“My Funny Valentine” — Sammy Davis Jr

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Contrary to what Instagram and greetings card companies would have you believe, we’re loved because of our imperfections, not in spite of them, as the story of “My Funny Valentine” demonstrates.

It’s a song people who’ve been hurt are drawn to. When you know the background to the song, you’ll see why.

With music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by my all-time-favourite lyricist, Lorenz Hart, “My Funny Valentine” first saw the light of day as part of a 1937 Broadway show called Babes In Arms.

Before we go too much further, though, we need to cover off the first of two big “plot twists” in the story of “My Funny Valentine”…despite most of the famous recordings of of the song being by men, “My Funny Valentine” was originally written for a woman to sing to a man.

In Babes In Arms former vaudeville star Mitzi Green sang it to actor Ray Hetherington, playing a character called Valentine (“Val”) LaMar. It’s not, as many people think, a song about Valentine’s Day or even for Valentines Day…even though that gets a brief mention in the lyrics…it’s a song designed to be sung to a guy called Valentine.

That plot twist certainly puts one of the most famous lines from “My Funny Valentine” in a different context…no matter how bold or sincere a guy might be, I couldn’t imagine any guy getting a positive reception for telling a girl…

Your looks are laughable, unphotographable

Yet, in a funny way, that line is what brings all the strands of “My Funny Valentine” together.

It’s become a song which, at its best, is delivered by singers who have had their moments of fragility and despondency and still carry the memories of thinking they were unworthy of success and affection.

Our story of fragility and despondency starts before anyone has sung has sung a word. It starts with a lyricist I admire more than any other, Lorenz Hart.

Genius though he was, Lorenz Hart loathed himself and his body. He had a serious alcohol problem and would disappear on benders for days on end. It probably didn’t help that he was gay in much less enlightened times and had to hide who he was and what he felt from everyone around him.

Despite his great talent, Lorenz Hart lived a sad and lonely life, consumed by bouts of depression from never being able to live the life he wanted and drinking himself senseless on a regular basis so he could anaesthetise his feelings of being utterly unworthy of love.

He lived with his widowed mother, in between benders, and died shortly after she did. The years of abusing his body with alcohol and now having nobody else to live for meant Lorenz Hart’s life was over soon after he said his last goodbyes to his mother.

Lorenz Hart just wanted to be loved, as we all do, but never felt worthy of being loved.

I’m certain Lorenz Hart was writing about himself when he wrote…

Your looks are laughable, unphotographable

That’s how he saw himself throughout his life. The sadness baked into “My Funny Valentine” is the sadness Lorenz Hart felt every day.

The lyrics imagine the sort of relationship Lorenz Hart would have liked to find for himself…someone to love him despite of his imperfections and what he saw as his “loathsome” body.

Lyrically, however, that very famous line is classic Lorenz Hart.

He was a master at writing internal rhymes within a larger, more complex rhyming scheme. And inventing a new word, “unphotographable”, was also exactly the sort of thing he’d do to conjure up a picture in the listener’s mind using the bare minimum of perfectly-scanning words.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that Lorenz Hart could never quite bring himself to believe the words he wrote next…

Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
But don’t change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay, little Valentine, stay
Each day is Valentine’s Day

Don’t change a hair for me…not if you care for me…

In Babes In Arms, Mitzi Green wanted Valentine LaMar to stay just as he was. She loved him because of who he was, not despite of what he wasn’t.

Lorenz Hart wrote “My Funny Valentine” at a more reflective stage of his career.

He’d made his name with a succession of wonderfully witty and deeply satirical songs which poked fun at the ways of high society, and many of the prominent characters in it, during the 1920s and 1930s.

Songs like “The Lady Is A Tramp” and “Manhattan”, a particular favourite of mine, showcase the light-hearted, witty, satirical style of one of the greatest lyricists who ever lived at the height of his creative powers.

His writing partner Richard Rodgers said that as time went on Lorenz Hart stopped sacrificing warmth for wit and became more engaged in the emotions of his songs. “My Funny Valentine” is a great example of a song that leads with its emotions, although Lorenz Hart’s gift for lyric writing still shines through.

Today we see “My Funny Valentine” as a song with enduring popularity, and a feature of most Great American Songbook collections. But “My Funny Valentine” took a long and circuitous path to becoming the standard we now consider it to be.

That’s understandable in some ways…it’s an unusual song covering the subject of love in a non-traditional way. The lyrics and melody, while exceptional, are hardly conventional. It’s a slow, thoughtful, contemplative song a million miles away from the joyful exuberance of songs like “The Lady Is A Tramp”.

I can imagine it was hard to place on a radio playlist back in the 1930s.

Thankfully, over time, “My Funny Valentine” gradually crept its way into the public consciousness. But it took from 1937, when Babes In The Wood started its Broadway run, to 1945 for the song to make its first chart appearance…just a single week in the Top 20 for The Hal McIntyre Orchestra with Ruth Gaylor on vocal…

From that point on, a song originally sung by a woman to a man flipped over and has since become more famous as a song sung by a man to a woman…with one notable exception which we’ll get to in our second plot twist in just a moment…

It took another seven years before the next significant version of “My Funny Valentine” came along. This recording proved pivotal to taking what was, by then, a 15 year-old former Broadway show tune with almost no chart success to speak of and making it into one of the keystone tracks in the Great American Songbook.

