“Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music”
— Jerome Kern
in 1911, Berlin hit upon the musical composition that catapulted him into legend: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” A jaunty tip of the hat to the ragtime craze (although not technically of the ragtime genre) the song reached the larger public in several stages: first as a vaudeville number premiered in Chicago by Emma Carus; then as a performance by Berlin at the Friars Frolic of 1911; then increasingly “covered” by performers in vaudeville and early gramophone recordings. It set a new record by becoming the fastest selling song of its time, moving a million copies of sheet music within four months; by 1912, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” had sold over two million copies of sheet music and subsequently a million more. It was the most ubiquitous song of its era and had become a cornerstone of the music publishing industry.
Willie Nelson explores the deep corners of the Frank Sinatra catalog on his new album That’s Life, out February 26th. In addition to tackling classics like “You Make Me Feel So Young” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Nelson interprets lesser-known Sinatra recordings like 1959’s “Just in Time” and “A Cottage for Sale.” “I’m just glad to be able to do another tribute to him,” said Nelson, who released his first Sinatra tribute, My Way, in 2018. “I’m anxious to get it out there.”
On Friday, Nelson released another track, “I Won’t Dance,” a standard composed by Jerome Kern and recorded by Sinatra in 1957 for A Swingin’ Affair!, his 12th studio album (He cut it in 1962 for Sinatra–Basie: An Historic Musical First too.) Nelson recorded the track — which has also been covered by everyone from Fred Astaire to Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett — with Diana Krall. The two star in a joyful animated video by Manuel Casares and Antonio Corral (a.k.a. Crocantes), an animation team who say their video was “inspired by classic cartoons, fashion illustrations and Hollywood glamor, screwball and slapstick comedies.”
Nelson has called Sinatra his favorite all-time singer. “He had a great choice of songs,” Nelson said recently. “He picked all the best songs in the world to record — and of course he had access to them. But I loved his phrasing. He and I recorded a couple of songs together many, many years ago. We did ‘My Way’ together, and we did ‘A Foggy Day (in London Town).’ We did a commercial together one time, I forget what it was for. Some satellite or something. I got to hang out with him a little bit but not as much as I wanted to.”
Written by Patrick Doyle for Rolling Stone magazine.