Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lush Life

OK. I suppose this may sound a little arrogant. But dammit, I stand by it:

Lush Life by Billy Strayhorn is the greatest song ever written!
I admit that there may be a personal reason for this declaration. I've been familiar with Lush Life since I was a kid and admired it very much, but this song took on an even bigger meaning for me when my wife and I broke up last year. It is a song of loss, of pain, of loneliness and in the end, it is a song of the acceptance of all of these issues.

For me, Lush Life has everything. It has great lyrics, with a rhyme scheme that tingles on the tongue, like "relaxes on the axis" or "sad and sullen gray faces with distinque traces" etc. Then there's the unique form of the song: An introduction that tells a story and the monologue type chorus that depicts the singer's state of mind afterwards. And then, there's the music itself which is simply exquisite, both with it's jazz laden qualities and it's harmonic beauty that moves it along.

Lush Life loosely depicts a lost soul at some dive bar who is admiring the beauty of someone else in the same room. The singer imagines that they both have some affinity for each other with regard to their lonely states of mind. Of course, like most alcohol induced fantasies, it's not true. She's just there to have a drink. The lost soul moves on in his own endeavor for a "Lush Life".

Despite the simplicity and sadness of this story, this is a tale that we all can relate to. Plus, the music and lyrics add a distinctive charm and beauty that not only prevents it from being overly depressing, but there is also a profound grace that is depicted here unlike any other song I've ever heard. Amazingly, Billy Strayhorn wrote the words and music to this song in his mid to late teens! One can't even fathom what kind of a life he had in the years before that led him to the composition of this masterpiece.

Although, Lush Life has had some success after it was written, the song has yet to reach the status of a classic like Cole Porter's Night and Day or Johnny Green's Body and Soul, both of which were written at roughly the same time as this Strayhorn epic. There may be a few reasons for this. Besides the obvious struggle of Strayhorn's status as an African American in the early to mid 20th century, Lush Life also has a very tricky introduction in terms of it's freedom of tempo and it's somewhat rhythmic complexity. It seems to have a speaking rhythm which is hard to get down musically.

In 1958, Frank Sinatra tried to record this song with a full orchestra, but their attempt at the intro had mistakes happening left and right. In the end, Lush Life was dropped. One can't help but wonder if this song would have achieved an even bigger status if the greatest singer in the world at the time would have been able to finish it at that recording session. I guess we'll never know.

Nonetheless, there have been a number a great versions of this song performed by Nat King Cole, Nancy Wilson, Linda Ronstadt, Natalie Cole, and this version here featuring Johnny Hartman and the John Coltrane Quartet, which many people consider to be the definitive version.

I'll say it again folks, Lush Life by Billy Strayhorn is the greatest song ever written!

Just listen for yourself. :)


1 comment:

  1. interesting - I agree - it is a breathtaking song and always had me - also cannot wrap my head around how beyond his years he had to be to KNOW.

    Another song that blows me away also written by a teenager ( I think) is Macarthur Park/Jimmy Webb.
    thanks Charles