Song: Angel of Harlem by U2

 Place: Harlem, New York

Birdland Jazz Club
Lyrics passage It was a cold and wet December day
When we touched the ground at JFK
Snow was melting on the ground
on BLS I heard the sound of an angel.
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Birdland Jazz ClubBirdland Jazz Club Birdland at its current location; thanks, Magnus ManskeBirdland at its current location; thanks, Magnus Manske
There have been innumerable bands started up by middle school kids. Most often these just seem to fade away. Members graduate and move on. This seems to be the way. Every now and then, however, a band will make it through intact. They may even go on to stardom. A very select few even reach superstardom in their own country.

It is the rarest few that reach the level of achievement enjoyed by the Irish band U2. This world famous band is fronted by lead singer Bono and supported by The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. When the band first formed in 1976, none of the teens had much musical training. Today they are guaranteed to sell out venues in a mere heartbeat.

Interestingly, this middle school band from Dublin was not influenced solely by UK music of the day. Just by listening to their songs you can almost taste the flavors of their other musical influences. One such song is "Angel of Harlem." This song brings on the almost overwhelming sense of being in a different place at a different time.

The song itself is an ode to one of the jazz greats, Billie Holiday. Portrayed by Diana Ross as a passive victim in Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday in life was a force something the jazz world had never encountered. Growing up in Baltimore in the '20s, Eleanora Fagan was exposed to the richness of the local jazz scene from the start. Her transition from observer into active participant came by way of after-hours nightclubs, where she sang along to the tunes of established greats such as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.

It wasn't until she floated down upon New York with her legendary voice that people began taking real notice. Re-christened as Billie Holiday, hopping from club to obscure club in Harlem, enveloping smoke drenched rooms and transcending patrons for short periods of time with the intensity of her performance, she was spotted by John Hammond who guided her to her first recording as part of Benny Goodman's group. From there, her destiny was cut - literally - in the grooves of vinyl.

After a string of hit recordings, in 1938 she became one of nation's first black women to work with a white orchestra, an impressively lofty accomplishment for the time. But then, Lady Day - as she was famously nicknamed - never tired of doing things others said shouldn't be done. Consider "Strange Fruit," a Holiday classic recounting the lynching of a black man. Her label, Columbia, refused to allow her to record it, so Holiday marched over to Commodore and did it anyway, thus throwing open the door for her many emotional - and yes, sometimes controversial - ballads to come.

It is this spirit that U2 captures with "Angel of Harlem": "Lady Day got diamond eyes/She sees the truth behind the lies… angel…"

Outside of the luminescent Holiday, the song also talks about many of the famous landmarks and other people associated with the Golden Age of Harlem. With all of the jazz inspired horns playing in the background of the song, it is easy to imagine yourself there. The lyrics being sung by Bono elicit an almost smoky feel, as if you are sitting at a table in the Birdland.

This jazz club was opened by Morris and Irving Levy who named the club after Charlie "Bird" Parker, the famous jazz saxophonist. Many jazz musicians went on to do their recordings in the club itself. These included such greats as John Coltrane and Miles Davis, who are both referenced in U2's song.

With the feeling that you get from "Angel of Harlem," you can bet that Bono and crew would have been right up in the middle of Birdland. They would not have found themselves in poor company, either, since, along with Billie Holiday, musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, and Thelonious Monk hung out at Birdland.

Famous people like Marilyn Monroe and Gary Cooper began to frequent the club. Even Sammy Davis Jr. played a few gigs there. Eventually Birdland began to fade away, with its original location closing in 1965. Since that time, the club has enjoyed a revival of sorts. It reopened at a new location in 1986 and has since moved to even another. It continues to live on in music and other pop references as well, which brings us back to U2 and "Angel of Harlem."

U2 has benefited from the influence of so many greats. Just as the famous jazz and blues scene left its mark on the Birdland jazz club, it also left its mark on groups like U2. As Bono and crew advanced in their musical career, they began to show more and more of these influences in their music. From their album Boy (1980), with its feelings of adolescent angst and dreams, to their worldwide chart busting Joshua Tree (1987), and Achtung Baby (1991), U2 continued to break into new territory.

They have played sold-out venues of all types and sizes around the world. While they sing of the "Angel of Harlem," the true angels may just be themselves. The band is committed to a massive amount of charity work, both as a group and individually. They support such groups as Amnesty International and Self Aid. They have spoken and sung out against the Bosnian War and spoken up on behalf of the children affected by the Chernobyl incident. As it stands, it looks as if these angels of the music world are here to stay.
~ Cenarth Fox
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COMMENTS: 1

Erica a rodriguez lodise from phillyI love this song
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 Video: Angel of Harlem


 Place: Harlem, New York


 SongFacts


Song : Angel Of Harlem

The line "On BLS I heard the sound..." refers to New York radio station WBLS, where U2 heard the Blues and Soul music that influenced this.

Album : Rattle And Hum
Released : 1988
US chart position : 14
UK chart position : 9

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