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LIVES OF THE GREAT SONGS / Of innocence and experience: How Long Has This Been Going On? It's been a standard for half a century, but at first it was a resounding flop. Rhoda Koenig continues our series

THE FIRST time I heard 'How Long Has This Been Going On?' it made an impression very different from the one George and Ira Gershwin intended. I was listening to the record of Judy Garland's 23 April 1961 appearance at Carnegie Hall. She was greeted by the most hysterical adulation of her comeback tour, and her intensity matched it. I assumed that the song concerned adultery, and that the title was the question of a heartbroken wife. The lines 'Kiss me once, then once more/What a dunce I was before]' seemed to support this: the wife confusedly asking her faithless husband for comfort, while berating herself for not noticing the obvious signs. Garland's breathiness as she leaned into the 'How', and the agony with which she gobbled up the final phrases over the pianist's staccato attack convinced me that this was a song about misery and betrayal.

Judy, however, was just being Judy - laying on the singer-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown mannerisms that, unfortunately, the fans of her later years encouraged. The original meaning of 'How Long Has This Been Going On?' couldn't be more innocent: a girl and a boy discover, with their first kiss, the wonder of love. The Gershwins wrote it for Adele Astaire and Stanley Ridges in the Broadway musical of Funny Face (1927), but it didn't go down well in the out-of-town try-outs and was dropped from the show. It appeared the next year, rather overpowered, in Florenz Ziegfeld's production of Rosalie, described by one critic as 'romance in fine feathers and gold and ermine all over everything'. The lyrics of the boy's verse exhibited Ira Gershwin's tendency to be, like his idol P G Wodehouse, a bit babyish. 'As a tot, when I trotted in little velvet panties/I was kissed by my sisters, my cousins and my aunties.' Ira ties up this sticky image with the bow of schoolboy literary allusion: 'Sad to tell, it was Hell - an inferno worse than Dante's'

In the chorus, the fussy tune and lyrics dissolve into melting simplicity. 'I could cry salty tears,' goes the confession, followed by a statement so direct it buries the internal rhyme: 'Where have I been all these years?'. Words and music capture the mood of awestruck bewilderment, with repeated notes suggesting the singer's stupefaction; Alec Wilder, in American Popular Song (Oxford, 1972), points out the 'curious self-consciousness' of the seventh measure's lead-in to the minor seventh that opens the hesitant question of the title: 'Is this really what everyone feels? Why didn't anyone tell me?'

'How Long Has This Been Going On?' remained in the shadows until the early 1940s, when Peggy Lee recorded it with Benny Goodman's band. Since then it has become a standard for singers and musicians, especially jazz artists. Lee nicely cushions the 'oh' that begins the release, but her interpretation, on the whole, sounds tense. It would be difficult, however, for anyone to establish the intimacy the song requires with a full orchestral backing. This is a number for a piano, bass and a little light work on the drums.

What Lee did, though, with her sultry vocal, was to fix the change in style from the 1920s, when Broadway musicals were still influenced by operetta, stars were tenors and sopranos, and the mood was dainty charm - or, to put it another way, sexless twittering. In the 1930s, popular music got lower and slower; baritones and contraltos, singing in a more robust and knowing manner, took centre stage, and tempi relaxed and opened up. Though marked 'moderato', 'How Long Has This Been Going On?' has for most of its life been sung very, very slowly. With the transition in tastes, most singers dropped the verse, and added a sensuality which suggested that the sexual act in question was not the first kiss, or the first anything else, but the first one that rang the bell and knocked the ball out of the park. Sarah Vaughan, in her typically lush recording of 1957, starts off dreamily, but on 'all these years' suddenly speeds up, as if waking in amazement. In her 1945 version, Lena Horne practically softens the wax by stretching out and purring the first line of the release: 'Oh, I feel just like I could melt'.

The sweetness of the Gershwins' original idea still had its adherents. Ella Fitzgerald, on the classic five-record album The George and Ira Gershwin Song Books, tinkled her way through a gentle, bemused version in which she made four, five and six spacey syllables out of 'goin' '. Like nearly everyone else, she dropped the final 'g'.

The only exception I have come across is the very proper rendition by Audrey Hepburn in the 1957 movie Funny Face. In My Fair Lady, Hepburn opened her mouth, and out came the high notes of Marni Nixon, Hollywood's premier dubber; but in the earlier film she used her own small, tentative voice, which suited the shy character she played. (With its pentatonic structure and narrow range, 'How Long Has This Been Going On?' has always been a comfortable choice for non- singers.) The star of Funny Face (same title and songs as the stage musical, different story) was, as 30 years before, Fred Astaire. Playing a fashion photographer, he barges into a Greenwich Village bookshop with a model and a clutch of squealing stylists and dislodges Hepburn, a little brown mouse whose interests are entirely academic. When the two are alone, and she is standing on a rolling library ladder to replace the fallen books, she explains her enthusiasm for the French philosophy 'empathicalism': 'You actually feel what the other person is feeling. You put yourself in the other person's place.'

Astaire pulls the ladder close and kisses her. 'Why did you do that?' she timidly asks.

'Empathy,' he replies. 'I put myself in your place and I felt that you wanted to be kissed.'

'I have no desire to be kissed,' she says stiffly, 'by you or anyone else.'

'Don't be silly,' says the jaunty Astaire. 'Everybody wants to be kissed, even philosophers.'

Left to herself, Hepburn wonders, in song, if there could be more things than she has dreamt of in her philosophy. She picks up a chiffon-draped hat, twirls giddily around the shop before wistfully, dubiously asking (in a line written for the film by Leonard Gershe), 'Can one kiss do all of this?' and, leaving the final line unsung, returns (only temporarily, of course) to mousery.

'How Long Has This Been Going On?' has seldom been recorded by men - are they loath to admit they don't know everything? - but a memorable version was cut by Louis Armstrong with the Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One (Louis Bellson on drums). Armstrong wades right into the verse, gargling his disgust at soppy childhood kissing and announcing emphatically, 'So, my dear, I swore/'Never, nevermore]' '. In the chorus, he treats the idea that he never knew about all this love stuff as a huge joke on himself. The end of the release ('Don't wake me if I'm asleep/Let me dream that it's true'), sung as a desperate plea by most female vocalists, becomes a chuckling tease, Uncle Louis on Christmas morning.

If I had to choose a supreme recording of 'How Long Has This Been Going On?' it would be, as with so many other songs, the one made by Lee Wiley (1939). A part-Cherokee from Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, Wiley at 15 was singing with the Leo Reisman Orchestra, and soon afterwards in all the chic Manhattan supper clubs, sounding like a woman twice her age and the most sophisticated one in the house. Though she never became a popular favourite, connoisseurs of jazz and theatre music adored her, and she influenced a generation of better-known singers with her exquisite phrasing and the gently shaded timbre of her rich but delicate contralto: she sings like a sexy ghost. George Gershwin, according to the notes on the recording she made in 1939, 'liked the way she sang (his songs) and often said so'. I'll bet he did. She brings immense poise to this simple song: the smokiness of her faint Southern accent, the unexpected flattening of the first 'on', making the question wryly rhetorical. The back-up group isn't bad either - Fats Waller, Pee Wee Russell, George Wettling, Bud Freeman, Eddie Condon, Max Kaminsky. With Lee Wiley the two interpretations entwine; the song trembles with the sound of innocence meeting experience. -

(Photograph omitted)