In 1944 bandleaders Duke Ellington and Harry James collaborated with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges to develop his melody into the hit song “I’m Beginning to See the Light” with a lyric by Don George, who also wrote the lyric for Ellington’s “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues” that same year.
The song spent several weeks on Your Hit Parade and charted three times in 1945 with James’ version leading the pack. Vocalist Joya Sherrill, who was only seventeen, had just joined the Ellington band when they recorded this tune which featured Hodges and trombonist Lawrence Brown:
- Harry James and His Orchestra (1945, Kitty Kallen, vocal, 19 weeks, 2 weeks in first place)
- Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots (1945, 6 weeks, rising to #5)
- Duke Ellington and His Orchestra (1945, Joya Sherrill, vocal, 12 weeks, rising to #6)
As biographer James Lincoln Collier points out in his book Duke Ellington, “I’m Beginning to See the Light” is in the form of the classic American popular song. “But more than most composers of popular songs, [Ellington] tended to write more consecutive melodies, made up of quite different, even contrasting, phrases, producing more the effect of speech or dialogue. When well done, this system of writing inevitably produces a more interesting and melodically richer tune, although one perhaps correspondingly less acceptable to the ordinary ear.”
Don George’s lyric for “I’m Beginning to See the Light” deals with romantic images such as “lantern-shine” and “rainbows in my wine” to which the singer was impervious until falling in love. In The Poets of Tin Pan Alley Philip Furia praises George’s witty use of a list of “light” images and his ability to deal with a difficult song. “Ellington’s tune was particularly hard to set, since each A section consists of the same, driving vamp-like phrase repeated three times over before the melody finally changes. In one way, George heightened this musical insistence, using the same rhyme for the first three lines of each section:
I never cared much for moonlit skies,
I never winked back at fireflies,
but now that the stars are in your eyes,
I’m beginning to see the light.
“George ends by rekindling one of the oldest songwriting cliches, mixing his metaphors of light and heat: ‘but now that your lips are burning mine, I’m beginning to see the light.’”
“I’m Beginning to See the Light” was featured in the award-winning 1981 Broadway show Sophisticated Ladies, and Harry James’ version appears in the 2000 film My Dog Skip. Jonathan and Darlene Edwards (alias Paul Weston and Jo Stafford) parodied it out-of-key in their ‘60s Darlene Remembers Duke.
Jazz instrumentalists who have recorded the tune include bassist Oscar Pettiford, pianist Art Tatum, drummer Chico Hamilton, and vibist Red Norvo. Vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra have featured the song, and Ann Hampton Callaway included it in her 1996 tribute to Fitzgerald. Guitarist Martin Taylor and the David Grisman Quartet recorded it in 1999, and Al Jarreau sang it on his 2004 release.