My Mama Done Tol’ Me
Film noir meets jazz and blues. It began with an unproduced play called Hot Nocturne that was optioned for a movie script. Plot about a few musicians who meet in St. Louis – and land in jail where they hear a prisoner singing NOLA style blues and jazz. Blues in the Night. The musicians are drawn to it – music that really means something to them. They go to New Orleans, and pick up a brash trumpet player and his beautiful singer wife. Soon the band is riding the rails in boxcars from one dive bar to the next. Poor but happy, playing their kind of music. Plot twists with a New Jersey gangster, and his femme fatale real-good-friend. Trumpet player led astray by femme fatale. Piano player falls for same femme fatale. Femme fatale finally faces her fate with another character she had scorned. Band plays on. Pretty much every character in the movie could use a line like “My Mama Done Tol’ Me”. (You can view the original trailer at TCM’s website)
Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer were hired by Warner Brothers to write the musical score. The script was reworked and retitled New Orleans Blues. The film required a song for a character to sing in a jail cell, and Blues In the Night was a perfect fit. Arlen found the dark ‘shoulda known better and this could end badly’ melody line that the movie embodied. Describing the lyric, Mercer (who grew up in Georgia) said, “It’s right out of Savannah, my background, and all the things I heard and experienced when I was a boy.”
Knowing they had something strong, Mercer called his friend, singer Margaret Whiting, asking if they could come over to play it for her. Turns out she was having a little dinner party. With Judy Garland. Mel Torme. Mickey Rooney. Martha Raye. Arlen and Mercer arrived, parked themselves at the piano, and played Blues In the Night. Seven times actually, after repeated demands from the guests. They loved it.
The film was titled after the song. Subsequently recorded by many, it became a standard, far more successful than the film. Although the movie has a cult following now, it flopped in 1941. It didn’t help that it was released just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and people had other things to think about. One reviewer called it ‘the worst musical of the year’. Ouch. The Oscars nomination committee did not feel the same way, nominating Blues In the Night for best song. It didn’t win, but it’s still being sung 70+ years later.