This was Dorothy's breakthrough number.
The tune was used in one of Fields' and McHugh's earliest collaborations,
but was unpublished, and Dorothy wrote new lyrics for the music
to provide a number for Delmar's Revels
(in either 1927 or 1928). Some sources say that the original song
was a tribute to the superstar aviator Charles Lindbergh entitled
I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Lindy.
However, this doesn't seem to tie in with a story Dorothy told later,
involving her overhearing the conversation of a poor black couple
gazing at the stylish and expensive jewellery on offer in Tiffany's
display window. Apparently the man said "Gee honey, I can't
give you anything but love."
Whatever the original was, the staging of the revised song in Delmar's
Revels was a couple of poor kids sitting on the front steps
of a tenement building. The unknown actors were Bert Lahr and Patsy
Kelly, and he sang the song to her. Harry Delmar hated the song
and insisted it be removed from the show after the first night!
However Fields and McHugh clearly believed in it, for they included
it in several songs provided for Lew Leslie's Blackbirds
of 1928 at the Liberty Theatre. Not everybody liked it -
one critic called it "a sickly, puerile song"-
but its detractors were vastly outnumbered by its admirers, and
the sheet music and a recorded version by Cliff Edwards were massive
As is often the case the opening verse is not well known, being
omitted from many recordings. And I'm not aware of any recordign
that includes the second version of the verse, clearly to be sung
by the girl to reassure her cash-strapped beau. Both verses are
| Gee, but it's tough to be broke, kid,
It's not a joke, kid, it's a curse.
My luck is changing, it's gotten,
From something rotten,
To something worse.
Who knows some day I will win too,
I'll begin to reach my prime.
Now though, I see what our end is,
All I can spend is just my time.
Rome wasn't built in a day, kid,
You have to pay, kid, for what you get;
But I am willing to wait, dear;
Your little mate, dear, will not forget;
You have a lifetime before you,
I'll adore you, come what may;
Please don't be blue for the
When it's so pleasant, to hear you say:
And after the verse, we launch into that so familiar refrain with
its charming and effortless use of colloquialisms - everyday speech
set perfectly to music. Words and phrases like it's
tough, kid, you
know darned well, and Gee, I'd like to
see you looking swell, baby flow beautifully, communicating
easily and directly with the listener.
Louis Armstrong's version of the song is very enjoyable - but it's
all about Louis and Louis' style.
Cliff Edwards delivered the breakthrough recording in 1928 and
it's great - the first verse is included and his distinctive earnest
voice is just right for the song.
Barbara Cook does a beautiful slow and lazy and intimate version
with a long, drawn-out final "loooooooove".
In the movies, Lena Horne performed a wildly inappropriate version
in Stormy Weather. In a shimmering
gown, sporting jewels and with a legion of nattily suited chorus
boys, she looks like she could give considerably more than love.
More famously, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant sang the song to
the leopard Baby in Bringing Up Baby.
Finally a comment from Dorothy Fields' son, David Lahm:
" While I think it's pointless trying to identify the best
song ever written in this American style we call "standards".
I don't believe there's a more beloved song than I
Can't Give You Anything But Love. I have played this song
many times to those in their 80s and 90s and it's as if this song
has given validation and confirmation to many memories - or taken
the place of memories of when they were young, optimistic and the
light of someone's life. It's as if someone understands what it's
like to look so far behind themselves in search of what they once
were. I think that person who understands is my mother."