Rainbow Music

rainbow music

Indoor rainbow – Photo by Norma Thatcher

A signature song. That phrase captures the imagination. It’s defined as the ONE song a successful artist or band is most closely identified with. Some examples are

  • What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
  • I Left My Heart In San Francisco – Tony Bennett
  • YMCA – The Village People
  • Piano Man – Billy Joel
  • Moon River – Andy Williams

Judy Garland’s signature song was Over the Rainbow from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. (Music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by E.Y. (Yip) Harburg)

Do you suppose there is anyone reading this post who is NOT familiar with that song? In 2001 Over the Rainbow was voted the greatest song of the 20th century by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry of America.

Why is it so popular? What is it that makes us like it so darned much? How can it have not only endured but prospered after 82 years?

Professor of music Walter Frisch (who wrote a book about the song) believes, “The song’s mix of hope and anxiety has allowed people to read into it their own concerns.” It’s a universally appealing song.

Based on the comments found on YouTube for various covers of the song, people have their own interpretation of the emotions the song brings forth. Here’s a partial listing: Hope, sadness, loss, yearning, escape, a leap of faith, optimism, happiness, courage, daring, healing, solidarity, and reassurance. Quite the diverse list!

Over the Rainbow has been sung at weddings and at funerals. People play it at graduation parties. And it has been on NASA’s playlist to wake up astronauts!

Katherine McPhee sang it sitting on the floor as an American Idol finalist in 2006.  And she and her husband David Foster just uploaded a new informal version of it in April to help raise funds for the Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County, Texas.

There is a light and upbeat version of it by Hawaiian singer Israel (Iz) Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole that has smashed records. It has been in the top ten on Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales for 541 weeks! The video, which is a mashup of Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World, has been viewed on YouTube over a billion times.

But my favorite cover is a soulful rendition by a once relatively unknown singer named Eva Cassidy. She was local to the DC Metro Area, and the link below is restored footage of her singing live at the Blues Alley Jazz Club in DC in 1996, ten months before she died at the age of 33 of malignant melanoma. If you click on only one of my links today, make it hers.

The “words guy” for Over the Rainbow, Yip Harburg, had this quote that sums it up: “Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.”

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Israel (Iz) Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole, mashup of Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World

Katharine McFee Foster, Over the Rainbow April 2021  (Note: The song starts at 1:42.)

Eva Cassidy, Over the Rainbow January 1996

PBS clip on why Over the Rainbow endures (you’ll need to scroll down the article to the video and then endure an ad)

I Will Always, I’ll Never, Without You

Always, Never, Goodbye

Without You is a song made famous by Harry Nilsson. Released in late 1971, the song was actually written by Peter Ham and Tom Evans of the rock and roll group Badfinger. Their version of the song, never released as a single, appeared on their 1970 album No Dice.

Harry heard the song, liked it, and set out to record it. Originally, it was just him singing accompanied only by a piano. But the producers convinced him to include a full orchestra to make it a grand ballad. It was the right decision as it jumped to #1 in America in February 1972.

Tragically, the song didn’t produce happy endings for the writers or Harry Nilsson.

Ham and Evans lost out on royalties when their label (Apple Records) went belly up in 1973. They both committed suicide by hanging within ten years of each other. According to Songfacts.com, Harry couldn’t handle fame and fortune, took to drinking, and died of heart failure at the age of 52.

Mariah Carey released a version of Without You in 1994, a week after Nilsson died.

I Will Always Love You was written and originally sung by Dolly Parton. Released by Dolly in 1974, it was a super success. It tracked to #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in June 1974.

Elvis Presley expressed interest in recording the song, but when Parton learned that she would need to sign over half of her publishing rights to Elvis, she declined. She shared the story of her friends and relatives telling her she was crazy not to do the deal. I mean, come on, it was ELVIS!! But, Parton notes, after Whitney Houston’s version came out, “she made enough money to buy Graceland.”

Kevin Costner, producer and co-star (along with Whitney Houston) of the 1992 movie The Bodyguard, chose I Will Always Love You as the signature ballad for that movie. Costner also suggested that Whitney begin singing it a cappella. Famous music producer David Foster originally scoffed at the idea but later delighted in being oh-so-wrong!

Whitney Houston’s version is one of the best-selling singles of all time. It spent 14 weeks as #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. After Houston’s death in 2012, it soared to fame again, reaching the top three in the Billboard Hot 100.

Written by Lady Gaga, Natalie Hemby, Hillary Lindsey, and Aaron Raitiere, the song I’ll Never Love Again was the finale of the 2018 movie A Star Is Born. I love that movie (and in fact, wrote about it here ).

There is a gut-wrenching story behind the recording of that song in the movie. Just as they were getting ready for that final scene, Lady Gaga took a call that her best friend Sonja Durham, who had battled cancer for years, was dying. She left the set and drove to see her friend; sadly, Sonja died ten minutes before Gaga arrived.

Sonja’s husband told her to go back and record the song; that’s what Sonja would have wanted. Gaga says, as emotional as she was, that’s what she did. She sang for Sonja as well as for her (movie) husband Jackson who had penned the love song for her. The movie has him saying, “It just sort of fell out of me and onto this page.”

Lady Gaga’s performance of this song makes me cry every time.

So, what brings these three songs together? AnDy Wu is a Taiwanese filmmaker, creative editor, and music and film producer who creates mashups. In case you don’t know, a mash-up (according to Wikipedia) “is a creative work, usually in a form of a song, created by blending two or more pre-recorded songs, usually by superimposing the vocal track of one song seamlessly over the instrumental track of another, increasing the tempo and pitch while adding or reducing gaps to make it flow.”

The last link below demonstrates Wu’s genius. He blends Whitney and Lady Gaga with a little Mariah Carey thrown in for good measure. So, here’s my recommendation to get the best results: Watch and listen to the first three videos in order. Then just LISTEN to #4, the mash-up. Watching the video distracts from the music.

The songs are sad, so this won’t perk you up. But in Whitney’s (or Dolly’s) words, “I hope life treats you kind, And I hope you have all you’ve dreamed of. And I wish to you joy and happiness But above all this, I wish you love.”

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Mariah Carey’s version of Without You

Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You

Lady Gaga’s I’ll Never Love Again

Whitney, Lady Gaga, and Mariah together by AnDy Wu