Apr 12, 2016

Matt Dennis' "Angel Eyes," "St. James Infirmary," and "DYKWIMTMNO"

One of the bluesiest jazz ballads is Matt Dennis' "Angel Eyes," lyrics by Earl Brent. It's been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and many others. Here's Chet Baker, in a rather dark version:




You'll find differing versions of the chords, depending on what source you consult. Looking just at the "A" section, here is the original sheet music (it's in Dm, while most current fakebook versions are in Cm). Click to enlarge:


As is common with sheet music versions, the piano part probably represents the composer's intentions fairly well, while the chord symbols attempt, not always successfully, to provide a sort of vertical cross-section that will work for a guitarist trying to play along. In any case, this tune has been re-harmonized by several generations of musicians, in varying ways.

One spot subject to reharmonization is the first bar, beats 3 and 4: What is the best way to harmonize the b5 blues lick in the melody? The sheet music, above, does it with two diminished chords. Bearing in mind that the following versions put the tune into the key of Cm, here are a few other ways to play it:
  • The old bootleg Real Book uses two beats of a bVIdom chord (Ab7, in the key of C).
  • The Hal Leonard "6th Edition" Real Book uses one beat each of Dm7b5 and G7#5 (this doesn't work well, IMO).
  • The Sher Music "New Real Book" uses one beat each of D7 and G7, but also shows the diminished chord harmonization as an alternative, as well as another take on the first bar: | Cm/C Eb/C D/C Db/C | , one beat each.
Check the nice descending bass line in the sheet music, going lower, as fits the mood of the song.

I don't want to get too caught up in the harmonization issues here, but if you compare the sheet music above to just about any fake book version (bearing in mind that the sheet music is in D minor), you'll see some other differences. You can decide for yourself what works best. I'd go with Sher.

Regarding the bridge:

The bridge to "Angel Eyes" goes like this in the sheet music (shown here in the now-current overall key of C minor):

|| Bbm7  Eb7b9 | Abmaj7  Adim7 | Bbm7  Eb7b9 |   Abmaj7      |

|    Am7    D7   |  Gmaj7             |   F#7#5   F#7   |   G7   G7#5   ||

The last two bars here are generally revised to |  C#m7  F#7   |   Dm7  G7   ||, in keeping with modern players' predilection for II V sequences.

The bridge sections of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans," "Everything Happens to Me," and "This Masquerade" all follow the same pattern as "Angel Eyes" - that is, II V I twice, then II V I down a half step, followed by a 2-bar sequence to set up the return to the last "A" section.

The similarities between the bridges of these tunes made me wonder which one was written first. Here's the chronology:

1941 - "Everything Happens to Me" (music by Matt Dennis)
1946 - "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" (Louis Alter)
1946 - "Angel Eyes" (Matt Dennis)
 ("This Masquerade," written in 1972 by Leon Russell, is an outlier)

The melodies of the bridges to "Angel Eyes" and "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" (henceforth referred to as "DYKWIMTMNO") are also very, very similar, in both melodic rhythm and in melodic contour. Here's Billie Holiday:




It's as though one composer had copied the other on the bridge, but that's impossible to really know. Both tunes were composed in 1946, and both were released to the public in 1947 - "DYKWIMTMNO" as a song in the movie musical "New Orleans" (the clip above), "Angel Eyes" in a recording by Herb Jeffries. It's hard to know which one came first, and it seems unlikely that either Dennis or Alter could have heard the other one's song before it was publicly released. However, Alter had certainly heard Dennis' "Everything Happens to Me" previously, since that tune dates from 1941, with a popular recording by Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey.





Alter's "DYKWIMTMNO" starts in C, with the bridge moving to the key of Ab, then G. "Angel Eyes" moves similarly. That is, in both cases the bridge starts in the key of the b6. "Everything Happens to Me" moves differently, starting in Bb, with the bridge in Eb, then D (bridge starts in the key of the 4).

Perhaps Alter liked the chord pattern in "Everything," and used it in "DYKWIMTMNO," whereupon Dennis wrote it again into "Angel Eyes," swiping the melodic contours of Alter's bridge and the key relationship to the "A" section as well. Probably not, though, right?



Both composers were excellent musicians. Matt Dennis was a jazz pianist and singer as well as a songwriter (he also wrote "Let's Get Away From it All," "The Night We Called it a Day," and "Violets for Your Furs"). Louis Alter was a pianist who began writing for films in 1929, and later appeared as a pianist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Alter too wrote a number of hits, including "You Turned the Tables On Me").

You can hear Matt Dennis singing and playing "Angel Eyes" in the 1953 movie "Jennifer," in the video below, at 55:22.






Here's Matt Dennis singing and playing "Everything Happens to Me," including some additional amusing lyrics:




Regarding the "A" section of "Angel Eyes":

I hear a definite similarity to "St. James Infirmary" in melodic contour, in underlying harmony, and in its minor-key b5 blues licks (discussed in this earlier post). And in mood too, for that matter. Here's the Louis Armstrong recording from 1928:




I don't have any final answers here on the relationship between any of these tunes or their possible derivation, I'm afraid - just observations.

In a tangential matter, perhaps you have noticed that the melody of "House of the Rising Sun" is very close to "St. James Infirmary." I did a little internet research on this. It turns out that "House of the Rising Sun" has two completely different melodies. There is an earlier, major-key version of the song, recorded by a number of folk performers beginning in the 1930s - check Youtube for versions by Leadbelly, Georgia Turner, Ashley & Foster, and Roy Acuff. The minor-key version (e.g., as recorded by Eric Burdon and the Animals in 1964) was first recorded by Josh White in 1950. White seems to have combined the "House" lyrics with the "St. James" melody.

The melody to "St. James Infirmary" was first recorded in 1924, as part of an instrumental called "Charleston Cabin," by Whitey Kaufman's Pennsylvania Serenaders. In 1927, the lyrics were recorded by Fess Williams and His Royal Flush Orchestra under the title "Gambler's Blues" (note: Fess Williams was Charles Mingus' uncle...but I digress). The first recording of melody and lyrics under the title "St. James Infirmary" seems to have been Armstrong's, in 1928.

Finally, here is a great 1933 Cab Calloway version of "St. James." It was just too good not to include. Cab sings at 4:21:




For more on "St. James Infirmary," check out this interesting essay by Rob Walker.

For more on Matt Dennis, here's a great article by Gene Lees.

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