Blues in the Night

"Blues in the Night" is a popular blues song which has become a pop standard and is generally considered to be part of the Great American Songbook. The music was written by Harold Arlen, the lyrics by Johnny Mercer, for a 1941 film begun with the working title Hot Nocturne, but finally released as Blues in the Night. The song is sung in the film by William Gillespie.[1]

"Blues in the Night"
Song by William Gillespie
Released1941 (1941)
StudioWarner Brothers Burbank Studios
GenreBlues, pop
Songwriter(s)Harold Arlen (composer)
Johnny Mercer (lyricist)


Arlen and Mercer wrote the entire score for the 1941 film Blues in the Night. One requirement was for a blues song to be sung in a jail cell.[2] As usual with Mercer, the composer wrote the music first, then Mercer wrote the words. Arlen later recalled:

The whole thing just poured out. And I knew in my guts, without even thinking what Johnny would write for a lyric, that this was strong, strong, strong! When Mercer wrote "Blues in the Night", I went over his lyric and I started to hum it over his desk. It sounded marvelous once I got to the second stanza but that first twelve was weak tea. On the third or fourth page of his work sheets I saw some lines—one of them was "My momma done tol' me, when I was in knee pants." I said, "Why don't you try that?" It was one of the very few times I've ever suggested anything like that to John.[3]

When they finished writing the song, Mercer called a friend, singer Margaret Whiting, and asked if they could come over and play it for her. She suggested they come later because she had dinner guests—Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Mel Tormé, and Martha Raye. Instead, Arlen and Mercer went right over. Margaret Whiting remembered what happened then:

They came in the back door, sat down at the piano and played the score of "Blues in the Night". I remember forever the reaction. Mel got up and said, "I can't believe it." Martha couldn't say a word. Mickey Rooney said, "That's the greatest thing I've ever heard." Judy Garland said, "Play it again." We had them play it seven times. Judy and I ran to the piano to see who was going to learn it first. It was a lovely night.[3]

Academy Award nominationEdit

In 1942 "Blues in the Night" was one of nine songs nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.[4] Observers expected that either "Blues in the Night" or "Chattanooga Choo Choo" would win, so that when "The Last Time I Saw Paris" actually won, neither its composer, Jerome Kern, nor lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II, was present at the ceremony. Kern was so upset at winning with a song that had not been specifically written for a motion picture and that had been published and recorded before the film came out that he petitioned the Motion Picture Academy to change the rules. Since then, a nominated song has to have been written specifically for the motion picture in which it is performed.[5]

Critical commentEdit

Composer Alec Wilder said of this song, "'Blues in the Night' is certainly a landmark in the evolution of American popular music, lyrically as well as musically."[6]

Mercer, being from the South, realized "that Arlen's notes were meant to be sung as a blues slide and that individual syllables would have made the song too formal, too racially white."[citation needed]

Famous phrases from the lyricsEdit

  • "My momma done tol' me"
  • "when I was in knee pants"
  • "worrisome thing"
  • "a woman'll sweet talk"

Recorded versionsEdit

Charting versionsEdit

Recorded versions that charted in the United States were by Woody Herman,[1][7] Dinah Shore,[1][2][7] Jimmie Lunceford,[1][7] Cab Calloway,[1] Artie Shaw, and Rosemary Clooney. Recorded versions in the United Kingdom were by Shirley Bassey and Helen Shapiro.

The Woody Herman recording was released by Decca Records as catalog number 4030.[1][8] The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on January 2, 1942 and lasted 11 weeks on the chart, peaking at #1.[7][9]

The Dinah Shore recording[2] was released by RCA Bluebird Records as catalog number 11436.[1][10] The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on February 13, 1942 and lasted 7 weeks on the chart, peaking at #4.[7][9]

The Jimmie Lunceford recording was released by Decca Records as catalog number 4125.[1][8] The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on January 30, 1942 and lasted 5 weeks on the chart, peaking at #4.[7][9]

The Cab Calloway recording was released by OKeh Records as catalog number 6422.[1][11] The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on March 6, 1942 and lasted 1 week on the chart, at #8.[9]

The Artie Shaw recording was released by RCA Victor Records as catalog number 27609.[12] The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on November 21, 1941 and lasted 1 week on the chart, at #10.[9]

The Rosemary Clooney recording was released by Columbia Records as catalog number 39813.[13] The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on September 26, 1952 and lasted 2 weeks on the chart, peaking at #29.[9]

Other notable versionsEdit

In addition, the song was recorded at least three times by Jo Stafford. Her previously unreleased 1942 version with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra[14] was included in the 1966 Reader's Digest box set The Glenn Miller Years.[15] On October 15, 1943, she recorded it with Johnny Mercer, the Pied Pipers, and Paul Weston's Orchestra, in a version released as a single (catalog number 10001[16]) and on an album (Songs by Johnny Mercer, catalog number CD1) by Capitol Records. On February 20, 1959, she recorded it with The Starlighters in a version released on an album (Ballad of the Blues, catalog number CL-1332) by Columbia Records.

