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One singer's valentine to the beauty and power of the love song

Walter Shackelford, a white-haired Rotarian, was in a bland banquet room at his umpteenth club luncheon last year, when suddenly a song took him back to his honeymoon weekend in 1951. Instead of the usual speaker, a jazz trio was entertaining the Durham Rotary Club that day. Over the cascading notes of piano and bass, the singer's words floated out:

"You are the promised breath of springtime/ That makes the lonely winter seem long..."

The youthful, romantic ballad "All the Things You Are," by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, was Walter and Florence Shackelford's song. It was New Year's Day 1952. The couple, three days married, was in New York City, in the ballroom of the Hotel Pennsylvania. The popular Ray Anthony commanded the stage, conducting his tuxedo-clad musicians, as couples flocked to the dance floor.

"He recognized us as newlyweds and played the song for us to dance to, and his girl vocalist sang the lyrics. It was a great night to remember," Shackelford said.

I was the singer that day last year. The venue was unromantic in the extreme. Yet something magic happened that lunch hour. Former businessmen whose eyelids sometimes closed behind their glasses leaned forward, ears cocked. Doctors in the middle of stressful workdays wore blissful, open smiles. A local nonprofit executive wiped her eyes. After it ended, people crowded close to hug me, strangers and people I barely knew.

That's the power of the old-fashioned love song. It can bring you back to that time in your life when you felt young, when the world was yours. To a moment soaked in pure romance. Even today--unless, as the song goes, "you ain't got no red corpuscles"--the love song disarms.

I've always wanted to collect my favorite love songs and put on a Valentine's Day concert. Not just for happy loving couples, but also for the people who are out of love. The ones who are looking, the ones who are lonely. The ones who still hope, and those who have given up. I know how each of them feels.

I'd open with an anti-love manifesto sort of song, just to defy expectation. I'd pick out the band of bachelors in the crowd. The ones puffing on expensive cigars, cradling brandy snifters. All heartily agreeing on the fickleness, the devilry, the perfidy that is Woman.

Then I'd launch into "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing" from the 1930s all-black opera Porgy and Bess. In my favorite recorded version, Louis Armstrong growls with robust masculinity:

"Don't you never let a woman grieve you/ Cause she's got your weddin' ring/ She'll love you and deceive you/ She'll take you close and leave you/ Yes, a woman is a sometime thing."

Next, a change of mood, a song for the lovers. It's Valentine's Day, after all. For anybody in love, or merely in love with the idea of being in love, "The Nearness of You" is a touchstone. I love singer Nora Jones' version. The only sounds on the recording are her voice, half-singing and half-whispering the words, and her piano playing--mellow yet intense, inflecting the jazz classic with bluesy chords and stops.

"It's not the pale moon that excites me/ That thrills and delights me/ Oh no, it's just the nearness of you."

Then something upbeat, for those couples on top of the world, giddy with new love. "Our Love Is Here to Stay" is a gem from George and Ira Gershwin that still shines.

"In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble/ They're only made of clay/ But our love is here to stay."

Now a more serious song, a little-known one that goes beyond the merry or melancholy air of most jazz tunes. "Never Let Me Go" expresses love that's so strong it's almost desperate. After a certain age, it's hard to remember that, but singer Andy Bey reminds you on his album American Song. Here is the voice of experience--direct, unsweet and burning with emotion.

"Never let me go/ Love me much too much/ If you'd let me go/ Life would lose its touch/ What would I be without you/ There's no place for me without you..."

Love that intense has to self-destruct, doesn't it? That's a perfect lead-in to a song mourning lost love. This sadness, penned by Johnny Mercer and sung in an artlessly affecting style by Astrud Gilberto, evokes the ghost of lovers in Paris:

"Once upon a summertime, just like today/ We laughed the happy afternoon away/ And stole a kiss in every street cafe/

Now another wintertime has come and gone/ The pigeons feeding in the square are gone/ But I remember when the vespers chime/ You loved me once upon a summertime."

That song makes you ache. But this song turns your heart to ice:

"I'm through with love, I'll never fall again/ Said adieu to love, don't ever call again/ For I must have you or no one/ That's why I'm through with love."

A lone pianist, bending over the keys behind the window of a New York apartment. A solo voice, purposeful fingers on the keyboard, dry eyes, a delivery with heartbreaking finality.

Of course, you can't sign off with that. Maybe love always ends, but it always begins again. So sings Tony Bennett in "I Wish I Were in Love Again."

"No more pain, no more strain/ Now I'm sane/ But I would rather be gaga/

The pulled-out fur of cat and cur/ The fine mismatch of him and her/

I've learned my lesson, but I wish I were/ In love again."

That's it. Now, perhaps the two of you trip home hand-in-hand. Or maybe you retreat to the couch and TV alone with a bottle of wine, a la Bridget Jones.

Whatever kind of love you're in or out of--don't turn the music off.

Rah's Valentine picks
"All The Things You Are"
Ella Fitzgerald
The Best of the Song Books: Love Songs (Disc 3)

"A Woman Is A Sometime Thing"
Louis Armstrong
The Complete Gershwin Songbooks (Disc 2)

"Love Is Here To Stay"
Blossom Dearie
The Complete Gershwin Songbooks (Disc 2)

"The Nearness Of You"
Norah Jones
Come Away With Me

"Never Let Me Go"
Andy Bey
American Song

"Once Upon a Summertime"
Astrud Gilberto
Trav'lin' Light--The Johnny Mercer Songbook

"I Wish I Were In Love Again"
Tony Bennett
My Funny Valentine: The Rogers & Hart Songbook

"I'm Through With Love"
Diana Krall
All For You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio

"You Go To My Head"
Ella Fitzgerald
The Best of Ella Fitzgerald

"Down With Love"
Blossom Dearie
Jazz Masters 51

"I'll Be Seeing You"
George Shearing & Mel Torme
An Elegant Evening

"Too Close For Comfort"
Mel Torme
Jazz Club Mainstream

"Someone to Watch Over Me"
Margaret Whiting
Spotlight On...

"The Man I Love"
Ella Fitzgerald
The Best of the Song Books: Love Songs (Disc 3)

  • One singer's valentine to the beauty and power of the love song

More by Rah Bickley

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