I’m listening to a song on repeat called “Love Letters” by a singer named Ketty Lester. Have you ever listened to it? Please do. I heard it for the first time the other night. It was playing over the closing credits of a documentary I was watching. I was taken with the recording, the playing, the singer’s performance and the song. “Love Letters” came out in 1962 and it’s the kind of song often referred to as a “torch song”.
According to my dictionary a torch song is: a sad or sentimental song, typically about unrequited love.
The name “torch songs” probably comes from the expression “to carry a torch for someone” i.e. to have strong feelings for someone. Historically, women more than men have been placed in the category of “torch” singers. The classic torch singers sang their siren songs over elegant band arrangements, dressed in elegant clothing and fine jewels. The heyday of the great torch singers and their recordings came between the early 50’s and the early 60’s.
A few of the more famous ones:
I’m a huge fan of a good torch song and a good torch singer. Nothing gets me through my darkest hours quite like a good torch song.
I’m not alone in the night
when I can have all the love
Many of the recordings that I would consider my favorite torch songs feature male vocalists and come from other periods in time. And though I love the visual elegance of the famous chanteuses, I don’t really care so much about their get-up when I’m listening. What’s more important to me is the way the song is written and the way the song is played and sung. Torch singing is not to be confused with the vocal acrobatics that we celebrate on all of our favorite reality/game shows today. It’s not about how a voice gets contorted or the size of a singer’s range; it’s about what you can feel when you listen to the track.
We should also not confuse torch songs with the “confessional” material of many singer/songwriters. A great torch song is extremely personal and yet not personal at all. The song might hit you in a very personal place, but one of the great things about the torch song is the fact that it’s bound to no one person. A torch song works because it’s not about what some schmo like me did today. It’s not a song about how I was going to go to see the new Wes Anderson movie with you at the movie theater on Route 119 but we were late at the Italian restaurant and we got in a fight about our plans next weekend. Rather it’s a song about people feeling things that people have felt and will feel as long as there are people.
Most often, the torch singer is not the person who wrote the song. You may never have heard of the person who wrote the song. But whoever the writer is, somebody has written a song that’s good enough for the singer (and many singers) and the listener (and many listeners) to relate to. Hoagy Carmichael might have been thinking about the summer he spent at the lake with a girl named Mildred when he wrote “Stardust”, but that’s not what a singer would need to know to feel the song. And when that singer goes to sing that song, he or she reaches deep down into that inner chamber where the torch is burning. That torch is burning in all of us. The torch singer and the torch song take us to where the embers glow.
All good songs are really torch songs at their core. Song is really just the voice of the human soul. Whoever or whatever we carry a torch for in the depths of our soul will live and move in a good song. Those who have really mastered the craft of singing and writing songs did so by working and working at it, and putting the song first in their choices. All great writers and singers must be honest, and their honesty must include the ability to leave what doesn’t work on the cutting room floor. They must be good listeners, especially good at listening to their own hearts. Deep down they are carrying a torch and they have very good access to it. They strengthen that inner connection through the pursuit of their craft. The craft in turn becomes seamless to the listener. Someone we don’t know who doesn’t know us has worked very hard honing phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, breath and tone to give us what we will perceive as a “love letter straight from the heart”.
If you think a torch song is corny, trite or easy, sit down and try to write one some time. After you’ve tried, go back and listen to “Love Letters” again. Let me know what you think.
Here are a few torch songs I love. I’m pretty sure all of them are up on youtube if you’d like to listen to them:
“Love Letters” by Ketty Lester
written by Victor Young and Edward Heyman
“Our Day Will Come” by Ruby & The Romantics
written by Bob Halliard and Mort Garson
“If I Had You” by Nat King Cole
written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Ted Shapiro
“Nothing Takes the Place of You” by Toussaint McCall
written by Alan Robinson & Toussaint McCall
“Again” by Dinah Washington
written by Dorcas Cochran and Lionel Newman
“Stardust” by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey
written by Hoagy Carmichael & Mitchel Parish
“Do What You Gotta Do” by Roberta Flack
written by Jimmy Webb
“I Cry Alone” by Ruby and The Romantics
written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David
“Standing In The Doorway” by Bob Dylan
written by Bob Dylan
“A Cottage For Sale” by Les Paul & Mary Ford
written by Willard Robison and Larry Conley
“Forever” by Marvin Gaye
written by Brian Holland, Freddie Gorman & Lamont Dozier
“That’s All” by Sam Cooke
written by Alan Brandt and Bob Haymes
“All I Could Do Is Cry” by Etta James
written by Billy Davis, Bill, G Fuqua, and Berry Gordy Jr
“What’ll I Do” by Nat King Cole
written by Irving Berlin
“Who’s Lovin’ You” by the Jackson 5
written by Smokey Robinson
…Do you have any favorites? I’d love to know.
 From “Love Letters”