A short history of … “It Could Happen to You” (Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, 1943)

“It Could Happen to You” was written by Jimmy Van Heusen, with lyrics by Johnny Burke, in 1943. It was introduced by actress Dorothy Lamour in the Paramount musical comedy film, And the Angels Sing, directed by George Marshall and released in 1944. Oddly, despite the title, the film did not feature the Ziggy Elman and Johnny Mercer song of the same name, that had been popularized by Benny Goodman in 1939.

“It Could Happen to You” captured the hearts of American audiences. It was recorded by countless artists shortly after making its debut in And the Angels Sing. Among them, Bing Crosby, Jo Stafford, and Bob Chester all promoted their own versions of the song in 1944.

Though these early versions presented Van Heusen and Burke’s composition as a relaxed ballad, Ted Gioia writes that today “the tune is more often heard at a medium of medium-up tempo.” He also mentioned that “Miles Davis played a key role in this new conception of the song” with his own version of the song from 1958, although “Davis himself was probably influenced by a 45 rpm recording of ‘It Could Happen to You,’ seldom heard nowadays, made by pianist Ahmad Jamal for the Parrot label in 1954, which anticipates Miles’s later approach.”

“It Could Happen to You” was also one of the standards that inspired beboppers from the 40’s onwards. Notably, saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who was among the earliest tenor players to adopt the bebop musical language, based his 1969 composition, “Fried Bananas,” on its changes.

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