Love is a many-splendored thing, as the songbook lyric goes, and as Clifford Brown and Max Roach reminded us just over half a century ago. For this Valentine’s-week edition of our Take Five column, we thought it would be fitting to explore the theme of love and romance — and heartbreak — from a few different angles. Here are five tracks selected by some of the on-air hosts of our popular programs at WBGO.
Tony Bennett, “Here’s That Rainy Day”
I’ve played songs on the radio for 45 years, and I believe that about 95% of the songs I’ve played are love songs. Not always with “love” in the titles. There have been countless songs about the moon — but the moon, like everything else in the American Popular Songbook, is mostly metaphoric. My favorite love songs usually have a lyric, sometimes one phrase, or a moment in a melody that echoes. Whenever pressed for “the greatest love song,” I’ve often answered “Here’s That Rainy Day,” composed by Jimmy Van Heusen with lyrics by Johnny Burke, and sung first in a Broadway flop called Carnival in Flanders. Sinatra’s record is one of the best, but I think Tony Bennett sounds even better on his album in tribute to Sinatra, especially as Tony opens the song with a heart-breaking wail.
Abbey Lincoln, “Strong Man”
I once interviewed Abbey Lincoln at her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and for about two hours I was totally under her spell. If you have ever experienced Abbey’s singing, it is not hard to imagine how this can happen. She recalled once telling Oscar Brown, Jr. — the great poet, playwright and singer-songwriter — that she was tired of singing songs about no good men. His answer was to write the ballad “Strong Man,” which Abbey recorded in 1957 on her album That’s Him, with all-star ensemble including Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone, Wynton Kelly on piano and her soon-to-be husband, Max Roach, on drums.
René Marie, “Go Home”
Some of the greatest love songs are sad songs. I have always thought Nancy Wilson’s album title Yesterday’s Love Songs/Today’s Blues was so apropos. And I’ve never completely given into the notion that sad songs are completely melancholy. In a way they are wise, and often a source of strength and encouragement. The brilliant singer-songwriter René Marie’s original song “Go Home,” from her Grammy-nominated album Sound Of Red, exquisitely concocts a love poem of sorrow, enlightenment and real life. She sings:
I see where this is headed
And I’d love to go along
But you've got some ties that bind you
To a place I don't belong
With a soulful cry in her voice, and strength to be admired, she lets go of a love she knows she cannot hold on to. As the old adage goes, “If you love someone, set them free. If they come back, they're yours; if they don’t, they never were.”
Laurence Harvey / Herbie Mann, “This is My Beloved”
This is My Beloved covers the course of one man’s experience in love — from the beginning of a love affair through its magical times, and on to the pain of its ending. With Herbie Mann’s Afro Cuban band as the bed, the poetry of Walter Benton comes alive with hipness; actor Lawrence Harvey’s ability to translate this work from the 1940s is splendid. (Arthur Prysock tried his hand at the same concept years later, but this is the masterpiece.) All throughout the recording, Herbie Mann and his band — guys like percussionist Ray Mantilla and bassist Ahmed Adbul-Malik — provide just the right musical context. There’s one line that still makes me stop on the corner of East 10 Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan, decades after my first reading. It’s the moment when, in his loneliness, Benton walks the streets at night: "By St. Mark's Church under the iron fence, a girl was crying.”
Frank Sinatra, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”
Countless songwriters have endeavored to define love, no songwriter more so than Cole Porter. “What Is This Thing Called Love?” is Porter’s most definitive. And then there’s “(Is It) At Long Last Love?” Or: “Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it / Let’s do it, Let’s fall in love.” Louis Armstrong sings Porter’s biological accounting better than anyone, with Oscar Peterson. Frank Sinatra sings another definitive Porter tune and lyric, “I Get a Kick Out of You” — but for me the best song Frank Sinatra ever recorded, especially because of an explosive arrangement by Nelson Riddle, is Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”