The Making of a Masterpiece…
Join Jazz aficionado Peter Gardner as this time he takes a look at the origins of ‘Body and Soul’…
It would become one of the world’s most recorded songs. One recorded performance would reach artistic heights rarely exceeded in the history of jazz. As the result of that performance, the tune would become something of a test piece for jazz musicians, particularly tenor saxophonists. Yet, some accounts of the song’s origins give little hint of the memorable things that were to follow.
When Charlot’s Review of 1926 left Broadway’s Selwyn Theatre and went on tour, one of the stars of the show, the English actress and singer, Gertrude Lawrence, went on the tour as well. When the review opened in Boston, Harvard students flocked to the show, “many of whom”, Gertrude Lawrence would later recall, “had already seen the show in New York several times over, and had come backstage and were friends of the cast. Johnny Green was one of them” (Lawrence, 1945, p. 135).
Johnny Waldo Green had gone to Harvard in 1924 when he was only fifteen and, according to Lawrence, by 1926 he wasn’t just a friend of the cast, he was teaching her the saxophone as well. On hearing one of her attempts to play the instrument while in Boston, Green is said to have cried out, “My God, it sounds like a French taxicab”. Lawrence continues the story: “I found out in 1929 that those discordant notes on the saxophone were the inspiration for one of Johnny’s greatest song hits, ‘Body and Soul’. I took the song to England with me and later gave it to Libby Holman in New York, where she sang it and made Johnny famous over night” (1945, p. 136).
So, there you have it, give or take a pinch or two of salt: the chorus of ‘Body and Soul’ is in the standard AABA form, and what I take to be the start of the A sections, the melody behind ‘My heart is sad and’, ‘I spend my days in’ and ‘My life a wreck you’re’, was inspired by saxophonist Gertrude Lawrence making a noise like the klaxon of a French taxicab.
The supposed origins of the middle-eight or bridge for ‘Body and Soul’ also give little hint that great things were to follow. In 1928 Johnny Green wrote a song for Guy Lombardo’s orchestra, but singer and composer, Carmen Lombardo, Guy’s younger brother, dismissed the bridge of Green’s song as “unconventional” and rewrote the middle-eight along more acceptable lines, which is why John W. Green and Carmen Lombardo are listed as the composers of ‘Coquette’, copyrighted 1928 (See Friedwald, 2002, pp. 146-147).
Not someone to have his ideas easily dismissed and since he had a deadline to meet, Green apparently recycled the discarded bridge from ‘Coquette’ and used it in ‘Body and Soul’. And, over eighty years later, the middle-eight of ‘Body and Soul’ still doesn’t sound conventional; if we play the tune in D flat, the key Green preferred, we will have to modulate to D natural for the first half of the bridge and to C natural for the latter half and then get back into D flat for the final A section. There’s nothing mundane about this middle-eight.
But the completed song wasn’t just harmonically challenging. The presence of ‘body’ in the song’s title was too daring for some and with lines such as ‘I’m all for you, body and soul’ and ‘You know I’m yours for just the taking’, the lyrics raised additional censorial hackles. Consequently, some radio announcers wouldn’t mention the tune’s title and one influential radio station wouldn’t broadcast any vocal version of the song (See Gioia, 2012, p. p. 46). Torch songs couldn’t give off much heat in the 1930s.
Surprisingly, although the song was written for her, Gertrude Lawrence never recorded ‘Body and Soul’. In fact, the song was first recorded by Jack Hylton in England in February 1930 and was introduced to Broadway audiences later in the same year by Libby Holman in the revue Three’s a Crowd.
The first jazz treatment of the song on record was by Louis Armstrong in October 1930, and other famous jazz musicians would make memorable versions of the Johnny Green ballad in the years that followed, including Henry ‘Red’ Allen with Leon ‘Chu’ Berry, 1935, Art Tatum, 1937 and 1938, and Leon‘Chu’ Berry with Roy Eldridge, 1938. But until we get to the end of the decade, few instrumental recordings of ‘Body and Soul’ sold as well as that made by the Benny Goodman Trio at its very first recording session in July 1935. Goodman, who had a keen ear for what his audiences liked, made sure that his trio played ‘Body and Soul’ at his legendary Carnegie Hall Concert in January 1938.
