Today is the 99th anniversary of the birth of lyricist extroardinaire Johnny Burke. Burke worked fruitfully with many composers, perhaps most notably with Jimmy Van Heusen. His one-time collaboration with Bob Haggart produced “What’s New?” (1939), a song which started out as an instrumental solo for a trumpeter until, in the words of Alec Wilder, Burke’s “wonderfully conversational lyrics” turned it into a hit. It’s the lyrics that stamp the haunting melody in our mind:
Probably I’m boring you —
But seeing you is grand
And you were sweet to offer your hand.
As Philip Furia observes in his wonderful Poets of Tin Pan Alley:
What’s new about this lyric is that it is a full-fledged dramatic monologue, one side of a conversation between two ex-lovers who meet by chance on the street. Burke shrewdly used the soaring, wide-ranging melody as a counterpoint to the lovers’ low-key but strained small talk. The tension between music and lyric reveals one lover’s unspoken ardor, right down to his nervously cheery “adieu.” Only the prosaic “I haven’t changed” works as a pun that finally releases his suppressed (but barely whispered) “I still love you so” as the music trails downward.
I believe that Furia must be describing Sinatra’s classic performance of the song on “Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely.” In the video below, Ella Fitzgerald (with the Tommy Flannagan trio) turns in a beautiful performance of another song that began as an instrumental — Erroll Garner’s “Misty” — for which Burke subsequently supplied the lyrics. Would we even know of the song today if Burke hadn’t given us the words?