James Taylor’s ‘American Standard’ Song by Song

A Journey Back to the Age of Melody

American Standard, the newest album by James Taylor (and subject of the cover story of our next print issue) is a love-letter to song and the songwriters who write them. Like his dear friend and fellow songwriting genius Carole King, JT went to songwriting school – aka as “the college of musical knowledge” – by learning these songs. They were the soundtrack of his parents’ lives, and so a big part of his upbringing, same as with Carole, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Paul Simon and so many of that generation raised on these songs as we were raised on their’s. The sophistication baked into them – the ingenuity of lyrical linguistics, both poignant and clever, merged with gloriously remarkable timless melodicism of the heart – represents to JT a “highwater mark for this art of songwriting.”

“These are songs I have always known,” JT writes in the liner notes to this album. “Most of them were part of my family’s record collection, the first music I heard as a kid growing up in North Carolina. We listened to the cast recordings of the great American musicals: Guys and Dolls, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Brigadoon, Peter Pan, Show Boat, South Pacific

“Before I started writing my own stuff, I learned to play these tunes, working out chord changes for my favorite melodies. And those guitar arrangements became the basis for this album. My collaborator, John Pizzarelli, is a living encyclopedia of the best popular music that the West has ever produced. Like his father, Bucky, he is a master guitarist and a casual, matter-of-fact genius.

“I asked John to come out to Western Massachusetts, where I live and do my recording in a big barn in the middle of the forest, to help me put down some tracks. I’d show him what changes I had found for a handful of songs and we’d work up the arrangements. Several of them begin with what used to be called verses: a few bars, often out of time, to ramp into the tune. These introductions are often left out when people cover the standards but we kept as many as we could for the novelty of it. We had way too much fun but managed to record a couple of basic keepers each day for two weeks in the Fall of 2017.

“My usual MO is to show my changes to a piano player, who takes the arrangement to the band. But there was something extraordinary in the sound of just the two guitars and I was determined to keep that sound at the center of the whole project.”

Several of these songs camre from the Broadway era of shows which were essentially revues. A second cousin of vaudeville and also variety TV, it presented a vast rainbow of entertainers and singers, and always new songs by the greatest songwriters which often became hits.

As Rodgers & Hammerstein and others began writing songs for musicals such as Oklahoma, that had a single narrative arc, the nature of Broadway musical songs, written in character, shifted. The opening song “My Blue Heaven” represents that world before the musicals we know now took over.

But although the structure of the shows shifted radically, the one element that remained constant was song. Always Broadway shows depended on great songs written by the greatest songwriters, both composers and lyricists. Because these songs were written usually not for any one singer, but to exist in a show forever (hopefully), they were conceived as universal songs, with human themes we all share, and always illuminated with timelessly sumptuous melodies – the kind that make the human heart swoon and sway. From this era and tradition, what was created was a singular, unprecedented artistic triumph of timeless art and craft combined, and native to America: the Great American Songbook.

Hearing JT’s resonant, amiable vocals on these classics is pure joy. His vocal presence, as his fans have known for decades, remains one of the most shining elements in our own musical era. His voice always resounds with compassion and focus, like that of a real friend. It’s the reason Carole King knew he should sing her song “You’ve Got A Friend” better than anyone. Because when you hear him sing it, you believe it.

Here is a song by song journey into James Taylor’s American Standard:

Videos by American Songwriter

1. My Blue Heaven (Walter Donaldson-George A. Whiting)

Written by Walter Donaldson with lyrics by George Whiting, it was created for the popular Ziegfeld Follies revue of 1927. It became a big hit in 1928 for the singer Gene Austin with the Victor Orchestra. Selling over five million copies of sheet music – then the measure of a hit – it was then one of the most popular songs of all time. Donaldson wrote the tune at the New York Friar’s club between games of billiard. Whiting wrote the lyrics separately. A true standard, there are hundreds of recordings of it, from Paul Whiteman’s orchestra to Doris Day to a rock & roll Fats Domino version and beyond.

