50 years ago, June 19, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were floating in a tin can far above the world circling the Moon, just hours away from Armstrong and Aldrin becoming the first humans visit a sphere other than our own.
The Moon’s prominence in our earthly sky and its regular cycle of phases as seen from our pretty, spinning blue orb, have provided cultural references and influences for human cultures since, well, since there were humans, cultural influence that can be found in language, mythology, lunar calendar systems, art, and music.
Back in 1777, Joseph Haydn premiered his new opera called The World On The Moon, but musicians had been writing moon tunes for centuries; the earliest Moon Tune I could think of without Googling (see below). For the next 48 hours, this World of Wonder writer will be presenting some favorite Moon Tunes.
Fly Me To The Moon was originally titled In Other Words. It was written in 1954 by openly gay songwriter Bart Howard. Appropriately, Kaye Ballard made the first recording of the song.
Howard had been pursuing a career in music for over 20 years. He played piano to accompany cabaret singers and wrote songs inspired by his idol Cole Porter. In response to a publisher’s request for a simpler song, Howard wrote a ballad titled In Other Words. The publisher tried to make him change some lyrics, wanting to change “fly me to the moon” to “take me to the moon”. Howard refused. Years later, he wrote:
... it took me 20 years to find out how to write a song in 20 minutes.
Kaye Ballard’s version was released on Decca in 1954, as the flipside of Lazy Afternoon, which Ballard was currently performing as star of the Broadway musical The Golden Apple.
Over the next few years, In Other Words became one of the most covered songs, with versions by Chris Connor, Johnny Mathis, and Nancy Wilson. Eydie Gormé covered it in 1958 for her album Eydie In Love, which reached Number 20 on the charts and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
In 1960, Peggy Lee released the song on the album Pretty Eyes, and made it more popular when she performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. As the song’s popularity increased, it became better known as Fly Me To The Moon, and Lee convinced Howard to make the name change official.
Joe Harnell arranged and recorded an instrumental version in a Bossa Nova style in 1962 It spent 13 weeks, reaching Number Three on Billboard’s Pop chart. It won him a Grammy Award at the 5th Annual Grammy Awards for “Best Performance by an Orchestra for Dancing”.
Connie Francis released two non-English versions of the song in 1963: in Italian as Portami Con Te and in Spanish as Llévame a la Luna.
Successful both as an uptempo number and its original setting as a romantic ballad, it has been sung, swung and favored by singers and bands since its debut, including Mabel Mercer, Marlene Dietrich, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Della Reese, June Christy, Brenda Lee, and Astrud Gilberto. There are now hundreds of cover versions by artists in nearly every genre.
Frank Sinatra recorded the song on his 1964 album It Might As Well Be Swing (1964) accompanied by Count Basie, produced by Quincy Jones who changed it from 3/4 time to 4/4.
Sinatra’s 1964 recording of Fly Me To The Moon became closely associated with NASA’s Apollo space program. A copy of the song was played on the Apollo 10 mission which orbited the Moon. It became the first music heard on the Moon, played on a portable cassette player by Aldrin after he stepped onto the Moon’s surface. Jones presented platinum copies of Sinatra’s version to the Apollo 11 crew. Diana Krall sang it at the Moon Landing’s 40th anniversary commemoration ceremony. She also sang a version of the song in 2012 at the memorial service for Neil Armstrong.
My own favorite version is by Bobby Womack (1944 – 2014), singer, songwriter, musician, and record producer. Womack’s career spanned more than 60 years and multiple styles, including R&B, Soul, Rock, Doo-Wop, and Gospel. I love him.