My first reaction to this 1947 tune by Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke was much the same as that described by Mark Steyn: "For a long time, I used to blow hot and cold on Midnight Sun. ..... But Hamp's theme is so confidently beguiling, you want the lyric to work." The theme is repetitious, and there are versions where I don't think it is lifted beyond that, but clearly there is something 'beguiling' about it and a reason why it has become a jazz 'standard'.
The lyrics were added later by Johnny Mercer. The story goes that he heard the tune on his car radio while driving to Los Angeles. In his article on Midnight Sun, Mark Steyn describes how: "One day in 1954 Johnny Mercer was driving from Palm Springs to Hollywood when, midway through the desert, he heard an instrumental that caught his fancy. So he pulled into a gas station and called the radio station. He told them who he was and then asked if they'd mind playing the tune again. Which would be a problem today when it's all programmed by a computer thousands of miles away three months in advance, but things were different then. "I love it," Mercer told the station, and asked them if it had a name. It did: "Midnight Sun". So, when the disc-jockey played it a second time, Mercer knew the tune already had a title. Which, if you're sitting in your car on the California freeway and figuring you'll write a lyric to pass the time, ought to be a big help. Except that the midnight sun is such a particular situation, it's hard to figure it'd be much use in a love song. That's not how Mercer saw it, though. "The first thing I thought of with 'Midnight Sun' was 'aurora borealis'," he said. "I heard it in the music. It fit the music. I thought, well, what rhymes with aurora borealis?" And, if you're on the freeway, you can't consult a rhyming dictionary. Nevertheless, from somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind, he worked out the answer." 'The clouds were like an alabaster palace'.
Our first take is the original instrumental. Here is a video of Lionel Hampton playing his tune in the 1950s.
There are many versions of the song with lyrics. For me they require a singer who has the ability to turn the song into something special. When I first heard it, the singer was Ella Fitzgerald and you can listen to her singing it here. But for our second take we go to a video of Midnight Sun sung by Al Jarreau at the Estival Jazz Festival in 2006. Here is a singer who can really work the lyrics. You might well have a different favourite version of Midnight Sun, but try this:
Listen to it here: