Embraceable Gershwin

Consider the mathematical possibilities presented by The Great American Songbook, the canon of popular songs written in the first half of the 20th century, generally for Broadway shows and movie musicals.  First, there’s the long list of composers from which to choose: Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, to name just a few.  Then there’s the roster of singers who have performed and recorded these works over the years, from  Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, to Harry Connick, Jr., Diana Krall, even Keith Richards (!…?!) If one were to set themself the task of listening to all available recordings of the Songbook, encompassing all the various interpretations, s/he would be happily occupied for months and months.

For this post, my song of choice is George and Ira Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” and my chanteuse of choice is Sarah Vaughan.

The brothers at work.
The brothers at work.
The poster for the Broadway musical, Girl Crazy.

The Gershwins wrote “Embraceable You” in 1928, for a musical adaptation of East Is West, a play about Americans in China.  The show, however, was never mounted, because producer Florenz Ziegfeld had them shelve it to work on something else.  They subsequently included it in Girl Crazy, which ran on Broadway from 14 October 1930 to 6 June 1931. In the show, the song is performed as a duet by two young lovers, Molly Gray and Danny Churchill; Molly Gray was played by Ginger Rogers, and the show helped launch her career.  (It’s also the show in which Ethel Merman made her stage début.)

Sarah Vaughan (1924-1970) was one of our truly great jazz singers.  Born in Newark, NJ, she took both piano and organ lessons and sang in her church choir.  In 1943, after attracting attention during a week-long gig at New York’s Apollo Theatre–the prize for winning an amateur competition there–she joined Earl Hines’ band.  With members that included vocalist Billy Eckstine and sidemen Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the group was one of the earliest incubators of bebop, as was Eckstine’s own orchestra, which he formed late in 1943.  Vaughan joined up with Eckstine’s ensemble in 1944 and made her recording début with them in December of that year.

Vaughan recorded her exquisite interpretation of “Embraceable You” almost exactly a decade later, on 18 December 1954.  On this particular number, she’s backed by Jimmy Jones on piano, Joe Benjamin on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums.

Sarah Vaughn album cover
Released in 1955 by EmArcy Records, the jazz label of Mercury Records, the album featured trumpeter Clifford Brown (although he didn’t play on “Embraceable You”).

To invoke the great line that Cameron Crowe gave to Renée Zellweger toward the end of Jerry Maguire–“You had me at hello”–on this version of “Embraceable You”, Sarah had me at “Em-“: I love how she draws out that very first syllable, as she does on a number of lines.  Her use of elongated phrasing throughout lends the performance a kind of languorous intimacy that’s further enhanced by her incredible, controlled vibrato.  I also like her inventive departures from the melody; she makes a number of octave leaps that give only a hint of her range.  And just listen to what she does with the word ‘above’ at 3:43.

For me, every other singer’s version(s) of this standard pale(s) next to Vaughan’s.  See what you think.

Embrace me
My sweet embraceable you
Embrace me
You irreplaceable you
Just one look at you
My heart grows tipsy in me
You and you alone
Bring out the gypsy in me

I love all
The many charms about you
Above all
I want my arms about you
Don’t be a naughty, naughty baby
Come to mama
Come to mama do
My sweet embraceable you

I love all
The many charms about you
Above all
I want my arms about you
Don’t be a naughty, naughty baby
Come to mama
Come to mama do
My sweet embraceable you


Amazing trivia tidbit: this gem was recorded with a single microphone in a single take.

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