April in Paris, by Vernon Duke

April in Paris

April in Paris

Vernon Duke didn’t expect “April in Paris” to be a hit. He had written his first complete score for a Broadway musical, Walk a Little Faster, in 1932. It did not include that song.

Walk a Little Faster was one of the few shows that opened in the early years of the Depression.

The producer got a hold of a second-hand Parisian set and wanted a song to go with it. Nothing Duke had written fit.

He and some literary friends gathered in Tony’s, a New York restaurant. As they reminisced about Paris one of them, Duke later told Art Buchwald that it might have been Dorothy Parker, expressed a wish to “be in Paris now that April’s here.”

Duke commented that it was a wonderful title for a song. Tony mentioned that he had a piano upstairs, and Duke was unsober enough to say he’d write a song right away. So in a few minutes, he had a song, a title, and no words.

April in Paris lyrics

Although Duke (born Vladimir Dukelsky in Russia) had lived in Paris for a while, the show’s lyricist E.Y. Harburg had never been there. He complained that he couldn’t write a song if he didn’t know anything about Paris. After he read the stack of guidebooks Duke checked out of the library, he still didn’t know.

Harburg asked Duke, “Now, exactly what happens?” Duke wasn’t sure, but hazarded the guess that people sat under trees. That gave Harburg his first few lines of the chorus: “April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom, holiday tables under the trees.”

Then he asked Duke what the feeling was like. Duke said that it always felt like something wonderful should happen in Paris in the spring, but it never did. That gave Harburg the ending.

The unintended joke is that April weather is cold, rainy, and miserable in Paris. No one lounges outside thinking romantic thoughts. Duke knew that very well, but why tell Harburg?

Great lyricists like Harburg can start with a cliché and make something new from it. In the song, a woman sits in a Paris café drinking wine. It’s April, of course. But instead of remembering some past romantic encounter, she has never been in love. She wishes she had been so that she’d have something to remember.

I never knew the charm of spring
I never met it face to face
I never knew my heart could sing
I never missed a warm embrace
Till April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom
Holiday tables under the trees
April in Paris, this is a feeling
That no one can ever reprise
I never knew the charm of spring
I never met it face to face
I never knew my heart could sing
I never missed a warm embrace
Till April in Paris
Whom can I run to?
What have you done to my heart?

April in Paris, sung by Billie  Holiday

How April in Paris became a hit

When Walk a Little Faster opened in New York, only one critic even mentioned “April in Paris.” Robert Garland of the Telegram complained of unnecessary songs, including one called “April in Paris”!

In about 1934, Marian Chase started singing it in nightclubs and recorded it. It began to catch on. Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland—many, many great singers added it to their repertoire. Count Basie turned it into a jazz classic. In 1952 Doris Day sang it in a hit movie called “April in Paris.”

Duke was very happy that the song became successful. But as he told Art Buchwald something bothered him. For 20 years between the song and the interview, women told him they remembered hearing the song in Paris with their now husbands. But they were always plump. “It seems to me,” he said, “all the pretty girls have their romances some place else.”

Philip Furia and Michael Lassiter. America’s Songs: The Stories Behind the songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Paris in Mind: Three Centuries of Americans Writing about Paris, edited by Jennifer Lee. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.
April in Paris, anyone? / I Love Paris Life

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Some rights reserved by F Delventhal

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