With the catchy melodies of Richard Rodgers’ music, and the cheeky wit of Lorenz Hart’s lyrics, the early collaborative songs of Rodgers-and-Hart are characteristic of 1920s jazz at its finest — and some of the best examples of early classics from the Great American Songbook. Most of the shows from this period have sunk into obscurity, but the songs have stood the test of time. You won’t be able to resist tapping your feet along to these ten great hits!
“Any Old Place with You”
This was the first Rodgers and Hart song to feature in a Broadway show. It was snapped up by Lew Fields (formerly of the celebrated Weber and Fields vaudeville act) for his 1919 show A Lonely Romeo. At the time, the boys thought they had made the big time, but it would be another six years before they really struck success. Lew Fields would go on to be one of their most committed supporters, producing several of their 1920s shows; his son Herbert also became their most significant lyricist throughout the 1920s.
“Manhattan” was the first real hit the boys would have, though its first incarnation was in the unperformed show Winkle Town (1923), written by Rodgers and Hart with a script by Herbert Fields and Oscar Hammerstein II. The boys played the score of Winkle Town to producer Max Dreyfus. “There’s nothing of value here,” was his response. The rest is history. It’s interesting to listen to this song and “Any Old Place With You” together though—they’re similar songs, but you can hear a transition from the old style of “Any Old Place” to the jazz-age informality of “Manhattan.” This is Ella Fizgerald singing the song, one of the superlative interpreters of Rodgers and Harts’ songbook.
The success of one Garrick Gaieties almost inevitably spawned a second. Many of the same team reunited, and although the result was not as striking as their previous effort, The Garrick Gaieties of 1926 was still a success. In “Mountain Greenery” the boys penned a riposte to the urban delight of “Manhattan”. Here the cosy couple imagine a country retreat in a song that really showcases the trademark Rodgers and Hart style of the period: catchy music and witty lyrics with a wealth of outrageous rhymes.
“Here in My Arms”
Phyllis Dare / Jack Hulbert
Finally, the boys got to write their own full-length show, an American Revolutionary tale recounting the British invasion of Manhattan. In Dearest Enemy (1925), an American girl falls in love with a British Officer before thwarting the invasion under his nose. Their main love song, reprised throughout the show, was “Here In My Arms”. Only a year later, the boys would be summoned to London’s West End to produce a show for British audiences. “Here in My Arms” received its second outing in Lido Lady (1926), though British reviewers were not as favourable as the New York press. Here is the original recording from the 1926 production of Lido Lady, featuring Phyllis Dare and Jack Hulbert.
“The Girlfriend / The Blue Room”
1926 marked the most successful year yet for Rodgers and Hart, now firmly part of the Lew Fields stable and churning out hit after hit. The Girlfriend was one of their biggest successes, featuring a number of songs that would become representative of their 1920s style, featuring prominently the new jazz sound of the Charleston. The title number from the show later served as inspiration for the 1950s British pastiche, The Boyfriend. Here, Richard Rodgers himself offers his take on both “The Girlfriend” and “The Blue Room,” capturing poignantly the infectious sound that epitomizes the character of the 1920s.
“This Funny World”
One of Rodgers and Hart’s least auspicious shows was the Florenz Ziegfeld-produced Betsy (1926). This was written at a time when the boys were at their height, and very busy—indeed another of their shows, Peggy-Ann, opened on Broadway the previous evening. Perhaps they were simply too busy to do both shows justice. The intended hit song, written for star Belle Baker, was “This Funny World,” a charming, rueful ballad. To their horror, Ziegfeld decided it wasn’t good enough, and without even consulting the boys, he replaced this with Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” which was a tremendous success. Not for the first time Rodgers and Hart would have their noses put out by this snub, following which Rodgers did not speak to Berlin for ten years. Here’s Susannah McCorkle in a quintessentially 1970s recording of the song.
“My Heart Stood Still”
Despite a troubled experience on their first trip to England, Rodgers and Hart were soon enticed back by producer C.B. Cochran to write another revue. One Dam Thing After Another (1927) allowed them to explore a number of ideas that would feature in subsequent shows, and one song in particular (“My Heart Stood Still”) travelled back across the Atlantic to become just one of several hits in A Connecticut Yankee (1927). This recording features Rod Stewart, offering a recent version from his Great American Songbook period.
“To Keep My Love Alive”
Above all, the Rodgers and Hart songbook is full of wit and irreverence. Here is one of their classic comedy numbers, “To Keep My Love Alive” from A Connecticut Yankee (1927), their biggest hit of the 1920s, in which Queen Morgan Le Fay sings of the various ways she has dispatched her lovers. It’s sung by Anita O’Day, who captures the casual attitude of the character whilst creating a great swing version of the song.
Sammy Davis, Jr.
One of Rodgers and Hart’s most celebrated hits, this song has been covered numerous times. It really captures the whole conceit of A Connecticut Yankee (1927)—the juxtaposition of dialogue from the time of King Arthur and the modern day, encapsulated in the title alone. Here, Rodgers is at his jazzy best and Hart is preposterous in the way he rhymes nonsense words, archaic phrases, and contemporary slang—classic 1920s musical comedy! Here’s Sammy Davis, Jr. milking the verse only to give the refrain his characteristically virtuosic rendition.
“You Took Advantage of Me”
By the late 1920s, Rodgers and Hart’s 1920s success was beginning to wane. They would reappear in the 1930s to even greater success, but the turn of the decade marked a period of reflection and a flirtation with Hollywood. From this period, the shows they produced produced far fewer song hits. But here is one, from Present Arms (1928), which has become a household standard. Here, Bobby Short gives some class and pizzazz to “You Took Advantage of Me”.
The full playlist:
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