In his book Alec Wilder in Spite of Himself: A Life of the Composer author Desmond Stone tells the story of the origin of “I’ll Be Around.” The composer/lyricist Alec Wilder said that the title “literally popped out of nowhere” into his head as he was riding in a taxi and he wrote it down on an envelope. “‘Quite by accident I spotted it as I was crumpling up the envelope some days later,’ he recalled. ‘Since I was near a piano, I wrote a tune, using the title as the first phrase of the melody. I remember it only took about 20 minutes. The lyric took much longer to write. God bless Frank Sinatra for singing the definitive version of this song.’”
Stone goes on to say that “the melodic line is smooth and strong, and the leaping intervals have no trace of awkwardness. The song also shows Wilder’s penchant for working always a little off center, always a step or two away from the trodden path.... James R. Morris, in his analysis for the Smithsonian American Popular Song collection, also wrote: ‘The symmetry and order of I’ll Be Around make it a model of compositional virtue.... [It] is a masterful piece of song writing by a superior composer who knew the value of understatement.’”
In The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Popular Standards, Max Morath says, “With ‘I’ll Be Around’ Wilder created, simply, a first-rate popular song, structured in keeping with the practices of its day (AABA), and possessed of a quietly poetic lyric that pledges true love through a totally commonplace expression--‘I’ll be around.’”
Mark Steyn, a Canadian journalist, columnist, and film and music critic has a site called steynonline where each week he selects his “song of the week.” In February 2007 he posted an insightful commentary on “I’ll Be Around.” “The tune has a wonderful muscular clarity, its leaping intervals audacious but utterly natural. It’s very hard to find words that do justice to such an uncluttered melody. Wilder took as his theme the discarded lover and addressed it very straightforwardly:
I’ll Be Around
No matter how
You treat me now
I’ll Be Around
From now on...
“The stroke of genius is in the rhyme scheme: in choosing to pair the second and third lines, Wilder gives a sentiment expressed in ordinary monosyllabic words a kind of precise, unsparing honesty. He repeats the trick in the second section:
Your latest love
Can never last
And when it’s past
I’ll Be Around
When he’s gone...
“The symmetry of the melody matches the emotional confidence of the lyric, even in despair.”
“Ironically,” says Desmond Stone, “although the artistic applause was strong, the only recording of ‘I’ll Be Around’ that made any real money for Wilder was the one he thoroughly disliked; that of the Mills Brothers on the reverse side of their huge hit ‘Paper Doll.’ Even as ‘I’ll Be Around’ was being thus piggybacked to commercial success, Wilder was complaining bitterly.”
”I’ll Be Around” made the Billboard chart and rose to number 17 over two weeks, but “Paper Doll” (which Wilder despised) became the biggest non-holiday hit of the decade with sales over six million.
Stone relates the story told by a friend of Wilder’s who accompanied him to a record store in New York where he listened to the Mills Brothers’ recording, broke it, paid for it and walked out, saying that “...those awful men changed his chord progressions and changed the melody, and he just hated the record.”
The song was the impetus for Wilder’s great friendship with jazz pianist Marian McPartland who had recorded it in 1954, calling it “a little Bach-style thing.” Wilder admired her rendition and ultimately wrote several songs for her.
“I’ll Be Around” was a modest hit for the Glenn Miller Orchestra with vocalist Johnny Desmond and the Modernaires. Others who recorded it include Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Bob Brookmeyer, Joe Pass on solo guitar, and pianist McCoy Tyner. In the ‘90s it was recorded by vocalists Jimmy Scott, Carol Sloane and Mel Torme, saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and David Sanchez, and pianist Bill Charlap. Since 2000 it has been recorded by saxophonists Phil Woods and Eric Alexander, pianists Eddie Higgins and Randy Porter, and vocalists Rebecca Kilgore and Tierney Sutton.