My old flame

The art on sheet music covers can be elegant:

photo-1 Or it can be campy:

photo-2I don’t know how I came to have this well-worn book in my sheet music collection, but the cover photo always makes me laugh. So over the top. That’s Gertrude Niesen, contralto femme fatale, popular during the 1930s and 40s.

Niesen specialized in torch songs, which get their name from Greek mythology and the story of Orpheus, who carried a torch into the underworld in search of his beloved Eurydice.

My Gertrude Niesen book of torch songs runs the schizophrenic gamut from “I’m in the Mood for Love” to “I’m Through with Love.”

Torch songs are songs of longing, like “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” Here is Billie’s Holiday’s soulful rendition:

Unrequited love features prominently in the torch song genre, as in:

  • “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You” (1932), music by Victor Young, words by Ned Washington and Bing Crosby
  • “I Can’t Get Started with You” (1935), music by Vernon Duke, words by Ira Gershwin
  • “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” (1941), music by Duke Ellington, words by Paul Francis Webster

Another interesting entry in this category is “I Wanna Be Around (to Pick up the Pieces).” Sadie Vimmerstedt, who lived in Youngstown, Ohio, sent Johnny Mercer the opening line (and the title, as it turns out) for the song in 1957. He credited Vimmerstedt as co-writer, and gave her a cut of the royalties, a lucrative arrangement after Tony Bennett’s hit recording in 1963.

The torch song that launched Niesen’s career was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from the 1933 Broadway musical Roberta. I’ve always appreciated the clever rhyme of the lyrics: When your heart’s on fire, you must realize, smoke gets in your eyes…

Enjoy a taste of Niesen’s sultry voice. Pitch perfect for a torch song.

Copyright © 2015 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in Music and emotion, Music history, Sheet music and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to My old flame

  1. Sandy says:

    Very interesting blog, Paulette. I really enjoyed it.

  2. Jessa says:

    No Kismet cover for you? Haha. You should blog about the Sharkey’s and their musical preferences.

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