“My Heart Stood Still” by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart was first introduced in the London revue One Dam Thing after Another which opened in May, 1927. According to Geoffrey Block in his book Richard Rodgers the revue starred Jessie Mathews and Sonnie Hale, and Edythe Baker played the song in the show on a white piano. The song became well-known as a favorite of the Prince of Wales (later King of England and, after that, Duke of Windsor) which helped the show’s run of 237 performances. The Prince, who was a friend of Edythe Baker, knew the song well and taught it to Teddy Brown’s Orchestra at the Royal Western Yacht Club when he discovered that the band didn’t know it.
The song’s popularity prompted the writers to buy the American rights to the song which later that year they inserted in their musical comedy A Connecticut Yankee. The show, with a book by Herbert Fields, was based on Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The plot concerns a young man, played by William Gaxton, who, after receiving a blow to the head, dreams that he is in sixth century England where he proceeds to introduce twentieth century inventions. He and his fiancee, played by Constance Carter, sang “My Heart Stood Still” in the show which ran for 418 performances and was revived in 1943 for 135 performances. Re-titled A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur the London production opened in 1929. The show also introduced another song that would enter the jazz standards repertoire, “Thou Swell.” (The 1949 film, titled after Twain’s book, starred Bing Crosby, William Bendix, and Rhonda Fleming. Victor Young scored the movie because of copyright problems with the Rodgers and Hart score.)
“My Heart Stood Still” charted three times:
- George Olsen Orchestra (1928, vocalists Fran Frey, Bob Borger, and Bob Rice, seven weeks, peaking at #5)
- Ben Selvin Orchestra (1928, seven weeks, peaking at #8)
- Paul Whiteman Orchestra (1928, vocalists Rinker, Fulton, Gaylord, and Young, two weeks, peaking at #11)
Slightly different versions of the origin of the song’s title exist, but basically the idea for the lyric came to Rodgers and Hart after a perilous taxi ride in Paris when one of their companions exclaimed, “Oh, my heart stood still!”
Alec Wilder in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 says, “‘My Heart Stood Still’ is a perfect example of [Rodgers’] mastery of step-wise writing. He employs it throughout this song with the exception of cadences and pick-up notes. Only in the verse, another great one, does he make marked use of unusual harmony.... Without disturbing the melodic line, he shifts, in the second measure, to G-flat major from A flat in the first....It is a verse replete with harmonic invention but only slight melodic changes, such as that in which the harmony moves from A flat to C major.”
“Rodgers’ song ‘My Heart Stood Still,’ with its elegant deployment of special notes in the melody and its trenchant harmonies, is one of the classic ballads in the popular idiom,” says Allen Forte in The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era: 1924-1950.
Typical of Hart, his lyrics express the physical discomfort that accompanies love in many of his songs:
My feet could step and walk,
My lips could move and talk,
And yet my heart stood still!
Hart’s sentiments were prescient since doctors have since proven with electrocardiographs that the sensation is a real one.
“Hart’s lyric for the refrain is unusual in that it is comprised entirely of one-syllable words, a tricky feat in a serious love song,” says Thomas S. Hischak in his book The American Musical Theatre Song Encyclopedia.
Hart was a maniacal rhymer. He defended himself of the accusation that he could and would rhyme anything by using “My Heart Stood Still” as an example of restraint. In his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists Philip Furia quotes Hart as saying, “Now just take a look at this lyric: ‘I took one look at you, that’s all I meant to do, and then my heart stood still.’ I could have said, ‘I took one look at you, I threw a book at you,’ but I didn’t.’ In the example Hart cites, it was not only his own penchant for rhyme that had to be resisted but the temptation proffered by Rodgers’ music, which repeats the same melodic phrase for ‘I took one look at you’ a few intervals apart for ‘that’s all I meant to do’ with the high note of each parallel phrase on ‘look’ and ‘meant’--an open invitation for a thumping rhyme.” But as Furia points out, in the final lines of the song Hart bends to temptation and uses an internal rhyme: “until the thrill of that moment when my heart stood still.”
There is a second verse to the song in which reference is made to “Missus Glyn” which provides not only insight into Hart’s eclectic knowledge but an interesting sidelight:
I read my Plato,
Love I thought a sin.
But since your kiss
I’m reading Missus Glyn!
Elinor Glyn, born in England and raised in Canada, was a pioneer of erotic fiction for women in the 1920’s. She also worked in Hollywood where she helped to promote the careers of Clara Bow and Gloria Swanson and was one of the early female directors.
Jazz stalwarts like Sarah Vaughan, Wes Montgomery, Artie Shaw, Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Desmond, and George Shearing recorded “My Heart Stood Still.” Shirley Horn recorded a memorable version with Johnny Mandel, pop singer Rod Stewart included it in his standards collection, and Chris Connor sang it in her tribute to Lorenz Hart. It is still popular in the repertoire of contemporary artists such as vocalists Jay Clayton, Stacey Kent, and Andy Bey; saxophonist Harry Allen; the trumpet/piano duo of Brian Lynch and Bill Charlap; pianists Ahmad Jamal, Cedar Walton, Pete Malinverni, and Brad Mehldau, who has recorded it twice.