Fred Astaire – The Way You Look Tonight (1936, Brunswick Records)
Why It’s Perfect: Fred Astaire’s rendition of The Way You Look Tonight is almost without peer in terms of songs that can make a girl fall for a man. Sure, most women have (or like to think they have) the sort of wild side that say, Crazy Bitch articulates so well, but once in a while they all need to be told in terribly sentimental terms just how much they’re treasured. If you’re a man and if, like most men, you occasionally have difficulty saying what you mean, let Fred do it for you. Some singers never give off a sense of personal communication; they sing to the universe, perhaps, or maybe just the workers in the arena rafters. Fred handles this one as if his lady love’s chin is cupped in his palms, sheltered like a flickering candlelight. Sure, he’s not the greatest technical vocalist, but the way he reaches and quavers on the high notes is nothing if not endearing.
And don’t discount the words by librettist Dorothy Fields of Annie Get Your Gun fame. Some of the greatest love songs have been written by women taking a male point of view; they have a better sense than we becocked lummoxes of what a girl wants to hear from her boy. These lyrics probably didn’t make Cole Porter nervous, but like many pop standards there’s a beauty to simplicity, and small details like “that laugh that tickles your nose” are enough to melt not a few foolish hearts. Wisely, and unlike a number of the artists who later covered the tune, Fred Astaire allows Fields’ lyrics to ghost along Jerome Kern’s lilting, delicate arrangement with all of the grace associated with his footwork. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful piece, and one well worth a spin next time your darling needs a pick-me-up.
Defining Moment: I usually pick some stupidly minor detail for these, but here I have to go obvious and highlight the whole final verse, which is one of the best declarations of affection I’ve ever heard in a pop song:
“Lovely, never, never change
Keep that breathless charm,
Won’t you please arrange it?
Because I love you,
just the way you look tonight…”
Hell, even I’ve been known to get a little glassy-eyed at it.
Other Great Songs by Fred Astaire: Astaire was one of the most in-demand pop vocalists of the 1930s and ‘40s in spite of his vocal limitations, so many of the best songsmiths of the period tailored their tunes to suit him. Cheek to Cheek, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off (that’s the “tomAYto, tomAHto” song, BTW), Top Hat, White Tie and Tails and Puttin’ on the Ritz are just a few of the magnificent standards to which Astaire lent his pipes. Check ‘em out!