And I seem to find the happiness I seek.

May 8, 2009

Right-o, so I turn my head for a few days and completely forget that a new month is upon us and that we need to roll on with a new set of this blog’s monthly series, and the first of which — as always — is “Vs.”

This month we take a look at two 1950s-era readings of a song written in the 1930s, Irving Berlin’s famed “Cheek to Cheek.”

The song first found prominence in the 1935 movie “Top Hat,” in which leading man and budding multi-talent Fred Astaire delivered a performance that would ultimately end up in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000. 

The song’s gentle lull and wistfully romantic lyrics led to it becoming a standard for almost every up-and-coming jazz or easy listening artist for 30 years thereafter and everyone from Frank Sinatra to Chet Atkins to Peggy Lee to Taco has put their own spin on it since.

The Omaha-native Astaire revisited the song in 1952 on The Astaire Storyan album conceived by Norman Granz, who would later go on to found the jazz mothership label, Verve Records. On the album, Granz put Astaire in front of a hot group of jazz musicians led by pianist Oscar Peterson, as they wound their way through several of the songs the leading man had main famous in his celluloid career.

The album has it’s charms — particularly in listening to Fred try (and sometimes fail) in singing with a jazz delivery, but the guy’s charisma still trickles through your speakers to this day, so it’s hard to knock it too much. “Cheek to Cheek” sat snug in a spot about halfway through the album, and while it doesn’t have the tightness of the version he delivered in “Top Hat,” it has a very lazy grace about it. He also concedes the last half of the song to the jazz outfit accompanying him and lets them take the song out on an extended musical stretch. 

Four years later, jazz giants Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald took a swipe at the song on their 1956 album, Ella and Louis, their first official co-starring album, released (appropriately enough) on Verve Records.

As with several of the songs on the Ella and Louis albums, the song lets the spotlight shine equally on its two names, so while this means both Armstrong and Fitzgerald each gets to sing the song within the course of just under six minutes, each delivers their own unique stamp on the song, and while there’s not much room for musical improvisation, the vocal deliveries are something in which the listener can just revel in time and again.

I still contend that nothing contends with the scratchy audio relic of Astaire’s 1935 recording, but of the 1950s versions, I have to favor Ella and Louis over Fred’s second go-round. It’s not a really a knock against Mr. Astaire, just me being a complete sucker for the audible charms in Ella and Louis singing it to each other.

Of course, that’s just me. Your thoughts?


Fred Astaire vs. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
“Cheek to Cheek”

Fred Astaire – Cheek to Cheek

Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – Cheek to Cheek


  1. Whoa, I’ve never heard the ’50s version of Astaires “Cheek to Cheek” before! I like it! Do you mind if I link to this post when I finally get around to reviewing the new “biography” of Fred Astaire on my website? Of course you don’t. Because when I do, I will surely tell my dear readers that this blog post singlehandedly outshines that entire book (a.k.a. 224 pages of fluff).

  2. Of course the fabulous Heavy Petting Zoo is welcome to anything from this blog. You know how I love overriding 224 pages of fluff when I can.

  3. […] [8] Cheek to Cheek by Fred Astaire from The Astaire Story […]

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