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Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa painting, Ray Evans and Jay Livingston (who also wrote “Silver Bells,” “Buttons and Bows,” and “Que Sera Sera”) penned this tune about her “mystic smile,” TY pondering if it was intended to “tempt a lover or to hide a broken heart.” TY
The song was used in the 1949 movie Captain Carey, U.S.A. starring Alan Ladd. In the movie a street musician was to play a specific melody to warn when the Germans were coming. SF The few fragments of “Mona Lisa” featured in the movie were in Italian, TY but it was enough to merit an Academy Award win for Best Song in 1950.
Of course, the song is most strongly associated with Nat “King” Cole. JA He only agreed to record the song after the writers practically begged him. TY Nelson Riddle arranged the song and Les Baxter’s Orchestra provided the orchestral backing. WK The result was one of the ten best sellers of the first half of the century PM and a #1 hit on the Billboard pop and R&B charts as well as Cashbox and Your Hit Parade.
It became an instant standard – nine versions of the song charted in 1950 alone. Victor Young, Harry James, Art Lund, Ralph Flanagan, Charlie Spivak, and Dennis Day all hit the pop charts with it and Moon Mullican and Jimmy Wakely took it to the top ten of the country charts. In 1959, Conway Twitty recorded a version initially intended only as an album cut, but it got enough attention it was released as a single WK which went top 25 in the U.S. and hit #5 in the U.K. That year, Sun Records’ Sam Phillips also signed Carl Mann to record a rockabilly version. WK It reached the top 25 on the pop and R&B charts. Three decades later, Willie Nelson just missed the top ten on the country charts with his #11 version. Harry Connick Jr., Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Me First & the Gimme Gimmes, The Neville Brothers, Elvis Presley, Shakin’ Stevens, and Cole’s daughter Natalie all recorded the song as well. WK
In 1954, the song plays in the background of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the song resurfaced again as the theme to the 1986 British film Mona Lisa. WK
Resources and Related Links:
- DMDB page for “Mona Lisa”
- Nat King Cole’s DMDB Music Maker Encyclopedia entry
- JA David A. Jasen. (2002). A Century of American Popular Music: 2000 Best-Loved and Remembered Songs (1899-1999). Routledge: Taylor & Francis, Inc. Page 135.
- SF Songfacts.com
- TY Don Tyler (1985). Hit Parade 1920-1955. New York, NY: Quill. Page 143.
- PM Joel Whitburn (1986). Pop Memories 1890-1954. Menomonee Falls, WI; Record Research, Inc. Page 631.
- WK Wikipedia.org