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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

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