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Poor Butterfly (1916)

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Origin and Chart Information
Benny Goodman seems to have had a fondness for the number....

- Chris Tyle

Rank 196
Music Raymond Hubbell
Lyrics John L. Golden

This heartrending song, written about the main character from Pucinni’s Madame Butterfly, was introduced by Haru Onuki in The Big Show, which opened at the Hippodrome Theater in New York on August 13, 1916, closing in September, 1917, after 425 performances. The song charted several times the following year and was revived in 1954:

  • Victor Military Band (1917, #1)
  • Prince’s Orchestra (1917, #3)
  • Charles Harrison (1917, vocal, #5)
  • Grace Kerns (1917, vocal, #7)
  • Fritz Kreisler (1917, #9)
  • Hilltoppers (1954, vocal, #12)

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

Lyricist John L. Golden, in his 1930 autobiography Stagestruck, recalled the collaboration with Raymond Hubbell on the writing of “Poor Butterfly” during the summer of 1916. Trying desperately to find a cool place in the Hippodrome Theater to work, the two descended to the elephant pens in the basement, where a pen was cleaned up and a small piano installed. Hubbell, a violinist, began playing a melody for Golden, who had been asked by producer Charles Dillingham to come up with a “Japanese-style” number relating to Madame Butterfly. Soon Golden, despite the nearby proximity of the elephants and the associated aroma, had created a lyric telling the sad tale of Butterfly waiting for her American lover to return to Japan.


More on John L. Golden at JazzBiographies.com

More on Raymond Hubbell at JazzBiographies.com

Although a Japanese American actress/vocalist, Haru Onuki, introduced the song, she was replaced soon after the opening by soprano Sophie Bernard. The number’s popularity, however, came from early performances and recordings by artists such as vocalist Edna Brown, the Joseph C. Smith Orchestra, and especially the Victor Military Band. The song was so popular that over two million copies of the sheet music were sold, and it was played and sung by almost every musical artist of the day. The tune’s huge popularity waned, but it was performed and recorded over the decades. A 1954 hit record by the vocal group the Hilltoppers bought a new lease on life for the number, resulting in a number of vocal recordings by artists such as Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, and instrumental recordings by a number of musical groups.

Pianist Zez Confrey, a popular solo artist and bandleader famous for his piece “Kitten on the Keys,” wrote a piano solo in 1921 entitled “Poor Buttermilk,” poking fun at “Poor Butterfly.”

Golden’s lyric for the verse set the stage for the song in a garden in Japan where a young maiden met an American sailor “’neath the cherry blossoms.” He taught her how to love “the ‘Merican Way” but left, “promising to return some day.” The chorus then finds her waiting underneath the cherry blossoms as the “moments pass into hours,” the hours to years, yet she “smiles through her tears,” hoping for his return.

More information on this tune...

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

(Author/composer Wilder analyzes the musical content of the song in his definitive book on American popular song.)

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Recommendations for This Tune
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Art Tatum

Original Recording 1945

This solo piano interpretation of “Poor Butterfly” is rhythmically relaxed, while containing the harmonica ingenuity that was one of Tatum’s hallmarks.

Erroll Garner
The Essence of Erroll Garner
Original Recording 1950

This tight, slyly swinging trio performance has a nice mix of flowing single-note melodic work by pianist Garner and his signature block chords.

Cannonball Adderley
Cannonball Takes Charge
Blue Note Records
Original Recording 1959

This quartet recording begins with a relaxed, swinging groove before digging in for some characteristic hard-swinging intensity from alto saxophonist Adderley. Pianist Wynton Kelly swings hard on a solo of his own, as well as offering some brilliant comping alongside Percy and “Tootie” Heath.

Paul Desmond
The Best of the Complete Paul Desmond RCA Victor Recordings
Original Recording 1963

Alto saxophonist Desmond is flowing and inventive on this relaxed, gently swinging performance. The same could be said of guitarist Jim Hall, who contributes a brilliant solo of his own.

Count Basie, Oscar Peterson
Yessir Thats My Baby
Original Recording 1978

Pianists Oscar Peterson, known for his stunning technique, and Count Basie, known for his elegant sparseness, meld flawlessly on this relaxed and extremely swinging quartet recording.


- Noah Baerman

Sonny Rollins
Vol. 2
1999 Blue Note 97809
Original recording 1957
Rollins is at his most sentimental on this robust, blues-tinged interpretation of the song. An all-star squad joins the saxophonist with trombonist J.J. Johnson almost stealing the show from the leader on this one.
Tito Puente
Mucho Puente
2004 Sony BMG Music Norte 13616
Original recording 1957
A light, airy version of the song is populated by plucked strings and gentle percussion. 50’s lounge music at its coolest.
Ray Brown
Jazz Cello
2003 Verve 440065295
Original recording 1960
Bass player Ray Brown picks up the cello for this outing, proving his virtuosity on an instrument too seldom heard in jazz. He swings “Poor Butterfly” with style in an arrangement punctuated by razor sharp horns.
Sarah Vaughan
Soft & Sassy
1994 Hindsight Records 601
Original Recording 1961
The “Divine One” sings the verse for this song which lends special charm to the lyrics. Sarah shines in this trio setting throughout the disc.

- Ben Maycock

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