BY CHRISTOPHER DAVIS-SHANNON | FROM THE FALL 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
If not for a young and tenacious Gene Austin (1900–1972), “My Blue Heaven” may have been another beautiful song lost to the sands of time. Written in 1924 by Walter Donaldson with lyrics by George Whiting, the tune did not see success until its inclusion in the 1927 Ziegfeld Follies. That same year, Austin persuaded Victor Records to include it on the same session as the then more popular “Are You Thinking of Me Tonight?” The orchestra began to pack up before “My Blue Heaven” was recorded, but Austin managed to convince a pianist and cellist to stay, with an agent being roped in to take on whistling duties. This seminal recording, with its oddball instrumentation, was a huge hit and went on to cement the tune as a part of the Great American Songbook.
At the height of the first ukulele craze in the United States, the original sheet music was graced with an arrangement by none other than the “Ukulele Lady,” the great May Singhi Breen. “My Blue Heaven” would go on to be recorded by a diverse roster of artists including Frank Sinatra, Norah Jones, and the Smashing Pumpkins. It would also appear in numerous movies, including 1950’s My Blue Heaven and a 1990 film of the same name starring Steve Martin and Rick Moranis, featuring a rendition by Fats Domino.
Though this arrangement is written for reentrant tuning, it can be adapted for low-G. The chord-melody intro starts out with a C6 (C E G A) arpeggio, which takes full advantage of the open strings in reentrant tuning, followed by a series of full chords that pit fretted notes against the ringing open A string. The C6 arpeggio reappears on the open strings in bar 2, this time including the C string, and in the middle of the neck with fretted notes in bar 4. Watch out for those syncopated rhythms on the chords in the last two measures, leading up to the vocal pickup notes.
“My Blue Heaven” has a typical 32-bar AABA song form, in which each section is eight measures long, and uses only a handful of common chords in Austin’s version. But remember that when playing standards there are no definitive “right” chords—everything can be up to interpretation—so I have reharmonized the song extensively here.
The A section (bars 9–18 and 27–34) is based on the I–VI–II–V progression (C–A7–D7–G7) heard in countless popular songs. It starts on a C6 chord, as the sixth (A) is the melody note. For the rest of the section, the chords contain the upper extensions and the roots are omitted. This will lead you to play harmonies that you may have learned by different names. Take C 6/9 (C E G A D), for instance. Dropping the root (C) gives you E, G, A, and D, the same notes as in an A7sus4 chord (A D E G).
Similarly, you might recognize the A7b9 chord in bar 12 as a diminished-seventh shape. That’s because the top four notes of an A7b9 chord (A C# Eb G Bb) are identical to C#dim7. The A7b9 gives even more tension to the harmony than a simple A7 chord, pushing more strongly to the D9 chord in bar 13.
Something that is lacking in the original song is a turnaround, or the last few chords of a form that lead back to the top. So at the first ending, in bars 15–16, instead of staying on a C6 chord, I use a typical turnaround of C6–Cdim7–G9, resolving smoothly back to the C6 chord at the forward repeat in bar 9. Note that diminished shape is the same as that of the A7b9 chord, but one fret lower. This shape also appears at the sixth fret as C#dim7 in the second ending, resolving to Gm7 in bar 18.
The B section, or bridge, takes us to the IV chord (Fmaj7). Here I use a common tone—the seventh-fret E on string 1—between most of the chord shapes. This is a great device for finding chords that you might not otherwise have thought of when reharmonizing a song. The E not only provides harmonic color, as it’s the ninth of the Dm9 chord and the 13th of G13, it makes for smooth connections between chords. Note that I lower the E by a half step for the G9b13 chord, to provide a bit of movement en route to the C6 chord that follows.
This all may initially seem like an algebra equation, but it is important not to get hung up on the names of the chords. Just play them and listen. The sound is what is most important, and a great exercise for “My Blue Heaven”—or any reharmonized standard—can be to get together with a friend and play the extended chords while they run the basic harmonies. That way you get to hear the whole harmonic picture and the scope of the colors that the extensions bring to the sonic palette.