Skylark

Album: The Hits Collection (1942)
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Songfacts®:

  • Written by Hoagy Carmichael (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics), this lovelorn jazz standard grew out of a composition Carmichael wrote for a Broadway musical about the life of his friend Bix Beiderbecke, a jazz cornetist who died of an alcohol-related illness in 1931 and inspired the novel Young Man With A Horn. The project never made it off the ground, but Carmichael sent the melody to Mercer to see if he could do anything with it.

    Mercer sat on the music for a year and couldn't come up with anything until he landed on the avian title. "I couldn't write it and I couldn't write it, and finally I saw the word 'skylark' somewhere on a billboard or in a book," he recalled in Skylark: The Life And Times Of Johnny Mercer by Philip Furia. "It wasn't from the poem ["To A Skylark" by Percy Bysshe Shelley]. It just associated itself with that tune. And I wrote it very fast. I don't think it took me half an hour."
  • The yearning lyrics about the desperate pursuit of love were inspired by Mercer's passionate affair with Judy Garland in 1941, the same year the song was published. The married songwriter was so taken with the 19-year-old actress, who made her star turn in The Wizard Of Oz two years earlier, that he was ready to leave his wife for her. But Garland's friends convinced the young actress that an affair with a married man 13 years her senior would wreck her career, so she pulled the plug on their romance by marrying someone else. Mercer was in the middle of confessing the affair and asking his wife for a divorce when news of Garland's elopement with composer David Rose was announced on the radio.

    Mercer stayed married after all but he rekindled his relationship with Garland throughout the years and wrote the classic songs "I Remember You" and "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" about her.
  • Gene Krupa and His Orchestra with Anita O'Day were the first to record this tune in 1942, but several other versions made the pop charts that year, including renditions by the Glenn Miller Orchestra (#7) with Ray Eberle, Harry James and His Orchestra with Helen Forrest (#11), Dinah Shore (#5), and Bing Crosby (#14). A version by British singer Michael Holliday was a Top 40 UK hit in 1960. Linda Ronstadt also took it to #12 Adult Contemporary in 1984.

    There were also covers from Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Bobby Darin, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Mel Torme, and k.d. lang. Hoagy Carmichael also released a version, with Art Pepper on sax, for his 1957 album, Hoagy Sings Carmichael.
  • Linda Ronstadt's version was featured on Lush Life (1984), the second installment in her trio of jazz/pop albums with renowned arranger/composer Nelson Riddle, who was known for his work with legendary performers like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald. Although the rock singer proved she could handle the material on her first jazz outing, What's New, she felt more at home with the standards on Lush Life and thought her singing had improved - especially with "Skylark."

    "I had more rehearsal time with it, rehearsal at the piano," she explained in the 2022 book Anthems We Love by Steve Baltin. "And there wasn't so much change in the orchestra. An orchestration like Nelson likes is a whole other journey. Some things are written more in strict time signature, some are in legato, and some are in rubato. It's hard to know what it's going to be."

    Ronstadt also connected with Mercer's aching lyrics. "It's a terrible yearning. It's knowing there's something just a little bit better right around the corner. And you've never felt that before and you really want to have it," she said. "Not necessarily love - it's just a way of living, a way of being, a way of being in a state of grace. It's just yearning."

    The million-selling album earned her a Grammy Award nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance Female in 1986, but she lost the prize to Whitney Houston for "Saving All My Love For You."
  • Young Man With A Horn was turned into a movie in 1950 with Kirk Douglas in the lead role as a trumpet player based on Beiderbecke. "Skylark" wasn't used in the film, but Carmichael appeared as Willie "Smoke" Willoughby, a pianist who also narrates the story.
  • The Buick Skylark, which was produced from 1953 to 1998, may have taken its name from this tune, which is why Mercer bought one.
  • This was used in these TV shows:

    Genius ("Aretha: Until The Real Thing Comes Along" - 2021)
    Forever ("The Last Death Of Henry Morgan" - 2015)
    Mozart In The Jungle ("You Have Insulted Tchaikovsky" - 2014)

    And these movies:

    Rich In Love (1992)
    Torch Song Trilogy (1988)
    Swing Shift (1984)
    Chilly Scenes Of Winter (1979)

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