It’s no secret that many of the most famous jazz songs of all time started out life in Broadway musicals. Perhaps more surprising, though, is that one of the most popular romantic ballads of all time – My Funny Valentine – came from a 1937 musical which touches on themes of communism and racism.
Despite not getting its first big outing in the jazz world until almost 20 years later, this tune by the songwriting duo Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart has been recorded by more than 500 artists including Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra and Chet Baker, appearing on more than 1000 albums.
Join us for a brief history of this jazz classic, followed by our pick of 5 essential versions of My Funny Valentine…
Songwriting Royalty: Rodgers & Hart
Two decades after their first collaboration, and following hugely successful spells on both Broadway and Hollywood, composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart were considered at the forefront of their craft by the mid-1930s.
Having already contributed many songs that have come to be known as part of the Great American Songbook, their show Babes In Arms, which premiered in 1937, started out as just another credit on their hugely impressive CV.
It did, however, spawn two future titans of the jazz world: My Funny Valentine and The Lady Is a Tramp.
‘Babes In Arms’ was a coming-of-age musical comedy about a group of teenagers in Long Island. Despite its seemingly quaint premise – a story about some teenagers who put on a show whilst their actor parents were away on a 5-month vaudeville revival tour – it’s political undertones and themes of communism and racism set it apart from others at the time.
So much so, in fact, that later versions (including a film version featuring Judy Garland, and countless adaptations later in the 20th Century) were liberally rewritten and adapted.
The song My Funny Valentine is introduced by the character Billie Smith (played by child-star Mitzi Green) who sings it to Valentine “Val” LaMar, played by Roy Heatherton.
‘Babes In Arms’ ran on Broadway for 289 performances opening at the Shubert Theatre on 14th April 1937 and then transferring on 25th October to the Majestic Theatre. The Broadway run would end on 18th December 1937.
My Funny Valentine’s Rise To Fame
Despite the success of the Broadway show the song ‘My Funny Valentine’ would not be featured in the charts until 8 years later in 1945 when it was recorded by singer Ruth Gaylor, reaching number 16 for an unspectacular week.
In jazz circles, it was Frank Sinatra who can be credited with launching ‘My Funny Valentine’ into the jazz repertoire, via his 1954 recording with Nelson RIddle’s orchestra.
‘Ol Blue Eyes may have started it, but My Funny Valentine was immortalised by trumpeter Chet Baker who made it his signature song. He started out playing the tune with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in Mulligan’s classic pianoless quartet, but his most famous version was on his own recording ‘Chet Baker Sings’ on the Pacific Jazz imprint.
These two artists seemingly opened the floodgates for the song, with hundreds of versions following.
But what makes it such an enduring love song?
My Funny Valentine Lyrics
A quick scan of the lyrics reveals a refreshing departure from the usual cliches of famous jazz ballads. Rather than a long list of compliments, the song talks – sometimes comically – of the endearing imperfections of the love interest.
“Your looks are laughable,
Yet you’re my favourite work of art”
It’s perhaps this brutal honesty that resonated with a mass audience; a love song for the everyday man and woman.
“Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak,
Are you smart?”
If these backhandedly romantic lyrics won it a legion of fans, its gender-neutral lyrics (which give no suggestion whether the singer is male or female) made it a much easier song choice than other ballads which were heavily loaded with “he” or “she”.
The words were apparently highly personal to Lorenz Hart who, according to various sources, considered himself somewhat ugly!
If the lyrics made it a surefire hit with the average listener, the melody and structure of the composition did the same with musicians, with its underlying chord progression ensuring its popularity as a vehicle for jazz solos.
Best My Funny Valentine Versions
Some of the most important and influential jazz musicians of the last eighty years have recorded the song either as instrumentals or with the lyrics that have endured the test.
Chet Baker plays My Funny Valentine
As we already mentioned, Chet Baker should take a large part of the credit in bringing it to the masses. His vocal is tender and deeply lyrical, a trait which is carried through to his trumpet playing when he featured this as an instrumental.
We included it, unsurprisingly, on our list of essential Chet Baker songs.
Gerry Mulligan in Amsterdam
As one of the earliest champions on the song, checking out baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan playing My Funny Valentine is a must if you’re looking to discover more about its history in jazz.
Whilst there are perhaps more ‘obvious’ versions, we picked his 1956 version, live in Amsterdam, for this round up.
He expands his regular ‘chord-less’ line up to sextet, featuring four horn players in front of Bill Crow (bass) and Dave Bailey (drums).
The interweaving lines and ‘cool school’ improvisations are a departure from the original, yet never lose sight of the underlying essence of the song.
Listen to the very end to hear just what the sold-out Dutch audience thought of it!
Miles Davis’s Favourite ballad?
From an instrumental point of view, there can be few greater versions than by Miles Davis. But which one?
The trumpeter recorded the tune on numerous occasions, and it was a staple in his live performances for many years.
It’s fascinating to hear, and a testament to the quality of Rodgers and Hart’s composition, how it could be interpreted so differently whilst maintaining the essence of the original song and structure.
Listen back-to-back to Davis’s recordings of ‘My Funny Valentine’ on the albums ‘Cookin’’ (1956) and The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965) for an example of just how radical these interpretations can be.
But as our top listening tip, his recording on the 1964 live album from New York’s Lincoln Center is hard to beat.
Bobby Timmons Swings It
Art Blakey pianist Bobby Timmons chose the ballad for his 1960 recording This Here Is Bobby Timmons.
Whilst not one of the most famous versions of My Funny Valentine, it’s an interesting listen due to the way it’s structured: first he plays the melody as solo piano, pulling it around in the ways you’d expect.
After that, though, we catch a glimpse of his hard bop stylings as bass/drums join and give the solo section a swinging double-time treatment.
It’s a chance to hear the underlying harmony in a different setting, and well-worth digging out!
Fast-forward to the end of the 20th Century and American vocalist Shirley Horn naturally included the ballad on her album “I Remember Miles”.
Her incredibly slow, expressive version gives the tune a relatively faithful interpretation, which highlights all-the-more how a song nearing its 75th birthday could still sound completely fresh.
Of course, with over a 1000 versions, we have only scratched the surface in the history of ‘My Funny Valentine’.
But, as I’m sure you’ll agree, its rich history, unforgettable melodies and unique lyrical story make it one that is ripe for further investigation!
It would be surprising if it doesn’t continue to have a life in jazz well beyond its original conception and historical and social context.
What’s you favourite version of all time? Let us know in the comments section.
Looking for more? Check out our guide to the best jazz songs of all time.