Monday, June 06, 2005


"my heart is paying now for things I didn't do"

Hank Williams, Cold, Cold Heart.
Tony Bennett, Cold, Cold Heart.
Dinah Washington, Cold, Cold Heart.
Hank Williams, Angel of Death.

A few days before Christmas 1950, Hank Williams recorded "Cold, Cold Heart." The lyric was inspired by his disastrous marriage to Audrey Williams, the melody came partly from a 1945 country song, "You'll Still Be in My Heart." The song, featuring a searing vocal by Williams, one of his finest, was the key that fit the lock--in a space of months, it had become enshrined as a pop standard.

Mitch Miller, head of A&R for Columbia Records, heard "Cold, Cold Heart" in early 1951 and proposed it for one of Columbia's singers-in-training, Tony Bennett. Bennett, likely recalling awful "Western" songs attemped by other pop singers, begged off. "Please don’t make me record cowboy songs!" Miller persevered, and on May 31, backed by the full weight of Percy Faith's orchestration, Bennett took on the song, turning it into a delicate waltz.

Four months later came Dinah Washington, the first black singer to cover Williams, and one of the first postwar jazz/R&B artists to attempt country (Wynonie Harris had covered Moon Mullican in 1949). Washington makes no attempt to belittle the song, to make it hokey and "country", but treats the lyric as the pure soul lament it is. She's supported nicely by Nook Shrier's orchestra, with Paul Quinichette on tenor sax and Wynton Kelly on piano.

Yet some Williams songs remained untranslatable. At some point in 1951, Williams recorded a demo in Nashville for "Angel of Death," a pitiless rumination that sounded like an ancient Puritan lament, a lost scrap of song from the Thirty Years War. Mitch Miller likely passed on it.

Williams here; Bennett here; Dinah here.

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