Sunday, June 25, 2017

Right: I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues

Billie Holiday: I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues


Our new theme offers a wonderful variety of possibilities. That’s because the word right has multiple meanings. You can put three of these meanings together in one not very profound sentence: I had the right to make a right turn, but was it the right thing to do? From that sentence, I have chosen to start us off with the first meaning.

In recent years, there has been an attempt to restore to the Broadway show a place it once had in popular culture as a birthplace of popular songs. The music on Broadway has become more varied, and there is more of a contemporary influence. But that is still a far cry from where things stood 85 years ago. Earl Carroll’s Vanities was an annual event on Broadway. It was a revue, a mix of sketches, songs, and dance numbers. The 1932 edition had music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by the less known Ted Koehler. A house band backed all of the singers, and the actor in the cast that you might have heard of was Milton Berle. The playbill called Lillian Shade “the most promising of young singers in modern American music.” She came on after a comedy sketch called The Hospital to sing I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues.

I think it’s fair to say that the song was an immediate hit, although it did not make Lillian Shade the star that the playbill suggested she would be. Vanities debuted in September, and Ethel Merman and Cab Calloway had their versions out before the end of the year, with Louis Armstrong following in January of 1933. The Merman version was the first recorded, and this is where the title got changed to I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues. Billie Holliday did not record her version until 1939, but she immediately took possession of the song. Holliday validates the feelings of every woman who ever had her heart broken with this performance. The sound quality is remarkably good for a recording of that vintage. Holliday is probably more heard of than heard these days. I hope this post will make you want to hear more of her work.

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