Out of all the jazz standards that populate the Great American Songbook, and out of the many configurations of performers (vocal and instrumental), Billie Holiday’s 1941 rendition of “I Cover the Waterfront” affects me the most. And it’s this particular rendition of this particular song that has been with me through every instance of perceived personal turmoil, whether it be a schoolboy crush, an embittered night in, a bad breakup or a sudden burst of existential longing. It is this version of this song that will always evade the fickle restlessness of the “Next” button on my iPod whenever it happens to come up in shuffle. There’s something about this particular song that vexes and soothes and captures me in a way very few pieces of music do. But especially this version.
And it’s important that I really make it clear exactly which rendition I’m referring to, because even though the song itself is absolutely wonderful as a compositional feat, my mind is very much attuned to the arrangement in this very specific version; the ups and downs, the slight tempo shifts, every background flourish and melodic turn. So much so that any other arrangement seems foreign, even those other ones also sung by Billie Holiday herself. Indeed, the great Lady Day sang this tune several times across her storied career. So have many incredible performers, with renditions by Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole also being standouts. This wonderful song was written by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman (I really wish I knew somebody with that last name; I’d be their best friend) in 1933, inspired by the best-selling novel by Max Miller from the year before. The phrase itself became quite ubiquitous in the pop culture landscape of the early 30s fairly quickly, as the novel also inspired a film by Reliance Studios, starring the lovely Claudette Colbert.
The book is a great piece of American literature; the corresponding movie adaptation is on the tame side of ordinary. A classic story of a reporter whose investigation on a smuggling operation leads him to falling in love with the daughter of the very person he’s trying to expose. It’s a love story that, though charming and entertaining, falls flat on a number of dramatic levels. Ultimately, it’d be the song itself that rose to prominence and was canonized way beyond its source material; as it became a huge hit in 1933, the producers had to scramble to hastily re-score the movie adaptation and fit the song. The film’s promotional materials at the time would claim it to have inspired the already-popular song, in an attempt to sell more tickets.
Green and Heyman’s (heh) song of longing captured the imagination of a myriad of performers, each one turning in their own variation on it; Louis Armstrong’s rendition is a lively, upbeat number punctuated by Armstrong’s characteristic half-slurred, half-scatted vocals, which also completely bypasses the opening verses. This performance, however jaunty, still displays a sense of sadness and melancholy, inherent to the melody in the refrain. Artie Shaw and his orchestra slowed the tempo considerably and played up the cinematic quality of the melody in their version, making it more like the sullen sea song that the lyrics would point towards.
But no version does me in the way Billie Holiday’s 1941 recording does.
Why does it elicit such a reaction from me? I’m not sure. It’s a number of things, I suppose, and familiarity is certainly one of them– I was first exposed to this recording at a very young age and it’s been one of those pivotal go-to songs in my life ever since. But I am also absolutely convinced that the arrangement to this particular version is a work of genius, truly capturing the listlessness in the lyrics, the sullen ache of love gone missing.
This reading of the song doesn’t focus solely on the melody of the refrain, but brings the verse melody to the forefront as well. This gives it a more well-rounded, harmonically-complete feel, as the moroseness of the verses culminates in the sweetness of the chorus. It’s also an incredibly evocative arrangement; the bass doesn’t walk as much as it trudges along through the wet, soggy shoreline. The interplay of the spanish guitar and piano line carrying the counter-melody line as well as the small clarinet flourishes contributing to the foggy after-hours feel. And then, of course, there’s Lady Day’s voice; an impassioned, aching plea cutting to the heart of every melodic turn.
Listen to Billie Holiday’s lovely rendition of “I Cover the Waterfront” here:
Truth be told, the concept behind the whole “Bedhead Melodies” thing was to write about songs that I rediscover late at night, when the mood is right, when you’re in that terribly vulnerable state right before finally succumbing to sleep and songs just seem to speak to you in ways they wouldn’t dare during broad daylight. This is supposed to be about the sudden epiphanies, realizing “holy shit, this song is genius”. If I have to be entirely honest, “I Cover the Waterfront” doesn’t quite qualify, as it’s been a staple in my listening for so long. But it conjures up those same feelings, the same reflexes, the same groggy-headed listlessness, every single time. So here’s to you, Lady Day, and to Miller and Green and Heyman (heh). You made something beautiful.