It was just the thing for a rainy Sunday morning: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman on the record player. There are some weddings or other real-life moments that I think of as being beautiful, but I am often just as moved by beautiful music, like the voice of Johnny Hartman on a ballad, accompanied by John Coltrane.
It was such an unlikely occurrence, the meeting of these two in the studio. It was the idea of Coltrane, who never before or after that recorded with a vocalist. Hartman was reluctant to do it, because he didn’t consider himself a jazzer, but, thankfully, he was pushed into it, and the result was one of the true all-time classics of jazz—or any—recording, almost every song done in single takes.
While the song “You Are Too Beautiful” played, I started wondering about songs with the word “beautiful” in the title. Are they all as beautiful as that one? Well, of course not. Are any as beautiful as that one? “You Are Too Beautiful” was written by Rodgers and Hart for, of all things, the 1933 movie Hallelujah, I’m a Bum—a pearl from an oyster. It’s one of many gorgeous Rodgers melodies matched to Hart’s perfectly supportive lyrics. Hartman’s version is my favorite, but my Song God Thelonious Monk gave it the Monk treatment (always a good thing—no, always) on The Unique Thelonious Monk, an album of covers he recorded for Riverside in 1956. Was Monk’s version beautiful? Yes, in its very Monkish way. Monk, dissonance and jagged rhythms and all, always created beauty. This song, which he hadn’t played before, was no exception.
Right after “You Are Too Beautiful” on my list of favorite beautiful “beautiful” songs is “But Beautiful,” another unlikely movie gem, from the 1947 Hope/Crosby road flick Road to Rio. Written by Jimmy Van Heusen (who took his last name from the shirt, to give himself a little sophistication) and Johnny Burke, it was wonderfully interpreted by Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Tony Bennett, among many others. Worth seeking out are lesser-known versions by Little Jimmy Scott, Lorez Alexandria, and Boz Scaggs.
A third song joins these two pre-rock classics. “You Are So Beautiful” was written by Billy Preston, with assistance from Bruce Fisher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (who had also been a songwriting partner of Charlie Manson), and was a huge hit (#5 in ’75) for Joe Cocker, who went all-out, as usual, through the entire song, and then closed out with a tiny, fragile final “to me” and pulled the heartstrings further. Al Green did his magic with the song as well. But my favorite version is by my oldest daughter, sung like an angel into a tape recorder when she was about three. Brings a tear to my eye just thinking about it. Beautiful.
I can think of one other favorite song with the word in its title: Melanie’s “Beautiful People,” her debut single from 1969. Not what I’d call a beautiful song musically, but its can’t we all get along? message had a big effect on me when I first heard the song on the Dallas underground FM station KNUS in 1969, and I still think of the song now and then to draw me out when I’m being overly introverted. It’s a quintessential New York song and hippie song. (Although Melanie, on a talk show in the ’90s, said “I wasn’t a hippie. I was just an oddball.”) Another nice “beautiful people” song is Jimmy Cliff’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” one of my wife’s favorites, also from 1969. I hate it when people (even beautiful people) use the term feel-good as an adjective, but if any song deserves it, it’s this one.
Of course, I should note the mega-hits “Everything is Beautiful” (1970), which was a big change of pace from “Ahab the Arab” and “Gitarzan” for Ray Stevens, and James Blunt’s 2004 “You’re Beautiful,” which I can only hear as hilarious impersonations done by my youngest daughter. I don’t miss either of those songs. James Blunt passed his quota very early on, after the second or third trip ferrying my daughter to school with KISS-FM on the radio. (But I never got tired of her impersonation.)
I need to mention a record I ran across in a thrift shop, an answer-song to Randy Newman’s “Short People.” It was called “Short People You’re Beautiful” (comma omitted by the songwriter), and it’s by Jerry McClain. Played it once. That was enough. (I don’t ever play the Randy Newman song either, though, and I love Randy Newman.) Jerry McClain’s claim-to-fame was being half of the group Pratt & McClain, which scored with the theme to the TV show Happy Days. Jerry McClain you’re beautiful.
One beautiful song that is not at all a ballad is “How Beautiful Can a Being Be?” It’s a peppy Brazilian number sung by the great Caetano Veloso (on the album Livro, from 2011), and it is all about the ecstasy of repetition: it consists of two repeated chords and six repeated words (the title). Three and a half joyous minutes.
“Beautiful Dreamer” is the song its publisher claimed was the last one Stephen Foster ever wrote. Foster biographer Ken Emerson, in Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture, sets the record straight, noting that the publisher, going through some reorganization, just didn’t get around to publishing the song for two years after it was written, issuing it after Foster’s death in 1864. It’s a wonderful tune, but the dated racist lingo and sentiments of many of Foster’s other songs (“Beautiful Dreamer”’s lyrics are very dated, but not racist) will keep it from being covered by someone along the lines of Rufus Wainwright, who could squeeze out the sappiness and leave the beauty.
As I listened to “You Are Too Beautiful” that morning, I thought Johnny & John might inspire me to write a beautiful song, but I don’t think one can set out to write something beautiful. I imagine it has to just emerge from inside, and can’t be forced. And then I think of Richard Rodgers, who wrote so many gorgeous melodies, working under deadlines with a partner who was a drunk, and with asshole producers and temperamental stars making demands. Beauty produced—voila!—on demand and under pressure, time after time. Incredible.
Honorable Mention: “Beautiful Delilah” is not one of Chuck Berry’s best songs, in my opinion; however, I shall invoke a variation on my friend Paul’s “Berry vs. Barry” Rule: Even the worst Chuck Berry song is better than the best Barry Manilow song.
Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “Short People You’re Beautiful” by Jerry McClain. People of all heights should hate this song.
Quota Songs (good songs, but have reached their lifetime quota): “Everything is Beautiful” was right for its time. Let’s just leave it there.
Dream Jukebox Candidate: Alas, I know of no exceptional versions of “You Are Too Beautiful” or “But Beautiful” on 45, but I do have Jimmy Cliff’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” a perfect jukebox song. If I could find it, I’d probably also put Melanie’s “Beautiful People” in the mix, but it only charted in The Netherlands, so that’s a long shot.