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April 2017 Issue: The Late Great Larry Coryell

Lu Olutosin

A short history of … “Memories of You” (Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf, 1930)

“Memories of You” was composed by pianist Eubie Blake and lyricist Andy Razaf in 1930 for Lew Leslie’s Broadway show Blackbirds of 1930. Vocalist Minto Cato sang it on the show: “I wrote that song in an octave and a fifth,” said Blake, “to show off a girl’s voice, Minto Cato. You never heard anyone sing it the way she did, because it takes someone with real range to do it.” Despite including some of Blake’s best known and most loved compositions, Blackbirds of 1930 was a box-office flop – a victim of the Great Depression.

Nonetheless, that same year, singer Ethel Waters had the first recording of the song and Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra scored a hit with it shortly after. This version is notable for being only the second track ever recorded by Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, or “vibraharp,” as it was then known.

In 1938, saxophonist Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra revived “Memories of You” in a 1937 disc that became a classic. Blake himself frequently praised the orchestra’s star trumpeter Sonny Durham, who championed the song as a jazz standard: “Sonny Durham’s solo,” he said, “my how he played that!”

Bandleader Benny Goodman also greatly contributed to the popularity of the song during the Swing Era and performed it with his trio on the soundtrack of the 1956 biopic The Benny Goodman Story.

Meanwhile, Blake had retired from show business in 1948. He would begin the second phase of his career in 1968, during a ragtime revival, at the age of 86. In 1969, he released an album titled The 86 Years of Eubie Blake, which marked his reunion with singer and longtime collaborator Noble Sissle. The album featured a standout solo piano performance of “Memories of You.”

Among the many other great performances of “Memories of You,” one recorded by pianist Thelonious Monk in the spring of 1956 particularly stands out. Monk biographer Robin Kelley explained that this version was a tribute to Alberta Simmons, the neighborhood piano player who had taken Monk under her wing and helped his stride technique, teaching him songs by the old black composers. Monk thought about Miss Simmons a lot and although he did not soften his dissonant sonorities in this recording, Kelley observes that it “contained not a hint of irony and never lost its romanticism.”

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