9 May 2015


Blue Turning Grey Over You is a tune written in 1929 by the great Fats Waller. It achieves a memorable, haunting effect and yet in theory its structure could hardly be simpler.

In common with many popular songs of the time, it has a 32-bar chorus, with the structure:

A  A  B  A

- each letter representing eight bars.

The 'middle eight' (B) uses a fairly common chord sequence, but with a sad, descending melody spread over each chord.

Each of the three A sections begins like this:-

I have just noticed that Blue Turning Grey and Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl both begin with the same very unusual but effective chord sequence. But do we know any other tune in which the chords start on the tonic and then descend the stairs, a semitone at time, like this? In the Key of C, I mean:

C for one whole bar
B7 for one whole bar
Bb7 for one whole bar
A7 for one whole bar.

I can't think of others (though I believe the chorus of Jelly Roll Morton's Sweet Substitute comes very close). That is the trick that gives Blue Turning Grey its magic. That and the way the melody note in the second and fourth bars of this phrase are (unusually) the seventh of the chord being played. 

By the way, the alternative chord in red above doesn't make much difference: the notes are pretty much the same.

The chord changes bar by bar.

In the Chorus of Need a Little Sugar, the chord changes in half-bar intervals:

Since I wrote the above, Barrie Quilliam has e-mailed me to say he can suggest five more tunes that begin by going down exactly the same ladder.

The tunes are I Thought About YouTain't No Sin To Take Off Your Skin and Dance Around in your BonesHard-Hearted HannahI've Got a Feeling I'm Falling and Rosetta.

Thanks, Barrie. I'll imagine all tunes in the key of C.

It certainly works well in I Thought About You, though the descent is over the first TWO bars rather than the first four:

C : B7 | Bb7 : A7 |   D7   |  Am7 : D7  |

In the case of Rosetta, I can't quite get the ladder to work for me. I would play:

C   |     B7    |   E7  |   A7

or as a possible alternative:

C  |   B7   |     C  : B7.Bb7 |   A7

(which gets closer to the ladder).

As for Tain't No Sin, I personally play:

C   |  B   |  E7   |  A7

and I can't get Bb7 to sound right in the third bar where I have the E7.

Hard-Hearted Hannah and I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling I find to be very close to Blue Turning Grey, though not exactly the same chords over the first four bars. 

I suppose it all goes to prove this: there are plenty of harmonic variations for so many songs.