Standards to Love: The Great American Love Songs


Ordinarily, when it comes to music, I wax on and on about opera. While there are a plethora of arias I could trot out to help herald romance, I’ll leave those on the shelf for another day.

I know Valentine’s Day has a bum wrap, what with greeting card companies and jewelry stores capitalizing on it, but I do think of February as a month about love. And there’s nothing better to usher in the romantic mood than a good playlist of love songs. AND there are no love songs like those you'll find in the Great American Songbook.

I have spoken about American Popular Standards before (see post here) and why I love them so. 

Part of it is nostalgic, as my father was a great lover of this music and passed that love onto me. In fact, there’s a photo somewhere with my father holding my as a tot (when I’d trot in little velvet panties*- any Gershwin fans out there?) dancing to Fred Astaire’s album, The Astaire Story. My love for the American Popular Standard was fated from that moment on. (Not to mention all the times he picked me up from school with 1560 WQEW: The Home of American Popular Standards playing. It was a game we’d play all the way home. A song would come on and my dad would make me guess the singer. Not only did this develop my ear to the point that I still cringe when people say that that music all sounds the same, but it introduced me to so many artists who have made my life richer.)

Another reason these standards are on my mind is because I’m in the thick of it, that is, re-writing my first novel. What does that have to do with the Great American Songbook, you might ask? Well, each chapter starts with a pertinent lyric from an American Popular Standard. And, as my book is a love story, it follows that many of the lyrics quoted are from love songs- some of the best love songs ever written. Today I’m going to share with you a few of my favorites (although they aren’t necessarily in my book). 

Too Marvelous for Words

As I am a word woman- I simply adore them- I think it best to start with this standard by Richard A. Whiting (Margaret Whiting's father) and Johnny Mercer. Firstly, it is chock full of wonderful words- like glorious, and glamorous, and that old stand-by, amorous. Secondly, Webster’s Dictionary is mentioned with aplomb- rather romantically. This song is an excellent one to memorize, especially for you gentlemen out there. Why? Well, according to an article published in the Sage Journals called Words Won’t Fail: Experimental Evidence on the Role of Verbal Proficiency in Mate Choice: People with a bigger vocabulary are seen as more attractive. (What can I say: We like big words, and we cannot lie.) If a panel of professors dedicated to studying this phenomena doesn’t convince you, then perhaps Doris Day’s rendition will help you on that score. (And that’s the Big Band leader Harry James’ trumpet you hear playing; he was Betty Grable’s husband- you know, the woman with the million dollar legs.) There are a variety of different lines for this song. As I’m not certain which belong, I’ll just include the rendition I love most. As to the different verses that belong in the song, I think that question would be easily answered by the great Michael Feinstein.

If They Asked Me

As I’m on a bit of a literary jag here- what with my book and that last homage to the seduction of a well-shelved vocabulary- I offer you Lorenzo Hart and Richard Rodgers' song, If They Asked Me from the musical Pal Joey. You see, the first line is If they asked me, I could write a book… Somewhat appropriate, no? It’s a simple lyric, but sometimes the sweetest and most tender love songs are just that. My favorite version of this song is done by Peggy Lee from her 1963 album Mink Jazz. However, I couldn’t find a link of that rendition to play here, so I chose this excerpt from the film Pal Joey starring Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak (who I still think is one of the most beautiful of women, inside and out). 

True Love

And while we’re on the subject of lyrics that are simple but deeply profound, I offer you this gem composed by Cole Porter in 1956. It debuted in the film High Society, sung by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. I remember the first time I watched that movie. This particular song stood out starkly against all the rest, which is saying something because this film is brimming with great tunes. However, where Cole Porter was adroit with pithy lines and witty repartee (see post here), this song in its delicate honesty demands notice. Needless to say, a standard like this one has spanned the gamut of musical genres. Elvis has recorded it. So has Connie Francis. And Patsy Cline. George Harrison and Elton John, too. While my favorite version might be Dean Martin’s, I think it only right to have Bing and Grace sing it for you. After all, it was the version I first fell in love with. Perhaps it will be the same for you. 

I See Your Face Before Me

This standard by Arthur Schwartz (father of radio personality and Great American Songbook aficionado Jonathan Schwartz) and Howard Dietz is beautiful. There’s no other way to describe it. When you listen to the words, you hear nothing but deep, profound love. Actually, this song always reminds me of I’m Glad There is You (see post here). It’s about sifting through all the superficial, trivial, and vacuous trifles called love in the world and finding that ideal, right person who completes your life, who defines the true meaning of love- faithful, trustworthy, and genuine. I close my eyes and there you are, always. That’s how it is when it’s real, isn’t it? My favorite version is sung by Johnny Hartman. You might be familiar with it as it featured in Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County film.

The More I See You

I’ll finish with this one as it happens to be the song belonging to the chapter that I’m currently re-writing. Jackson and Penelope (the principals in my book) are just embarking on their path to love. All the chemistry is there and the timing is right, but there’s a history of brokenness and hurt for both of them and it can’t be swept under the rug. It must be dealt with. However, playing softly in the background of their burgeoning relationship is this song. I hear it sung by Dick Haymes (although Feinstein is a close second), though you might be more familiar with Chris Montez’s 1966 version as that’s the one that gets played the most in movies. Harry Warren and Mack Gordon penned this tune and perfectly captured what it’s like to fall in love with someone, and better yet, remain in love with him/her. Can you imagine how much I’ll love you, the more I see you as years go by? I know the only one for me can only be you. My arms won’t free you; my heart won’t try. 

I fell in love with these songs from an early age. They were instrumental in framing my view of what love should be because they touted the virtues of love, tenderness, honesty, passion all mingled in eloquent poetry. What’s not to love about that?

I feel I must add one honorable mention here. 

They Can’t Take Away From Me

This song by the Gershwin brothers chronicles all the seemingly insignificant things that become the most important things about a person who is loved. Even the things that might seem annoying or irritating become treasured; that’s just the way love is. But, what I love the most about this song is how, whenever it came on in the car or at home on the stereo, my father always said, This song reminds me of your mother. If I happened to be with my mother, though, she always said, This song reminds me of your father. It’s my parents’ song, as it were. Now that my dad is gone, this song- really, all of these songs- conjure such joyful memories because he’s a part of them all. 

The way your smile just beams…no, no, they can’t take that away from me.

As my father was a great lover of Rosemary Clooney, particular the fabulous collection of albums she released later in her life, and, as I'm a lover and appreciator of the treasure that is Michael Feinstein, I have to include this version. What tenderness and love, kinda like dad and me, only in reverse. 

So, tell me, dear readers, what are some of your favorite love songs? 

*This is a reference to the song How Long Has This Been Going On? by George and Ira Gershwin. The intro also contains an allusion (you know how mad I am about allusions): As a tot, when I trotted in little velvet panties/ I was kissed by my sisters, my cousins, and my aunties/ Sad to tell, it was hell, an inferno worse than Dante’s…