Last Night When We Were Young


page originally published on 21 March 2016; latest edit: 29 December 2021


Last Night When We Were Young (m. Harold Arlen, w. Yip Harburg)

Last Night When We Were Young-sheet music cover-1In the book Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz?: Yip Harburg, Lyricist, by Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg (1995), pp. 94-96, the authors state that Arlen composed the music of what was to become the song “Last Night When We Were Young” before he left New York for Hollywood to begin work, with lyricist Yip Harburg, on the first film of a three-picture agreement with Warner Brothers. In the extensive quotes of Harburg that follow, the lyricist describes how Jerome Kern and George Gershwin had each cautioned Arlen that the composition lacked popular appeal. Kern had complained that the music was perhaps “too esoteric for popular consumption,” and Gershwin had dismissed it as being overly complicated. The authors also indicate that Johnny Mercer had declined an offer, saying, “I don’t think I could write a lyric to that.”

According to Harburg, about a year went by after Arlen had composed the music that it was finally offered to him. The lyricist was not informed by Arlen of the previous opinions mentioned above. Of the opening phrases from which he drew the title and the first line of the lyric, “Last night…when we were young,” Harburg said, “The juxtaposition of those two phrases is almost a whole world of philosophy.” He further ventured that, “the whole pathos of the human situation, of the human race, is in that musical phrase. Harold gave it to me.”

From Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz?, p. 98:

In Yip and Harold’s canon, “Last Night” is without parallel. It moves beyond Arlen’s usual blues into something more painful, less remediable…It is the only lyric Yip ever wrote about losing love irrevocably and came after his first wife had left him, his father had died, and his business had collapsed.

When Yip and Harold’s Beverly Hills landlord, opera star Lawrence Tibbett, sought to insert the song in one of his pictures, the studio balked. That same thing happened years later to Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra–though in time, all three recorded the number and it acquired a following among musical cognoscenti. Years later, New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote that listening Sinatra’s rendering of the song “is to be transported for a moment to the center of the earth and to feel the deepest loneliness.”

selected recordings and taped TV studio performances before live audiences, 1935-1983:

Lawrence Tibbett — recorded on 9 or 10 October 1935*; issued on RCA Victor “Red Seal” 11877 (also on Victor CS 93770)


Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen-1a

Judy Garland — recorded on 16 November 1948; cut from the 1949 film In the Good Old Summertime; released in 1951 on Judy Garland Sings, MGM E-82 (10″, 33 rpm, Mono), MGM 82 (10″, 78 rpm, Mono), M-G-M K82 (45pm, 4 record box set)

See also, at

video or audio player to be replaced when available


1955 In the Wee Small Hours-Frank Sinatra, Capitol Records W-581 (1a)

Frank Sinatra — recorded at KHJ Studios in Hollywood on 1 March 1954; arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle — released in April 1955 on the album In the Wee Small Hours, Capitol Records W-581 (also Capitol W581)


Harold Arlen — from Volume 1 of the 1955 double album The Music of Harold Arlen, Walden Records 306 (Vol.1) & 307 (Vol.2)

audio file from the page The Music of Harold Arlen: 1955 Walden Sessions, or the page Last Night When We Were Young, at


Carmen McRae — recorded on 29 December 1955; released in May 1956 on the album Torchy!, Decca DL 8267


Judy Garland — recorded on 31 March 1956, with orchestra conducted by Nelson Riddle; released 10 October 1956 on the album Judy, Capitol Records T-734


Judy Garland, accompanied by Joe Bushkin on piano — from the Judy Garland Musical Special for “General Electric Theatre,” telecast live from Hollywood on 8 April 1956


Helen Grayco with orchestra conducted by Judd Conlon — from the 1956 album After Midnight, Vik LX-1066


Peggy Lee — from her 1956 (or 1957 ) album Dream Street, Decca DL 8411

Peggy Lee (vocal), Lou Levy (piano), Stella Castellucci (harp), Larry Bunker (metallophone), Max Bennett or Buddy Clark (bass), Nick Fatool (drums), Marty Paich (arrange)


Art Farmer with the Quincy Jones Orchestra — title song from the 1957 album ABC-Paramount ABC-200


Frank Sinatra — 1958 TV performance, likely for The Frank Sinatra Show


More recordings on page 2


Pages: 1 2

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Robert Silvestri
    Mar 22, 2016 @ 07:36:01

    So glad you assembled this page with the wonderful assortment of recordings.

    Liked by 1 person


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