My favorite love song is MY FUNNY VALENTINE. Maybe it’s yours. Have you ever listened to the lyrics? The words are not your usual schmaltz. “Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak? When you open it to speak, are you smart?” Taken out of context, it sounds as if you’re insulting your loved one. This is the song I sing to my beautiful wife each February 14th. It’s a wonder I don’t get my face slapped.
The words to My Funny Valentine were written by Lorenz Hart (music by Richard Rodgers). I’ve always wondered about the story behind my favorite song. The song was written for a Broadway show, BABES IN ARMS. It was introduced by Mitzi Green on opening night April 14, 1937. I am not the only one fascinated by the song. Nearly anyone who’s everyone has recorded My Funny Valentine. The song has also become a staple of the jazz world from Miles Davis to Chet Baker.
Both songwriters — Rodgers and Hart — were Jewish and forced to change their names in the environment of the times in which they lived. Rodgers was a straight man with a conventional lifestyle. Hart was gay. He was in the closet as gays were back in the day. He drank a lot. Some linked his sexual orientation and drinking habit with an unhappiness that led Hart to write what many felt was a cynical lyric about love. And maybe some of that is true. But I believe there is another side to the story.
Maybe My Funny Valentine is an expression of human frailty. The lover in the song is as flawed as the one he loves. But while love is often seen as blind, these lovers very much know they’re flawed. And despite their flaws — maybe even because of their flaws — they still love one another. The song is a romantic expression of what my friend’s mom always told her hopefully, “There’s a lid for every pot.”
Try to sell that message to your lover. “Don’t worry, there’s a lid for every pot. Lucky you, I’m that clumsy lid.” But be truthful. You’ve seen couples together and wondered how each of them found a mate. Lorenz Hart died at the age of 38. In a world entranced by love, Hart found that he didn’t fit the prevailing notion of whom you were supposed to love.
I get the feeling that the lyrics to My Funny Valentine were too deep for a show with the title Babes in Arms. I think the exquisite music of Richard Rodgers carried the song back then. Instead of getting buried, My Funny Valentine emerged over the years as a staple of the great American songbook.
Somewhere along the way, during our 58-plus years of marriage, I picked up the song and made it a tradition in our household. For better or for worse. I’m sure Rodgers and Hart would not have been thrilled by my appropriation of their song.
I’ve always felt Frank Sinatra made it uniquely his song, as he has so many of our American standards. But modestly, I decided that I could not sing the Sinatra version. One of the difficult admissions for any South Philadelphia male is the moment that he realizes that he can’t sing like Sinatra. My own moment of truth came fairly early in life. But I discovered a version of My Funny Valentine even I could cover.
I can’t play the trumpet like Chet Baker, but I can handle his vocal range. If you think I’m being boastful, go back and listen to Chet Baker. So, I practiced in the shower — where else does a South Philly guy hone his singing skills? And then one day in the distant past, on St. Valentine’s Day, I got down on one knee and sang to Fran, My Funny Valentine. She laughed. Not quite the reaction I fantasized about. But I was not about to be discouraged. A new tradition was born in our house.
Ever since, my wife awaits that hallowed moment on St. Valentine’s Day — or so she tells me. And she still laughs, which I refuse to accept as a sign of rejection. I was unable to kneel while singing the song yesterday. My arthritic knees have cut my career short as a jump shooting guard and would-be lothario. I figure singing the song is better than a pajama-gram or gold-plated rose from the local jeweler whom everyone hates.
I’ve begun working on another old tune in the shower. The George Jones version of HE STOPPED LOVING HER TODAY. This is really tearful stuff. According to this song, there’s a guy who mourned the loss of his lover until the day he died. So, in a realistic sense, all of us stopped loving her the day we kicked the bucket. “They placed a wreath upon his door. Soon they carried him away. He stopped loving her today.” I know George is reputed to have pined away over losing Tammy Wynette, but he DID make love to a few sweeties along the way before he passed.
I’ll spring the song on Fran next Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure she’s ready for it yet. I got a feeling that Rodgers and Hart feel it’s time to give their song a rest. At least that’s what my Uncle Nunzi tells me.