Chet Baker’s 1952 recording of “My Funny Valentine” with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet launched the song on its path to becoming the song we remember with such fondness today. So it’s only fitting that in 2015 his version was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry as a song with “cultural, artistic and/or historical significance”…

Then came the biggest boost any songwriter could wish for in the 1950s.

Frank Sinatra, a big Rodgers and Hart fan, chose “My Funny Valentine” for his 1954 album “Songs For Young Lovers”.

That album pretty much single-handedly revived Sinatra’s recording career after several years in the doldrums post-WWII.

No longer the bobbysoxer’s pin-up, Sinatra experienced some difficult times and thought his career as a performer was over, until his Oscar-winning role in “From Here To Eternity” brought a new, grown-up Frank Sinatra to the attention of future generations of record buyers.

Oscar in hand, and with a run of successful albums behind him, starting with “Songs For Young Lovers”, Frank Sinatra climbed back up to the top of the tree again and stayed there for the rest of his days.

Sadly, Lorenz Hart had drunk himself to death a full decade before Frank Sinatra stepped up to a microphone in the Capitol Records building in Los Angeles to record one of the most iconic and enduring versions of “My Funny Valentine”.

Lorenz Hart never heard Frank Sinatra’s recording. But I’d like to think he’d have enjoyed it if he had. Frank Sinatra was still close enough to the hard times he’d endured that he had plenty of reserves of melancholy to draw on for his recording…

As a big Sinatra fan it slightly pains me to say that, although his version of “My Funny Valentine” is completely fabulous, it isn’t my favourite version of the song.

There are an estimated 1300 recordings of “My Funny Valentine” by over 600 different artists in existence…some of whom clearly recorded it more than once.

But of those 600-or-so artists, for me Sammy Davis Jr is the one who really got to grips with not just the surface lyrics of the song, but the feelings going through Lorenz Hart’s mind as he wrote them.

Sammy Davis Jr was just as much of an outsider as Lorenz Hart, which is perhaps why I feel a stronger affinity with his version of “My Funny Valentine” than the 1299 or so others.

As Sammy Davis Jr put it himself later in his career, only half-jokingly I suspect, it wasn’t easy for a black, Jewish, one-eyed man to make it as a leading man in the Hollywood.

That’s why I think Sammy Davis Jr was drawn to a song that described the feelings of isolation and despondency he knew only too well himself.

“My Funny Valentine” was a track on his first album, 1955’s “Introducing Sammy Davis Jr”. The cover photograph shows Sammy Davis Jr wearing the eye-patch he needed after losing his eye, and nearly his life, in a 1954 auto accident.

Sammy Davis Jr’s version is below. And much as I love his version, if you listen to the Spotify track, you’ll hear Sammy Davis Jr praise Richard Rodgers for his composition but not mention the lyricist who wrote the beautiful words he’s about to sing.

One of my pet hates is composers getting all the kudos while lyricists are largely ignored. Richard Rodgers is an exceptional composer, but Lorenz Hart is no less exceptional a lyricist and I feel he deserved at least equal billing.

However, Sammy Davis Jr taps into the emotions of “My Funny Valentine” so perfectly, I can’t hold that against him for long. For someone often castigated as “just a lounge singer”, Sammy Davis Jr is on absolutely top form delivering a song which encapsulated so many of his own feelings about himself.

Before wrapping up, though, you might remember we still have one “plot twist” to address. And it’s a plot twist that specifically involves the lyrics of “My Funny Valentine”.

In the version we know and love today, the song doesn’t start with a verse, it starts with the chorus. But in Lorenz Hart’s original lyrics, there was another verse which preceded the first chorus.

It’s virtually never sung these days, and it’s a bit of a counterpoint to the rest of the song which is perhaps one reason it’s usually left out.

However the first verse also makes very clear that “My Funny Valentine” is a song being sung by a woman to a man, which is clearly not quite the right positioning for Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and the hundreds of other men who recorded the song over the years…

One of the few well-known versions which includes that “missing verse” is an early recording by Ella Fitzgerald, although it’s probably worth noting that in her later recordings she tended to deliver what became the more conventional version of “My Funny Valentine” without the first verse.

Of course, a song like “My Funny Valentine” is absolutely made for Ella Fitzgerald’s peerless phrasing, so it’s worth listening to, even if you don’t much care for the “missing verse”. Here’s how it goes…

Behold the way our fine feathered friend
His virtue doth parade
Thou knowest not, my dim-witted friend
The picture thou hast made
Thy vacant brow, and thy tousled hair
Conceal they good intent
Thou noble, upright, truthful, sincere
And slightly dopey gent

No, I couldn’t see Ol’ Blue Eyes singing those lyrics either…

Whichever recording you prefer out of the 1300-or-so in existence, I’m sure we can all agree “My Funny Valentine” is a wonderful song which showcases the songwriting talents of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart beautifully.

But for me, beyond question, my favourite version of “My Funny Valentine” is by Sammy Davis Jr. He conveys every ounce of the emotions Lorenz Hart experienced as he wrote the lyrics.

And remember, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, you’re loved because of your imperfections, not in spite of them. Happy Valentine’s Day…

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/7yhebp6CVYyNEXf0DH2JIC

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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