Songs of Love, Lust, and Longing
Many music aficionados consider the period between the 1920's and 40's to be the golden era of American love songs. But truly great songs of love, affection and attraction transcend time and continue to pull on heart strings decades after they were written. Think: "It Had to Be You." We explore the evolution of American love songs from the earliest days of recorded music through today.
Love, Lust, and Longing
By today's standards, many of the great love songs of the 20th century seem quaint. But some songs continue to pack an emotional punch, with a unique alchemy of timeless instrumentation and clever wordplay. To celebrate Valentine's Day, the Kojo Nnamdi Show is building a playlist of great love songs.
- What are your all time favorite love songs?
What Makes a Great Love Song?
The National Jukebox is an Internet archive of American recorded music from the "Accoustical Era" (1890s-1925), before the advent of electronic microphones. At this time, many evocations of love were relatively unsophisticated. Female vocalists were rare. And songs often played to racial and ethnic stereotypes. Still, curator David Sager has uncovered catchy romantic gems from the period like "Nellie Kellie I love You" (1922):
Check out Sager's recommended love songs from the Accoustical Era, here.
The Great American Songbook
Advances in recording technology quickly created new opportunities to experiment with composition, melody and lyrics. Many iconic American love songs came from composers and lyricists like Jerome Kern, Gus Kahn and Irving Berlin. Often songs that first appeared in the 30s and 40s, were re-introduced and re-interpreted in later decades.
Glenn Miller vs. Etta James
"At Last" (written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren) was first performed in the movie "Orchestra Wives" (1942) by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, with vocals by Ray Eberle and Pat Friday. But the most enduring rendition of the song was recorded by Etta James in 1961:
Fred Astaire vs. Billie Holiday
"Nice Work if you Can Get It" was written by George and Ira Girshwin for the 1937 film "Damsel in Distress." It was originally performed by Fred Astaire and the Stafford Sisters. But it was soon covered by the Andrews Sisters, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, among others:
Al Jolson v. Patsy Cline (1962) v. Aretha Franklin (1965):
"You Made me Love You:" With music by James V. Monaco and lyrics by Joseph McCarthy, the song was published in 1913, with one of the earliest recordings of the song by Al Jolson in that same year. Jolson's performance was also included on the soundtrack of the 1946 movie The Jolson Story.
Love vs. Lust
At first brush, the lyrics of contemporary love songs seem more literal and crass than the classics of the 20th Century. But guest Sam Brylawski notes that many songs in the 20s and 30s contained lyrics with subtle (and not-so-subtle) references to lust and love-making. These songs reflect the evolution of our language and codes about love and intimacy.
Do it again.
Yes do it again. And again and again and again and again and again
Turn out the light.
And hold me close
In your arms
All through the night.
I know tomorrow morning
You will say
Goodbye and Amen.
But until then...
Please do it again.
Etta James "At Last"
Glenn Miller Orchestra "At Last"
"Roses of Picardy"
Al Jolson "You Made Me Love You"
Aretha Franklin "You Made Me Love You"
Russ Hamilton "We Will Make Love"
Frank Sinatra "I Only Have Eyes for You"
Irving Berlin "The Girl on the Magazine"
Billy Murray and American Quintet "Nellie Kellie I Love You"
Marion Harris "After You've Gone"