For the last sixty-plus years, the name Nagasaki has stirred thoughts of a city in Japan with a history that includes being the site of the last wartime use of a nuclear device. But in the pre-war years, jazz fans probably most often thought of it as the title of one of the most popular songs around.
Written in the 1920s when flappers and bathtub gin were all the rage, the piece was the work of the song-writing team of Harry Warren and Mort Dixon. At that time, the public was fascinated by exotic locales and intriguing foreign names, but even though the song did have a faint connection with the city of the same name, that wasn’t its main draw.
It was meant to be one of the lively, clever novelty songs so popular at that time, and it succeeded. It not only had a catchy melody, one that would lead to it becoming an instrumental hit for many bands, but also lyrics that were silly and a little bit risque. Among the lines in the song were phrases like, ‘Back in Nagasaki where the fellas chew tobaccy / And the women wicky-wacky-woo’.
Harry Warren, who wrote the melody for “Nagasaki,” was one of the legends of song-writing, with numerous awards that include several Oscars for film music. On his long list of compositions are the likes of “At Last,” “I Only Have Eyes For You,” and countless others. Mort Dixon is also in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, as a lyricist who lent his skills to songs like “Bye, Bye Blackbird,” and “I’m Looking Over a Four-leaf Clover.”
Their goofy song named after a city in Japan became a part of almost every musical group’s songbook, with early instrumental versions such as that of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings or Benny Goodman just as popular as vocals featuring Cab Calloway or the Mills Brothers. (Video at bottom.) In the years since, the song has been performed by everyone from Django Reinhardt to Doris Day, and by modern groups like the Chenille Sisters. Not bad for a silly little song from the early jazz age.