Composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Ira Gershwin provided the songs for the 1944 movie Cover Girl which introduced the song “Long Ago and Far Away.” The film with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly is about a dancer Rusty (Hayworth) who becomes the “new face” for a prominent glamour magazine and an overnight sensation. She’s in love with her boss Danny (Kelly) who owns the nightclub where she works and which, as a result of her fame, becomes popular. She turns down offers of better jobs to stay with Kelly, who eventually fires her to free her to pursue the more lucrative offers. A lot happens in the meantime, but Kelly dances to the song, and when Rusty realizes her love for Danny she returns to him and they sing “Long Ago and Far Away” as a duet, with Hayworth’s voice dubbed by Martha Mear.
The movie, in Technicolor with great songs and dance numbers, provided escapist fare for war weary Americans and made a pin-up girl of Hayworth and a leading man of Kelly at MGM who had loaned him to Columbia for Cover Girl. “Long Ago and Far Away” received an Oscar nomination for Best Song but lost to “Swinging on a Star” from Going My Way. Of the five Oscars for which it was nominated, Cover Girl did win one for its musical scoring by Carmen Dragon and Morris Stoloff.
Much to Ira’s surprise “Long Ago (and Far Away)” became the biggest hit that he’d had in any one year, and sheet-music sales were over 600,000. No doubt the sentiment of the song was apropos to a time when families and lovers were separated by World War II. In addition to the six versions that charted, Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra also recorded the song in the ‘40s:
- Helen Forrest and Dick Haymes (1944, with Camarata’s Orchestra, 18 weeks, one week in second place)
- Bing Crosby (1944, 9 weeks, topping out at #5)
- Jo Stafford (1944, 14 weeks, peaking at #6)
- Perry Como (1944, 7 weeks, peaking at #8)
- Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians (1944, 4 weeks, peaking at #11)
- Three Suns (1944, one week at #16)
“‘Long Ago and Far Away’ is one of Jerome Kern’s most haunting melodies--his ‘last great masterpiece,’ in the words of his biographer, Gerald Bordman,” says Edward Jablonski in Gershwin: A Biography.
Alec Wilder in American Popular Song says, “In this song Kern daringly restates his principal idea a minor third higher after only eight measures. When the song was first played, I was convinced that this device would be too much for the public ear, but not so, for it’s a standard song. It’s an interesting departure for Kern that every eight measures he restates his two-measure opening theme. I don’t know of another song in which he does this. It has a verse, but it would have been just as well if it hadn’t.”
Gershwin struggled with the lyric for the song which eventually became “Long Ago (and Far Away).” In his book Lyrics on Several Occasions, he claims to have worked on four or five different lyrics. “Disregarding the verse (a last-minute rush job),” says Gershwin, “this one took a lot of experimenting.... The smooth, meditative, melodic line brought the problem of where to embed the title. A one-syllable title like ‘Who?’ or ‘Soon’ was possible on the first note of the burthen [refrain]; one like ‘Night and Day’ or ‘All Alone’ would suit the first three notes; and there were other possibilities--as, observably, the song was finally performed with a five-word seven-syllable title.”
Gershwin was toying with the song’s final title when the producer called and said that the tune was going to be recorded in a couple of days. When Gershwin mentioned the new title, the producer (who happened to be songwriter Arthur Schwartz) said, “Fine. “Let’s have it.” Gershwin, who had reservations about the lyric, read it to him over the phone, and Schwartz wrote it down. In The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists author Philip Furia says that Gershwin so disliked his lyric that he was relieved to be done with it over the phone and not have to go to the studio in person with it.
“I realized some weeks later that I had come through, as requested,” says Gershwin, “with a good, simple lyric--but if Schwartz hadn’t told me of the imminent recording session I probably would have started on a fifth or sixth notion for the tune. Doubtless what had been throwing me was a feeling the other Cover Girl lyrics were so much richer in rhyme and reference that they made this Miss Simplicity look like a wan wallflower.” Obviously Gershwin struggled with the lyric because in the Library of Congress Musical Division there are 17 pages of lyrical drafts for “Long Ago and Far Away.”
In Hollywood Sings! An Inside Look at Sixty Years of Academy Award-Nominated Songs Susan Sackett tells an amusing story about “Long Ago and Far Away.” “[Gershwin] just wasn’t producing the needed lyric quickly enough to suit Kern, so the frustrated composer began working on words of his own. The first line began with, ‘Watching little Alice pee....’ This did the trick. Gershwin, properly shamed as well as amused, knocked out the best lyric of his career, if sales are any measure of success.”
Furia elaborates on the lyric in his book Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist: “The first line modulates between long and short open vowels: Long ago and far away. Then Ira shifts to closed i and e vowels: I dreamed a dream one day--and now that dream is here beside me.
“Deft as the vowel placement is, however, Kern’s soaring lines pull Ira into uncharacteristic platitudes that go all the way back to his earlier Pollyanna weather formulas:
Long the skies were overcast,
but now the clouds have passed:
you’re here--at last!
“Only at the conclusion does he manage any verbal invention at all, as he plays on the different meanings of ‘long’ as a verb and an adjective: That all I longed for long ago was you.”
Some of the singers who have recorded the song include Lorez Alexandria, Mark Murphy, Chet Baker, Mel Torme, and pop artist Rod Stewart. It has also been recorded by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, drummer Jeff Hamilton’s trio, bassist Charles Mingus, and saxophonist Bud Shank.Three pianists have recently covered it: Ted Rosenthal (2000), Brad Mehldau (2001), and Pete Malinverni (2003).