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29/05/2015 11:58

S#07 – “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”

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“They Can’t Take That Away From Me”

Composed by George Gershwin, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin

They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is a song composed by George Gershwin, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and introduced by Fred Astaire in the 1937 film “Shall We Dance“, directed by Mark Sandrich. The idea for this film originated in the studio’s desire to exploit the successful formula created by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart with their 1936 Broadway hit “On Your Toes“, which featured an American dancer getting involved with a touring Russian ballet company.

Peter P. Peters (Fred Astaire), an American ballet dancer billed as “Petrov”, dances for a ballet company in Paris owned by the bumbling Jeffrey Baird (Edward Everett Horton). Peters secretly wants to blend classical ballet with modern jazz dancing, and when he sees a photo of famous tapdancer Linda Keene (Ginger Rogers), he falls in love with her. He contrives to meet her, but she’s less than impressed. They meet again on a liner traveling back to New York, and Linda warms to Petrov.

The song is performed by Astaire on the foggy deck of the ferry from New Jersey to Manhattan. It is sung to Ginger Rogers, who remains silent listening throughout. No dance sequence follows, which was unusual for the Astaire-Rogers numbers. Astaire and Rogers did dance to it later in their last movie “The Barkleys Of Broadway” (1949) in which they played a married couple with marital issues.

The song, in the context of “Shall We Dance”, notes some of the things that Peter (Astaire) will miss about Linda (Rogers). The lyrics include “the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea“, and “the way you hold your knife, the way we danced till three”. Each verse is followed by the line “no, no, they can’t take that away from me”. The basic meaning of the song is that even if the lovers part, though physically separated the memories cannot be forced from them. Thus it is a song of mixed joy and sadness.

“This song offers an extreme example of George Gerhwin’s use of repeated notes in his melodic phrases, but in this instance the lyricist may be the culprit. The original melody had only three to start the song, but Ira begged for two more to make room for his words. Otherwise “the way you wear your hat” or “sip your tea” would have been squeezed into “the way you (fill in a one-syllable verb)”. Smooch? Smoke? Cook? Hardly enough syllabic space there for courtship and romance.  Fortunately, George listened to his brother and the result is one of their most effective collaborations.

The relaxed phrases were no doubt written with a specific singer in mind. Fred Astaire may not be mentioned in any list of influential vocalists, and his singing has rarely gotten more than passing acknowledgment from jazz insiders, yet he seemed to be on hand when many popular standards were introduced.  George Gershwin was reportedly unhappy with the song’s placement in the movie – he felt that it was treated as a throwaway without a proper plug. But the composer was pleased by Astaire’s recording (Mar. 14, 1937) of his piece for the Brunswick label, which was the #1 hit in the nation the week the film came out.

Gershwin also took considerable pride in Irving Berlin’s praise of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” as a song destined to last. Berlin’s prediction has been more than adequately validated. Even before the film’s release, the song showed up on the music stands of bands led by Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, and other jazz stars of the day. Less than three weeks after Astaire made his own recording of the song, Billie Holiday came into the studio to wax her version for the Vocalion label, and this proved to be one of her more popular releases of the era – Lady Day’s vocal more than compensating for the turgid rhythm section.

But the song soon fell out of favor, and only a handful of jazz cover versions were released until the end of World War II. The main reason why this song came back into the limelight was because Astaire – that man again! – revived it for his 1949 film “The Barkleys Of Broadway”, where he does get to dance to the Gershwin number in formal attire with the lovely Ginger Rogers as his partner. A few months later, Charlie Parker performed the song as part of his “Bird With Strings” endeavor, where the first 15 seconds are gripping, the best moment of this whole session.

Soon after, Dizzy Gillespie recorded the Gershwin composition for his Dee Gee label, and used it as a vehicle for some aggressive double-time playing after the languid melody statement – but even better than the studio recording is the trumpeter’s live performance at Salle Pleyel in Feb., 1953. Around this same time, Oscar Peterson, Mary Lou Williams, Art Tatum, and Stan Getz further validated the jazz worthiness of the song, and it has remained a core part of the repertoire ever since.

This Gershwin standard remains primarily a feature for singers. Certainly the best-known jazz recording – from the winning mid-‘50s collaboration of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald  – showcases it in that context. But some lesser-known instrumental renditions demonstrate the tune’s adaptability as a jam song for horn players. For two compelling examples, track down Stanley Turrentine’s 1992 performance from “More Than A Mood”, where he fronts a rhythm section of Cedar Walton, Ron Carter, and Billy Higgins, and then proceed on to Lester Young’s recording on clarinet, alongside Hank Jones and Harry “Sweets” Edison, from 1958.” (1)

(1) extracts from “The Jazz Standards”, Ted Gioia, 2012

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Song Versions

Billie Holiday, from “The Billie Holiday Collection, Vol. 2“, Apr. 1, 1937
Charlie Parker, from “With Strings: The Master Takes“, July 5, 1950
Dizzy Gillespie, from “Dizzy Digs Paris“, lived at Salle Pleyel, Paris, Feb. 9, 1953
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, from “Ella And Louis“, Aug. 16, 1956

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Lyrics

The way you wear your hat
The way you sip your tea
The memory of all that
No, no, they can’t take that away from me

The way your smile just beams
The way you sing off-key
The way you haunt my dreams
No, no, they can’t take that away from me

We may never, never meet again
On that bumpy road to love
Still I’ll always,
Always keep the memory of …

The way you hold your knife
The way we danced until three
The way you’ve changed my life
No, no, they can’t take that away from me
No, they can’t take that away from me

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