I did not start seriously writing lyrics until I was in my thirties, at which time the endeavor became the centerpiece of my life. Following are a few of the lyrics that are never absent from my head very long. There are probably hundreds more.
“Night and Day”
Lyrics and music: Cole Porter
In The Gay Divorcée, it’s so charming the way Fred Astaire segues from plain-spoken conversation into the dramatic eight-line verse of “Night and Day” with a self-mocking air, like “I’m laying it on a little thick and I don’t care.” That verse has everything: onomatopoeia, cunning rhyme, not a wasted word. It instantly draws you into the rapturous dance of the song. Frank Sinatra’s performance of “Night and Day” on Sinatra & Strings, arranged by Don Costa, is deep and intense, Frank at his most romantic. “This torment won’t be through/Till you let me spend my life making love to you” sounds like the sexiest marriage proposal of all time.
Lyrics, Jon Hendricks; music: Ralph Burns
As with all the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross tunes, the vocal arrangement and the writing are interwoven. Some of the highlights of “Bijou,” for me, are the way the “ee” and “oo” syllables of the title work as a syncopated background part, Jon playing with the rhythm in the foreground; how the lyrics take us from one musical feel to another, exotic to hard swing and back again; and how at 1:14 (on the 1960 Hottest New Group in Jazz recording), suddenly we’re in Istanbul.
Lyrics: Andy Razaf; music: Fats Waller and Harry Brooks
Like the one-chorus “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” which Razaf wrote with Don Redman, it’s a soulful song about being madly, happily in love. Louis Armstrong liked the changes on “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which brought him fame when he was coaxed to climb out of the orchestra pit of Connie’s Hot Chocolates and wound up playing it on stage every night. There are lots of great versions, including the one by Fats.
“Down to You”
Lyrics and music: Joni Mitchell
This is the song from Joni’s Court and Spark, arranged by Tom Scott, that had the most impact on me. She seems to be talking about a lover, but sometimes it’s as if she’s referring to herself. My favorite parts are “Old friends seem indifferent. You must have brought that on,” and “You’re a kind person; you’re a cold person too.”
“Another Hundred People”
Lyrics and music: Stephen Sondheim
I love “Another Hundred People” for its tongue-twisting lines, and the progression of Sondheim’s genius music and lyrics together, growing more exciting with every bar. It is one of the most New York songs ever written. My mom took me to see Company on Broadway, and I’ve never gotten over hearing Pamela Myers sing “Another Hundred People.”
“Something to Live For”
Lyrics and music: Billy Strayhorn
These lyrics are based on a poem Strayhorn wrote when he was a teenager. A heartbreaking piece (challenging for a vocalist), penned by one of the most rarefied creators in jazz. Strayhorn endured profound sadness in his life, while reaching supreme artistic heights during his seemingly destined musical partnership with Duke Ellington. This was their first collaboration. Decades later, Nina Simone did an unforgettable version. Strayhorn’s mournful question, “Why can’t I have love like that brought to me?,” and the vision of him searching the promenade for a face that might never appear make this lyric a pair with his famous one for “Lush Life,” which features another melody not for the faint of heart.
“Someone to Watch Over Me”
Lyrics: Ira Gershwin; music: George Gershwin (title: Howard Dietz)
In a song, of course, music means everything. Though this title and the previous one are similar, Ira’s brother George composed a ravishing melody that expresses hope, an inkling that one’s beloved is out there somewhere. When Ella Fitzgerald sings it with Nelson Riddle’s classic arrangement, she doesn’t break up “man some” in the line “Although he may not be the man some girls think of as handsome,” keeping the internal rhyme intact! It’s a beautiful thing.
Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all the songs in this Artist’s Choice: