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How “You Are My Sunshine” Became a Jazz Classic

Released shortly after “You Are My Sunshine,” Sheila Jordan’s first album came out on Blue Note, with music as soulful as the cover.

The story of children in an Oklahoma day care singing “You Are My Sunshine” while a tornado attacked the building is deeply moving. The fact that a seemingly happy-go-lucky children’s song provided them with much-needed strength deepens our appreciation of the timeless classic.

Over fifty years ago “You Are My Sunshine” also received a radical reappraisal, and this story also involves hope and courage in the face of adversity.

Two artists played a key role in making “You Are My Sunshine” a jazz classic. In 1961 composer, band leader, theorist and pianist George Russell (a Cincinnati native, by the way) had several ground-breaking jazz albums under his belt when he entered a Greenwich Village club where a singer he’d never heard before was performing.

“Where do you come from to sing like that?” he asked afterwards.

If you’ve heard Sheila Jordan sing a ballad—and be careful, because she’ll rip you heart when she does—you can understand why George Russell asked that question. As it turned out, Sheila Jordan grew up amongst coal miners in Pennsylvania. Intrigued, Russell drove with Jordan to that area.

The poor and depressed rural setting was hardly the typical breeding ground for a jazz musician. At a tavern Russell and Jordan visited the sole patron was an out-of-work coal miner who had heard Jordan sing before. “I’ll never forget his face,” Jordan later said in an NPR interview. “It was down and out. He said, ‘Well, do you still sing ‘You Are My Sunshine?’’”

She wasn’t planning to perform the song, but she granted his request.

A few months later Russell invited Jordan to a recording studio. After she arrived he played her a recording of his introduction to “You Are My Sunshine”—all six minutes of it. Russell’s interpretation was anything but standard. His knowledge of harmony was such that even when his horn section quoted the perky melody it sounded wistful, and there were plenty of slow, brooding passages between the swinging ones.

When the music stopped Russell asked Jordan to sing.

“Sing what?” Jordan asked.

“’You Are My Sunshine,’” Russell answered.

“Are you kidding?” Jordan said. “With no background? Nothing?”

What happened when Jordan did sing was remarkable. For over two minutes she performed acapella, and when Russell’s sextet joined in the fractured harmonies and slow drum roll complimented her perfectly. Some jazz singers are boisterous and extroverted, but Jordan sounded as frail and vulnerable as an abandoned child. You feel the pain of someone desperately seeking sunshine—but you also feel a sense of hope.

On two levels “You Are My Sunshine” was a tribute. Russell was showing his respect for a vocalist who, although previously unrecorded, was already a major talent. Also, the song was dedicated to the out-of-work coal miners in Pennsylvania.

“You Are My Sunshine” quickly became a classic that joined other re-readings by jazz artists of compositions that originally didn’t necessarily seem like heavyweight material. When John Coltrane told his band members that they were going to take on “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, pianist McCoy Tyner wondered why his bandleader picked a Julie Andrews tune. The recording that ensued was remarkably powerful, however—and that was just the beginning of Coltrane’s association with the song. Ultimately he performed it so many times that it almost seemed like an obsession. “First it was an infant,” Tyner later wrote, “and later it became an adult. A song is somewhat like a person if you allow it to live.”

Similarly, before Chet Baker (Miles Davis, too) got hold of it there were plenty of versions of “My Funny Valentine” that could make you feel warm and fuzzy, but in their hands it became spellbinding.

The notion that a song can take on a deeper meaning would make perfect sense to the children who sang “You Are My Sunshine” while a tornado was raging.