February is the shortest month of the year, which is merciful, because it is also surely the bleakest. By the time it rolls around, winter has been with us for what seems like an eternity, with still plenty to come. The festivities of Christmas and Hanukkah are a distant memory and the bloom is off the rose of the new year. Of course there’s Valentine’s Day on February 14, but even that special day of celebrating romance is a mixed blessing to some, and many have sworn off it. Those not blessed with a partner, or who have recently lost one, find it lonely and painful. And even many with partners find it an empty and contrived occasion filled with pressure, a cash-in day for florists, candy makers, card companies, swanky restaurants and the like.
Despite these misgivings, I thought it might be interesting to explore the history of the song most associated with the day, My Funny Valentine, one which has become an essential part of jazz history and its repertoire, and also one which has been much misunderstood. It has been recorded over 1,600 times by more than 600 artists, both instrumentally and vocally, and is permanently associated with Frank Sinatra, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Miles Davis, among others. It was written in 1937 by perhaps my favourite songwriting team, Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart. Rodgers had the supreme gift of writing simple, pure melodies which stuck in the ear and which he would often flesh out with more interesting chords. And Hart stood alone as a lyricist; his words had great wit and charm, ironic humour, interior rhythm and often plumbed emotional depths worthy of poetry. As a team, they were incomparable; Rodgers’ later songs with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein are far less successful simply because the words don’t work nearly as well. (As an aside, this didn’t stop Cole Porter’s “beard” wife, Linda Lee Thomas, from asking pointedly of Rodgers & Hart after meeting them at a party: “Two guys, to write one song!?”)
My Funny Valentine was written for the musical comedy Babes In Arms, which opened in New York on April 14, 1937 and ran for 289 performances until December of that year. Because of its title, My Funny Valentine has always been associated with Valentine’s Day, but that’s something of a misconception, as its original use in the show is more literal: it is sung by a female character to the male lead whose name is Valentine “Val” La Mar, and it’s only in the closing line – “each day is Valentine’s Day” – that the day itself is mentioned. It’s a love song, yes, but not a typical one. Rather than extolling the virtues of the paramour in typical “moon in June” fashion, the words address the foibles of the object of affection, while leaving no doubt that Valentine is loved in spite of these obvious flaws – “Your looks are laughable, unphotographable. Yet you’re my favourite work of art.” And later, “Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak?” And finally, “Don’t change a hair for me, not if you care for me.” The irony at work here is typical of Lorenz Hart, indeed many have commented that these words are a love song to himself. To put it mildly, Hart suffered from low self-esteem and was a somewhat desperate soul: short, unattractive, a closeted gay who suffered from severe addictions to both drugs and alcohol, given to nasty outbursts yet with the soul of a poet.