Any great song begins with a novel composition, a new take on something we’ve already heard or think we’ve already heard, the discovery of something that has been there all along. As listeners, we know a great song from the first time we hear it, as we know its inspiration comes from someplace beyond the abilities of mere human artists. Whether inspired or the product of a prodigious and a hard-wrought effort, we recognize and appreciate genius when it is before us.
My great regret is having lived a life at a time when the genius of music is rarely encouraged, cultivated, pursued or appreciated. I regret that I live in a culture that values celebrity over virtuosity, a society that believes that financial success is an indicator or talent or ability, at a time when people are so consumed with themselves and their lives that beauty and genius are vague concepts, seldom wholly understood. I weep for geniuses, yet I will always encourage innovation though there is no need to do so—genius does what it must.
#1) Lush Life by Billy Strayhorn
Most people know Billy Strayhorn through his association with Duke Ellington, and yet Billy, through his own abilities, was truly one of the greatest composers of the 1940s through 1960s. A child prodigy, he began playing piano before age ten, and he wrote a musical and played with a trio on a local radio station while still in high school. Though trained in classical music, by the time he was 19, he was working with the likes of jazz pianists Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum.
And then he met Duke Ellington, who called him “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” On one of their first meetings, Ellington wrote him out instructions on how to get to the location, and by the time Billy got there, he had composed a song based on those directions: Take the A Train, which became one of the bands biggest hits!
When the angst-filled Billy was sixteen, he began composing music and lyrics a song called Life is Lonely, which ultimately became Lush Life, which he finished at 18 years old.
The song became a jazz standard, performed by legendary singers, such as Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartsman, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Lady Gaga, Nancy Wilson, Esperanza Spaulding and Dana Owens.
I chose to display the version below though because Strayhorn finished the song in 1938, it was not performed publically for ten years. Fortunately, the very first performance with Kay Davis vocals, with the Ellington band, only recently became available online.
#2) American Pie by Don McLean
A long, long time ago… in early February 1959, Don McLean was fourteen years old, folding newspapers for his route, when he saw a story about Buddy Holly, who with Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, died in a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa, which became known as “the day the music died.”
So affected was McLean by Holly’s death and events in a changing America that ten years later, he set his thoughts to words in a enigmatic poem, and then he set that poem to music. The result: one of the world’s best songs of modern times.
Over the years, many poets, scholars and pop culturists have tried decipher and explain the lyrics to the song due to McLean’s reticence on the subject. When asked what the song means, he joked, “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to,” and later, “They’re [the words] are beyond analysis. They’re poetry.”
American Pie is a lengthy, complex song, so while it has been covered by musicians all over in casual settings, there have been few other recordings, with one notable exception: In 2000, Madonna covered the song for use in her film, The Next Best Thing.