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Arlen and Mercer wrote the entire score for the 1941 film Blues in the Night. One requirement was for a blues song to be sung in a jail cell. As usual with Mercer, the composer wrote the music first, then Mercer wrote the words.
The whole thing just poured out. And I knew in my guts, without even thinking what Johnny would write for a lyric, that this was strong, strong, strong! When Mercer wrote "Blues in the Night", I went over his lyric and I started to hum it over his desk. It sounded marvelous once I got to the second stanza but that first twelve was weak tea. On the third or fourth page of his work sheets I saw some lines--one of them was "My momma done tol' me, when I was in knee pants." I said, "Why don't you try that?" It was one of the very few times I've ever suggested anything like that to John.
When they finished writing the song, Mercer called a friend, singer Margaret Whiting, and asked if they could come over and play it for her. She suggested they come later because she had dinner guests--Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Mel Tormé, and Martha Raye. Instead, Arlen and Mercer went right over. Margaret Whiting remembered what happened then:
They came in the back door, sat down at the piano and played the score of "Blues in the Night". I remember forever the reaction. Mel got up and said, "I can't believe it." Martha couldn't say a word. Mickey Rooney said, "That's the greatest thing I've ever heard." Judy Garland said, "Play it again." We had them play it seven times. Judy and I ran to the piano to see who was going to learn it first. It was a lovely night.
Academy Award nomination
In 1942 "Blues in the Night" was one of nine songs nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Observers expected that either "Blues in the Night" or "Chattanooga Choo Choo" would win, so that when "The Last Time I Saw Paris" actually won, neither its composer, Jerome Kern, nor lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II, was present at the ceremony. Kern was so upset at winning with a song that had not been specifically written for a motion picture and that had been published and recorded before the film came out that he petitioned the Motion Picture Academy to change the rules. Since then, a nominated song has to have been written specifically for the motion picture in which it is performed.
Composer Alec Wilder said of this song, "'Blues in the Night' is certainly a landmark in the evolution of American popular music, lyrically as well as musically."
Mercer, being from the South, realized "that Arlen's notes were meant to be sung as a blues slide and that individual syllables would have made the song too formal, too racially white."
Famous phrases from the lyrics
"My momma done tol' me"
"when I was in knee pants"
"a woman'll sweet talk"
The first two lines have been sung in several ways: "My momma done tol' me / when I was in knee pants"; "My momma done tol' me / when I was in blue jeans"; "My momma done tol' me / when I was in pigtails."
Bob Grant (medley recorded July 1, 1944, released by Decca Records as catalog number 24311, with the flip side "My Devotion medley")
Woody Herman and his Orchestra (vocal: Woody Herman) (recorded September 10, 1941, released by Decca Records as catalog number 4030B, with the flip side "This Time the Dream's on Me" and as catalog number 25194, with the flip side "Laughing Boy Blues"; re-recorded May 7, 1947, released by Columbia Records as catalog number 37858, with the flip side "Blue Prelude")
James Anthony - Blue Again,but That's Life, CD 2017. Recorded 2012 and released 2017. Nelson Riddle's arrangement of Arlen/Mercer's score from the 1941 movie of the same name.
Anne Shelton recorded the song in 1942 & her version was featured in the BBC series The Singing Detective.
In popular culture
The song was frequently sampled by composer Carl Stalling in his musical scores for the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons for Warner Bros. studios in the 1940s and 1950s. The then-recent hit song is sung incessantly by Daffy Duck in the ironically-titled 1942 cartoon My Favorite Duck, in which Porky Pig is tormented by the duck while on a camping trip. Porky's preferred number in that cartoon is "On Moonlight Bay". At one point, Porky unconsciously starts to sing "My Mama Done Tol' Me," then stops, looks into the camera with a "Harumph!" and returns to "Moonlight Bay."