Today marks the birthday of the “Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald. Famous for her silky voice and successful jazz standards, Fitzgerald knew how to bring tears to audiences’ eyes with her achingly beautiful renditions of popular torch songs. In honor of the Queen of Jazz, we’ve rounded up other weep-worthy, sentimental ballads from the 1920s that sing of lost love and other romantic dilemmas we can all relate to. Turn to these tunes while you’re busy crushing on that someone special from afar or licking your wounds following a summer fling.
Helen Morgan, “Why Was I Born?”
“Why was I born? Why am I living?” croons ’20s torch singer Helen Morgan in her sadface rendition of “Why Was I Born?” The famous song appears in Hammerstein and Kern’s 1929 Broadway musical, Sweet Adeline, in which Morgan played the title character. Morgan started her career in Chicago speakeasies, eventually landing a role in the 1927 musical Show Boat. Her life was as troubled as the songs she performed. Morgan lost her battle with alcohol, dying at 41 from cirrhosis of the liver.
Gene Austin, “My Blue Heaven”
“My Blue Heaven” was the jam of 1927, performed by one of America’s greatest crooners, Gene Austin. The Texas-born singer-songwriter has influenced the careers of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. “My Blue Heaven” stayed at the top of the charts for 26 weeks, selling over five million copies, rivaled only by Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”
Ruth Etting, “Love Me or Leave Me”
It’s not hard to imagine someone like Britney Spears singing Ruth Etting’s best-selling tune from 1928. Etting’s low-range style really captures the song’s universal theme about love’s uncertainty. Etting became famous after her appearance in Ziegfeld’s “Follies of 1927.” Her dramatic relationship with jealous husband and manager Moe Snyder was the subject of the film Love Me Or Leave Me, starring Doris Day as Etting.
Libby Holman, “Moanin’ Low”
She had affairs with men and women, including writer Jane Bowles and star Montgomery Clift, wore strapless gowns before they were “in,” and often lied about her age (even to the Social Security Administration). The eccentric Libby Holman led a wild life for a woman of the ‘20s and ’30s. Her standard “Moanin’ Low” became a signature song after the song debuted in the musical revue The Little Show, in which she starred alongside Clifton Webb and Fred Allen.
Annette Hanshaw, “I Must Have That Man”
Nicknamed “The Personality Girl,” Annette Hanshaw was the ultimate flapper songbird. She ended most of her records with the coy utterance, “That’s all,” and recorded under a number of pseudonyms.
Rudy Vallée, “Deep Night”
One of music’s earliest pop stars, Rudy Vallee was an idol amongst flappers and labeled the “first of the great crooners.” Legend has it that a housewife shot her husband for making snarky remarks about the singer. He was often chased down during his stage appearances by legions of female fans. “Deep Night” was an influential track that showcased the performer’s tenor tone.
Irving Berlin, “What’ll I Do”
Irving Berlin wrote this popular ballad about longing in 1923 — believed to be from the male perspective, which would have been somewhat rare for the time. Since then, it’s been performed by everyone from Bea Arthur (on an episode of The Golden Girls) to Frank Sinatra. Canadian actor Walter Pidgeon, a classically trained baritone, recorded his version of the song in 1924.
Fanny Brice, “My Man”
Barbra Streisand portrayed singer and stage star Fanny Brice in the musical and film Funny Girl. The influential performer headlined the Ziegfeld Follies from 1910 to 1911. The heartbroken “My Man” (“Two or three girls has he that he likes as well as me but I love him!”) became her signature song.
Mistinguett, “Mon homme”
Before Fanny Brice made “My Man” famous in the States, flamboyant French actress and singer Mistinguett recorded the hit song in her native language in 1916. She performed it throughout the ‘20s in Europe. Mistinguett was the most popular entertainer during her time (and highest paid female entertainer in the world at one point), performing at venues like the Folies Bergère and Moulin Rouge.
Belle Baker, “I Still Go On Wanting You”
Ziegfeld Follies performer Belle Baker hosted her own radio show in the 1930s and brought a number of Irving Berlin’s songs to fame due to her heartfelt performances. Popular amongst New York City audiences, Baker recorded this weepy classic in 1929.