'Blues in the Night' brought change, still solid after 60 years

Aug 19, 2011

“Blues in the Night” first was heard in the 1941 movie “Hot Nocturne."

Written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, it’s considered to be a landmark in American popular music because it was one of the first times that rural black dialect and an explicitly bluesy melody was used in a popular song.

Here’s the scene from the movie featuring the baritone William Gillespie:

The song was so popular, that the movie was re-titled “Blues in the Night," and within a year it had been recorded by many groups, including Woody Herman, Artie Shaw and Dinah Shore.

Through time

These three versions of “Blues in the Night” give a real sense of a song changing with the sound and technology of it’s day yet remaining clearly recognizable.

This week’s "Blues Time Machine" begins in 1941 with Joe Turner, a singer whose career saw jump and blues evolve into rock and roll. His version has the raucous energy that influenced that change.

About 20 years later, in 1961 Bobby Blue Bland’s version is a slick production, with bold brass arrangements from Joe Scott (who also worked with Frank Sinatra). Bland's voice is literally bathed in reverb.

In 2006, Dr. John released a tribute to Johnny Mercer: “Mercernary” re-imagines the song with a swampy, funky New Orleans groove.

Here are the full versions of "Blues in the Night" tracked through time:

1942: “Blues in the Night” Joe Turner 

1961: “Blues in the Night” Bobby Blue Bland

2006: “Blues in the Night” Dr. John

The Blues Time Machine” is a weekly feature tracking one great blues song through time. The series is hosted by John Kessler, from KPLU’s  “All Blues,” and is published here every Friday and airs on KPLU 88.5 on Fridays at 12:10 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.

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