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I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart (1938)

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Origin and Chart Information
In a 1952 Downbeat article, written by George Hoefer, Ellington revealed his 11 favorite recordings, which included “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.”

- Chris Tyle

Rank 152
Music Duke Ellington
Lyrics Irving Mills
Henry Nemo
John Redmond

Duke Ellington’s 1938 composition was his third and last recording to make number one in the charts, hanging in for a total of nineteen weeks, the longest run for one of his recordings. Several other renditions made the charts that same year:

  • Duke Ellington and His Orchestra (1938, #1)
  • Benny Goodman and His Orchestra (1938, Martha Tilton, vocal, #1)
  • Connee Boswell (1938, vocal, #5)
  • Mildred Bailey (1938, #8)
  • Hot Lips Page and His Orchestra (1938, #9)

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

The Duke Ellington Reader, edited by Mark Tucker, is treasure-trove of information on Ellington, culled from a variety of sources. A transcription of a 1962 interview conducted by Canadian broadcaster Jack Cullen reveals the background of many of Duke’s compositions. “I Let a Song...” was written during one of the Ellington band’s road trips, when the band was staying in a hotel in Memphis.

Upon his return to New York, Ellington asked lyricist Henry Nemo to write lyrics for the song with the intention of including it in the Cotton Club Parade of 1938. At that point, the publicist for Irving Mills, Ellington’s agent, picks up the story, explaining that Ellington had composed 12 numbers for the show, but, because he was superstitious, Ellington’s 13th composition, “I Let a Song...,” was not included. Another source, John Edward Haase’s Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington, states that it was Mills, not Ellington, who pulled the number from the Cotton Club Parade.


More on Irving Mills at JazzBiographies.com

More on Henry Nemo at JazzBiographies.com

Again from the Duke Ellington Reader, a 1952 Downbeat article, written by George Hoefer on the occasion of Duke’s silver jubilee, includes a list of Duke’s favorite recordings. Generally when Ellington was queried about his favorites, his stock response was “the one coming up,” but this time the composer revealed his 11 favorite recordings, which included “I Let a Song...” from 1938.

On March 3, 1938, Ellington recorded the tune for Brunswick as an instrumental. Then a small group session under the leadership of Johnny Hodges featured a vocal by Mary McHugh on a March 28, 1938, recording.

As with all of Ellington’s compositions which include Irving Mills’ name, Mills’ contribution to the actual writing of the tune is likely negligible. But lyricist John Redman’s inclusion on “I Let a Song...” stems from his collaboration with lyricist Henry Nemo.


More on John Redmond at JazzBiographies.com

More on Duke Ellington at JazzBiographies.com

Duke must have been pleased with how quickly the number was picked up by his colleagues in the jazz world. Benny Goodman’s version, with an arrangement by Edgar Sampson and vocal by Martha Tilton, was number one for nine weeks in the charts. Former lead singer with the Boswell Sisters, Connee Boswell, was accompanied by a jazzy combo led by drummer Ben Pollack, while vocalist Mildred Bailey’s version was with her vibraphonist husband Red Norvo and his fine big band. Trumpeter Hot “Lips” Page, a master of the plunger mute, growled his way into the charts for his first and only time.

More information on this tune...

George T. Simon
Big Bands Songbook
Barnes & Noble

(Author/drummer Simon devotes four pages to the songwriters and the song’s history and includes the sheet music.)

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Music and Lyrics Analysis

The lyrics of “I Let a Song...” compare a song with one’s partner in a romantic relationship and reflect on how, after breaking up, “life doesn’t mean a thing” because “you were the song.” Chris Tyle

Musical analysis of “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart”

Original KeyEb major
FormA - A - B - A
TonalityMajor throughout
MovementGenerally upward leaps (mainly octaves and fifths), followed by stepwise descent and ascent; some chromaticism

Comments     (assumed background)

A challenging melody due to several wide leaps; fortunately, these are firmly within the “chord of the moment” and generally do not involve chord extensions or embellishing tones. The harmonic progression is not unusual but does take an exotic turn during “B,” when in mm. 5-6, Ellington suddenly moves from the Eb major-C minor tonality to Gb major. (The Bb in the preceding Cm7 chord serves as the “common tone,” making the transition less jarring. In addition, Eb is the relative minor of Gb minor.)
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 "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" may be found in:

George T. Simon
Big Bands Songbook
Barnes & Noble

(4 pages including the following types of information: history, song writer discussion and sheet music.)

