“I cover the waterfront… I’m watching the sea… will the one I love be coming back to me?”
“I Cover the Waterfront” was written by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman. It may have ended up in a Sinatra recording session in the spring of 1957, courtesy of the great string-master Gordon Jenkins, but its delicately handled theme of lost love has origins stretching back to the whorehouses, warehouses and nefarious characters populating the grimy San Diego wharf during the 1930s. It may go without saying that its conversion from raunch to respectability had something to do with Hollywood coming to call.
Credit given to Max Miller, a reporter for The San Diego Sun, who quite literally covered the local waterfront during the decade of the Great Depression. Max didn’t report to an office, but worked from a dank room at the docks, just above a tugboat office. If you’ve seen the Samuel Fuller movie Pickup on South Street – and I highly recommend it if you haven’t – imagine Richard Widmark’s waterfront hideout and you might have an idea of the digs Miller employed to cover stories of dockside crime, murder, mystery and general shenanigans from unsavory characters: hardly the stuff of a Frank Sinatra recording.
Miller eventually had enough vignettes of the rough and tumble waterfront world and its equally hardened population to churn out an entire book, published in 1932, entitled I Cover the Waterfront. The book was a hit, and United Artists nabbed the rights to adapt it into a movie carrying the same name (and little else) with stars Ben Lyon and Claudette Colbert.
Meanwhile, composer Green and lyricist Heyman wrote a song inspired by the book’s title, originally recorded by Abe Lyman’s California Ambassador Hotel Orchestra, with vocals by Gracie Barrie. The song and film had nothing do with one another except for the shared title. But the success of the recording led to the film producers re-scoring their movie to integrate the melody in an instrumental version, then claiming in advertisements that the song had actually been inspired the film.
The song was heavily covered in the years that followed: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, John Lee Hooker all helped carry it to jazz standard framing. Annie Lennox even took a turn with it for her 2014 album, Nostalgia.
Sinatra’s pass sparkles with the lush, swelling strings that were a hallmark of conductor Jenkins. No reason I can find for why Sinatra skips the first verse and bolts straight for the chorus, but the track, as well as the album Where Are You?, certainly doesn’t seem to want for anything it doesn’t already have
Take a listen below.
I relied on the following sources for background on the song origins:
“I Cover the Waterfront” at The Mark Steyn Club –
“S.D. Reporter’s 1932 Bestseller Still Holds Water at KPBS –
“Who Was Max Miller?” at The San Diego Reader –