U2 – Angel of Harlem

This song has an old feel and a lot of power. It was on the Rattle and Hum album. I’ve talked to many U2 fans who don’t like the album a lot but it was a favorite of mine at the time. It broke a little from their previous albums. The Edge backed off the reverb some on this album.

The “Angel of Harlem” is Billie Holiday, a Jazz singer who moved to Harlem as a teenager in 1928. She played a variety of nightclubs and became famous for her spectacular voice and ability to move her audience to tears. She dealt with racism, drug problems, and bad relationships for most of her life, and her sadness was often revealed in her songs. She died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1959 at age 44.

The song peaked at #14 in the Billboard 100 and #9 in the UK in 1989. Rattle and Hum peaked at #1 in the Billboard 200 in 1988. The album had live and studio cuts included and a film.

Angel of Harlem was recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis.

From Songfacts

Billy Holiday’s nickname was “Lady Day.” That’s where they got the line, “Lady Day got diamond eyes, she sees the truth behind the lies.”

This is a tribute to the blues, jazz and gospel music U2 heard while touring America.

U2 recorded this at Sun Studios in Memphis while the band was touring the US in 1987. It features the Memphis Horns, who recorded on many of the blues and soul classics recorded there.

This was produced by “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who worked with Sam Phillips at Sun Studios in the ’50s before moving to Nashville and working with a variety of Country singers. When U2 asked him to work on this album, he had never even heard of them, but fortunately some of his friends were familiar with U2 and made it clear to Clement that working with them would be a good career move. By using Clement, U2 was able to recreate the famous Sun Studios’ sound they were looking for.

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 track.

This was used in the U2 documentary Rattle And Hum, which followed the band on their 1987-1988 tour of North America.

U2 played this live for the first time at the Smile Jamaica concert on October 16, 1988 in London, a benefit for the victims of Hurricane Gilbert. >>

The band was inspired by their first trip to New York City. “I wrote about it in a song. ‘Angel of Harlem,'” Bono explains in the book U2 by U2. “We landed in JFK and we were picked up in a limousine. We had never been in a limousine before, and with the din of punk rock not yet faded from our ears, there was a sort of guilty pleasure as we stepped into the limousine. Followed by a sly grin, as you admit to yourself this is fun. We crossed Triborough Bridge and saw the Manhattan skyline. The limo driver was black and he had the radio tuned to WBLS, a black music station. Billie Holiday was singing. And there it was, city of blinding lights, neon hearts. They were advertising in the skies for people like us, as London had the year before.”

During the recording session, Bono learned the important lesson that alcohol and horn players do not mix. “I thought I would lighten the session up, so I sent out for a case of Absolut Vodka. I was giving it to the horn players and we were all having a little laugh and Cowboy came up to me. Cowboy was a guy who knew how to get into trouble but he also knew when not to get into trouble. He said, ‘Bono, how long you been doing this?’ I said, ‘Ten years, nearly.’ He said, ‘Ten years and you don’t know not to give the horn section Absolut Vodka? You can give it to anybody else but you can’t give a horn section Absolut.’ I asked, ‘Why, particularly, the horn section?’ Cowboy said, ‘Listen, stupid, you try playing a horn when your lips won’t work.’

Angel of Harlem

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

New York, like a Christmas tree
Tonight this city belongs to me

Soul love, this love won’t let me go
So long, angel of Harlem

Birdland on fifty three
The street sounds like a symphony
We got John Coltrane and a love supreme
Miles, and she’s got to be an angel

Lady Day got diamond eyes
She sees the truth behind the lies

Soul love this love won’t let me go
So long angel of Harlem
Angel of Harlem

She says it’s heart, heart and soul
Yeah yeah (yeah)
Yeah yeah (right now)

Blue light on the avenue
God knows they got to you
An empty glass, the lady sings
Eyes swollen like a bee sting
Blinded you lost your way
Through the side streets and the alleyway
Like a star exploding in the night
Falling to the city in broad daylight
An angel in Devil’s shoes
Salvation in the blues
You never looked like an angel
Yeah yeah angel of Harlem

Angel angel of Harlem
Angel angel of Harlem
Angel angel of Harlem
Angel angel of Harlem

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

18 thoughts on “U2 – Angel of Harlem”

  1. I like U2 paying tribute to Billie Holiday- and recording at the birthplace of Rock and Roll- Sun Studios– also on that album having B.B. King on “When Love Comes To Town” and I like their stealing Helter Skelter back from Charles Manson.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Cool! Good song, good album…not my fave from U2 but better than many thought. I knew Holliday was an influence on the sound but didn’ t know it was specifically about her.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. True. We saw them a couple of years ago, and they were very, very good, but they were also very over the top. they’ve gone way to commercial and political. I want to hear their music, I don;t care about the rest.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I traveled to Birmingham Alabama from Nashville to see them in the early 90s…they were really good then. I haven’t seen them since.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Me also…I LOVE those horns in the background. Rattle and Hum remains probably my favorite U2 album…it’s not their best but I connect with it.

      Liked by 1 person

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