SONG: How High the Moon
ARTIST: Les Paul and Mary Ford
Listen to it here:
“How High the Moon” is another jazz standard on our list, with music by Morgan Lewis and lyrics by Nancy Hamilton. It was first made popular in the 1940 Broadway revue Two for the Show, where it served as a serious moment in an otherwise humorous revue. After that, the earliest recorded version (that we know of) was by Benny Goodman & His Orchestra, with vocalist Helen Forrest. This was recorded in 1940. The version we’re listening to today was recorded by Les Paul and Mary Ford in January of 1951. The record spent 25 weeks on the Billboard chart, and was subsequently re-released due to its overwhelming success. This recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and is on the list of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s “Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.” The song also went on to become a gypsy jazz standard that has been recorded numerous times in that genre. This specific recording displays some of the multitrack recording innovations that Les Paul and Mary Ford were able to pioneer, including the sound of Mary Ford harmonizing with herself, and close miking – where the microphone is within 6 inches from the singer’s mouth instead of several feet away, as was the custom at that time. Close miking gives a more intimate, less reverberant effect, and picks up more of the low frequencies that miking a singer from further away. Paul did all the editing, mixing, and mastering himself.
Les Paul and Mary Ford were a popular husband-and-wife duo who performed and recorded from 1945-1963. Both of them sang and played guitars. During the first half of the 1950s, Paul and Ford were music superstars and they recorded hit after hit (28 in total) between 1950 and 1957, including How High the Moon. The couple were introduced to each other by Gene Autry in 1946, and they married on New Years Eve of 1949.
They first appeared in the pop charts in 1950, and in the first four years of that decade recorded 16 top ten hits. Many people are probably aware of the name Les Paul, because of his guitar building innovations. He was one of the early pioneers of the solid body electric guitar. When Paul and Ford first started recording together, they were famous for building a makeshift recording studio in their garage. They were able to use multitrack recording from home at a time before many professional studios had that capability. In fact, Les Paul was the VERY first buyer of the AMPEX 8-track recorder. At the time of purchase it cost about $10,000US, which is around $90,000 in today’s money. Because he was one of the only people at that time who had access from home to a stereo recording system, he was able to work with it extensively, and because of this he was at the forefront of a lot of the innovations in recording in stereo. I’ve taken the time to talk about his innovations in recording like this because it’s incredible the strides that were made in the 1950s, many pushed forward by him. Today, most pro studios have 64 track recording capabilities and that is thanks in part to Les Paul. Really, his innovations in recording are just incredible, and though from where I sit, more people know about him because of the legendary Gibson Les Paul solid body electric guitar, he is to thank for even more than that incredible legacy!
Anyway, back to Les Paul AND Mary Ford. In 1947, the two had become romantically involved, even though Paul was already married. His marriage was failing, and Paul and Ford travelled extensively to perform. One night in January, the pair were driving on Route 66 through Oklahoma and the car skidded off the road and fell 20 feet into a frozen creek bed. Les Paul sustained many injuries, including the shattering of his right elbow, which took eighteen months to heal enough to play guitar. Around this time, Les Paul’s wife and two sons moved out of their house to visit Chicago, and Mary Ford moved in and took care of his recuperation. Paul eventually divorced his wife, and married Ford soon after.
Les Paul and Mary Ford were divorced in 1964, which also ended their musical collaborations. Mary Ford died in 1977 from complications due to alcohol abuse. Les Paul died of pneumonia in 2009.
Another jazz standard, “Ornithology” by Charlie Parker, is based on the chord changes of “How High the Moon”. Because of this, many jazz musicians include small bits of Ornithology into their solos on How High the Moon.
I was really excited to listen to this because Les Paul is such an important name in the guitar world – not as much for his guitar playing per se, but for the Gibson guitar named after him. Anyhow, I previously knew this song as a jazz standard (one we absolutely massacred at university level jazz choir). The song itself is…fine. Not really anything special, basic melody and harmonic structure. A nice song. What I’m interested in here is the arrangement. Firstly, that’s a neat little guitar solo played by Les Paul, and what sounds like a really good example of rockabilly music. Secondly, the vocals. They always say the best person to harmonize with is yourself (or a close family member) and no better exemplified by Mary Ford here. Those harmonies are TIGHT and from what my out of shape ear can tell, pretty flawless. I especially like the ascending ‘ahhhh’ that she sings after Les’ guitar solo, it just sounds so cool, almost like there’s a more modern effect on it. I think I’ll give this song a buy if I ever find it on a 45!
To me, the most interesting part of this song is the sound and the recording techniques used. I swear if you blocked out all other music, and listened to the 42 previous recordings on our blog, and then listened to this you’d be shocked at what you hear. Heck 70 something years later, it’s still pretty shocking to hear someone harmonizing with themselves in 1951! First, the guitar playing is great, and super prominent, and then Mary Ford’s voice, in harmony with herself comes in and, though it’s a little creepy and weird from an auditory sense, it’s just so ahead of its time in some ways. I like How High the Moon as a song, and I think the semi-gypsy jazz guitar playing in this one is my favourite part. The bass playing is also good, though very much in the background. I wish I liked Mary’s voice more, but although the harmonies are interesting, it’s probably the weakest part of this song to me. I’d be interested in hearing this with different vocals over top. Unfortunately, this is not my favourite version of How High the Moon, but it’s again, a piece loaded with historical significance.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Ella Fitzgerald. This became her signature song, so of course her version is making the list. Also, because I adore her.
Benny Goodman’s early version:
And a gypsy jazz version:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: