Some songs are so great that they survive and thrive down the years in a form that is pretty much unchanged. Who could think of messing around too much with the melody, shape and general vibe of, say, Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust (lyrics by Mitchell Parish) or Arlen and Harburg’s Over the Rainbow?
There’s another kind of great song. Lithe and adaptable, it can be re-invented with every generation, changing in all sorts of startling ways and yet remaining the same essential song. Listen to the 1932 foxtrot original of ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ (Campbell, Connelly and Woods) by the Ray Noble Orchestra and then Otis Redding’s 1966 version and you’ll see what I mean.
This week’s Friday Song is one of those – a pop song that has moved with the times. The melody was written by Harold Arlen, about ten years before he wrote the great songs for The Wizard of Oz with EY ‘Yip’ Harburg. In his mid-twenties, Arlen was doing his first serious song-writing gig, providing material for the Cotton Club in Harlem with lyricist Ted Koehler. During the 1930s, they would write together songs like ‘Stormy Weather’, ‘I’ve Got the World on a String’ and ‘Let’s Fall in Love’.
‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ was written for the 1931 revue Rhythm-Mania and first released that year by Cab Calloway. Throughout the 1930s and beyond, as this excellent post on the Songbook website shows, the song was given every kind of treatment, its mood changing from the jaunty (Louis Armstrong) to the languidly harmonised (Boswell Sisters), from the swinging (Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Paolo Nutini) to the blue (Tony Bennett)
Harold Arlen was famously unconventional as a composer (‘Harold, why do you get so complicated?’ George Gershwin was meant to have said to him. ‘People can’t sing these songs’) but, beyond a neat change of key in the middle eight, there’s nothing particularly exceptional about this this early song. The tune just hangs together in an easy, satisfying way.
As for the lyrics, they are downright pedestrian, following the familiar songwriting trope of finding a well-worn cliché and then wrestling into submission over a few verses – although, again in the bridge, they do take an interesting little swerve,.
‘I oughta cross you off my list
But when you come knockin’ at my door
Fate seems to give my heart a twist
And I come running back for more.’
Yet it is a song that always delivers, whether in a sad, jazzy version or in a chirpier pop arrangement. It’s the perfect Tin Pan Alley pop song.
Harold Arlen had a sad end to his life. After his wife died, he became a virtual recluse, feeling himself washed-up and abandoned as a songwriter and bemused by the new music being played on the radio in the 1950s and 1960s..
That leads a certain irony to the fact that probably the best version of ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ was by a Beatle.
In 1991, George Harrison recorded it at George Formby fan convention with a stellar line-up of musicians, among them. Joe Brown, Mark Flanagan and Jools Holland.
It was later included on Harrison’s last album Brainwashed, produced by Jeff Lynne, and released posthumously after George’s death in 2002. The story of that final album is here.
The recorded track is, like all Lynne productions, immaculate but I love the version caught on this video.
Here’s a group of talented musicians, having fun as they play a sweet and swinging song of frustration and heartbreak, written by couple of kids making their way in the business in New York sixty years previously.
It’s a song and a video to bring a smile to your face.