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Thou Swell (1927)

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Origin and Chart Information
“‘Thou Swell’ provides ample demonstration of Richard Rodgers’ rhythmic inventiveness.”

- Allen Forte

Rank 278
Music Richard Rodgers
Lyrics Lorenz Hart

The 1927 musical comedy A Connecticut Yankee by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart was based on Mark Twain’s book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The song “Thou Swell” was introduced by the stars William Gaxton and Constance Carpenter. The show ran for 418 performances and was revived in 1943 for 135 performances. The 1929 London production was entitled A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur and starred Vivienne Segal. “Thou Swell” enjoyed seven weeks on the charts in 1928, rising to number 10 with the Ben Selvin Orchestra. The show also introduced another song that would enter the jazz standards repertoire, “My Heart Stood Still.”

 

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

According to David Ewen in The Complete Book of the American Musical Theater “Thou Swell” was not well-received in the Philadelphia tryouts, so the producers suggested that it be dropped. Rodgers agreed but with the stipulation that it be included in the New York opening to test audience reaction. New Yorkers loved it, so it stayed in the show.

 

More on Lorenz Hart at JazzBiographies.com
 
 

More on Richard Rodgers at JazzBiographies.com
 

In the 1948 fictionalized film biography of Rodgers and Hart, Words and Music, June Allyson performed “Thou Swell” with the dancing Blackburn Twins. The 1949 film, titled after the Twain book, starred Bing Crosby, William Bendix, and Rhonda Fleming. Victor Young scored the film because of copyright problems with the Rodgers and Hart score.

The 1999 TV documentary The Rodgers and Hart Story: Thou Swell, Thou Witty was presented on Great Performances and features archival footage of Rodgers and Hart. A ballet entitled “Thou Swell,” choreographed by Peter Martins and including other songs by Rodgers and Hart, was first presented by the New York City Ballet in 2002.

In his book The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era: 1924-1950, Allen Forte says, “In his exploitation of rhythmic figures that originated in the ragtime era and that were subsequently absorbed by popular songs in various ways, ‘Thou Swell’ provides ample demonstration of Richard Rodgers’ rhythmic inventiveness.”

Alec Wilder in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 notes that the verse seems to have been written for Fred Astaire. “It starts out innocuously, but in the fifth measure it resorts to a series of leaps which fall in odd places just as a dancer might like them to.”

Hart cleverly integrated olde English words into the lyrics: “Wouldst kiss me pretty? Wouldst hold my hand?” In his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists Philip Furia says, “A Connecticut Yankee gave Hart a perfect chance to undercut sentimentality by rhyming antiquated diction with modern slang. Like Mark Twain, who mingled western tall-talk with medieval archaisms in the original book, Hart bounced between linguistic extremes in songs such as ‘Thou Swell.’” As an example Furia cites this excerpt from the song:

Both thine eyes are cute, too--
What they do to
me
Hear me holler I choose a
sweet lollapalooza
in thee!

Jazz stalwarts Bix Beiderbecke, Shorty Rogers, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole, and John Lewis with Lester Young have recorded the tune as well as pianists Billy Taylor, Dorothy Donegan, Horace Silver, and Sir Roland Hanna. Dorothy Ashby played it on harp and Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughan sang it. Billy May recorded it with his orchestra for Sorta Dixie, and trombonist/bandleader Rob McConnell included it in his CD Music of the Twenties. Current performances include those by saxophonists George Coleman and Bud Shank, pianist Joanne Brackeen, and vocalists Stacey Kent and Wesla Whitfield.

More information on this tune...

Allen Forte
The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950: A Study in Musical Design
Princeton University Press
Hardcover: 336 pages


(Author/educator Forte devotes four pages to the song’s history and a musical analysis.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Sandra Burlingame

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Reading and Research
Additional information for "Thou Swell" may be found in:

David Ewen
American Songwriters: An H.W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary
H. W. Wilson
Hardcover: 489 pages


(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and performers.)

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


(1 page including the following types of information: music analysis.)

Allen Forte
The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950: A Study in Musical Design
Princeton University Press
Hardcover: 336 pages


(4 pages including the following types of information: history and music analysis.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The American Musical Theatre Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 568 pages


(1 paragraph including the following types of information: summary.)
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Jazz History Notes

Bix Beiderbecke made it to the top of the music world in the late1920s, joining the hugely popular Paul Whiteman Orchestra as one of its star performers. Yet Whiteman’s over-arranged, semi-concert music was not the right milieu for the cornetist who truly thrived in a loose, small group setting. His April 1928 recording of “Thou Swell” finds him in the company of six of his Whiteman cohorts, resulting in one of his best recordings.

Tenor saxophonist Lester Young was influenced by Bix’s musical alter-ego, C-melody saxophonist Frank Trumbauer (also a member of Whiteman’s orchestra), and was a fan of both musicians’ work. Lester’s 1951 recording is a touch faster than Beiderbecke’s, but hits the right groove, and the tenor saxophonist turns in a fine performance.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian


Bix Beiderbecke
The Genius of Bix Beiderbecke
Pearl 9765

Lester Young
Lester Swings
Giants of Jazz (Italian) 53365

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

Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers

Year Rank Title
1937 6 My Funny Valentine
1939 82 I Didn't Know What Time It Was
1935 91 My Romance
1934 94 Blue Moon
1932 118 Lover
1938 123 This Can't Be Love
1935 124 Little Girl Blue
1940 181 It Never Entered My Mind
1937 208 Where or When
1937 222 Have You Met Miss Jones
1938 228 Spring Is Here
1927 246 My Heart Stood Still
1927 278 Thou Swell
1936 284 There's a Small Hotel
1938 289 Falling in Love with Love
1928 310 You Took Advantage of Me
1941 335 Bewitched
1937 336 The Lady Is a Tramp
1932 337 Isn't It Romantic
1926 429 Blue Room
1932 449 You Are Too Beautiful
1940 455 I Could Write a Book
1925 489 Manhattan
1935 527 It's Easy to Remember (and so Hard to Forget)
1929 536 With a Song in My Heart
1930 671 Dancing on the Ceiling
1936 825 Glad to Be Unhappy
1942 842 Ev'rything I've Got (Belongs to You)
1942 908 Wait Till You See Her

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