Blues in the Night

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"Blues in the Night"
Single by Woody Herman and His Orchestra
B-side"This Time the Dream's On Me"[1]
PublishedSeptember 18, 1941 (1941-09-18) by Harms, Inc., New York[2]
ReleasedOctober 1941 (1941-10)
RecordedSeptember 10, 1941 (1941-09-10)[3]
StudioDecca Studios, 5505 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles
Venuefrom movie, "Blues in the Night"
GenrePopular music, Blues
LabelDecca 4030
Composer(s)Harold Arlen
Lyricist(s)Johnny Mercer
"Blues in the Night"
Single by Dinah Shore
ReleasedJanuary 23, 1942 (1942-01-23)[4]
RecordedJanuary 12, 1942 (1942-01-12)[5]
StudioVictor Gramercy Recording Studio #2, New York City
LabelBluebird 11436

"Blues in the Night" is a popular blues song which has become a pop standard and is generally considered to be part of the Great American Songbook. The music was written by Harold Arlen, the lyrics by Johnny Mercer, for a 1941 film begun with the working title Hot Nocturne, but finally released as Blues in the Night. The song is sung in the film by William Gillespie.[6]


Arlen and Mercer wrote the entire score for the 1941 film Blues in the Night. One requirement was for a blues song to be sung in a jail cell.[7] As usual with Mercer, the composer wrote the music first, then Mercer wrote the words. Arlen later recalled:

The whole thing just poured out. And I knew in my guts, without even thinking what Johnny would write for a lyric, that this was strong, strong, strong! When Mercer wrote "Blues in the Night", I went over his lyric and I started to hum it over his desk. It sounded marvelous once I got to the second stanza but that first twelve was weak tea. On the third or fourth page of his work sheets I saw some lines—one of them was "My momma done tol' me, when I was in knee pants." I said, "Why don't you try that?" It was one of the very few times I've ever suggested anything like that to John.[8]

When they finished writing the song, Mercer called a friend, singer Margaret Whiting, and asked if they could come over and play it for her. She suggested they come later because she had dinner guests—Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Mel Tormé, and Martha Raye. Instead, Arlen and Mercer went right over. Margaret Whiting remembered what happened then:

They came in the back door, sat down at the piano and played the score of "Blues in the Night". I remember forever the reaction. Mel got up and said, "I can't believe it." Martha couldn't say a word. Mickey Rooney said, "That's the greatest thing I've ever heard." Judy Garland said, "Play it again." We had them play it seven times. Judy and I ran to the piano to see who was going to learn it first. It was a lovely night.[8]

After the song was composed and the lyrics were written, African-American baritone William Gillespie (1908-1968) was hired to perform the song in the jail cell for the film.[6] In his review of the film, critic Howard Thompson of The New York Times argued that Gillespie's "superbly chanted" version of the Arlen-Mercer song transformed the motion picture and arguably "nailed the film down for posterity."[9]

Academy Award nomination[edit]

In 1942 "Blues in the Night" was one of nine songs nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.[10] Observers expected that either "Blues in the Night" or "Chattanooga Choo Choo" would win, so that when "The Last Time I Saw Paris" actually won, neither its composer, Jerome Kern, nor lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II, was present at the ceremony. Kern was so upset at winning with a song that had not been specifically written for a motion picture and that had been published and recorded before the film came out that he petitioned the Motion Picture Academy to change the rules. Since then, a nominated song has to have been written specifically for the motion picture in which it is performed.[11]

Critical comment[edit]

Composer Alec Wilder said of this song, "'Blues in the Night' is certainly a landmark in the evolution of American popular music, lyrically as well as musically."[12]

Famous phrases from the lyrics[edit]

  • "My momma done tol' me"
  • "when I was in knee pants"
  • "worrisome thing"
  • "a woman'll sweet talk"

Recorded versions[edit]

Charting versions[edit]

Listed below are known versions of "Blues In the Night" that have made Billboard magazine's charts in the United States since 1941.[13]

Recorded versions in the United Kingdom were by Shirley Bassey and Helen Shapiro.

