Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” and “On the Sunny side of the Street”

UKULELE MUSING 36, 14 SEPTEMBER 2019: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street

While many of our favorite songs from our Yellow and Blue Books were first recorded by female artists, few were written by female songwriters.  Again, we have a “two-fer”—“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”

Both were the work of librettist Dorothy Fields (1904-1974) and composer Jimmy McHugh (1894-1969). 

On top of this, both songs helped pioneer the way for talented black artists to thrive and become popular with both black and white audiences on Broadway, movies, and throughout musical America—what became a part of the Harlem Renaissance. 

I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” became an American jazz standard performed by just about every performer in the book, black or white. 

The song was introduced by singer/actress Adelaide Hall (with a tenor guitar, not a baritone uke)

at New York’s Les Ambassadeurs Club in 1928 and was featured later that year in producer Lew Leslie’s highly successful Broadway revue “Blackbirds of 1928.” 

Adelaide Hall:

Fields and McHugh wrote the entire show—book and music—and It became the longest running, all-black show on Broadway.  Although white, Lew Leslie was the first major impresario to present African-American artists on the Broadway stage.

The idea behind the song came during a stroll Fields and McHugh were taking one evening down Fifth Avenue when they saw a young couple window-shopping at Tiffany’s, obviously without the resources to even think about buying any of the showcased jewelry. 

Fields overheard the man say “Gee, honey I’d like to get you a sparkler like that, but right now, I can’t give you nothin’ but love!” Hearing this, McHugh and Fields rushed into a nearby bar and, within an hour, they came up with their song.  Needless to say, there are more lyrics than show up in our simple song books!

Ella Fitzgerald:

And, of course, where would we be without our old pal “Ukulele Ike.”

Ukulele Ike:

On the Sunny Side of the Street” is another song written by the pair.  In 1930, it was introduced in another all-black Broadway musical “Lew Leslie’s International Revue.”  

 Here we have two songs that came to us written by whites and performed by blacks—all for a white audience. 

Billy Holiday:

And, for something a bit different,

Willie Nelson:

Fields wrote over 400 songs for Broadway and Hollywood and, over her long career, collaborated with top figures in the American musical theater, including Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.  Needless to say, she was one of the most prolific and successful female songwriters of Tin Pan Alley. 

On Broadway, she collaborated on a dozen or so musicals including “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Redhead,” and “Seesaw.” 

Her musical movie credits include “Roberta,” and “Swing Time.”   As a pianist and lover of classical music, Fields was noted for being able to fit witty lyrics to a range of melodies by some of the greatest composers of the time.

There are quite a few interesting backstories of songs in our Yellow and Blue Books.  It’s about time we took a look at a couple of those from the distaff side—and a couple of tunes that helped train the spotlight on black performers in America. 

American eyes and ears were opened and the musical world has never looked back.   

Louis Armstrong:

And, of course, we have to wind up with a jazzy ukulele version!

Jazzy Ukulele:

Stay Tuned!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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