February 22, 2010

“Take Five” Has Lyrics?

Many would consider it sacrilege to put lyrics to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s classic “Take Five,” a tune from the best-selling 1959 album Time Out that practically defined jazz for many people at the time. The single of “Take Five” was an amazing commercial success, the first million-selling jazz single on the Billboard charts. This was completely unexpected. Paul Desmond, who composed the song, said that “Take Five” was never meant to be a big hit - it was primarily supposed to be a vehicle for a Joe Morello drum solo.
     The instrumental version is so ubiquitous, and the 5/4 time of the song so distinct, that it’s difficult to even imagine it sung with lyrics. So, who would do such a thing? Dave Brubeck, of course. As “Take Five” was topping the charts in 1961, Brubeck and his wife, Iola, came up with the lyrics for a live performance by Carmen McRae at Basin Street East in New Orleans. And she apparently had to sing it without rehearsal. “When Carmen sang ‘Take Five,’ there weren’t many vocalists singing in 5/4 times and she had no time to prepare for that either,” recalled Brubeck. “It was just put in front of her and ‘sing this.’ That took a lot of nerve and talent. Maybe I should put ‘talent’ first.”
     This version is an absolute delight. The lyrical story presents a woman who has been trying to get the attention of a man without much success. She is rather fed up with his passivity, shyness, or inaction. McRae is the perfect singer for this, her voice edged with weary sarcasm as she beseeches her pathetic object of affection. Here, then, are the lyrics to “Take Five.”

     Won’t you stop and take a little time out with me, just take five.

     Stop your busy day and take the time out to see I’m alive.

     Though I’m going out of my way, just so I can pass by each day, 

     not a single word do we say, it’s a pantomime and not a play. 

     Still I know our eyes often meet, I feel tingles down to my feet,
     when you smile that’s much too discrete, sends me on my way.

     Wouldn’t it be better not to be so polite? You could offer a light.

     Start a little conversation now, it’s alright, just take five, just take five.

     The song originally appeared on the Columbia album Take Five: Live at the Basin Street East (which is still available as an import, I believe) and is included on Brubeck’s compilation album Vocal Encounters. You can also hear this vocal version on YouTube.


  1. Yeah John, nice post...informative.

    Here's a link to a rare TV video of Al Jarreau's take on "Take Five".

    All the best,


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  3. Thanks for posting about this. "Take Five" is a great example of a piece that didn't need lyrics, but certainly HAS great lyrics.

    Nice to hear the story behind how those lyrics came to be.