Since reading the first couple of chapters of Mike’s detective novel over at The Nightwatchman, I’ve been in a real noir mood. I just watched a bit of The Big Sleep today, and I’ve added a bunch of detective and mystery movies to my Netflix queue. So in keeping with that spirit, today’s song is the one that best captures the feel of the genre: Harlem Nocturne, a moody, minor-key piece that evokes steam rising off the street on sultry city nights, and the scenes of Travis Bickle driving his cab alone at night in Taxi Driver. It was written by Earle Hagen in 1939. Starting out as a trombonist in big bands with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, Hagen spent most of his career writing themes for film and television. He wrote the Andy Griffith Show (you know, the one with the whistling), I Spy, and The Dick Van Dyke Show themes, among others. But “Harlem Nocturne” is Hagen’s one great contribution to the Jazz repertoire. It has a very Ellingtonian feel, and indeed I initially thought it was a Duke Ellington tune. But Hagen conceived it as a tribute to the Duke and his great alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. It has been covered by a ton of artists, and in the 80’s it was used as the theme to the Micky Spillaine’s Mike Hammer TV show, starring Stacy Keach as Mike Hammer. Although it’s almost always performed as an instrumental, the song actually has lyrics:
A nocturne for the blues played on a bro – ken heart string
It’s wailing out the news my baby is gone from me.
Dark shadows in the rain, a tel – e – phone that won’t ring
Just mem – o – ries re- main of lovers that used to be.
I miss the laughs and the fun, my spot in the sun
When I was the one one and only.
The music and lights, those wonderful nights
The morn – ing is the time we’d kiss.
The laughs and the fun, my days in the sun,
They’re over and done, and I’m lonely;
Don’t ask me to hide the heartbreak in – side
The gleam – ing spark is gone, the light went dark.
This nocturn for the blues took all and left me nothing
Nothing but the blues ’til baby comes back to me.
I’ve chosen the version recorded by the Johnny Otis Orchestra in 1945 for the Savoy label, which I think is the best (though I must give a nod to the electric guitar version that was a hit for The Viscounts in 1959). Enjoy.