2. Moon River (Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer)

It was written in 1961 for the movie version of Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly. It became one of America’s most beloved songs, second only perhaps to “Over The Rainbow” as both a modern hit and American cultural standard. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Song as well as two Grammys, for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

Evidence that a popular hit has become a genuine standard has to do with how many recordings of it are done. More than 700 different artists have officially recorded this one, including a wide range of musicians including Mancini himself, as well as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Jay & The Americans, Willie Nelson, Ben E. King, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Dr. John, R.E.M., Morrisey, Tommy Emmanuel, and countless others.

Mercer, born in 1909, was considered one of the greatest wordsmiths ever to write popular songs. Some 21 years older than Mancini, they wrote other songs together, including “Days of Wine & Roses” as well as “Charade” for the 1963  movie of the same name, and also Tony Bennett’s “I Wanne Be Around,” and Sinatra’s 1965 hit, “Summer Wind.”

Like “Over The Rainbow,” which MGM execs felt should be cut from Wizard of Oz, the first impression of using “Moon River” in the movie was negative. Paramount head Martin Rackin, after screening the film, said, “I love the picture, fellas, but the f—ng song has to go.”

Audrey Hepburn, though, knew how much this song meant, and objected intensely to removing it. “Over my dead body,” she said. Though she wasn’t much of a singer, Mancini fine-tuned the melody to her limited vocal range, and she made it her own. She famously wrote Mancini these words of thanks for her theme song. “Your music has lifted us all up,” she wrote, “and sent us soaring… You are the hippest of cats, and the most sensitive of composers!” 

3. Teach Me Tonight (Gene De Paul-Sammy Cahn)

Written in 1953 by Gene Paul with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, it became popular quickly. By 1954 four versions were already recorded, starting with one by Janet Brace, and followed with hits by Jo Stafford, Dinah Washington and The DeCastro Sisters. Quickly becoming a jazz standard, it was recorded and performed by Erroll Garner, Louie Armstrong, and many others.

Sammy Cahn, who said always he wasn’t the best songwriter in the world, but “the fastest,” proud of his ability to deliver a song when needed, wrote not one but several new verses for the song to be recorded by Sinatra for the 1984 Quincy Jones-produced album L.A. Is My Lady. Sammy told this writer that like others welcomed into Sinatra’s close circle, he lived vicariously through Frank, and wrote lyrics that matched his essence as only an insider could do. In his new verses, written more than three decades since the tame original, he added lyrics more racy than the original:

Of course, being Sammy, they are written in perfect rhyme, using the old Tin Pan Alley form of a song with no chorus, but a title which comes as a punchline to three rhymed lines. And those rhymes were singularly Sammy rhymes, playfully linking five syllables such as “the ABC of it” with “the mystery of it” and ending with the title.

“Teach Me Tonight,” the new 1984 Sammy Cahn verses for Sinatra:

played loves scenes in a flick or two
And I’ve also met a
chick or two
But I
still can learn a trick or two
teach me tonight

I who thought I knew the score of it
Kind of
think I should know much more of it
Off the wall, the bed, the
floor of it
teach me tonight

The midnight hours come slowly creeping
When there’s no one
there but you
There must be more to life than sleeping
Single in a bed for two

What I need most is post graduate
What I feel is hard to articulate
If you want me to matriculate
better teach me tonight

From “Teach Me Tonight”
by Gene DePaul and Sammy Cahn
New Verses by Sammy Cahn, 1984

4. As Easy As Rolling Off A Log (M.K. Jerome-Jack Scholl)
Written by M. K. Jerome and Jack Scholl, it was first used in the 1937 film Over The Goal, performed by Johnnie Davis and Mabel Todd. The following year it was featured, more famously, in  Katnip Kollege,  a 1938 Merrie Melodies cartoon. Sung by Johnny Cat, inspired by the rhythm of a cuckoo clock, he delivers an arch, jazzy version and also solos on trumpet, all directed towards his beloved, Kitty Bright. When he’s done, the two cats embrace, and then fall off the log stage.

The title actually originates in Willa Cather’s 1915 novel The Song of the Lark, in which a character tells a friend about a girl he could have kissed as “easy as rolling off a log.”

