7 Greatest American Songbook standards

BY Mark Kingswood

5th Jun 2019 Music

4 min read

7 Greatest American Songbook standards
Modern-day crooner Mark Kingswood takes us through some of the greatest American Songbook standards we should all revisit

“Mack the Knife”

There are a number of things about "Mack the Knife" that make it really cool. Before it was considered a Big Band standard, it was actually a song that originated from a musical dubbed The Threepenny Opera. What I love most about it is that although the song makes you feel good (usually with up to four or five key changes,) a very uplifting swinging arrangement, plenty of major chords and generally positive vibe musically, it’s strangely paired with an incredibly dark, tongue-in-cheek lyrics about a mass murderer dubbed “Mack The knife”. You wouldn't think it would work, but amazingly it really does and has become a staple in swing standards. The most popular version I’d recommend checking out is the Bobby Darrin one from 1959.

“Sing Sing Sing”

This is one of the most famous songs from the Big Band era. Its undeniably catchy groove really became a huge inspiration to all who worked in this genre of music. The opening rhythm on the floor toms to begin the track instantly makes the listener know they’re in for a treat! The track was written by Louis Prima in 1935 and the most famous version is performed by Benny Goodman and his Big Band. This style of early Big Band music really inspired a resurgence of swing music in the 1990s with acts like Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and films such as The Mask.

“Nature Boy”

The beloved song “Nature Boy” is one of those songs that really reminds me just how powerful a simple melody and lyrics can be. The real magic in this song is the storytelling. A wonderfully mystical song with a very strong message: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return”. Nat King Cole’s voice on this track sounds incredible, just like pure silk. The lush string arrangement helps tell the story in the 1948 version. There have been many covers of this song, but many claim that Nat King Cole’s original is beyond compare, many people, including myself, dubbing it as a musical masterpiece.

“Georgia on My Mind”

This is such a great song that I just never get bored of hearing it. With its gentle melody, bluesy chords and wonderful story, it will always be my favourite song from the American Songbook. It ticks all the boxes to be performed at any given place or time. Enjoy it late at night with a drink in your hand in front of a fireplace, or in an arena performed by a big band. It’s just a song that stands out. I remember performing it on the spot with the legendary David Foster. It will always be a very special song to me. Although it was originally released by the its writers in 1930, it gained its biggest popularity in 1960 when Ray Charles released his version, which soon became a staple for the American Songbook.

“I've Got You Under My Skin”

With the beautiful rattle in frank Sinatra’s voice, accompanied by a full Big Band playing the infamous arrangement by Nelson Riddle, Frank Sinatra’s version of “Under My Skin” is a classic standard that in my opinion, everyone should listen to at least once in their lifetime. It has become a classic song for Frank Sinatra and marks a great collaboration and musical relationship with Nelson Riddle. Before Frank had recorded this song, he had heard Nelson’s arrangements that he’d written for Nat King Cole and instantly became a fan of his big, bold signature Big Band arrangement style—so they worked together on "Under My Skin” and the rest is history.

“Portrait of My Love”

This is the first song I ever heard from the Crooner world, when I was just eight years old. My grandparents were such a big influence because of introducing me to this wonderful genre of music, and more importantly, the golden voice of the singing bus driver who became one of the most famous voices to ever come from the UK. This person was Matt Monro. Although Monro has recorded many of the staple songs in the American Songbook, this beautiful song with its glistening old Hollywood-style string sound, heart-warming melody and an effortless, velvety vocal performance makes this one of my top recommendations. It’s one of those recordings I listen to and imagine how they did this all in one take, with Monro singing as the orchestra played. What they captured for me, is magic. Even Frank Sinatra said that Monro was one of the greatest singers ever and he was quickly dubbed “the singers’ singer”.

“My Way”

This one’s in the Top Three songs from the American Songbook, and is also undeniably the king of karaoke songs— for good reason. “My Way” is just one of those songs that was destined to soar. Some people don’t know this but it was originally a French song called "Comme d’habitude” Which actually expresses an entirely different sentiment from the classic Frank Sinatra version of “My Way” which we all know and love.
Paul Anka re-wrote the lyrics for Sinatra and that’s when the song soared to new heights setting incredible records, including staying on the UK Top 40 for 75 weeks. Although simplistic in its predictable melody that almost tells the story before you’ve heard it, it just works brilliantly. From delicate soft, almost spoken verses, to the incredible vocal crescendo at the end, "My Way” is a masterpiece of story-telling for many generations to come. It’s perhaps the song people associate with Frank Sinatra most, because it certainly feels like he believed each word and did the song his way.

Mark Kingswood’s debut album Strong is out now, www.markkingswood.com
Mark plays The Hideway in London on June 7