“Prisoner of Love”: The Turns a Song Takes

Politics has promises. Baseball has Cracker Jacks. Jazz has standards.

The idea of the standard is indispensable to jazz—they are, almost literally, the building blocks of the genre. We love standards because they fuse the old and the new, allowing us to celebrate tradition alongside innovation. For the first half of the 20th century, W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” was the most popular jazz standard in the land, and it was a good one. Then, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” became the gold standard. (And, no, “Hoagy” is really his first name.) Now, Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul” and Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” share top billing as the most popular jazz standards.

One of my favorite standards is “Prisoner of Love.” The music is sensuous; the melody is lyrical and balanced. It sounds remarkably like “Body and Soul,” except more aware of its tragedy. “Prisoner of Love” was written in 1931 by Russ Colombo and Clarence Gaskill, with lyrics by Leo Robin. Here’s a look at three classic interpretations of the standard.

1.) Billy Eckstine

Billy Eckstine helped break down color barriers in the 1940s, and it’s not difficult to see why: he’s handsome, confident, and the owner of a beautiful vibrato. Billy hits the upper register with ease, going back down with the casual neatness of a master. I love the 1:48 mark of the video, when the camera cuts from Billy to the couple. I’m sure this part was staged, but it’s still so cool to watch the visibly impressed lady turn her head in the direction of the silently impressed man and raise her eyebrow. She kind of looks like Billie Holiday, and he kind of looks like that anchor from SportsCenter.

2.) Lester Young and Teddy Wilson

Lester Young was probably the original hipster in jazz. He also “went with” Billie Holiday for a while, who gave him his nickname, “Prez.” If Charlie Parker was the William Faulkner of jazz—frenetic, verbose, slightly intoxicated—Prez was Papa Hemingway—calm, understated, simple and profound. Although Teddy’s piano is a bit busy in certain parts of the song, it’s a nice contrast to Lester’s more subdued notes. Lester’s lyricism is pure longing. His modest approach shows he didn’t need to prove much to anybody.

3.) James Brown and the Famous Flames

The first thing that struck me is how high James’s voice is. Right out of the gate, he sounds like a female singer. That’s not a knock, just an observation. I like how James and co. injected their version of “Prisoner” with a little straightforward pop. Comparing the Godfather of Soul’s early style to the style that would later make him famous, it’s breathtaking how versatile he could be: fluent in funk, fluent in pop, fluent in seemingly everything in-between. With such a talented singer, this version becomes all about the delivery of the melody. The Godfather delivers.

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