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When You're Smiling (1928)

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Origin and Chart Information
Frank Sinatra sang the song in the 1952 film Meet Danny Wilson.

- Sandra Burlingame

Rank 225
Music Mark Fisher
Larry Shay
Lyrics Joe Goodwin

“When You’re Smiling” was written by Mark Fisher, Larry Shay and Joe Goodwin. According to Thomas S. Hischak in The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia, “Seger Ellis popularized the tune, but it was Louis Armstrong who made it a standard.” (Ellis was a songwriter/pianist/vocalist popular in the ‘20s and early ‘30s.) Armstrong first recorded it in 1929 and then again in 1932 and 1956. His is the version heard in the 1984 film The Cotton Club. The song has appeared in several other films, including Meet Danny Wilson (1952) in which it was sung by Frank Sinatra, and it was the title cut of a 1950 movie in which it was sung by Frankie Laine.

The lyric advocates a cheerful attitude because “when you’re smilin’, the whole world smiles with you.” Conversely, “when you’re cryin’, you bring on the rain.”

“When You’re Smiling” has been recorded by vocalist Eddie Jefferson; the big bands of Count Basie, Stan Kenton, and Duke Ellington; the Dave Brubeck Quartet; saxophonist Art Pepper; guitarist Joe Pass; and many Dixieland groups. In The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Gunther Schuller highlights Billie Holiday’s recording of the song: “‘Lady Day,’ so named by Lester [Young], and ‘Prez,’ so named by Billie, were obviously musical soulmates and inspired each other.... ‘When You’re Smiling’ (January 1938) is a superior example of their collaboration....”

Recent recordings, however, are sparse. Drummer Bill Stewart and his group of contemporary musicians (Joe Lovano, Dave Holland, and Marc Copland) improvised on it in 1990; trumpeter Warren Vache featured it with the New York City All-Star Big Band in 2000, and Mike Barone’s Big Band recorded it in 2005.

- Sandra Burlingame

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Jazz History Notes

The relationship between tenor saxophonist Lester Young and vocalist Billie Holiday has often been described as a “musical romance.” A perfect example of their symbiosis is the marvelous 1938 recording led by pianist Teddy Wilson. Lester, in the company of cohorts from the Count Basie Orchestra (Buck Clayton, trumpet; Bennie Morton, trombone; Freddie Greene, guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jo Jones, drums), is in brilliant form, and the fates smiled kindly upon succeeding generations of jazz fans with the existence of two takes, allowing careful study of Lester’s fertile improvisational skills.

A few weeks before the recording with Billie Holiday, Wilson led another session that included top-flight players Pee Wee Russell (clarinet), “Hot Lips” Page (trumpet) and Chu Berry (tenor) for a nice romp on the tune sans vocal.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian


Billie Holiday/Teddy Wilson
Complete Billie Holiday-Lester Young 1937-1946. Fremeaux & Assoc
French) 154

Teddy Wilson
Teddy Wilson 1937-1938
Classics 548

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

Mark Fisher, Joe Goodwin and Larry Shay

Year Rank Title
1928 225 When You're Smiling

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