Another version was by Billy Eckstine in his album Once More with Feeling (1960)

Dick Monda released a version of the song as a single in 1967.[17]

Carlos Montoya recorded a flamenco version.[18]

In 1995, the rock group Chicago included the song on their "Night & Day: Big Band" album. The arrangement by vocalist Bill Champlin features a guitar solo by Aerosmith's Joe Perry.

Ray Charles for his album Ain't It So (1979)

Additional recorded versions (and further details on above versions)Edit

(This is the first of four records in Capitol Records' first album, Songs by Johnny Mercer.)[16])

In popular cultureEdit

  • The song was frequently quoted by composer Carl Stalling in his musical scores for the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons for Warner Bros. studios in the 1940s and 1950s. The then-recent hit song is sung incessantly by Daffy Duck in the ironically-titled 1942 cartoon My Favorite Duck, in which Porky Pig is tormented by the duck while on a camping trip. Porky's preferred number in that cartoon is "On Moonlight Bay". At one point, Porky unconsciously starts to sing "My Mama Done Tol' Me," then stops, looks into the camera with a "Harumph!" and returns to "Moonlight Bay."
Additionally, the musical riff "my mama done tol' me" is used to identify a black duck from 'South' Germany in the 1942 Looney Tunes cartoon The Ducktators, and the song is featured prominently (with revised lyrics) in the 1943 Merrie Melody cartoon Fifth Column Mouse as well as in Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. In the 1942 cartoon, Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid, Bugs Bunny half-mutters the song, changing the lyrics to, "My mamma done told me, a buzzard is two faced..." The melody is also heard in Porky Pig's Feat, Early to Bet, The Hypo-Chondri-Cat, and others.
  • Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, would occasionally sing the beginning of the song on the Jack Benny radio program.
  • In the Duck Dodgers season 2 episode, "Talent Show a Go-Go," the song is sung by the Tyr'ahnee, the Martian Queen.
  • In The Simpsons Season 26 episode, "The Musk Who Fell to Earth," lines from the song are sung by Carl during a flashback montage.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Gardner, Edward Foote (2000). Popular Songs of the 20th Century: Chart Detail & Encyclopedia, 1900-1949. St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House. ISBN 1-55778-789-1.
  2. ^ a b c Gilliland, John (1994). Pop Chronicles the 40s: The Lively Story of Pop Music in the 40s (audiobook). ISBN 978-1-55935-147-8. OCLC 31611854. Tape 2, side B.
  3. ^ a b Lahr, John (September 19, 2005). "Come Rain Or Come Shine: The Bittersweet Life of Harold Arlen". The New Yorker. pp. 92–93.
  4. ^ "Awards for Blues in the Night (1941)". imdb. Retrieved 2007-01-25.
  5. ^ Sacket, Susan (1995). Hollywood Sings!. New York: Billboard Books. pp. 42–43. ISBN 9780823076239.
  6. ^ Wilder, Alec (1972). American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 272. ISBN 0-19-501445-6.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Whitburn, Joel (1999). Joel Whitburn Presents a Century of Pop Music. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research. ISBN 0-89820-135-7.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Decca Records in the 4000 to 4461 series
  9. ^ a b c d e f Whitburn, Joel (1973). Top Pop Records 1940-1955. Record Research.
  10. ^ a b c Bluebird Records in the 11000 to 11499 series
  11. ^ a b OKeh Records in the 6000 to 6499 series
  12. ^ a b Victor Records in the 27500 to 27999 series
  13. ^ a b Columbia Records in the 39500 to 39999 series
  14. ^ "Jo Stafford Discography". Jo Stafford Discography. Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  15. ^ "". Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  16. ^ a b Capitol Records in the 10001 to 10210 series
  17. ^ Dick Monda, "Blues in the Night" single release Retrieved February 14, 2016.
  18. ^ "Montoya's Farewell Tour Arrives in Irvine Tonight". Los Angeles Times. 13 October 1989. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  19. ^ Decca Records in the 23500 to 23999 series
  20. ^ RCA Victor Records in the 20-4000 to 20-4499 series
  21. ^ RCA Victor Records in the 20-3500 to 20-3999 series
  22. ^ Columbia Records in the 40000 to 40499 series
  23. ^ Columbia Records in the 41000 to 41500 series
  24. ^ OKeh Records in the 6500 to 6747 series
  25. ^ Harmony Records in the 1001 to 1087 series
  26. ^ Decca Records in the 24000 to 24499 series
  27. ^ Decca Records in the 25000 to 25514 series
  28. ^ Columbia Records in the 37500 to 37999 series
  29. ^ a b Columbia Records in the 36500 to 36999 series
  30. ^ Elite Records in the 5000 to 5045 series
  31. ^ Decca Records in the 28000 to 28499 series
  32. ^ Decca Records in the 29000 to 29499 series
  33. ^ Capitol Records in the 1500 to 1999 series
  34. ^ Capitol Records in the 2500 to 2999 series
  35. ^ "Pop Chronicles 1940s Program #5". 1972.
  36. ^ RCA Victor Records in the 20-1500 to 20-1999 series
  37. ^ Decca Records in the 18000 to 18499 series
  38. ^ Decca Records in the 8500 to 8999 series
  39. ^ Atlantic Records listing
  40. ^ Decca Records in the 29009 to 29255 series

External linksEdit