Did Duke Ellington write “Blue Rose” or did he not? Rosemary Clooney, in her memoir Girl Singer, writes that the song was a “new number that Billy wrote especially for me.” Billy is Strayhorn, Duke’s other half, composer of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” the Ellington Orchestra’s biggest hit, plus several of the most beautiful jazz songs ever written. Strayhorn had come to Beverly Hills to meet with Ms. Clooney to pick out songs and set arrangements for an album of Ellington songs. Duke and the band were stuck gigging in New York. The 1956 album that resulted, Blue Rose, gives Strayhorn writing credit for three songs. But “Blue Rose” is credited to Duke alone. David Hajdu, in Lush Life, his exhaustive bio of Billy Strayhorn, does not include “Blue Rose” among Strayhorn’s compositions. “Blue Rose,” though, does sound like a Billy Strayhorn tune. Another item the LP’s liner notes don’t reveal: Duke and Rosemary didn’t record the album together. Because Ms. Clooney was very pregnant and couldn’t travel, Strayhorn took the arrangements he’d worked out with her back to the band in New York, where they recorded their part. Rosemary’s vocals were added on back in California, as she listened to the instruments on headphones. Done all the time now, but at the time a major artist had not done it.
Duke did write some songs of blue, including “Diminuendo in Blue,” “Azure,” “Blue Serge,” and one of his standards, “Mood Indigo.” That song is a Grammy Hall of Fame jewel, recorded by hundreds of artists. Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and, yes, Rosemary Clooney on Blue Rose, all made memorably moving versions. Nina Simone took up the tempo and added different chord changes at the intro and end.
I am a harmony nut, and the verse of “Mood Indigo” was harmonized for instruments by Ellington, so it’s the Boswell Sisters’ 1933 three-part version with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra that tops my list. (OK, the Boswells version of any song they did will always be at the top of my list.) For some reason, though, instead of the bridge everyone else does (“Always get that mood indigo…”), the Bozzies’ bridge is a bluesy Connee Boswell solo: “Blues on my mind / Blues all around my head…” I’m not sure where this came from. Curious.
On the theme of Duke song credits, Barney Bigard, an Ellington clarinetist, was finally given proper co-writing credit for the music to “Mood Indigo,” which Duke lifted from him and transformed without acknowledging Bigard’s role. (And Barney may have actually originally picked up the melody from Lorenzo Tio.)
Ella & Duke
“Blue Skies” is not about being blue; it’s an optimistic song, full of blue skies and birds. It has been a favorite since the ‘20s. It was written by Irving Berlin to save a slipping Rodgers & Hart show called Betsy. It didn’t save Betsy, but it was an instant hit and has far outlasted the show’s Rodgers & Hart songs. It’s been a movie favorite, from The Jazz Singer, in which Al Jolson sang it, to Blue Skies and White Christmas, in which Der Bingle sang it. Willie’s done it. Ella, Frank, Rod—they’ve done it. Everybody’s done it.
Thelonious Monk’s done it, too, in a way. His 1947 composition “In Walked Bud” is based on the chord progression of “Blue Skies.” It’s a tribute to pianist Bud Powell, recorded several times by its composer as an instrumental. Lyrics were later added by vocalese whiz Jon Hendricks, of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. Hendricks sang it on Monk’s 1968 album Underground. Carmen McRae sings those lyrics, under the title “Suddenly,” on her 1988 Monk tribute Carmen Sings Monk. If you poke around a bit online, you can find several people who’ve run “Blue Skies” and “In Walked Bud” together, with varying degrees of success.
In the blue Monk category, there’s also, yes, “Blue Monk,” one of Monk’s most accessible and popular songs.
“My Blue Heaven” is a song of marital bliss written in 1924 by Walter Donaldson, a 33-year-old bachelor, and George Whiting. “Just Molly and me, and baby makes three.” Donaldson finally did become a husband and father a decade later. He’d said he was too busy writing hit songs to get married. He indeed wrote many hits, including “Makin’ Whoopee” (a not-so-blissful song of married life), “Carolina in the Morning,” “My Buddy,” and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” So many big hits, and yet he’s not remembered like his songwriting contemporaries Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers. “My Blue Heaven” was not only featured in the movie of the same name in 1950 but in a movie of a different name, Love Me or Leave Me, in 1955.
“Azzurro” was written by Paolo Conte in 1968, before his own career took off, for singer Adriano Celentano. Both Celentano and Conte are very well-known in Italy. One of them should be well-known here.
Celentano picture sleeve
Paolo Conte, a former lawyer, has been recording and touring since the sixties. He is best known in the U.S. for the Nonesuch “best of” album that was released in 1998. That’s how I first heard of him, and it’s a great place to start. I’ve been a fan ever since. It may be the difficulty in pinning him down that makes his music so appealing to me. It’s a mixture of jazz, sleazy bar, cocktail lounge, and Italian pop. It’s usually sung in Italian (sometimes in French, very occasionally in stilted English) by the gravelly-voiced Conte, with no harmonies and only occasional female backup singing. But his albums, in my opinion, are more consistently good than any other artist. That’s why I have them all. (And, nearing 80, he’s still recording.) Paolo has another blue song, too, “Blue Tango.”
Honorable Mentions: Percussionist Mongo Santamaria gave us “Afro Blue” in 1959, with lyrics added by Oscar Brown, Jr. It was first sung by Abbey Lincoln that year on her album Abbey is Blue.
And, of course, I must mention the top jazz album of all time, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. I love it, just like everyone else does.
Favorite blue songs from the pop/rock/soul/R&B world include “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Blue Bayou,” and Chris Isaacs’ “Blue Hotel.” And then there’s Joni Mitchell’s wonderful, sad title song from the Blue album. Another category (“Bottomless Depression”).
Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “Song Sung Blue.” “Every garden grows one”? Hmmm. Anyway, a “song sung blue” should either be blue as in blues or blue as in risque, and Neil Diamond’s doesn’t get close to either of those.
Senior Center Hits: “Blue Skies” and “My Blue Heaven” always get the residents singing along.