Jerome Kern

Bill, song (from "Show Boat")

    Description by Timothy Dickey

    To 1920s America, the America of the jazz age, of the Ziegfeld Follies and the operettas of Sigmund Romberg and Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern's Show Boat arrived like a bath of cold water. Show Boat, based on the daring Edna Ferber novel, spoke of failed marriages, racial discrimination, and even miscegenation. It disdained superficial song and dance numbers, and offered instead a portrait of real human beings, both black and white. It traced their lives over 50 years -- after the flush of young love, "after the ball," and after disillusionment -- as they keep living and hoping for something better. The show's main themes are perfectly reflected in two of its most memorable songs: "Ol' Man River," sung by the African-American dockworker Joe, borrows the feel of Negro work songs and portrays the relentless progress of life, and "Bill" captures the completely ordinary yet overpowering romance that so many people know.

    The song "Bill" did not actually begin as a part of Show Boat. Kern originally wrote the song for the earlier show "Oh Lady! Lady!" The satirical novelist P.G. Wodehouse (creator of the character Jeeves the butler) wrote its lyrics. "Bill" was omitted from the earlier show, however, and imported into the second act of Kern and Hammerstein's 1927 premiere of Show Boat. Wodehouse's lyrics found an instant home in Show Boat's verismo portrait; the very opening begins with "I used to dream that I would discover/the perfect lover/someday." But instead of the godlike champion she imagined, the singer got Bill, "an ordinary guy." He's not particularly good-looking, he can't play sports or sing, his brain isn't something to write home about. Yet for the singer, Bill is the one man in the world who is wonderful, who thrills her, who makes her feel at home. They're average people in love.

    In the musical, "Bill" is sung by Julie. She lost her first job on the riverboat show when a jealous lover revealed her half-Negro heritage, yet she persisted in her marriage and in her show business career. When she sings the song, she is eking out an existence singing in the Trocadero Theatre, drinking too much and being bullied by a demanding boss. Yet she stands and sings the simple ballad, pressing on as all the musical's women do. "Bill" is also often sung outside of the dramatic context, as a light solo number.

    Appears On

    Year Title / Performer Label / Catalog # AllMusic Rating
    2012
    Hyperion
    CDH 55422
    2012
    Foghorn Classics
    FCL 2008
    2004
    Ara / Arabesque
    6515
    2002
    Eroica Classical Recordings / Eroica Distribution
    70342
    2002
    Reader's Digest Music
    9138
    2002
    Original Cast / Season of Concern
    6025
    2001
    Pearl
    132
    2000
    EMI Classics / Angel Records / EMI Music Distribution
    CDC-54527
    1996
    Memoir Classics
    501
    1995
    Showtime Records
    28
    1995
    Various Artists
    Pickwick
    4161
    1995
    Ondine
    848
    1993
    Vanguard
    6015
    1993
    Angel Records / EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics
    0777754527
    1993
    Freenote / Freenote Productions
    11
    1993
    Sony Broadway / Sony Music Distribution
    53543
    1989
    Omega Music Poland
    OCD-3004
    Hyperion
    66289
    Amcam
    10304
    Elba Records
    5005
    Reference Recordings
    28
    Various Artists
    Classic CD
    104
    Various Artists
    Classic Records
    11104
    RCA
    61182
    CBS Records
    2220
    Pearl
    9105