Classic ragtime tune inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and honoured by a tribute performance
Pop quiz: Which of the following artists performed When My Baby Smiles at Me, the number one hit song that made big band leader Ted Lewis an international star and inspired an Oscar-nominated film starring Betty Grable?
- Bing Crosby
- Glen Miller
- Benny Goodman
- Bobby Vinton
The answer: all the above. Since the tune was first composed by Canadian Billy Munro in the early 20th century, When My Baby Smiles at Me, has been recorded and performed by literally hundreds of artists, varying from big band and jazz ensembles to easy listening pop and country musicians.
Canadian singer-songwriter Jill Barber is the latest to cover the song, as she performs her version of When My Baby Smiles at Me to commemorate the song’s induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame via our Covered Classics series.
When My Baby Smiles at Me
Written by Ted Lewis, Billy Munro, Andrew B. Sterling and Harry Von Tilzer
Performed by Jill Barber (accompanied by Marshall Bureau on drums, Dean Drouillard on guitar,
Robbie Grunwald on piano, Drew Jurecka on violin and Steve Zsirai on bass)
Composer, pianist and musical director Billy Munro (1894–1969) was born in the British West Indies, spent time in England and the United States, and immigrated to Montreal in 1913 where he worked as a silent-movie pianist.
In 1919 Munro composed When My Baby Smiles at Me, a bouncy ragtime style tune written in the key of G-major that features a mildly syncopated rhythm. Soon after, Ted Lewis featured it as his theme song and popularized it on Broadway in the successful musical revue, “Greenwich Village Follies of 1919.” Lewis’ 1920 recording of When My Baby Smiles at Me charted for 18 weeks in that year, eventually hitting the No. 1 spot in the USA, where it stayed for seven weeks, and spawned other chart-topping versions that year by Henry Burr and by Billy Murray and Rachel Grant.
On film, When My Baby Smiles at Me became the title for an Oscar-nominated 1948 movie starring Betty Grable and Dan Dailey. The musical film was 20th Century Fox’s highest grossing motion picture in that year. The song is also heard in other movies of the 1930s and 1940s, including Sing Baby Sing, Shirley Temple’s first film; Hold That Ghost; and Behind the Eight Ball.
Jill Barber’s rendition of When My Baby Smiles at Me marries elements of the unique styles applied to the song over the past century; she begins with a slow and intimate first half and moves to a bouncy and upbeat second half. Barber’s evocative voice will no doubt evoke feelings of a bygone era and the back-line will have you foot-tapping along!
At first listen, what sets Jill Barber apart is her distinctive voice. But it’s her ability to write an immediately memorable song that has made her one of Canada’s most recognizable artists. On Fool’s Gold, her 6th studio album, Jill continues to explore different musical styles, from traditional country, to jazz and Motown, though she rarely works neatly within the confines of any one genre. Instead she writes in the spirit of the Brill Building era where hook and melody reigned.