S is for Songs from the classics

This swing version of the Lizst rhapsody was a major influence on several aspiring arrangers, including Billy Strayhorn and Billy May.


When I was 11 or 12, I took piano lessons for a little over a year. I wasn’t very good, though I did practice. I will say that it was useful for singing. My piano teacher was Mrs. Hamlin, the organist at my church at the time, who was like family; her parents were my godparents, and her sister’s son was my parents’ godson.

One day, I was laboriously trying to play the Bach Minuet in C, which, incidentally, I had danced to in second grade. Mrs. Hamlin said, “It’s like A Lover’s Concerto by the Toys.” At that very moment, I had no idea what she was talking about, though, of course, now I do.

Actually, I first owned A Lover’s Concerto as a cover version by the Supremes on their I Hear A Symphony album, which also contained their version of Stranger in Paradise from the 1953 musical Kismet, which poached Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor.

As it turns out, there are a LOT of pop songs that are based on classical music. Some are very obvious, such as Nut Rocker by B. Bumble and the Stingers, based on Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers” from The Nutcracker, or a couple songs from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, A Fifth of Beethoven by Walter Murphy, and Night on Disco Mountain by David Shire, the latter based on Mussorgsky.

Others may be more subtle. The J. S. Bach piece O Sacred Head, Now Wounded could be the musical inspiration for American Tune by Paul Simon.

Here’s a lengthy list of songs from the classics, which, of course, are in the public domain, and, as such, are not subject to copyright restrictions. This list is slightly shorter but is more in depth. There are a half dozen songs here, but there are samples of each version.

The one example I found on no list was The Hungarian Rhapsody #2 by Liszt (heard here) which “was also the basis for a popular song, ‘Ebony Rhapsody’ by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston, introduced in the 1934 film Murder at the Vanities. In the film, it was played by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, who also recorded it. This swing version of the rhapsody was a major influence on several aspiring arrangers, including Billy Strayhorn (who later became Duke Ellington’s composing partner) and Billy May (who later recorded ‘Ebony Rhapsody’ with Nat King Cole).

ABC Wednesday – Round 8