Lyrics Analysis

The song’s upbeat lyrics struck a responsive chord with a depression-era audience, where shopping at Woolworth was more the norm than seeking out diamond bracelets at Tiffany’s. And the tune’s enduring message that love is more valuable than material things still rings true. Chris Tyle

Musical analysis of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love”

Original KeyAb major
FormA1 - B - A2 - C
TonalityMajor throughout
Movement“A” consists of a repeated scale fragment, descending a third and followed by skips in both directions and two chromatic steps upward; “B” ascends chromatically and descends by step; “C” is a scale fragment ascending a minor third, repeated in a “mirroring” variation, followed by a series of wide intervals.

Comments     (assumed background)

The melody starts with fairly small intervals, but they gradually become larger up to the end (the largest intervals-a descending minor sixth and an ascending minor seventh-are found toward the end of sections “B” and “C”). The original progression starts out with a I chord followed by a third inversion V7/V, which, because of the bass movement, is often mistaken for a vi chord by players unfamiliar with music of the period. Contemporary players usually use a iiio7 here. “B” consists of two simple V7/IV - IV cadences (often embellished) in which the IV is briefly tonicized. “C” uses a progression that has frequently been used as an ending sequence (“My Melancholy Baby,” section “C”), starting on IV, followed by a ct vii°7/I chord a half-step higher (i.e., F - F#°7 - C/G bass), which ends with aV7/II - II7 - V7 turnaround before resolving to the tonic.
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

Narrow range and step-wise melody with simple chordings allow for great improvisatory freedom. Just about any tempo will work.

Written-in chromaticism is a good jumping-off point for improvisation and learning to bend and slide pitches. Very ”wordy” lyrics are good practice in crisp articulation without interrupting breath energy.

Many initial vowels good for initiating tone without a hard onset.

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 "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" may be found in:

William Zinsser
Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs
David R. Godine Publisher
Hardcover: 279 pages

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

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: anecdotal and lyric analysis.)

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.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The American Musical Theatre Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 568 pages

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

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: Broadway productions, 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

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: anecdotal. (Page 51).)

Philip Furia
Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer
St. Martin's Press; 1st edition
Hardcover: 320 pages

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

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Hardcover: 736 pages

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

Roy Hemming
The Melody Lingers On: The Great Songwriters and Their Movie Musicals
Newmarket Pr; Reprint edition

(3 paragraphs including the following types of information: history. (Page 125).)
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

Of the many early recordings of this tune, cornetist Red Nichols’ instrumental version from 1928 shines, spotlighting the great but somewhat underrated trombonist Miff Mole, whose unique and technically advanced playing presaged the playing of bebop era players like J. J. Johnson.

Vocalist Ethel Waters performed the tune in 1932 with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, doing an interesting imitation of Louis Armstrong’s vocal from his version in 1928 and ending by singing Armstrong’s ascending trumpet coda.

The Quintette of the Hot Club of France, the band that catapulted Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt to fame, laid down a splendid version in 1936 with guest vocalist American Freddy Taylor performing another homage to Armstrong.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Red Nichols. 1928-1929
Classics 1270
Classics 1270

Louis Armstrong
Early Satch 1923-1929
Jazz Legends 1001

Ethel Waters
Cocktail Hour
Columbia River 218059

Django Reinhardt
And the Quintette of the Hot Club of France 1934-1937
EPM Musique 157522

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “I Can't Give You Anything but Love.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Louis Armstrong’s 1929 recording of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” (The Essential Louis Armstrong) is perhaps the best-loved early jazz version of the song and features some great trumpet and an appealing interpretation of the melody. It is not, however, a particularly “faithful” interpretation of the melody, so to learn the song in a more straightforward manner, Ethel Waters’ 1932 recording with Duke Ellington (Cocktail Hour) is a fine starting point (that is until she sings a second chorus and pays tribute to Armstrong’s own reinterpretation). Lester Young’s 1952 version with Oscar Peterson (Lester Young with Oscar Peterson Trio) is an excellent example of the song in a small-group instrumental context, as well as being a fair bit more modern harmonically.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Benny Goodman
The Benny Goodman Sextet Featuring Charlie Christian: 1939-1941
Original recording 1940

This relaxed, swinging performance features excellent playing by Cootie Williams on trumpet, Georgie Auld on saxophone, Charlie Christian on guitar and Goodman himself on clarinet.

Lester Young, Oscar Peterson Trio
Lester Young with Oscar Peterson Trio

Accompanied by Oscar Peterson’s group, saxophonist Young interprets the melody wonderfully at a swinging medium-slow tempo. He also contributes a fabulous solo, as do Peterson and guitarist Barney Kessel.

Red Garland
Red Garland's Piano (Reis)
Original recording 1957

Pianist Red Garland could swing hard, and this trio performance is a stellar example of that. Bassist Paul Chambers gets an extended solo and drummer Arthur Taylor offers up great brushes throughout.

Sarah Vaughan
Benny Carter Sessions
Blue Note Records
Original recording 1962

Vaughan’s nickname of “Sassy” is very appropriate on this slyly-swinging performance. Benny Carter’s big band arrangement features some slick ensemble passages with Vaughan scatting, along with a nice vibraphone solo by Larry Bunker.


- Noah Baerman

Diana Krall
When I Look In Your Eyes
1999 Impulse! 304
Original recording 1999
It’s not hard to understand why this album won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, and this song stands out as one of the best. The pianist/singer teams with guitarist Russell Malone for an up-tempo rendition that makes the song sound as if it were written yesterday.
Martin Taylor
2000 Linn Records 90
Original recording 2000
British guitarist Taylor gives the song the Django treatment on this wonderful gypsy swing reading. Taylor’s performance is the perfect combination of lively abandon and meticulous technique.
Ellis Marsalis
Heart of Gold
1992 Columbia 47509
Original recording 1992
This is an elegant, introspective offering from the Marsalis patriarch. Drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Ray Brown join the pianist, and all play with a dignified restraint that contains flashes of pure brilliance.
Don Shirley
...Plays Birdland Lullabies/Show Tunes
2001 Collectables 2790
Original Recording 1955
In duo with bassist Richard Davis, classically trained pianist Shirley creates a full rhythmic setting for his swinging version of the McHugh/Fields standard.

- Ben Maycock

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

Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh

Year Rank Title
1932 38 Don't Blame Me
1930 55 On the Sunny Side of the Street
1930 113 Exactly Like You
1928 162 I Can't Give You Anything but Love
1935 195 I'm in the Mood for Love
1928 564 I Must Have That Man

Dorothy Fields, Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach, Jerome Kern and Jimmy McHugh

Year Rank Title
1935 999 I Won't Dance

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