Artie Shaw recorded the first version on September 2, 1941 for RCA Victor Records, which was released as Victor 27609 on October 3.[14] It debuted at #10 on Billboard magazine's "Best Selling Retail Records chart" (BS chart) on November 21, 1941, but dropped to #21 the next week, then off.[15]

The Woody Herman recording was released by Decca Records as catalog number 4030 in October 1941.[6][16] It reached the BS chart in November, and hit #1 on February 14, 1942, finishing with a 21-week chart run.[13][15]

Dinah Shore's version[7] was released by Bluebird Records as catalog number 11436[6][17] on January 23, 1942.[4] It reached the BS chart on February 14, 1942 to start an 11 week run, peaking at #4. It was the #27 BS record of 1942, and went on to sell one million records.[18]

Jimmie Lunceford's two-sided platter was recorded on December 22, 1941, and released on Decca 4125 in January.[6][16] Starting January 31, 1942, it ran 10 weeks on the BS chart, peaking at #4.[18]

The Cab Calloway recording was released by OKeh Records as catalog number 6422.[6][19] It reached the BS chart on January 31, 1942 to start a 9 week run, peaking at #8.[15]

The Benny Goodman Sextet, with Peggy Lee on vocals, recorded "Blues in the Night" on December 24, 1941, released on Okeh 6553 in January 1942. It made the chart on February 14 at #20, but was never seen again.[18]

The Rosemary Clooney recording was released by Columbia Records as catalog number 39813.[20] The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on September 26, 1952 and lasted 2 weeks on the chart, peaking at #29.[15]

Other notable versions[edit]

In addition, the song was recorded at least three times by Jo Stafford. Her previously unreleased 1942 version with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra[21] was included in the 1966 Reader's Digest box set The Glenn Miller Years.[22] On October 15, 1943, she recorded it with Johnny Mercer, the Pied Pipers, and Paul Weston's Orchestra, in a version released as a single (catalog number 10001[23]) and on an album (Songs by Johnny Mercer, catalog number CD1) by Capitol Records. On February 20, 1959, she recorded it with The Starlighters in a version released on an album (Ballad of the Blues, catalog number CL-1332) by Columbia Records.

Another version was by Billy Eckstine in his album Once More with Feeling (1960)

Dick Monda released a version of the song as a single in 1967.[24]

Carlos Montoya recorded a flamenco version.[25]

In 1995, the rock group Chicago included the song on their "Night & Day: Big Band" album. The arrangement by vocalist Bill Champlin features a guitar solo by Aerosmith's Joe Perry.

Ray Charles for his album Ain't It So (1979)

Additional recorded versions (and further details on above versions)[edit]

(This is the first of four records in Capitol Records' first album, Songs by Johnny Mercer.)[23])

In popular culture[edit]

  • The song was frequently quoted by composer Carl Stalling in his musical scores for the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons for Warner Bros. studios in the 1940s and 1950s. The then-recent hit song is sung incessantly by Daffy Duck in the ironically-titled 1942 cartoon My Favorite Duck, in which Porky Pig is tormented by the duck while on a camping trip. Porky's preferred number in that cartoon is "On Moonlight Bay". At one point, Porky unconsciously starts to sing "My Mama Done Tol' Me," then stops, looks into the camera with a "Harumph!" and returns to "Moonlight Bay."
Additionally, the musical riff "my mama done tol' me" is used to identify a black duck from 'South' Germany in the 1942 Looney Tunes cartoon The Ducktators, and the song is featured prominently (with revised lyrics) in the 1943 Merrie Melody cartoon Fifth Column Mouse as well as in Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. In the 1942 cartoon, Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid, Bugs Bunny half-mutters the song, changing the lyrics to, "My mamma done told me, a buzzard is two faced..." The melody is also heard in Porky Pig's Feat, Early to Bet, The Hypo-Chondri-Cat, and others.