5. Almost Like Being In Love (Frederick Loewe-Alan Jay Lerner)
From the enchanting 1947 musical Brigadoon by lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe. First performed on Broadway by David Brooks, it was sung by Gene Kelly in the 1954 film version. Sinatra had a hit with it in 1947, as did Mary Martin. Nat King Cole recorded it twice, the second of which was used as the closing song in the 1993 Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. Most recently it was performed on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” by Darius de Haas.

6. Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat (Frank Loesser)
With words and music both by Frank Loesser, it was written for the 1950 Broadway musical “Guys and Dolls.” Based on the stories, style and characters in the work of writer Damon Runyon, it brought us a new kind of Broadway musical, peopled with characters not from some mythic kingdom, but from the real streets of New York. It was performed in the show by Stubby Kaye on Broadway and in the 1955 film version, and has since been covered often; the band Harpers Bizarre included it on their third album, and a version by Don Henley was recorded for the soundtrack of the 1992 film Leap of Faith. It was also performed twice on the TV show “Glee.”

7. The Nearness Of You (Hoagy Carmichael-Ned Washington)
Though Hoagy Carmichael was a genius with both words and music, for this song he wrote only the timeless tune, with Ned Washington writing its adoring lyrics. Written in 1938, it became a hit for the Glenn Miller orchestra in 1940 with vocals by Ray Eberle. Many other vocal and instrumental versions followed, including those by Kay Kyser, Dinah Shore and Eddy Howard. Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong including it on their chart-topping 1956 duets album, Ella and Louis, with the great Oscar Peterson on piano and Buddy Rich on drums. In 1962, legendary jazz pianist recorded it as the title song for his album The Nearness of You, Ballads played by Red Garland. His rendition was the inspiration for a song written by this writer with Darryl Purpose, “Red Garland [The Nearness of You],” from his album Still The Birds.

8. You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught (Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II)
From the 1949 musical South Pacific by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” is the most controversial song in the show, and the one many felt should have been removed. Concerning the source of human prejudice, it’s preceded in the show by dialogue suggesting racism is not intrinsic to the human condition, but learned. It’s “not born in you, it happens after you’re born…”

In today’s context, such content seems mild, but in 1949 was deemed genuinely dangerous. When the show toured the American South, a Georgia legislator insisted the song was an implicit “threat to the American way of life” by sanctioning interracial marriage, and should be outlawed.

The songwriters, both from Jewish families who immigrated to America along with the families of almost all songwriters of the Great American Songbook, both defied Broadway and entertainment tradition. They steadfastly championed the song and its message over the success of the show. And the triumphed.

Author James Michener, who wrote the book of stories Tales of the South Pacific on which the show was based, felt they were making a grave mistake. He objected to their insistence that the song “represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.”

It’s ironic that this song, with lyrics by Hammerstein and not Rodger’s first and more controversial lyricist, Lorenz Hart, was so controversial. Hammerstein, who wrote the lyrics for “Oklahoma” and other classic musicals with Rodgers, was quite a different songwriter than the troubled Hart, a closeted, alcoholic homosexual known for darkly ironic lyricism, such as in “My Funny Valentine,” which inverts the love song in a way few songwriters, with the exception of Randy Newman, have done. In that song, Hart substitutes the usual adoration for non-romantic realism: “Your looks are laughable/unphotographable…” Hammerstein’s oeuvre was more involved with the sunny simplicity of American life, eluding romantic and political content to sing, “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day….”
Though with different lyrical tendencies, both Hart and Hammerstein were remarkably gifted lyricists, each with a genius for matching the gloriously tuneful, sophisticated melodies of Richard Rodgers with lyrics of great grace and perfection. Like Sammy Cahn and other lyricists of the era for whom the elements of craft — rhyme, meter, singability, syllabic stress and linguistic economy – were forever paramount, Hammerstein always injected great elegance into every song, even this, which is essentially a protest song about human intolerance.

Today, now headlong into the 21st century, the lyrics seem surprisingly tame. Yet the message, linked as always to rich melodicism and beautiful lyricism, comes across with stunning clarity:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

 From “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”
By Rodgers & Hammerstein.

9. God Bless The Child (Billie Holiday-Arthur Herzog Jr.)
It is Billie Holiday’s essential song, which she both wrote and performed. It projects a message which James Taylor, in our upcoming interview, refers to as a cold one to receive from the universe, that one better take care of themselves, as nobody else will.

