By Nick Morrison
During his 84 years on the planet, Yip Harburg contributed brilliant lyrics to some of the finest melodies of the American popular song canon.
Most of his songs were originally written for Broadway shows or Hollywood musicals. Finian’s Rainbow is probably his most popular stage work, but he’s best known for working with composer Harold Arlen on music for The Wizard of Oz, a collaboration which won them an Oscar for “Over the Rainbow.”
What follows is the work of five singers, each putting his or her own stamp on the lyrics of Yip Harburg.
Yip Harburg: A Lyricist For The Ages
Old Devil Moon
Artist: Carmen McRae
Album: Any Old Time
Here’s one of two songs we’ll hear that were written for Finian’s Rainbow by Harburg and composer Burton Lane. Many jazz versions of this song exist, but this one features the great Carmen McRae (who shares a birthday with Harburg) playing it fast and loose. At one point toward the end of the song, she even sings, “Why don’cha fade this mutha?” Featured with McRae are Eric Gunnison (piano), Scott Colley (bass), John Collins (guitar) and Mark Pulice (drums).
April In Paris
Artist: Kurt Elling
Harburg wrote this one with composer Vernon Duke for a 1932 Broadway show called Walk a Little Faster. Though perhaps the most famous version of “April in Paris” is the instrumental by Count Basie, vocalist Kurt Elling shows us that a great melody and beautiful lyric are timeless. In this 1997 arrangement, solos are provided by trumpeter Orbert Davis and Elling’s longtime collaborator, pianist Laurence Hobgood.
Artist: Susannah McCorkle
Album: Over the Rainbow: The Songs of E.Y. Yip Harburg
We’re back to Finian’s Rainbow for Susannah McCorkle’s small-group arrangement of “The Begat.” Throughout his life, Harburg leaned far to the left politically and was blacklisted in Hollywood from the early ’50s through the early ’60s. But even back in 1947, when Finian’s Rainbow hit Broadway, Harburg was slipping sociopolitical satire into his lyrics, often in witty, winning ways. “The Begat” is a great example of that, as well as a demonstration of his inventive way with rhymes.
Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?
Artist: Phil Alvin
Album: Un “Sung Stories”
Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney wrote this classic for a 1931 musical called New Americana, but it soon became the theme of the Great Depression, thanks primarily to Bing Crosby’s 1932 recording of the song. But great songs never get old and, at least in this case, many don’t lose relevance. This wonderful 1986 version features vocalist/guitarist Phil Alvin, who had just disbanded his blues/rock/Americana band The Blasters. To accompany him on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” he selected none other than pianist, composer and arranger Sun Ra and his Arkestra. In this song, artists from what would seem to be opposite corners of the American musical map come together to make powerful music.
Over The Rainbow
Artist: Melody Gardot
Album: My One & Only Thrill
This song is Yip Harburg’s greatest lyrical legacy, a perfect melding of words and music that has staked a claim for immortality. Though Judy Garland’s version of “Over the Rainbow” is considered definitive, the song has been recorded by an amazing spectrum of musicians, from Frank Sinatra to Jeff Beck. To wrap up this list, here’s Melody Gardot’s Latin-flavored 2009 arrangement of one of popular music’s loveliest and most touching songs.