  1. ^ "Decca 4030 (10-in. double-faced) - Discography of American Historical Recordings". Retrieved 2022-05-18.
  2. ^ Library of Congress. Copyright Office. (1941). Catalog of Copyright Entries 1941 Music New Series Vol 36 Pt 2 Last Half of 1941. United States Copyright Office. U.S. Govt. Print. Off.
  3. ^ "Decca matrix DLA 2746. Blues in the night / Woody Herman Orchestra - Discography of American Historical Recordings". Retrieved 2022-05-18.
  4. ^ a b "Bluebird B-11436 (10-in. double-faced) - Discography of American Historical Recordings". Retrieved 2022-05-18.
  5. ^ "Victor matrix BS-068853. Blues in the night / Dinah Shore - Discography of American Historical Recordings". Retrieved 2022-05-18.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Gardner, Edward Foote (2000). Popular Songs of the 20th Century: Chart Detail & Encyclopedia, 1900-1949. St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House. ISBN 1-55778-789-1.
  7. ^ a b Gilliland, John (1994). Pop Chronicles the 40s: The Lively Story of Pop Music in the 40s (audiobook). ISBN 978-1-55935-147-8. OCLC 31611854. Tape 2, side B.
  8. ^ a b Lahr, John (September 19, 2005). "Come Rain Or Come Shine: The Bittersweet Life of Harold Arlen". The New Yorker. pp. 92–93.
  9. ^ Biesen, Sheri Chinen (2014). Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films. United States: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 37. ISBN 9781421408385 – via Google Books.
  10. ^ "Awards for Blues in the Night (1941)". imdb. Retrieved 2007-01-25.
  11. ^ Sacket, Susan (1995). Hollywood Sings!. New York: Billboard Books. pp. 42–43. ISBN 9780823076239.
  12. ^ Wilder, Alec (1972). American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 272. ISBN 0-19-501445-6.
  13. ^ a b Whitburn, Joel (1999). Joel Whitburn Presents a Century of Pop Music. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research. ISBN 0-89820-135-7.
  14. ^ a b Victor Records in the 27500 to 27999 series
  15. ^ a b c d It was the #8 Best-Selling Record of 1942. Whitburn, Joel (1973). Top Pop Records 1940-1955. Record Research.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g Decca Records in the 4000 to 4461 series
  17. ^ a b c Bluebird Records in the 11000 to 11499 series
  18. ^ a b c Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954 page 181. Record Research.
  19. ^ a b OKeh Records in the 6000 to 6499 series
  20. ^ a b Columbia Records in the 39500 to 39999 series
  21. ^ "Jo Stafford Discography". Jo Stafford Discography. Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  22. ^ "". 1966. Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  23. ^ a b Capitol Records in the 10001 to 10210 series
  24. ^ Dick Monda, "Blues in the Night" single release Retrieved February 14, 2016.
  25. ^ "Montoya's Farewell Tour Arrives in Irvine Tonight". Los Angeles Times. 13 October 1989. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  26. ^ Decca Records in the 23500 to 23999 series
  27. ^ RCA Victor Records in the 20-4000 to 20-4499 series
  28. ^ RCA Victor Records in the 20-3500 to 20-3999 series
  29. ^ Columbia Records in the 40000 to 40499 series
  30. ^ Columbia Records in the 41000 to 41500 series
  31. ^ OKeh Records in the 6500 to 6747 series
  32. ^ Harmony Records in the 1001 to 1087 series
  33. ^ Decca Records in the 24000 to 24499 series
  34. ^ Decca Records in the 25000 to 25514 series
  35. ^ Columbia Records in the 37500 to 37999 series
  36. ^ a b Columbia Records in the 36500 to 36999 series
  37. ^ Elite Records in the 5000 to 5045 series
  38. ^ Decca Records in the 28000 to 28499 series
  39. ^ Decca Records in the 29000 to 29499 series
  40. ^ Capitol Records in the 1500 to 1999 series
  41. ^ Capitol Records in the 2500 to 2999 series
  42. ^ "Pop Chronicles 1940s Program #5". 1972.
  43. ^ RCA Victor Records in the 20-1500 to 20-1999 series
  44. ^ Decca Records in the 18000 to 18499 series
  45. ^ Decca Records in the 8500 to 8999 series
  46. ^ Atlantic Records listing
  47. ^ Decca Records in the 29009 to 29255 series