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Once Upon a Summertime

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One of the most difficult songs to sing well is Once Upon Summertime. Written in 1954 by Michel Legrand, French music producer Eddie Barclay and French songwriter Eddy Marnay, the slow waltz originally was entitled La Valse des Lilas (or The Lilac Waltz). In the late 1950s, the song was given English lyrics by Johnny Mercer to make the melody accessible to singers in the American and English markets.

Blossom Dearie was first to record the song with Mercer's words in 1958 for an album of the same name for Verve. She was friends with Michel's sister, Christiane Legrand, in Paris when both were in the Blue Stars vocal group starting in 1954. Dearie was familiar with the song in French and may have even suggested the song be given English lyrics so audiences in the U.S. and the U.K. could enjoy Legrand's blue ballad.

So why is it such a difficult song to pull off? Most singers who have recorded it in English sound unfamiliar with the original French version. Without intimate knowledge of the song's initial intent and feel in French, much is lost. Also, Legrand's melody has a deeply contemplative quality with mild desperation baked in that most English-language versions miss. And finally, the original has always sounded to me like an older women (or man) reminiscing about a relationship with a younger partner, how youthful the singer felt at the time of the relationship, and how old the singer feels now, alone.

There are other nuances missed by those who sing the song with the Mercer lyrics. Some are over-dramatized or delivered too straight without a trace of anguish or resignation, missing much of the original song's essence. One might argue further that the song can't be sung well in English because so much is lost in translation. To read the French lyrics translated into English, go here.

All of my favorite versions were recorded in French by singers who aren't widely known in the U.S. but retain the original charm and sophistication:

Here's one of the earliest recordings of the original, La Valse des Lilas by Catherine Sauvage in 1956...



Here's Renée Lebas in 1958...



Here's Jacqueline François in 1964...



Here's Michèle Arnaud in 1967...



And here's the co-composer, Michel Legrand, singing and playing the song in the early 1960s...



And here's Legrand in 1964...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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