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.