The song of the day for Wednesday, June 4, 2014 is “St. James Infirmary.”
About This Song
“St. James Infirmary,” also known as “St. James Infirmary Blues” is an American folksong based on an 19th century English folksong called “The Unfortunate Rake,” which concerned a soldier who dies of a venereal disease. As the song moved to America, gambling and alcohol became the cause of the demise. This song is also credited to “Joe Primrose,” a pseudonym for the ubiquitous Irving Mills.
Louis Armstrong recorded the song in 1928 on the Odeon label, but the song was popular throughout the 1920s. By 1930, it had been recorded by Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway and, as Bennett mentions in the 1994 version, was widely associated with Calloway. Modern listeners may be familiar with Bobby “Blue” Bland’s 1961 recording.
Sarah Vowell, author and commentator on PRI’s This American Life, wrote a terrific analysis of this song on salon.com, for those that want to learn more about this song.
About These Versions
We are lucky to have two wonderful versions “St. James Infirmary” to offer today. Neither of these versions were commercially available until the release of the Tony Bennett Complete Collection, released in 2011.
The first version is from 1945 (estimated) and was the first song Tony Bennett ever recorded, with The 314th Army Special Services Band of the European Theatre. At that time, he was known as Joe Bari. It’s not a high-quality recording by any means; in fact it’s rather a miracle that it still existed after all these years. When I heard this recording, I was struck by how much more Bennett sounds like the jazz singer Tony Bennett that I love as compared to some of his early work with Columbia in the very early 1950s. It’s a great arrangement as well. In reading about his days serving in the Army with this band, one can easily imagine the wonderful creative energy of these very talented soldier-musicians and you can certainly hear that in this arrangement.
“St. James Infirmary,” as well as Rarities, Outtakes and Other Delights, Vol. 1, is available from iTunes.
The second version is from 1994. It was recorded for Bennett’s MTV Unplugged Concert and features J Mascis on blues guitar. I love hearing Bennett having so much fun singing this song. We know that Tony Bennett is a jazz singer and a crooner, but this song, as well as the album Playin’ With My Friends, proves that he can sing the blues too.
“St. James Infirmary,” as well as Rarities, Outtakes and Other Delights, Vol. 2, is available from iTunes.