My Funny Valentine endures because it contains a lot of Hart
Most songs come to us unbidden — they catch us before we recognize them. I have a childhood memory of Jim Reeves murmuring "Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone" over a Bakelite radio in my mother’s kitchen while I played in a crib on the floor. I still associate "He’ll Have to Go" with the mingled smells of frying bacon and maple syrup.
The Ugly Duckling anthem "My Funny Valentine" came to me a different way; I dug it out of a dusty America. I knew the lyrics first, having read them in a coffee table book called The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart that my Aunt Mar’ Joe had in her stuffy and overheated little house in Wilmington, N. C. I remember cupping my hands over my ears and reading the words that went with music I wouldn’t hear for years. And even when I heard it, I wouldn’t associate it with the lyrics.
It wasn’t until I heard Elvis Costello’s version of the song in the late 1970s that I realized I was familiar with the melody — and what American wouldn’t be familiar with that melody? Da da da dah dun da...
The instrumental versions were legion — Miles Davis must have recorded the song a dozen times. Bill Evans, Gerry Mulligan, 101 Strings, Muzak. But it wasn’t until I heard Elvis’ strained and artless croon that I synthesized the parts in my mind and came to the realization that "My Funny Valentine" consisted of those words and that tune; a collaboration between two gentlemen, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Being a word