Sometimes my curiosity draws me to a particular song that seems to have an interesting name and maybe an intriguing history, and when I dig into it I often find a fascinating story. A good example is the jazz standard “Limehouse Blues,” which has been recorded by just about everybody from Duke Ellington to Django Reinhardt to Rosemary Clooney.
The song, written by Philip Braham and Douglas Furber, originated in the early 1920s when it appeared in the British stage musical A to Z, starring Gertrude Lawrence. It was set in the Limehouse district of London, which contained pottery works (limehouses) and also bordered on Chinatown. The latter fact was reflected in the show’s staging and also in the decidedly non-PC lyrics used in the original song.
Limehouse Blues was also the title of a 1934 George Raft film. It co-starred Anna May Wong and took place in the same area (with Raft supposedly half-Chinese) but apparently didn’t connect to the classic song, although it did include a piece called “Limehouse Nights.” However, the classic original showed up in 1945’s Ziegfeld Follies, with Fred Astaire doing his thing to the music, and again in 1968’s Star!, which gave us Julie Andrews’ Hollywood version of Gertrude Lawrence’s original performance.
Throughout the years the song has been recorded by just about everybody in jazz; sometimes in moody and mystical arrangements and other times bouncy and lively. And sometimes it has crossed genre lines and been performed by guys who might be better known for a different kind of music. But they knew a good song when they heard it. And so do I.
Chet Atkins & Jerry Reed – “Limehouse Blues”
7 thoughts on “Limehouse Blues – A Jazz Classic”
I learned so much from this one. Had no idea that Gertrude Lawrence, of all people, originated the song, that it was part of an English review, of all things–and I’d always wondered just what a “limehouse” was. Love that 1930s version. Shocking to be reminded that Lawrence died at only 54–I do remember now that cancer took her, way too early. She was a mere two years from her death in that 1950 version.
Yes, you’re right, a great song. Thanks, Geez.
I was fascinated too, when digging into all this. And I simplified some of it. Here’s what wikipedia says about ‘limehouses’.
“The name relates to the local lime kilns or, more precisely, lime oast located by the river and operated by the large potteries that served shipping in the London Docks. The name is from Old English lim-ast “lime-oast”. The earliest reference to Les Lymhostes occurs in 1356.“
Limehouse Blues I enjoyed , it was a little before my time . I have been in the music business all my life . It was my 70th birthday and I decided to record this song entitled Old Dogs and share this with friends in Blues and Jazz . So far the response is to cool . it’s scheduled for PBS /TV /Radio
All the best with your creative adventures
Gold Record Recipient
ceo Mother J Productions
Good stuff, Mickey!
Got to love it
Limehouse was also where sinister Chinese stereotypes moved around furtively in 1920s murder mysteries. I read a lot of Edgar Wallace as a kid.
Nice blog. I’ll be back!
Thanks! You’re welcome anytime, Chris.