50 Cover Versions Of ‘Stardust’ That Are Better Than Bob Dylan’s — And Three That Aren’t
Pardon us for not losing our minds with excitement over Bob Dylan’s much-praised new recording of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” which was released late last week as a preview of Triplicate, his three-album set of American standards that’s due out at the end of March.
Sure, Dylan has long earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants in a recording studio, whether it’s digging into the great American songbook or laying armpit farts over brutal dubstep drops. And as anyone who ever listened to “Theme Time Radio Hour” — the Mighty Zimm’s much-missed satellite radio show — can tell you, his knowledge of (and affection for) pre-rock and roll classics runs deep. But while his country-tinged arrangement of “Stardust” is tasteful and charming enough, his voice and phrasing simply aren’t up to the task; the bum notes and mumbled lyrics make the whole thing sound like somebody’s grandfather singing to himself in the shower.
To be fair, “Stardust” is an incredibly difficult song to pull off, thanks in part to Carmichael’s wistful, meandering melody — which was written in 1927 and reportedly inspired by the solo improvisations of legendary jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke — and its unconventional ABAC structure. And two years after Carmichael wrote the music, lyricist Mitchell Parish (born Michael Hyman Pashelinsky to a Jewish family in Lithuania) added another layer of complexity to the song, penning such evocative but unwieldy mouthfuls as “The nightingale tells his fairytale/Of paradise where roses bloom.”
But just as Mount Everest continues to tempt expert climbers, “Stardust” has a combination of otherworldly beauty and technical challenge that has made it incredibly alluring to generation after generation of musicians and vocalists. While we don’t have the time or space to rank the over 1,500 renditions of “Stardust” that have been recorded, here’s a list of fifty that climb to significantly higher elevations than Dylan’s version — and, just so we don’t completely pile on the poor guy, we’ve picked out another three that barely make it out of base camp.
1. The John Coltrane Quintet
It’s impossible to pick the “best” version of “Stardust” — but this sublime Coltrane recording from 1958 certainly has to be in the running.
2. Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey
“Stardust” looms large in the Sinatra legend — it was the first song he ever sang with Harry James’ orchestra, and he would record it several times over the course of his storied career. But this version, recorded in 1940, may have been his finest.
3. Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Though this 1931 recording largely serves as a showcase for Armstrong’s brilliant trumpet playing, Pops also recites Parish’s lyrics with a conversational ease that still astounds.
4. Artie Shaw
Long considered the definitive big band rendition, Shaw’s recording from 1941 features beautiful solos from trumpeter Billy Butterfield and trombonist Jack Jenny.
5. Willie Nelson
One of the most iconic vocal performances of the song, Willie’s 1978 version of “Stardust” proved to the world that he was far more than just an outlaw country singer.
6. Billy Ward and His Dominoes
A Top Ten pop hit in 1957, the Dominoes’ swoon-worthy version is best known these days for its appearance in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster film, “Goodfellas.”
7. Sarah Vaughan
Vaughan comes out swinging in several senses of the term on this 1958 recording with the Count Basie Orchestra, treating the listener to a verse of stunning vocalese before she even gets to the lyrics. The way she works the melody will definitely haunt your reverie.
8. Nat “King” Cole
Though it mysteriously rose no higher than #29 on the US pop charts in 1957, Cole’s heavenly recording has more than stood the test of time — and has been used to excellent effect in the films “My Favorite Year” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” (His daughter, Natalie, would later record a fine rendition of her own.
9. Isham Jones and His Orchestra
A number one hit in 1931, Jones’ recording was the first to reframe “Stardust” as a sentimental ballad — an approach that most artists would subsequently adopt.
10. Ella Fitzgerald with Ellis Larkins
This gorgeous 1954 recording features Ella in her prime, accompanied to perfection by Larkins’ piano.
11. Chet Atkins and Stanley Jordan
Two extremely unique and distinctive styles mesh wonderfully on this live rendition from 1991, which pits Atkins’ crystalline picking against Jordan’s fluid bass-tapping with memorable results.
12. Johnny Mathis
Backed by a magnificently lush arrangement courtesy of Gene Page, Mathis offers up the definitive “smooth 70s” version of the song on this 1976 recording.
