Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lady Day and SJI

Here is an example of song borrowing that used St. James Infirmary as its model. Billie Holiday, it seems, really liked the song and wanted something similar but 'original' that she could take into the recording studio. The result was a song called "Tell Me More" based on SJI but with writing credit to Holiday herself. Holiday recorded the song in 1940.

In his book Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, Donald Clarke quotes songwriter Arthur Herzog. Herzog is recalling the encounter beween Billie Holiday, himself, and his songwriting partner Danny Mendelsohn which led to the writing of the 'new' song:

"She came rushing in to Danny. She was a great artist, but creative - no. She said to Danny, 'Danny, I've got a great tune, take it down for me.’ And she sings, da-daing, 'St. James Infirmary'. So Danny says, ‘Yes, Billie, it’s a great tune, but it's St James Infirmary' .' ‘Oh, Danny, bend it a little for me, bend it.' So Danny took out his pencil, put it in blues time, four/four, attached a bridge to it and said, 'All right Arthur, give me some words.' So I popped the first thing that came into my mind: 'Tell me more and more and then some', inane kind of thing, so we scratched this underneath and forgot about it completely. Six months went by, and there's a record out - 'Tell Me More', words and music by Billie Holiday, sung by Billie Holiday, accompanied by the Billie Holiday Orchestra - of which there was no such thing, of course. There it was. 'Danny, what are we going to do about this? This idiot friend has done this to us and the song isn't worth a goddam.’ I mean, 'St. James Infirmary'. After she died, Herbie Marks called me up and said. 'I seem to remember that you had something to do with this song, and I'd like to do something with it,' and I said, 'Herbie, I can't prove anything, but this song was written by yours truly and the late Danny Mendelsohn.’ That's how it happened. It never made any money."

Donald Clarke continues: "Herzog is being unfair to their own hackwork, to say nothing of using the word ‘creative' in a very limited sense. Lady had commissioned the song and even told them how to write it; of course they should have got some credit. The song has a strong blues feeling, and its lingering resemblance to ‘St. James Infirmary' doesn't hurt a bit, so that it sounds as though you've heard it before but can't remember where. The way the words fall is pleasing, and with the arrangement's stop-time moments and a solo from Teddy, it's an unusual love song and a nice record."
Inquiries into the early years of SJI