I’m not sure there’s another song in music history which does so much with so little. “Cry Me A River” is just Julie London’s voice with a far-off guitar and bass. With this sort of performance, everything depends on the singer’s ability to create the atmosphere that draws you into her story— there’s nowhere else to hide.
Of course, Julie London knocks it out the park. “Cry Me A River” is one of the most exquisitely performed and produced songs of all time. A masterclass on how simplicity can often make a much greater impact that complexity. A performance for which even the word “iconic” significantly undersells its brilliance.
Other songs in other genres excel in their own way but, with the possible exception of Frank Sinatra’s “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” I’m not sure a more heartfelt take on heartbreak has ever been made into a record.
Whereas Sinatra conveyed the weariness of loneliness and heartbreak perfectly, Julie London’s style is more “a hot mess on the inside while remaining cool and diffident on the outside”.
In the years to come, Frank Sinatra would perform “Cry Me A River” too, but while “One For My Baby” is one of his standout performances for me, his version of “Cry Me A River” comes quite some way down the pack of people who performed it over the years. I love Sinatra, but he just couldn’t connect with the essence of the song in the way Julie London did.
Getting absolutely the perfect treatment for any song is hard enough. And, lovely singer though Julie London was, it’s fair to say “Cry Me A River” was the highlight of her recording career.
Perhaps ironically it was also the highlight of composer Arthur Hamilton’s songwriting career. Like Julie London, he did a number of things since, but matching the perfection of “Cry Me A River” was always going to be a tall order, no matter how talented a composer or performer they were.
Arthur Hamilton was primarily a lyricist, and you can tell that from the way he plays with the words and rhymes…
Told me love was too plebian
Told me you were through with me and
Arthur Hamilton even claimed to have invented the expression “cry me a river”, which again is the sort of thing a lyricist would enjoy. After all, how do you describe the same human emotions which millions of other songs have been written about since the dawn of time?
Ah, yes, you come up with a completely new metaphor which encapsulates the feelings you’re trying to describe perfectly.
That’s not to say Julie London was a mere passenger in all this.
There are remarkably few words in “Cry Me A River” (or at least, remarkably few of them which aren’t those four words). It takes considerable skill as a performer to carry that off.
If you record someone, no matter how good a singer, singing those four words and loop the tape to play that same short phrase over and over again, very few people will still be hanging around after the first 30 seconds. Julie London might have sung the words “cry me a river” more than a dozen times in under three minutes, but each time she sang those words, she made them feel like she was opening a new chapter in her story. That takes real skill.
As if further proof of her artistry was needed, even the very first word Julie London sings tells a more complex story than a hundred novels. I’m not sure popular music has ever seen a single word carry so much of an epic story implicit within it…
Now you say you’re lonely
You cry the whole night through
Well, you can cry me a river, cry me a river
I cried a river over you
For all Julie London made her name with this recording, the record wasn’t originally destined for her. Ella Fitzgerald had recorded it for a Hollywood movie, but ultimately it wasn’t used in the film.
While Ella Fitzgerald herself would record a version of “Cry Me A River” many years later, and while Ella Fitzgerald is undoubtedly one my my favourite vocalists of all time, Ella was smart and realised there was nothing she could do to improve on the perfection of Julie London’s performance of the song. So she left it alone for long enough for her version not to suffer by comparison.
By the time Ella got round to it, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of other versions of “Cry Me A River” so her record didn’t invite a head-to-head comparison with Julie London’s.
Which is just as well. Much as I love Ella, Julie London would have won that head-to-head. Of course, Ella Fitzgerald was a vastly better technical singer, but that’s not always what’s required. Julie London captured the song’s essence better than anyone else ever has…and, I believe, better than anyone else ever could.
Not that plenty of people haven’t tried over the years. In addition to Ella Fitzgerald and Ol’ Blue Eyes, I’m pretty sure anyone who ever stepped into a recording studio in the almost 70 years since “Cry Me A River” was written has recorded their version of it at one time or another. That’s how iconic a song it is.
Dinah Washington had a go, as did Shirley Bassey, Vic Damone, Barbra Streisand, Joe Cocker and…somewhat more improbably…Justin Timberlake and Liam Payne.
Anyone who’s anyone has tried to come up with a better version than Julie London’s in the last 65 years, but nobody has.
Although one artist has come closer than most.
His secret was that he didn’t try to recapture the un-recapturable vibe of the late night jazz singer in the smoky dive bar. He went in completely the opposite direction.
That’s why, for me, the only other version of “Cry Me A River” worth listening to is Michael Bublé’s.
Rather than a subdued, downbeat performance, he goes for what you might call “the full Bond” with a sweeping orchestral theme full of punch, verve and swagger, with plenty of Bond-esque styling cues along the way.
It’s a bravura performance from someone who does that style of song really well. The quality of the musicians and arrangement behind him hasn’t been heard on a record since Benny Goodman and Nelson Riddle left us for the great recording studio in the sky.
But even Michael Bublé’s performance, great as it is, doesn’t come close to Julie London’s. Her version is a “once in several generations” calibre performance, currently unbeaten for 65 years and counting.
From Julie London’s perfectly pitched “now” that carries so much of the emotional back-story all by itself at the beginning, through to her hushed, melancholic, self-accepting final “I cried a river over you” at the end, there are few performances in the history of recorded music as perfect as this one.
Here’s Julie London with her signature song, showing us all what musical perfection sounds like…
(And to follow, the only other version of “Cry Me A River” to come anywhere close to hers, in the company of Michael Bublé…)
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/7f6AAixCrVar1ZY7RPHDfM