A short history of … “Easy Living” (Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, 1937)

“Easy Living” was written by composer Ralph Rainger and lyricist Leo Robin in 1937. Their partnership produced a number of hits and lasted until Rainger’s death in a plane crash in 1942. In the 1930’s, they were both contracted at Paramount Pictures and wrote a number of songs for a number of movies. Rainger composed the title tune for Easy Living, directed by Mitchell Leisen, written by Preston Sturges, and starring Jean Arthur. This version lacked lyrics, which would be added by Robin shortly after the film’s release.

Teddy Wilson picked up “Easy Living” as a vehicle for her star singer Billie Holiday. The song would hereafter be associated with Lady Day. She re-recorded it for Decca in 1947 with her own orchestra. Arrangements on these sessions were done by Bob Haggart. The one for “Easy Living” is considerably slower than the earlier version Holiday had recorded with Wilson. Donald Clarke notes that “it is tempting to ascribe the extreme languour to Lady’s involvement with heroin.”

“Easy Living” titled another movie in 1949. This time, the film was directed by Jacques Tourneur, starred Victor Mature and Lisabeth Scott, and featured a version of Rainger’s composition with Robin’s lyrics performed by actress Audrey Young. Young sings it on screen during a pivotal party scene. Meanwhile, recordings of “Easy Living” by such artists as vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, and saxophonist Wardell Gray did much to establish it as a jazz standard. Trumpeter Miles Davis recorded a notable version in 1955 with an unconventional rhythm section: drummer Elvin Jones, vibraphonist Teddy Charles, and bassist Charles Mingus.

Ted Gioia argues that “Easy Living” was largely ignored by traditional players and thrived when performed by modern-minded ones. He argues that “some of the finest versions of recent years find it recast in appealing, uncluttered – and definitely nostalgia-free – treatments by modern-minded players such as Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and Enrico Rava.”

Matt Micucci

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