While many of these jazz versions of Green’s ballad were being recorded the musician who would become forever associated with the song wasn’t even in America. Coleman Hawkins had left for Europe in 1934 and didn’t return to America until July 1939. Within a few months he had put a small band together and was playing at Kelly’s Stable, a New York Club. This was the band he recorded with on the morning of 11th October, 1939, and, having recorded three numbers that nowadays are awarded scant attention, an executive suggested ‘Body and Soul’ for a fourth number because someone he knew had heard Hawkins play the tune at Kelly’s Stable. Hawkins, was reluctant to agree to the executive’s suggestion, but after some persuasion and a swig of cognac, he turned to his pianist, Gene Rodgers, “and he said, ‘Make an introduction on ‘Body and Soul’’ …so I made an introduction that became the legend with the record. I don’t know where it came from, I just put my hands down and it came out” (Rodgers quoted in Chilton, 1990, p. 163). What followed that introduction were two choruses of majestic saxophone playing from Hawkins. “It is the seamless inner unity of his ‘Body and Soul’ improvisation that astounds us, even after the hundredth hearing”, Gunther Schuller would write as part of his fulsome and detailed praise for Hawkins’ legendary performance (Schuller, 1989, pp. 441-445). In his sixty-four bar solo, Hawkins, as far as John Chilton was concerned “achieved the apotheosis of his entire career, creating a solo that remains the most perfectly conceived and executed of jazz tenor-sax playing ever recorded” (1990, p. 162).
As well as being regarded as outstanding by fellow musicians and critics and despite consisting almost entirely of improvisation, the Hawkins recording of ‘Body and Soul’ became a best seller. Such success, unprecedented for a jazz record, meant that Hawkins was, in Schuller’s words, “virtually condemned” to play Green’s famous ballad “literally thousands of times during the rest of his career” (1989, p.445). It is a testimony to Hawkins’ spirit that few, if any, of those later performances were routine and some were truly memorable (1).
In various subsequent discussions, including an interview issued in 1958 on a double LP by Riverside, Hawkins sought to downplay his great achievement of October 1939: he would claim that he didn’t take the ‘Body and Soul’ seriously, that when he recorded it, he hadn’t been playing the tune for very long, that at Kelly’s Stable he only played the tune once in a while, that when he went to the recording session on that October morning he would have preferred to have played something else, that he only played ‘Body and Soul’ because of pressure from a recording executive, that there was no arrangement for the band, which was why in the second chorus of his solo, when the full band is heard, the horn players just hold long notes, and that when he had finished he just packed up his tenor and left and didn’t listen to the playback. No doubt there is some truth in a few of these claims, but it is difficult not to conclude that Hawkins wanted to create the impression that he had produced what was widely seen as a one of the greatest jazz solos ever recorded without being fully committed or fully prepared. Still, whatever his reservations, whether real or contrived, he had created a monument to the art of saxophone playing, a masterpiece.
Author: Peter Gardner
I am very grateful for the help Steve Marshall and Roz Sluman.
(1) One memorable later version of ‘Body and Soul’, to which Schuller has drawn particular attention (See 1989, p. 445), was recorded at the Playboy Jazz Festival, Chicago, 9th August, 1959. It is included as a bonus track on the CD ‘Coleman Hawkins & Tommy Flanagan Quartet at the London House, 1963’, Gambit Records 69321. Another recommended later version of ‘Body and Soul’ by Hawkins was recorded as part of Benny Carter’s ‘Further Definitions’ album in November, 1961. ‘Further Definitions’ and ‘Additions to Further Definitions’ are included in the CD ‘Benny Carter, Further Definitions’, Impulse 12292. As for the famous 1939 version, it is available in several collections and boxed sets of recordings by Hawkins.
Some sources used
Chilton, John (1990) The Song of the Hawk (Quartet Books, London).
Friedwald, Will (2002) Stardust Melodies (Chicago Review Press, Chicago).
Gioia, Ted (2012) The Jazz Standards (Oxford University Press, New York).
Hawkins, Coleman, ‘A Documentary’, Riverside albums, RLP 12-117/118.
Lawrence, Gertrude (1945) A Star Danced (W. H. Allen, London).
Schuller, Gunther (1989) The Swing Era (Oxford University Press, New York).