I’m pretty sure today’s new (to me) version was brought to my attention by Doug Schulkind, who has given me great tips before, and is the host of the astonishing WFMU show Give The Drummer Some (streaming live Fridays at 9 a.m. Eastern; archives here).
It’s by Garland Wilson, and is actually a mini-medley: “St. James Infirmary / When Your Lover Has Gone.” I don’t know much about Wilson, but his Wikipedia entry indicates the pianist was born in 1909, was quite active in New York and later Europe, and died young, in 1954. This CD collection suggests his “SJI” recording was made in the 1930s.
A word about “When Your Lover Has Gone”: Written by Einar Aaron Swan, it’s a bit of a jazz standard, on the theme of … um, of how it feels when, you know, your, uh, lover has gone. (Here’s Maxine Sullivan singing it; here’s Frank Sinatra.) It certainly echoes the despair side of “SJI,” but not the self-affirming boasts: It’s pretty desolate. “The love that you cherish so often may perish,” “Life can’t mean anything, when your lover has gone,” etc. Anyway it’s an interesting match-up choice.
Okay. So Wilson’s version. I’m assuming the vocal is his; the singing style, in any case, reminds me a bit of Cab Calloway’s take, bordering on a showtune delivery. (I should note a couple of lyrical flourishes: This take has the singer relating that “when I put my hands on my baby, I found that she was dead,” the only instance I can recall of a “SJI” narrator touching the corpse; and after the “let her go” bit the singer suggests, “Why, you could roam 133rd Street over, but she’ll never find a sweet man like me.” Perhaps 133rd Street is the world to this particular “SJI” protagonist?) The standout element, not surprisingly, is the piano playing, which truly sparkles, particularly in my view at the opening, which is really evocative.
When the tune transitions to “When Your Love Has Gone,” the singing stops, and while the piano playing is still really nice, it’s markedly more showy (to my ears). In a sense, the take captures and even amplifies the sentiment that closes “SJI” (the self-satisfied bragging) by dropping the plaintive lyrics and converting the melody of “When Your Lover Has Gone” into a straight toe-tapper. An interesting way to handle the pairing of the songs.