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Tracks Unwrapped

Angel Eyes

 

 

Try to think that love's not around
But it's uncomfortably near
My old heart ain't gaining no ground
Because my angel eyes ain't here

 

Frank Sinatra

 

I cannot find the exact quotation, but in Woody Allen's 2016 film Café Society, Bobbie Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is confiding in Karen, the wife of his uncle. Bobbie has fallen in love with his uncle's secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) but she loves someone else. 'That's life,' says Karen. 'It's why Rodgers and Hart are so rich!'

Angel Eyes is not a Rodgers and Hart tune, but it is also about unrequited love. The tune for Angel Eyes was written by Matt Dennis. Dennis came from a vaudeville family and by the age of nineteen had established himself as a pianist and vocalist. He began arranging for other vocalists and in 1940 became composer / arranger for Tommy Dorsey's band. His hits include The Night We Called It A Day, Everything Happens To Me and Violets For Your Furs, all hits for Frank Sinatra who had a hit with Angel Eyes in 1953. In fact, when Sinatra staged his first 'Farewell Concert' in 1971 he chose Angel Eyes to close the concert.

 

Frank Sinatra

 

 

Matt Dennis's lyricist was usually Tom Adair. The story goes that one evening in 1940 Adair went into a club where Matt Dennis was playing and suggested that they collaborate on a song. He showed Dennis a lyric called Will You Still Be Mine? Dennis liked the lyric, wrote the song, and gave it to Tommy Dorsey to record. According to Dennis, within a week they also wrote Let’s Get Away from It All and Everything Happens to Me.

However, for Angel Eyes, Dennis's collaborator was Earl K. Brent who wrote for many films in the 1940s - Anchors Aweigh, Zeigfield Follies 1946, Call Me Mister - several of his lyrics were set to classical music.

 

Angel eyes, that old devil sent
They glow unbearably bright
Need I say that my love's mispent
Mispent with angel eyes tonight

 

Jennifer film poster

 

Angel Eyes was featured in the 1953 movie Jennifer where we can actually see Matt Dennis singing the song. The whole film is on Youtube but you will find Matt Dennis singing at the piano at around 55.45 minutes in.

In echoes of the film Angel Heart that we shall talk about in a moment, we have a search for a missing person. Agnes Langley (Ida Lupino) is down on her luck and is hired by Lorna Gale (Mary Shipp) to replace the "missing" Jennifer as caretaker for a mysterious Southern California unoccupied estate. Langley finds a diary and becomes obsessed with Jennifer and her "disappearance". She takes on a mission to find out what actually happened to the other woman. Agnes soon begins to believe that Jennifer was murdered and that Jim (Howard Duff) who she has fallen in love with, is responsible.The wonderful strapline for the film poster says: 'Did Jennifer fear his fingers at her throat or the burning caress of his lips?' The poster also says: 'Featuring the haunting song hit 'Angel Eyes' by Matt Dennis and Earl Brent'.

 

 

 

Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald's interpretations of Angel Eyes are probably the most famous but the first person to record the song was said to be Herb Jeffries. Unfortunately his recording company folded before he could establish the recording and the song was next taken to the studio by Nat “King” Cole as the B-side to his 1953 hit, Return to Paradise. Here's a video of Herb Jeffries singing Angel Eyes in a 1983 television concert (Angel Eyes comes in at 1.58 minutes).

 

 

 

 

So drink up all you people
Order anything you see
Have fun you happy people
The laughs and the jokes on me

 

Wikipedia says: 'Because of its colourful harmonic changes, Angel Eyes is a very popular jazz standard which has inspired many original interpretations.' It has been described as “intimate,” “personal,” “lonely,” “weepy,” “bluesy,” “a torch song,” or “a saloon song,” so it will come as no surprise that it was recorded by Chet Baker who I think really does the song justice in this version in this next clip. This is Chet Baker doing his vocal 'thing' rather than his trumpet 'thing' but the others on this album As Time Goes By are Harold Danko (piano), Jon Burr with a nice bass solo and Ben Riley (drums).

 

 

 

As an aside and probably only worth knowing for the next pub quiz, did you know that a car's front Halo headlights (also known as Halos or Corona Rings) are referred to as 'Angel Eyes' because of the distinctive arrangement of lights placed in a circular pattern.)

 

Car angel eyes

 

 

Pardon me but I got to run
The fact's uncommonly clear
Got to find who's now number one
And why my angel eyes ain't here
Oh, where is my angel eyes

 

Now, there is something about this final verse that, for me, takes it out of the usual 'torch song' slot. Unlike One For My Baby the singer isn't just drowning their sorrows, in this song the singer is going off to find out who's taken their Angel Eyes - to do what? Have it out with them? Scratch their eyes out? (Remember the song is not gender-specific). It makes me think of Alan Parker's movie Angel Heart which stars Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro and where a New York City private investigator, Harry Angel, is also hired to solve someone's disappearance. Ironically, the 'someone' who has disappeared is a crooner, "Johnny Favorite". Angel tracks down Toots Sweet (played by Brownie McGhee), a blues guitarist and former Favorite bandmate whose 'help' leads Harry Angel into all sorts of horrors and stories of trysts with the devil.

 

Angel Heart movie still

 

The soundtrack for Angel Heart was produced and composed by South African composer Trevor Jones with saxophone solos by Courtney Pine. In this movie, I think any Angel Eyes singer would be well advised to stay in the safety of bar! In the movie soundtrack Brownie McGhee is featured on the track Rainy, Rainy Day. Here is Brownie McGhee's version with harmonica played by Sugar Blue.

 

 

 

As for the trailer for Angel Heart, well that's not for the fainthearted let alone the broken hearted. For a clip from the film, here's a meeting between Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro as Louis Cyphre (Lucifer) who says: 'The future isn't what it used to be, Mr Angel ... I have old fashioned ideas about honour - you know, an eye for an eye, things like that.' Angel eyes, that old devil sent They glow unbearably bright .....

 

 

 

I cannot bring you Courtney Pine playing Angel Eyes, but beginning to move away from the 'torch song' versions, check out this video of guitarists Pat Metheny and Ulf Wakenius playing a fine interpretation of the number.

 

 

 

Talking movies, 'Angel Eyes' was also the title of a film by Luis Mandoki starring Jennifer Lopez as 'Sharon' and James Caviezel as 'Catch'. Here they are in a jazz club scene with Angel Eyes being played by trumpeter Nick Ali who was awarded the 2002 Canadian National Jazz Award for "Jazz Composer of the Year". Caviezel then picks up the trumpet to play Nature Boy.

It turns out that 'Catch' (Caviezel) was a jazz musician and that an accident on his son's birthday caused him to create a mental block. Caviezel says: "I had to learn how to play the trumpet. I didn't know how to play. The first day they thought they'd just shoot around it, but the lady came in and worked with me, and she thought I could learn to play the song." In a few fast lessons, Caviezel was trumpeting with confidence. "I learned how to play the song for the film, 'Nature Boy', and just for fun, I've always wanted to play 'Hello, Dolly,' so I learned how to play that."

 

Here's that scene from the film.

 

 

 

 

Angel Eyes is such a popular tune you can search online for ages listening to different versions. The penultimate version I have chosen is this one by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis:

 

 

 

 

But I guess we should end with Ella Fitzgerald singing the song. She recorded Angel Eyes at least four times and named it as her all-time favorite song. This video has poor picture quality but it is Ella in 1957, and perhaps that's enough.

 

 



 

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Click here for the list of all our Tracks Unwrapped so far, or try these:

Laura
In Walked Bud
Just A Gigolo
The Water Is Wide

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