Every few years some band or singer is accused of stealing a song. In 2009 guitarist Joe Satriani sued Coldplay, claiming the band plagiarized his song “If I Could Fly” for their hit single “Viva La Vida.” Coldplay denied the allegation saying the similarities were coincidental. Given that rock, pop and jazz musicians use common chord progressions, it shouldn’t be too surprising when different songs sometimes sound alike. In other cases, musical similarities are due to innocent, unconscious borrowing. Because most musicians and songwriters want to create something new and original, I suspect outright musical theft is rare.
This week on SDPB Radio’s Big Band Spotlight, we’re featuring a few examples of jazz and big band songs that sound remarkably similar to other pre-existing songs.
In early 1946, Stan Kenton recorded a catchy number by trumpeter Ray Wetzel called “Intermission Riff.” As many others have noted, the main theme of “Intermission Riff” is the same as the opening theme heard in Gerald Wilson’s “Yard Dog Mazurka,” recorded by the Jimmie Lunceford orchestra five years earlier. But where Wilson discards the theme right away and moves onto other things, the Kenton band sticks with it and develops counter-riffs. The similarity of the two themes gave Kenton’s many detractors something extra to pillory him for, but as Kenton’s biographer Michael Sparke points out, musicians pick up ideas and motifs from many sources, often stored in the subconscious, and their subsequent use does not necessarily imply plagiarism.
But that was the charge pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams leveled against the songwriters of “Black Coffee.” The melody to the popular torch ballad is remarkably similar to that of Williams’ composition, “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory,” recorded in 1938 by the band she arranged for, Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy.
Williams said her song came about through a correspondence with Jimmie Lunceford trumpeter Paul Webster. One of his letters began “What’s your story morning glory? I haven’t heard from you,” and Williams used that to develop a song. Since she wouldn’t have written the song without his letter’s inspiration, she gave Webster partial songwriting credit. But several years later Williams accused Webster of taking her melody, adding a bridge with collaborator Sonny Burke and claiming it was a new song. Williams fought for compensation for what she considered plagiarism, but in the end she apparently settled for just $300.
Fats Waller is one of the greatest composers in jazz history. He gave the world such timeless standards as “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” In another one of his classic songs, “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” Waller’s melody shares the opening bars of a popular song from the 1920s, “Singin’ the Blues (‘Til My Daddy Comes Home),” made famous in a memorable recording by saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. Given Waller’s track record as a composer and inventive pianist, I’d put this in the “subconscious borrowing” category. (It’s curious that Fletcher Henderson recorded both songs with his orchestra during the same April 10, 1931 session.)
One of the more notorious examples of suspected musical theft in jazz is tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest’s “borrowing” of a blues riff from Duke Ellington’s “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” for his 1951 rhythm and blues hit, “Night Train.” Forrest played in the Ellington orchestra for a few months in late 1949 and early 1950; according to Ellington’s manager, Cress Courtney, there was a problem and Forrest was let go. In retaliation, Courtney believed, the tenor man took Ellington’s theme as his own.
I doubt the story is as cut-and-dried as that, though. Riffs were often kicked around by musicians and their authorship is rather murky. For example, Glenn Miller’s famous “In the Mood” riff had been around for years before Joe Garland wrote it down and gave it to Miller. Nevertheless, because Jimmy Forrest was in the Ellington band when “Happy Go Lucky Local” was part of its regular repertoire, it seems more than just coincidence that his “Night Train” theme was so similar to the one Ellington used in his composition. (It can also be heard briefly in a 1940 Ellington small-group record led by Johnny Hodges called “That’s the Blues, Old Man.”)
One of the stranger musical doppelgangers is one separated by decades and a continent. In 1927 Louis Armstrong recorded “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” on one of his classic Hot Five sessions. Three decades later a very similar theme turned up in “Samba de Orfeu,” one of the songs Brazilian guitarist Luiz Bonfa wrote for the 1959 film, Black Orpheus. That soundtrack also included music by Antonio Carlos Jobim and introduced listeners outside of Brazil to the Bossa Nova. The uncanny resemblance of the two songs hasn’t been lost on musicians over the years. The great alto Saxophonist Paul Desmond recorded “Samba with Some Barbecue” in 1968. More recently clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen put the two songs together on her excellent 2007 album, Noir.
Back to Stan Kenton: He wasn’t trying to fool anyone regarding the musical source of his 1945 record, “Southern Scandal.” He acknowledged that it came from Max Steiner’s “Tara’s Theme” from the Gone with the Wind film score. Kenton titled his composition “Southern Scandal” because, he said, the movie was based in the deep south and about a scandalous relationship. Kenton took Steiner’s sweeping, wistful theme and turned it into a cacophonous, brass blasting number. Here’s a Soundies video performance of “Southern Scandal” featuring Kenton, piano and Eddie Safranski, bass.