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Arts & Culture
Steve Metcalf has been writing about the musical life of this region, and the wider world, for more than 30 years. For 21 of those years, he was the full-time staff music critic of The Hartford Courant. During that period, via the L.A. Times/Washington Post news service, his reviews, profiles and feature stories appeared in 400 newspapers worldwide.He is also the former assistant dean and director of instrumental music at The Hartt School, where he founded and curated the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series. He is currently Director of the Presidents' College at the University of Hartford. Steve is also keyboardist emeritus of the needlessly loud rock band Duke and the Esoterics.Reach him at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.

The Consummate Valentine's Day Song

Creative Commons
Rodgers and Hart -- Richard Rodgers seated at piano with Lorenz Hart on the right.
The song is bathed in irony -- unheard of for a Depression-era musical theater love song.

Just to get this out of the way, “My Funny Valentine” is not among my personal favorite Rodgers and Hart tunes.

I think it’s because when I was in my 20s, I used to play the piano in lounges -- dives would be the more accurate term for many of them -- and over the years, a few too many slurring patrons stumbled up and asked to hear it, frequently supplying their own spontaneous, alcohol-fueled vocal.

It’s that kind of song -- the kind people think is hip to ask for, especially near closing time.

But I respect the song, and the craft behind it.

It has had an interesting history.

“Funny Valentine” first appeared in the 1937 musical “Babes in Arms,” which was a certified hit show, as hit shows were measured in those pre-blockbuster days, for Rodgers and Hart, who by then had almost twenty years of work, and several hundred songs, behind them.

But the song itself languished. In fact, weirdly enough, when the movie version of “Babes in Arms” came out two years later, (Mickey and Judy, actually putting on a show right here in the barn) “Funny Valentine” wasn’t even included.

Some songbook historians say that it wasn’t until Frank Sinatra’s 1953 version, on his album Songs for Young Lovers, that the song really began to establish itself as a standard. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that a Sinatra rendering would prove to be a song’s validating moment.

As if additional confirmation were needed, five years later Ella Fitzgerald released her two-LP Rodgers and Hart Songbook, containing her bewitching treatment, now widely considered definitive.

It's not an easy tune to sing, and yet it's among the most covered and recorded songs in history.
Credit Wikimedia / Creative Commons
Ella Fitzgerald's rendition of "My Funny Valentine" is now considered the definitive version.

The song itself is unconventional. For one thing, it’s in a minor key--  or at least begins in minor, before veering into major, then back to minor, and finally briefly back to major again. Only about 10 percent of popular standards (pre-rock ‘n’ roll) are written in a minor key, although interestingly, some analyses suggest that the percentage has risen sharply among songs of the past twenty years or so. For Richard Rodgers, a minor key song was even rarer -- looking quickly over his hundred or so major hits with Hart, I don’t find a single other example.

The song’s middle section (is your figure less than Greek….) is filled with jumps, and skips, including one passage in which the tune leaps upward by an octave, and then immediately plunges back down a major seventh (When you open it to speak…).

In short, it’s not an easy tune to sing, and yet it is among the most covered, and recorded songs in history. Real statistics are hard to come by, but “Funny Valentine,” with at least six hundred artists having given it a shot, is almost certainly among the ten or fifteen most recorded songs in history.

Its lyrics are even more unconventional. It’s bathed in irony-- unheard of for a Depression era musical theater love song. It’s all about how the beloved has an odd-looking face, and body, is possibly dim-witted to boot, and yet somehow loveable all the same.

Stephen Sondheim, in his book Finishing the Hat, offers a series of none-too-admiring assessments of various American lyricists. He is especially ungenerous with Hart. In the case of “Funny Valentine,” he argues, a tad pedantically, that the word “photographable,” famously used here to rhyme with “laughable,” should properly have been “unphotogenic.” Well, for one thing, I’m not sure he’s correct. It could be that the point is that the beloved’s characteristics are so charmingly quirky that they can’t be captured by the lens. For another thing-- Steve, lighten up.

Anyway, I’ve always maintained that one measure of the worth of a song is not merely the number of artists who attempt it, but the stylistic range of those artists.

The range for “Funny Valentine” is particularly impressive: in addition to Ella and Frank, we find Elvis Costello, Kenny Rogers, the King’s Singers, Chaka Khan, Dinah Shore, Van Morrison, and Miles Davis, among several hundred others.

Anyway, it’s a great song that deserves to be a classic, notwithstanding its many wobbly piano-bar usurpers.

And assuming that the standard copyright extension has been invoked, for the heirs of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, in a more practical sense it must truly be the case that each day is, in fact, Valentine’s Day.

Reach Steve Metcalf at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.

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