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Elvis Costello and Standards

What is a “standard?” The dictionary on my desk, as its fifth definition for the word, says that it is “a piece of music that has remained popular for many years.” Which is actually a pretty good, non-partisan description from an old dictionary, since the word is almost always applied to a specific body of work—the classic compositions, mostly from the 1930s and ’40s, written by the likes of George Gershwin and Cole Porter, that are sometimes called “The Great American Songbook,” and that can still be heard, inescapably, in bars and lounges around the world.

No one alive has found more depth to this set of standards than this week’s guest on SPECTACLE, Tony Bennett. For almost sixty astonishing years, Bennett has explored the full range of pop styles, delivering thoughtful, sometimes definitive versions of these glorious songs.

Elvis Costello has taken his shot at some of music’s most celebrated standards, too. In 1979, he released his version of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” as a 45 on red vinyl, given away at his show on February 14 (making him one of over a thousand people to record the song). Soon after, he cut a version of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” during the sessions for 1981′s Trust album.

He’s found occasion to return to other songs from that era throughout his career. While the covers album Kojak Variety concentrated on songs by contemporary writers, the bonus disc included on the 2004 reissue contained two masterpieces by George and Ira Gershwin—”How Long Has This Been Going On” and “But Not For Me.” Elvis’s 2003 appearance on Marian McPartland’s NPR show Piano Jazz—released as an album two years later–includes his takes on such numbers as “The Very Thought of You” and Jerome Kern’s “They Didn’t Believe Me.”

But if we go by the dictionary’s words above, several of Elvis’s own compositions now almost qualify as standards themselves. “Alison,” from My Aim Is True, was most famously covered by Linda Ronstadt, but has also been recorded by such artists as Everything But the Girl, Holly Cole, and Brandon Boyd of Incubus. “Almost Blue,” the 1982 Elvis song that probably still feels the most like an old-school standard, was cut by jazz great Chet Baker, as well as Alison Moyet, Gwen Stefani, and his wife, Diana Krall.

But as Tony Bennett recounts on SPECTACLE, his unlikely Number One hit with Hank Williams’s “Cold Cold Heart” proves that standards can come from surprising places. The song associated with Elvis that has truly come to resemble a new-generation standard is “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” written by Nick Lowe and included on the US version of the 1979 Armed Forces album. Since then, the song has been recorded by dozens of singers, ranging from Curtis Stigers (on the gazillion-selling soundtrack to The Bodyguard) to the Wallflowers, from the Flaming Lips to Steve Earle.

It was used by Bruce Springsteen (joined by R.E.M. and Conor Oberst) as an encore on the 2004 Vote for Change tour; given an unforgettable karaoke treatment by Bill Murray in the film Lost in Translation; and recently Elvis joined Feist, John Legend, Toby Keith, and Willie Nelson to perform the song on Stephen Colbert’s Christmas special. And there’s nothing standard about any of that.

– Alan Light

Alan Light is the former Editor-in-Chief of Spin and Vibe magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys” and a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence in music writing.