Alec Wilder
American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Hardcover: 576 pages

(1 paragraph 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

By 1953 trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was a mainstay in the jazz world, garnering plaudits for his musicianship, bandleading, and arranging. For his premier session for Norman Granz’s Norgran record label (eventually known as Verve), producer Granz teamed him with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, the Oscar Peterson Trio (Peterson on piano, guitarist Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown on bass) plus the exceptional drummer Max Roach. The results were stunning, and there’s a noticeable joie de vivre on their rendition of Duke Ellington’s “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.”

Thelonious Monk readily acknowledged Ellington as one of his influences, and at times Monk could sound eerily close to his mentor. On his first session for Riverside in 1955, Monk recorded a tribute album of all Ellington material. Accompanied by superb bassist Oscar Pettiford and the sensitive drumming of Kenny Clarke, Monk shines on “I Let a Song...”

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Dizzy Gillespie
Diz and Getz
Umvd Labels
Original recording 1953
Thelonious Monk
Plays Duke Ellington
Riverside 201
Original recording 1955
Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Duke Ellington’s original 1938 version of “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” (The Essential Duke Ellington) still stands as the definitive version of the song, though his 1945 recording (The Best of the Complete RCA Victor Mid-Forties Recordings) with the vocals of Joya Sherrill is also brilliant and important. In a smaller-group context, Ella Fitzgerald’s 1956 recording (Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook) is close to perfection and also displays the song at a slower tempo.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Duke Ellington
The Essential Duke Ellington
Original recording 1938

The original version of “I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart” is still unparalleled. The saxophones of Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney feature prominently, as does Barney Bigard’s clarinet, though the star of the show is the maestro himself.

Red Norvo
Rock It for Me
Hep Records
Original recording 1938

Norvo’s band provided one of the best among the first wave of “cover versions” of the song, featuring great vocals from Norvo’s wife of the time, Mildred Bailey, and a nice arrangement by Eddie Sauter.

Duke Ellington
The Best of the Complete RCA Victor Mid-Forties Recordings
Original recording 1945

“I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” became a vocal standard years before Ellington himself chimed in with a fully-realized vocal version with his own band. This brilliantly-arranged performance, featuring the vocals of Joya Sherrill, is a classic, also featuring some great work by trombonist Lawrence Brown and a haunting appearance by Harry Carney on bass clarinet.

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook
Polygram Records
Original recording 1957

This song is taken slowly, but still swings like crazy. Ella’s vocals are very subtle, leaving the improvisation primarily to the band, particularly guitarist Barney Kessel, saxophonist Ben Webster and especially Stuff Smith, who takes a soulful, creative solo on violin.

Jeanne Lee
After Hours
Sunny Side
Original recording 1994

This intimate duo performance between vocalist Jeanne Lee and pianist Mal Waldron is a great example of how each of these artists balanced tradition and forward-thinking. They swing assuredly, though subtly, and Lee contributes an excellent scat solo as well.

- Noah Baerman

Dinah Washington
After Hours with Miss D
2004 Verve 9402
Original recording 1954
Vocalist Washington delivers one of her signature bluesy readings. Strength of voice and conviction make the singer sound more confident than the lyrics imply.
Andy Bey
Ballads Blues & Bey
1996 Evidence 22162

Vocalist Bey accompanies himself on piano for this melancholy interpretation. Gentle and unassuming, the singer’s delivery adds conviction to the lyrics.
Thelonious Monk
Plays Duke Ellington
Riverside 201
Original recording 1955
Monk’s fingers skate across the piano keys for this refreshingly playful rendition of the song. The pianist, for the most part, plays it straight, casting gems in along the way.
Dizzy Gillespie
Diz and Getz
Umvd Labels
Original recording 1953
Two masters of the genre at the top of their game mix it up, and the winner is the song in this 1953 session. And with sidemen like Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, and Max Roach , you’ve got a classic on your hands.

- Ben Maycock

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

Duke Ellington, Irving Mills, Henry Nemo and John Redmond

Year Rank Title
1938 152 I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart

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