"My Funny Valentine"

If you listen to any swing music, its quite likely you've heard "My Funny Valentine", a song written by Rodgers and Hart for the Broadway show "Babes in Arms". I'd certainly heard it many times - to give you a sense of perspective, its appeared on literally more than 1300 jazz, swing and pop albums. The Ella version here is a favorite of mine, but for a little variety, try Angela McCluskey, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, or even Bjork. Honestly, pretty much whatever kind of music you like, there's probably SOMEONE who's covered My Funny Valentine. Heavy Metal... well, I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised.

The first time I heard this song, myself, it was because we were playing it for jazz band in high school, and I was in LOVE with it. The tune on its own, the chord progression is utterly heartbreaking, filled this terrible longing - if it hadn't been so cheesed so many times by so many people, I think it would still appeal to many people's teenage hearts (to say nothing of adult).

But, we played an instrumental. So, being already a big fan of The Ella, I HAD to go find the song sung by... well, someone. So I did, and I was SO dissapointed.

It isn't that Ella performs it badly (although I have to confess that I have a version of this song in my head, that I've never heard anyone perform). She does it beautifully. So does, say, Barbara Streisand. But... the lyrics?

My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Yet you're my favourite work of art

Is your figure less than greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart? 

But don't change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is valentines day

They're lovely lyrics, quirky, silly, clever, funny. Not heartbreaking. They felt like they should be a fun little jaunty tune. Something you'd sing with a wink. Something like, say, 'A Fine Romance', or 'Ain't Nobody's Business'.

So, here's the story as to why.

Lorenz Hart, the lyricist of My Funny Valentine, is one of the great show tune writers of the first half of the century, right up there with Cole Porter, say, or Oscar Hammerstein. He wrote a whole row of my favorites - if I had to recommend one, it would probably be Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.

Actually I'm cheating a bit - Bewitched is definitely one of my favorites, but it also helps tell a little story. The beginning of the lyrics has a little trick in it that reminded me, when I first heard it, of Valentine: "Love is not a new sensation/I've done pretty well I think,/But this halfpint imitation/Put me on the brink." Two songs, now, where the lovesick singer croons over the physical shortcomings of the lover? Sure, Gershwin wrote lyrics like "Though he may not be the man some girls think of as handsome, to my heart he carries the key," but that sounds, if anything, a bit defensive, not bemusedly indulgent.

Hart was, is it turns out, an unattractive man - I don't say this to denigrate him, but to paraphrase him. Hart was frequently voluble about his own unattractiveness. Between his ugliness, I'd suggest his lack of self-confidence, and the fact that he was a homosexual in the 40's and 50's, Hart was alone his entire life, and his popular image was of a runty, ugly-faced man continuously wreathed in cigar smoke and the scent of alcohol.

If he had been a cynic about all of this, he would have been the sort of amusing sexless character you see in old movies of the 40's - take, for example, the rival bar owner who buys Rick's at the end of Casablanca. But, the man wrote love songs for a living, and by most accounts, believed every word of them. He was a hopeless romantic, a born lover with no one to love - or at least noone to love him back. Hart was a tremendously lonely man, and suffered from frequent bouts of crippling depression - this same was likely the source of that continual stink of alcohol.

The story of My Funny Valentine comes in here. One night, heart-broken, lonely, and miserable, Hart went into his bathroom, and stared in the mirror. He looked long and hard at the face he felt like a foreigner inside of, and tried desperately to imagine, to conceive of the possiblity, of someone looking him straight in the face, and being in love with him. Then, he wrote what someone who loved him might say to him, what a love song would sound like, if it was sung to him.

The result was My Funny Valentine. Rodgers wrote the music for it, knowing full well where the song had come from. And the song appeared on Broadway, and became an instant hit, a song full of longing, yes, but not hte longing of the singer: the longing of the listener.

Six years later, heartbroken by the death of his mother, Hart got pneumonia, his body broken by heavy binge drinking. He was found alone in a hotel room, when he didn't show up for several days to the musical he was helping to write. He died a few days later in a hospital, and was buried in Queens.

And that's the story.


Trapunto said...

In my head, it's always the the Chet Baker version.

Jason Gignac said...

Interesting, the voice, the trumpet or both? Did you hear post 50's jazz growing up, or in college?

Trapunto said...

Voice with trumpet interludes. I listened to a CD briefly about two years ago, (a gift someone else requested, but it was a used CD so I wanted to check out that it played properly) but it seems I've heard the same version on the radio here and there too over the years. All the jazz I've heard has been accidental, but it adds up.

I also meant to say, that is a terribly sad story.

Jason Gignac said...

It is, isn't it? And I don't know how to rewrite it to make it happy, even.

Yes, that's the Chet Baker version I've heard - I am curious if you liked it. I didn't, but many, many people disagree with me.

I listened to the Ella version for three hours at work the other day, and just abotu bawled my eyes out. That feeling inside of it, of the deep desire to find out suddenly that one's faults are virtues that you just failed to recognize is poignant and heartrending.