From The Book of Lists 90s Edition, here is Steve Allen’s list with the original introduction from the editors. I have taken the liberty of annotating his choices with writing credits, as well as embedding a recording of each song to bring them to life. These are Stargayzing’s selections, not Mr. Allen’s.
Best known as a comedian and television personality, Steve Allen has been a major entertainment figure for more than 35 years. His list of television credits is long and includes The Tonight Show, The Steve Allen Comedy Hour, and Meeting of Minds. The multi-talented Allen has also made his mark as an award-winning playwright and the author of 40 books. As a musician, he has more than 30 records albums to his credit and has written more than 4000 songs. Once honored by the Guiness Book of World Records as the most prolific composer of modern times, Allen created such popular standards as “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” and “Impossible.”
ALLEN NOTES: Although almost all lists are numbered, I wish to emphasize that I consider all the below melodies of equal quality.
1. “Stardust,” music by Hoagy Carmichael (1927) and lyrics added by Mitchell Parish (1929)
Stardust remains one of the most recorded songs in history with over 1500 versions, a number that essentially suprasses every song but Yesterday and Happy Birthday. With so many versions to choose from, I decided to share Nat “King” Cole’s Capitol recording which is certainly one of its best loved covers and the one that originally familiarized me with the song. I absolutely love Gordon Jenkins’ arrangement and, though the strings might be considered a bit syrupy by contemporary ears, I find them absolutely hypnotic.
2. “Laura,” music by David Raskin and lyrics by Johnny Mercer (1944)
Written for Otto Preminger’s brilliant 1944 film noir starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, and Vincent Price. I’ve included the nearly perfect 1957 recording by Frank Sinatra with an arrangement, once again, by the great Gordon Jenkins. This recording was included on the album Where Are You?, an album that marked the first time at Capitol Records Sinatra collaborated with an arranger other than Nelson Riddle as well as his first album recorded in stereo. I agree with Steve Allen here: I think Laura boasts one of the greatest film scores. Certain melodic motifs are immutable tethered to character and skillfully underscore emotional beats with astounding precision.
3. “Tenderly,” music by Walter Gross and lyrics by Jack Lawrence (1946)
The song has been recorded many times and was even included in the 1953 Joan Crawford camp-fest Torch Song. Notable recordings include Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Willie Nelson, and Tony Bennett and all the rest of the usual suspects. I really like Rosemary Clooney’s version, which also served as the theme song for her mid-1950s TV show. Ask anyone who knows anything about good singing and they’ll tell you that Clooney was so much more than George Clooney’s aunt!
4. “Body and Soul,” music by Johnny Green, lyrics by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, and Frank Eyton (1930)
The song was introduced in London by Gertrude Lawrence and in America by Libby Holman. It went on to become one of the biggest pre-rock era pop hits, with cover versions by literally hundreds of pop and jazz musicians. Here is torch singer Ruth Etting’s version from the early 1930s which includes the little heard verse and is a good example of the “victim as rock star” torch style that was so popular at the time.
5. “Misty,” music by Erroll Garner and lyrics by Johnny Burke (1955)
The original instrumental version was introduced in 1955 by Garner on his album Contrasts. Burke added lyrics a few years later and the song became a huge hit for Johnny Mathis whose version I’ve used. Mathis singing “Misty”—it doesn’t get more elegant than this. So when was the last time a pop song could be described as “elegant?”
6. “The Song is You,” music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (1932)
Introduced in the Kern/Hammerstein show Music in the Air. Here is Nancy Wilson’s version from the 1963 collection Yesterday’s Love Songs/Today’s Blues. I love its attitude and tempo. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the great Nancy Wilson, though she has essentially retired now (to an ostrich farm in California, no less!), she was simply one of the most appealing jazz/pop vocalists ever. She is also one of the music businesses true class acts and in that sense could be regarded as a counterpart to Mr. Mathis.
7. “I Can’t Get Started,” music by Vernon Duke and lyrics by Ira Gerswhin (1936)
The song was introduced by Bob Hope in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. The following year the great trumpet player Bunny Berigan chose I Can’t Get Started as his theme song. Over the years it has been recorded hundreds of times and featured in great films like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and John Avildson’s Save the Tiger. Here is peerless the Ella Fitzgerald’s 1962 recording with Nelson Riddle.
8. “Yours is My Heart Alone,” Franz Lehar, (1930)
“Yours is My Heart Alone” is the only one of Steve Allen’s choices that I didn’t already know. The song is from a German operetta called The Land of Smiles with music by the Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár, who is best known for writing the operetta The Merry Widow. The Land of Smiles was filmed in 1930 and 1952. The song was recorded in the 1940s by Frank Sinatra and then again in the 1950s by the movie star tenor Mario Lanza. I have to be honest: the song is perfectly pleasant but it wouldn’t have made my list of top 1000 songs, let alone 13. What do you think?
9. “Sophisticated Lady,” music by Duke Ellington and lyrics by Mitchell Parish, (1932)
There is also some suggestion that publisher Irving Mills may have made some contribution to the music. This is pro-forma with Ellington, as there is frequently ambiguity around actual authorship, as any student of Billy Strayhorn will gladly tell you). Irrespective of who did what, Sophisticated Lady is, by any measure, a stunning song. Significant cover versions over the years include Billie Holiday’s 1956 Verve recording, Ellington vocalist Adelaide Hall’s multiple recordings from the 1940s, and Linda Ronstadt’s first-rate 1984 collaboration with Nelson Riddle, which I’m including here.
10. You Go To My Head, music by J. Fred Coots with lyrics by Haven Gillespie, (1938)
The song was written in 1938 and has become a standard, with notable recordings by artists from Sinatra and Bennett, to Rod Stewart and Diana Krall. I’ve always enjoyed Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts’ version from his album Warm and Tender.
11. “After You’ve Gone,” written by Turner Layton and Henry Creamer, (1918)
The song goes all the way back to 1918, when it was introduced by a singer named Marion Harris. It has been recorded by everyone from Fats Waller to Nina Simone to Fiona Apple, though the song is most often associated with Judy Garland, who recorded it for the first time in 1936 and sang it for the rest of her life. A thoroughly versatile song that easily adapts to a variety of approaches, I love Django Reinhardt’s version from the mid-1930s.
12. “April in Paris,” music by Vernon Duke with lyrics by Yip Harburg, (1932)
The venerable standard was written in 1932 for the Broadway musical Walk a Little Faster. Once again, this song has been recorded literally scores of times in many genres. Notable cover versions include Bill Evans, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Dinah Shore, Doris Day, and Count Basie. Here is the amazing Sammy Davis, Jr. with Count Basie with a recording from the mid-1960s.
13. “More Than You Know,” music by Vincent Youmans and lyrics by Billy Rose and Edward Eliscu, (1929)
The song originated in the musical Great Day. I learned this song when I was very young from Barbra Streisand’s 1967 recording (with an arrangement by the great Ray Ellis). That version, which appeared on the underrated Simply Streisand, included the original verse (“whether you are here or yonder/whether you are false or true/whether you remain or wander/I’m growing fonder of you…”). Streisand recorded it again in 1975 for Funny Lady with a Peter Matz arrangement. I’ve included both versions here for an interesting comparison.
1967 Ray Ellis version: