One of the biggest hits of the decade, Bing Crosby's 1936 performance "Pennies From Heaven" signaled a thaw in the frosty outlook of Depression-era songs -- after all, just four years earlier Crosby had sung "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" with a desperation that hardly sounded feigned. The song with the silver lining was written by Johnny Burke and Patricia Johnston as the title track for a 1936 movie starring Crosby himself (and also featuring Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton). Recorded that August with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, "Pennies From Heaven" spent over two months as the nation's most popular song and won an Oscar the following year. In 1936-1937, five other hit versions followed -- by Jimmy Dorsey, Teddy Wilson with Billie Holiday, Eddy Duchin, Hal Kemp, and Hildegarde.
It's easy to see why the song became so popular for those stuck in the depths of the Depression, considering its forecast: "Every time it rains, it rains, pennies from heaven." The track begins in an Eden-like period when the best things were free, though "No one appreciated a sky that was always blue/And no one congratulated a moon that was always new/So it was planned that they would vanish now and then/And you must pay before you get them back again." There, in three lines, were the Roaring Twenties and the Depression of the '30s in a nutshell, and patient Americans needed only to wait out the storm to find a glorious new day. "If you want the things you love, you must have showers/So when you hear it thunder, don't run under a tree." Ever the masculine singer, Crosby reverts to a surprisingly high register for much of the song, floating serenely and tenderly over the lyric "Don't you know each cloud contains, pennies from heaven/You'll find your fortune falling all over town/Be sure that your umbrella is upside down." Sounding supremely confident throughout the song, Crosby's voice must have reassured countless thousands of poverty-stricken families around the country that good times were just around the corner. Though Papa Bing's is the definitive version, it has been reprised -- often as a tribute to either the singer or the period -- by countless legendary vocalists: Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Perry Como, Dinah Washington, Dean Martin, and the Mills Brothers. Many jazz interpreters have performed it as well, including Lester Young, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Harry James, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, J.J. Johnson, Oscar Peterson, Django Reinhardt, Gene Krupa, and Eddie Condon.