13. Dave Brubeck Quartet
Alto saxman Paul Desmond spirals off into the stratosphere — then returns gently to earth — on this entrancing live recording from 1953.
14. Mel Tormé and George Shearing
The “Velvet Fog” won a Best Jazz Vocal Performance Grammy for his work on his and Shearing’s 1983 album, Top Drawer; this cut from the LP is certainly award-worthy in itself.
15. Clifford Brown
Brown was only 24 when he closed his 1955 album Clifford Brown with Strings with this haunting trumpet solo — and the fact that he died little more than a year later only lends his performance additional emotional resonance.
16. Lionel Hampton & Oscar Peterson
Hampton and Peterson take it slow and smooth on this ten-minute performance from 1953, their notes twinkling like the stars suspended above them.
17. Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio
Peterson was obviously loved to play “Stardust” — recorded a year before his version of the song with Hampton, his take with Young is just as good, albeit with a more aching feel to it.
18. Oscar Pettiford
A pioneer of the double bass as a solo instrument, Pettiford struts his stuff on this track from his 1955 album, Another One, digging deep into the song’s melody (and then some) with only chordal support from pianist Don Abney.
19. Jackie Wilson
An R&B superstar of the late 50s and early 60s, Wilson brought the same pugilistic intensity to his cover of “Stardust” as he did to hits like “Lonely Teardrops” and “Baby Workout.” His approach to this 1965 recording may be too brash for some, but there’s no denying the man’s ability or commitment.
20. Bennie Green with Charles Mingus
With its winding, sliding melody, “Stardust” makes an excellent fit for the trombone, as Bennie Green’s greasy solo on this 1953 recording proves.
21. Lou Donaldson and Grant Green
An exquisite pairing of alto sax and guitar legends, lent additional gravitas the warm organ chords of the equally legendary Brother Jack McDuff.
22. Aaron Neville & Rob Wasserman
Neville and Wasserman teamed up for the soundtrack of 1988’s Rain Man, crafting a unique arrangement wherein Wasserman’s upright bass anchors the music and an angelic choir of overdubbed Nevilles soars off to the heavens.
23. Cal Tjader
A rare bossa-nova arrangement of the song, given an additionally “exotic” feel with kitschy, quasi-Asian instrumentation — an odd combination, perhaps, but this 1963 track sounds especially good with a Mai-Tai in your hand.
24. Jimmy Smith
A meditative 1961 version from the Babe Ruth of the Hammond B-3.
25. Hoagy Carmichael
No Hoagy-fest is complete without a version of “Stardust” by the man himself — and this 1942 vocal version (with added bonus whistling) is probably his best.
26. Dinah Washington
The “Queen of the Blues” gives the song a nicely dramatic reading on her 1961 album, For Lonely Lovers.
27. Fats Waller
A supremely sigh-inducing solo piano rendition from 1937.
28. Coleman Hawkins
A lovely reading recorded in Paris in 1935, which also includes a nifty guitar solo from the great Django Reinhardt.
29. Keely Smith
Nelson Riddle teed up this dynamic arrangement for Smith, who knocked it out of the park on her 1959 album Swingin’ Pretty.
30. Jean Sablon
In case you were wondering “Stardust” sounds just as lovely in French — or at least it does on this dreamy 1938 recording.
31. Billy Eckstine
An appropriately full-throated 1950 rendition from Eckstine, one of the most powerful male vocalists of his era.
32. Clark Terry
Not only is Terry’s fleugelhorn solo in this 1967 TV performance a thing of sheer beauty, but its contrast with Bob Cranshaw’s bowed bass is positively goosebump-raising.
33. Irving Mills & His Hotsy Totsy Gang
Irving Mills was the co-owner of Mills Music, the company that published “Stardust.” This 1929 version, one of the earliest recordings of the song, was significantly more upbeat than most of the post-Isham Jones renditions would be.
34. Caetano Veloso
A gorgeously fluid 2004 reading from the legendary Brazilian performer.
35. Korla Pandit
The “Godfather of Exotica,” Pandit (born John Roland Redd) was a fixture on West Coast television in the 1950s and 60s, keeping viewers entranced with atmospheric organ and piano arrangements of classic songs. This 1952 recording offers ample evidence of his hypnotic charms.