In her autobiography, Billie said the seeds of the song were sown by an argument with her mother about money. She had loaned her mother a lot, yet when she needed help, her mother never repaid her. Instead her mother said to her, “God bless the child that’s got his own.” With Arthur Herzog, she used that line as the foundation for the song, written in  1939 though but not recorded until May of 1941. She recorded it again in 1956 for her album Lady Sings The Blues.

Some writers suggested it was profane for what they perceived as a dismissal of God’s power to protect us. In fact, it’s connected to the ancient wisdom of God helping those that help themselves.

10. Pennies From Heaven (Arthur Johnston-Johnny Burke)
It’s a song which reflects a 1930s mindset in America, that of steely optimism fused with understandable anxiety. There’s the expression of faith, that heaven will provide when earthly straits turn dire. But there’s also the underlying anxiety that there is nowhere to turn for sustenance but to God, and the hope he will rain pennies to save us.

Written by Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston as the title songs for 1936 movie starring Bing Crosby. Back then, having a song performed by Bing Crosby – then one of the biggest and beloved stars America as ever known, both as popular singer and avuncular movie presence – was a songwriter’s dream, as almost everything he touched turned to gold. The song became one of the biggest and most recorded songs of the 1930s, and one of that decade’s most quintessential American anthems.

The song not only essays the American spirit of faith and hope leavened with reality, it also projects the budding historical schizophrenia of this country from the wild abandon of the 1920s to the dark storms of the 1930s and beyond into the Great Depression. Americans then, as they have been in certain circles ever since, were encouraged by the song to remain hopeful, but not crazy. No one was promising millions of dollars raining down on America, not in the 1930s. Not even nickels or dimes. But pennies, yes. That much seemed possible, if not likely. And when Bing Crosby sang it, it was hard not to believe. Since then, many of the greatest singers recorded it, including Billie Holiday in 1936. Sinatra recorded it twice, once with Count Basie, and popular versions were also recorded by Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington, Stan Getz, Dean Martin, Louis Prima, and many others. It is Louie Prima’s 1957 version which is used prominently in the 2003 movie Elf, starring Will Farrell.

11. My Heart Stood Still (Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart)
Another song by a man considered one of the greatest American melodists of all time, Richard Rodgers, it was written in 1927, has lyrics by Rodgers’ first collaborator, Lorenz “Larry” Hart. Like a lot of famous songs, it was written to a title that emerged from real life. Rodgers and Hart, who wrote Broadway shows as well as popular musicals designed for London’s West End were in London working in a revue starring Charles Cochran called One Dam Thing at the London Pavilion. During a little trip to France with two young ladies, they took a taxi from Paris to Versailles. Heading back to Paris, they were almost driven off the road by a speeding truck. One of the women was so rattled, she cried out that she was so scared that her heart stood still. Hart instructed Rodgers to jot down the title, which the lyricist later used as the title for the song. But first Rodgers – as he often did – composed a melody that embodied the title, and played the tune for Hart, who loved it. Oddly, and perhaps due to his alcoholism, Hart had no memory of the near-crash. But it didn’t stop him, and in very little time he crafted the famous words, which substitute the actual source of the title – fear – with love:

Though not a single word was spoken
I could tell you knew
That unfelt claps of hands
Told me so well you knew
I never lived at all
Until the thrill of that moment
When my heart stood still

From “My Heart Stood Still”
By Rodgers & Hart

Rodgers and Hart used the song also in their Broadway musical A Connecticut Yankee, 1927. It became a beloved standard after being performed and recorded by a vast swath of singers, including Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw, Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Rod Stewart and even The Mamas and The Papas, on their self-titled second album. .

12. Ol’ Man River (Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II)
With a classic melody of sorrow and hope by Jerome Kern, and words by Oscar Hammerstein, it was written for the 1927 musical Show Boat. It’s now a famous and beloved American standard, forever linked to the voice and heroic spirit of Paul Robeson, who sang it in the show and throughout the rest of his career. Yet its lyrics have been the source of much controversy for decades and have been continually changed; even Robeson, later in his career, sang changed lyrics.

