Song of the Week: Dark Eyes

December 2013

“Dark Eyes,” which is known in its original Russian as “Ochi Chyornye” or in French as “Les Yeux Noirs,” has become something of the unofficial Gypsy jazz anthem. In the first part of the 20th century the song was primarily known as a vocal showcase–the Russian opera singer Fedor Chaliapin had great success with a balalaika-soaked version and Al Jolson sang a lively version in the movie Wonder Bar –but when Django Reinhardt recorded the song in 1940 it started to be known as an instrumental showpiece for guitarists. The song is usually described as an old Gypsy melody but it turns out the lyrics were really written by the Ukrainian poet Yevhen Hrebinkain 1843 and were set to the melody of the German composer Florian Hermann’s “Valse Hommage” in 1884. “Dark Eyes” has a simple chord structure but its passionate melody seems to inspire improvisers to some of their best work. Here are six examples of guitarists falling under the song’s spell.

Django Reinhardt

Probably the most famous guitar version of “Dark Eyes” was played by Django Reinhardt. He actually recorded the song three times, twice in 1940 and once in 1947. The version here is his first recording from 1940 which featured a new version of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France that replaced one of the two rhythm guitarists with a drummer and Stephane Grappelli’s violin with the clarinet of Alix Combelle.

Les Paul

Les Paul was a great admirer of Django Reinhardt’s. I don’t know if he had heard Django’s version of “Dark Eyes” when he recorded this version sometime in the late 40s but it does have a decided Gypsy influence. By the way, the comic singer who looks a little bit like Larry from the Three Stooges was named Sammy Wolfe and he was actually a member of Ted Healy’s Stooges, the vaudeville act that spawned the Three Stooges we know and love. Wolfe joined Healy’s act around 1935, after the Howard brothers, Moe and Curly, and Larry Fine left Healy to start making movies on their own for Columbia Pictures. The story takes a grisly turn in 1937 when Ted Healy was beaten outside of the Cafe Trocadero and subsequently died, perhaps from his injuries. The case of Ted Healy’s death is still a mystery, which has not been solved to this day because one of the main witnesses, Sammy Wolfe, seems to have given confusing evidence. (If you like tales of Old Hollywood, you really should read all the posts about this case at The Daily Mirror. It’s a fascinating story.)

Chet Atkins

These days “Dark Eyes” is almost always played by flatpickers, but as this amazing clip of Chet Atkins from the mid-50s shows it makes a great fingerpicking tune as well.

Biréli Lagrène, Stochelo Rosenberg, Dorado Schmitt, Tchavolo Schmitt and Angelo Debarre 

In Europe, Gypsy kids hone their guitar skills learning to play  “Dark Eyes.” After mastering the melody they move on to attempting to get Reinhardt’s solo from the 1947 version under their fingers. As this clip from the 2002 concert DVD Biréli Lagrène & Friends: Live Jazz À Vienne shows, Lagrène and his buddies Stochelo Rosenberg, Dorado Schmitt, Tchavolo Schmitt and Angelo Debarre prove they learned their lessons well.

Lo Han

Most guitar versions of “Dark Eyes” come from either Django’s Gypsy jazz tradition or from the Russian gypsy tradition. This version from Ho Lan shows that the melody works quite well when played in the flamenco style of the Spanish gypsies.

Ivan Rebroff

This live recording of Russian singer Ivan Rebroff from 1968 nicely blends the vocal and guitar traditions of “Dark Eyes.”