36. Ferrante and Teicher
There’s some serious “space-age bachelor pad” action happening on this inventive 1957 arrangement. Dig that groovy echo!
37. The Peanuts
Best known in the U.S. for their appearances in classic Toho monster flicks like Mothra and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, twin sisters Emi and Yumi Itó enjoyed a lengthy recording career in Japan, which included a lounge-worthy take of “Stardust” that could have charmed any fire-breathing beast.
38. Martin Denny
The Hawaii-based bandleader never met a standard that he couldn’t dress up in “exotic” instrumentation, but he does so quite tastefully (and gorgeously) on this 1959 recording.
39. Cab Calloway
Recorded in 1931, the same year as his massive hits “Minnie the Moocher” and “Saint James Infirmary,” Calloway’s yearning version of “Stardust” somehow missed charts entirely despite its obvious excellence.
40. The Vibrations
This long-running Los Angeles R&B vocal group made a detour into the world of pop standards for their 1966 album, Misty. Though the group was reportedly unhappy about going in this more conservative direction, their version of “Stardust” was pretty impressive on its own terms.
41. Ringo Starr
Featuring an arrangement by Paul McCartney, “Stardust” was one of the highlights of Ringo’s first solo album. Whatever Ringo lacked in vocal prowess, he more than made up for with his sincere enthusiasm and a drummer’s flair for rhythmic phrasing.
42. The Shadows
Hank Marvin, England’s first electric guitar hero, demonstrates his impeccably melodic style on this 1967 recording, which beautifully renders the dreaminess of Carmichael’s melody.
43. Nino Tempo & April Stevens
Best-known for their 1963 hit version of the 30s standard “Deep Purple,” this brother-sister duo took a similar approach to Carmichael’s tune, updating it with the sort of harmonica-driven folk-rock groove that kids of the early 60s could dig.
44. Barry Manilow
Okay, so Barry was never the hippest guy in the room. But the man sure knows his way around a standard, as evidenced by this 1987 recording with “lite-jazz” quartet Uncle Festive.
45. Beverly D’Angelo
The product of a highly musical family, D’Angelo initially pursued a career as a singer before going into acting — and her rendition of “Stardust” from Neil Jordan’s 1991 film The Miracle offered ample evidence of her vocal talents.
46. Glenn Derringer
A musical prodigy, Derringer made his TV debut in 1955 at the age of ten, and recorded this creepy-sounding Wurlitzer organ arrangement of “Stardust” the following year.
47. Three Degrees
In 1971, this Philly female trio waxed a dramatic arrangement of the tune that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Las Vegas stage — though the crickets and croaking bullfrogs during the opening verse were an especially inspired touch.
48. Rico Rodriguez All Stars
A loping ska groove might not seem like a good fit with Carmichael’s melody, but veteran Jamaican trombonist Rodriguez made it work on this jaunty cut from his 1997 album, Rico’s Message.
49. Rod Stewart
Rod the Mod acquitted himself surprisingly well on the title track from his 2004 album, Stardust: The Great America Songbook, Volume III, once and for all refuting the rumor that he once had to have a gallon of stardust pumped from his stomach.
50. Michael Bublé
Canadian crooner Bublé has recorded several versions of the classic, but his 2009 version — an a capella arrangement assisted by NYC vocal group Naturally 7 — is by far his most interesting.
And here are three we never need to hear again:
1. Bing Crosby
Der Bingle recorded a beautiful rendition of “Stardust” in 1939, but his first pass at the tune from eight years earlier is a decidedly awkward-sounding affair; not only does his voice sound hoarse, but his Al Jolson-influenced vocal flourishes have not aged particularly well.
2. Kenny Rogers
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, but the Gambler failed to take his own advice on this snoozy version, which finds him sleepwalking through a sea of studio mush.
3. Frenchy Burrito
A longtime fixture on the Pittsburgh music scene as the leader of the Folk Pistols, Frenchy misfires here, plodding along and falling short of several crucial notes. This is one burrito you’ll wish you hadn’t ordered.
Dan Epstein is the author of, most recently, “Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76.” Follow him @BigHairPlasGras