Once upon a time, I was one of Those Kids. The ones who wore their weirdness like a badge of honor, who really did listen to stuff no one else was listening to. (Don’t get me wrong, I had my share of pretentious affectations, too, but…)
My grandmother got married less than a week after the bombs hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her life was shaped by World War II in a way that I couldn’t really comprehend. But what I could comprehend, easily, was the music she listened to.
I couldn’t tell you which happened first: my grandmother’s stories about the war, about going up on the train north to Burlington to go dancing, about the soldiers she befriended and the one that she lost? The old-time radio show on Vermont Public Radio that played standards from the Golden Age? The Saturday morning program on Vermont Public Television that played a serial, a newsreel and an old movie, just like Back in the Old Days? It didn’t matter; all those influences came together to make me a fan of what we now call the Great American Songbook.
Rodgers and Hart wrote “Blue Moon” for Jean Harlow, for a 1933 film called Hollywood Party. It didn’t make the cut, and the lyrics were tweaked — twice — for 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama. The lyrics were changed yet again for the song’s commercial release. “Blue Moon,” with its new lyrics, debuted on the radio program Hollywood Hotel. From there it was history: featured in at least seven MGM films and covered by both Billy Eckstine and Mel Tormé in 1949. It crossed over to rock ‘n’ roll when Elvis Presley released his own interpretation in 1954, but the Marcels’ doo-wop version from 1961 is probably the pop version that’s remembered most. It’s been covered many times since, from the cash-in albums that aging rockers release (lookin’ at you, Rod Stewart) to the version I remember most, Cybill Shepherd on Moonlighting, in one of their most ambitious episodes.
In “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” leads David Addison (Bruce Willis) and Maddie Hayes (Shepherd) learn about an old murder that was never solved, and each dream about what they think the “real” story was, casting themselves in key roles in the mystery. Shepherd sings “Blue Moon” in the first sequence, which casts the nightclub singer involved in the murder as a relative innocent — in the second dream, where she’s more of a femme fatale, she sings “I Told Ya I Loved Ya (Now Get Out).” “Blue Moon” is a perfect choice for the scene, and Shepherd’s performance is utterly right: check out the scene, lovingly shot on film stock, and feel the chills when she hits that big note in the final verse.
That episode, and that song, hit right where tiny-me lived, deep in fascination and admiration for a musical era I’d never be part of.
“Blue Moon” is deceptively simple as a piece of music. The chord progression (I–vi–IV–V) is classic for a reason, the structure is predictable, and the lyrics are solidly in the “love longed for and found” category. But the magic of “Blue Moon” is in the details; in the rhymes, which resist the moon-June-spoon cliché you might expect from the title, the straightforward pleasure of a song structured simply and well, and, of course in the phenomenal performances that made it immortal.
(Here’s a great rundown of “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice.” Shepherd’s vocals ended up on the show’s official soundtrack, too.)