I just received word that August is National Romance Month. Since the month is almost over, let me add my two-cents worth to the subject by writing about a song that is about the genesis of romantic awareness, or at least how it was perceived in 1945. That song is I’m Beginning To See The Light.
I’m Beginning To See The Light is a classic American popular song and jazz standard, written by bandleaders Duke Ellington and Harry James, and alto-saxophonist Johnny Hodges, with lyrics by Don George in 1944.
Don George’s lyrics for I’m Beginning To See The Light deal with romantic images and with the witty use of a list of “light” images such as “lantern-shine” and “rainbows in my wine” to which the singer was impervious until falling in love. The song ends by using one of the oldest songwriting clichés – the mixing of metaphors, in this case, of light and heat: “but now that your lips are burning mine, I’m beginning to see the light.”
Ellington’s melody was a difficult one for which to write a workable lyric, but Don George was up to the task. Notice that each section of the song consists of the same, driving vamp-like phrase repeated three times over before the melody finally changes. George solved this problem and heightened its musical insistence by using the same rhyme for the first three lines of each section. To understand what I mean, here are his lyrics:
I never cared much for moonlit skies
I never wink back at fireflies
But now that the stars are in your eyes
I’m beginning to see the light
I never went in for afterglow
Or candlelight on the mistletoe
But now when you turn the lamp down low
I’m beginning to see the light
Used to ramble through the park
Shadowboxing in the dark
Then you came and caused a spark
That’s a four-alarm fire now
I never made love by lantern-shine
I never saw rainbows in my wine
But now that your lips are burning mine
I’m beginning to see the light
I’m Beginning To See The Light was one of the first recordings that Duke Ellington made after the lifting of the American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban, which was called in August 1942 as a result of the union’s belief that mechanical reproduction of records was ruining the careers of live performing musicians.
(I will digress for a few paragraphs to give you some information about an almost forgotten slice of recording history. I promise I will return to the subject at hand once I finish with this little detour.)
On August 1, 1942, the American Federation of Musicians, at the instigation of its president James Petrillo, started a strike against the major American recording companies because of disagreements over royalty payments. Beginning at midnight, July 31, no union musician could record for any record company.
The strike did not affect musicians performing on live radio shows, in concerts, or, after October 27, 1943, on special recordings made by the record companies for V-Discs for distribution to the armed forces fighting World War II, because V–Discs were not available to the general public. However, the union did frequently threaten to withdraw musicians from the radio networks to punish individual network affiliates who were deemed “unfair” for violating the union’s policy on recording network shows for repeat broadcasts.
Petrillo had long thought that recording companies should pay royalties. When he announced that the recording ban would start at midnight, July 31, 1942, most people thought it would not happen. America had just entered World War II on December 8, 1941 and most newspapers opposed the ban. By July, it was clear that the ban would take place and record companies began to stockpile new recordings of their big names. In the first two weeks of July, these performers recorded new material: Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby, Charlie Barnet, Jimmy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, and Glenn Miller, who recorded his last records as a civilian bandleader. At first, the record companies could release these new recordings to meet listeners’ needs from their unissued stockpiles, but eventually this supply was exhausted. The companies also re–released deleted records from their back catalogues, including some from as far back as the mid-1920s. As the strike extended into 1943, record companies bypassed the striking musicians by recording their popular vocalists singing with vocal groups filling the backup role normally filled by orchestras. Examples of such recordings include Goodbye, Sue by Perry Como (1943), Sunday, Monday, or Always by Bing Crosby (1943), and You’ll Never Know by Dick Haymes (1943).
The strike had an effect on radio shows that used recorded music due to the limited amount of new recordings. Record companies were asked to pay royalties to the union, and eventually they complied. The strike ended on November 11, 1944.
Recording artists had a new beginning and Duke Ellington was no exception. He was eager to record a version of his already-popular song, I’m Beginning To See The Light. He recorded the song for Victor, with vocals by Joya Sherrill and it hit the charts in February, 1945.
Ellington’s version was joined by a recording by Harry James and his Orchestra (Actually, James’ version hit the charts earlier and climbed higher than Ellington’s), followed in April 1945 by Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots, featuring Bill Kenny. In later years, such artists as Louis Armstrong took a crack at the song when he and Duke Ellington recorded together in 1961. The song was also featured in the award-winning 1981 Broadway show Sophisticated Ladies, a musical revue based on the music of Duke Ellington; Harry James’ version appeared in the 2000 film My Dog Skip; and Jonathan and Darlene Edwards (alias Paul Weston and Jo Stafford) parodied the song out-of-key in their 1960s album Darlene Remembers Duke. (I have included the song in this post. It is hard to believe that you are hearing the always pitch-perfect Jo Stafford murdering this song! No one would ever think of this version as a romantic ballad!!)
Others who have recorded the song include Rosemary Clooney, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, Johnnie Ray, Billy Eckstine (recorded the song many times: with Billy May, with Quincy Jones, with Bobby Tucker and with Gil Asky), Peggy Lee, Michael Bublé, Joe Jackson (recorded a cover of the song for his Duke Ellington tribute album, The Duke.)
To listen to the various versions, click on the song title.
Harry James and his Orchestra, vocals by Kitty Kallen (#1) I’m Beginning To See The Light
Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots featuring Bill Kenny (#5) I’m Beginning To See The Light
Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, vocals by Joya Sherrill (#6) I’m Beginning to See the Light
Other songs mentioned in this post.
Perry Como,(background singers: Mixed Chorus consisting of Anna-Jean Merrill, Elise Bretton, Diane Carol, Virginia Black, Barbara Allen, Richard E. Campbell, Robert G. Lange, Richard Paige, William Paige and Morgan Davies) Goodbye, Sue
Bing Crosby, (background singers, Ken Darby Singers) Sunday, Monday or Always
Dick Haymes, (background singers, The Song Spinners) You’ll Never Know
Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, I’m Beginning To See The Light
Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, I’m Beginning To See The Light