It’s a show which balances the timely struggles of blacks in the South with the timeless flow of the Mississippi. This song is sung by Joe, the black stevedore of a showboat, who sings the famous tune starting with an extremely low bass note that Robeson – and few humans ever since – could sing with resonant vigor. The song is reprised many times in the show, using this natural imagery of the ages, so resonant that it’s become one of popular song’s most potent symbols. *

The song was a hit for many, including Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, Bing Crosby and even The Temptations. Yet to this day the song persists in echoing racism which is deep in the American soul. Second only perhaps to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in terms of being a beloved cultural artifact with racism baked into its core, still the song, like the book, persists.

In the original includes a verse referring to the blacks on the Mississippi with the n-word, which was later changed many times, first to another racist term, then the not much better “colored people.” Even Robeson changed the words. In most later versions, that verse was simply omitted.

James Taylor, in his version, evokes the brave spirit of Robeson, even starting on that low bass note so low it sounds like another singer at first. Until that famous voice ascends inside that iconic tune, and it’s immediately obvious it’s nobody but James. The man has a large vocal range, even bigger than we knew.

13. It’s Only A Paper Moon (Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg-Billy Rose)
One of many famous songs which emerged from a movie or show mostly forgotten now, evidence of the undeniable power of song. Written by composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg (the same team who wrote “Over The Rainbow” and other classics), and also credited to Billy Rose in 1933, it had a different name – “If You Believed In Me,” and was featured in the 1932 Broadway show “The Great Magoo,” set in Coney Island. It was a flop, but had one thing going for it – that great song. Renamed by its more popular title, “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” it persisted due to countless cover versions, including hits by Paul Whitman with Bunny Berigan on trumpet, and a 1933 Cliff Edwards records. But it was during the last years of World War II that the song, with its comforting lyrics evoking a carefree American spirit so many yearned for then, made a major comeback. Nat “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman all had hits with it. Since then it’s been recorded thousands of time – and by some of our greatest recording artists, including Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson, as well almost all the most luminous jazz luminaries of the past century, including Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Lionel Hampton, Stephane Grapelli, Django Reinhardt, George Shearing and Oscar Peterson. There’s also a lovely version of John Pizzarelli, who also joins James Taylor brilliantly on this and every song on the album, their two guitars joined in a duet of unbound invention and grace.

14. The Surrey With The Fringe On Top (Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II)
Another one by Rodgers and Hammerstein, this one from their 1943 show Oklahoma, which like many of James’ famous songs, introduced beautiful country imagery into popular song. On Broadway in that era, most shows were set in cities, with urban imagery. This one, though still urbane, reflects an old-world sensibility comforting then in 1943, like “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” during the final years of WWII when Americans longed for their carefree past. It’s a song in which the main character, Curly, tries to get a date with Laurey by luring her with this promise of a fancy vehicle, setting the path for all ther rock & roll car songs soon to come.

It was the one song which became a hit from the show, and also a jazz standard. Distinguished by Rodgers’ unusual repeat of seven notes, the song – and that aspect – attracted many jazz greats such as Ahmad Jamal and Miles Davis to reinvent the song in wondrous ways, shifting its harmonies as JT does on his version.

Ironically, Rodgers didn’t appreciate the jazz versions at all. His melodies, he felt, were perfect, and the sound of people taking liberties with them irritated him. Such is the life of a songwriter.

*Sure, songwriters through the ages have always relied on natural imagery to symbolize the human experience. Forever there are songs with the ocean, trees, stars, the moon, snow, rain and sun. Yet the river – especially in English – is a symbol at the heart of countless songs, including many from the rock & roll era and beyond. It starts with the standards such as this, “Moon River,” and Arthur Hamilton’s beautiful “Cry Me A River.” But let’s not forget Hank Williams’ “Tennessee River,” Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” John Fogerty’s “Green River,” Al Green’s “Take Me To The River,” Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” Joni Mitchell’s “River,” Neil Young’s “Down By The River,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers To Cross,” Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep Mountain High” (written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector), Eminem and Ed Sheeran’s “River,” Garth Brooks’ “The River,” Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River” and Bob Dylan’s “Watching The River Flow,” to name but a few.

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