“Someone To Watch Over Me”
The Gershwins’ song is a masterpiece, but the Ella Fitzgerald version manages to improve upon it.
You cannot win an argument with those who claim the greatest American songs were written long ago in what they consider the golden age of tunesmithery. That is, roughly, the 1920’s to the 1950’s. You may love rock, soul, country, folk and all the other unique and important American forms— I certainly do — but still, the best you can hope for is a tie. By any reasonable standard, these songs are at the pinnacle of modern artistry. Just ask any rocker to play one and you see what I mean. It’s like chess compared to checkers. Complexity has never equaled greatness in my book, but these songs have more than great craftsmanship, they have heart.
A song must be emotionally and intellectually satisfying to be considered great and, today’s tune, sung with aching tenderness by the great Ella Fitzgerald, scores in both categories. Someone To Watch Over Me was the creation of George and Ira Gershwin, writers in an eternal three-way tie for greatest with Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. They were all mind-boggling in their productivity and native genius. With many others they created what is commonly called The Great American Songbook. The Great American Novel may not be written yet, but The Songbook has and it lives up to that grandiose title.
When I do song clinics I emphasize four things: melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics. I know that to modern ears it might sound like rhythm had yet to be invented back then. Being so accustomed to a heavy backbeat, it’s not easy easy for us to feel the graceful swing in older songs. It would be foolish to say one is better, but there are joys to be found in the light and smart touch that songs like this one employ.
Complete is the word that describes Someone To Watch Over Me perfectly. You couldn’t add or subtract one note or word without diminishing it. It starts with what was once called a verse. Once common in popular songs, it was a completely unique bit of music and words that introduced the song, and never repeated. The last modern instance of a verse that I can think of is Here, There and Everywhere, by The Beatles. They had a little Tin Pan Alley in them, I guess.
I’m not sure how the brothers Gershwin worked, but I suspect George was the prime mover in the partnership, giving Ira a melody and chords to listen to and contemplate. No matter how it got here, Ira’s lyric is a gem, top to bottom. The verse is very tightly constructed, a perfect combo of rhyme and reason:
There’s a saying old — says that love is blind
Still were often told, seek and ye shall find
So I’m going to seek a certain lad I’ve had in mind
Looking everywhere, haven’t found him yet
He’s the big affair I cannot forget
Only man I ever think of with regret
I’d like to add his initial to my monogram
Tell me, where is the shepherd for this lost lamb?
There’s a somebody I’m longing to see
I hope that he turns out to be
Someone who’ll watch over me
I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood
I know I could always be good
Someone who’ll watch over me
Although he may not be the man some
Girls think of as handsome
To my heart he carries the key
Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed
Follow my lead, oh how I need
Someone to watch over me
© George & Ira Gershwin
This is seven kinds of brilliant. Chock full of beautiful internal rhyme, including the wonderful “man some” and “handsome.” It touches all the bases, doffs its hat to the crowd and saunters across home, beaming like the winner it is. The unforgettable words are attached to a melody as memorable as it is organic — you don’t write this kind of tune, you grow it.
It’s all relative, really and these two brothers must have shared a family branch with Ella Fitzgerald somewhere back a ways — she was that sympathetic their creations. This recording is one of many she made of their songs. She kept coming back to them, recording three albums that concentrated solely on their music. The beauty of Ella, is that when she sings, it strikes the ear with a kind of eternal youth and optimism. She has a gossamer touch that gives even heavy-hearted songs a little spring in their step. It’s a rare gift and certainly not to be confused with the recent trend among singers, men and women, who try to sound like they’re dealing with early adolescence. Maybe they are.
The Supreme Court of Music will never rule on what era was the greatest and that’s a good thing. If they were to declare this one the best, I’d probably agree and go on loving both low and high art. A steady diet of one thing is never really a good idea unless you are a koala bear. But let me add this — if you are feeling just a tad burned out with modern radio and would like a refreshing rinse for your mind and soul, go to your favorite music provider and pick up any of the Ella Sings Gershwin collections. It will do your heart good.