Exactly 65 years ago, on Feb. 29, 1940, when the Best Song award was announced during the Academy Award banquet at the Cocoanut Grove, the Oscar audience didn't go "Hunh?" They went hummmmm. Or, rather, "Summmmmm ... where over the rainbow." The winning song had occupied a prominent, oft-played position in one of the previous year's most ballyhooed films, The Wizard of Oz, and was sung by one of Hollywood's rising stars, Judy Garland. The tune had placed four recorded versions at the top of the charts: Glenn Miller's #1, Bob Crosby's #2, Garland's #5 and Larry Clinton's #10. Everybody in the film business, and most people in the country, had heard and loved "Over the Rainbow," and their kin and grand-kinder would not be allowed to forget it.
Indeed, four years ago, when a panel of nabobs from the Recording Industry Association of America chose the 365 songs of the 20th century, "Rainbow" came in first. Yet the press release announcing the "Rainbow" triumph omitted the name of its composer, Harold Arlen, and its lyricist, E.Y. Harburg.
The slight was almost typical, for Arlen, born 100 years ago this month, is probably the most-sung unsung pop composer. He added dozens of standards to the American song book, and deserves automatic admission to the pop pantheon, alongside George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter. None of these songsmiths wrote "Over the Rainbow," or "Come Rain or Come Shine," or "Blues in the Night." Yet they are far more famous. In their own time, they were so renowned that each of them had a cheesy 1940s bio-pic made of his life. Why, then, oh why, didn't Arlen?
The runners-up for Song of the Century were Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," Otis Redding's "Respect" and Don McLean's "American Pie." (The press release didn't name Berlin and Redding either. The reason: the listing was by performer, not composer. So Garland got credit for "Rainbow.") FYI, two other Arlen songs made the list: the Lena Horne rendition of "Stormy Weather" (#26) and Louis Prima and Keely Smith's frenetic, musically astute take on "That Old Black Magic" (#265). That ties him with Berlin and Porter for highest number of individual songs among the classic pop composers. Gershwin's and Rodgers' tallies were diluted by inclusion of whole Broadway scores. (Overall winners, with five, were Burt Bacharach and the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.)
Anyway, our guy's song was #1. On whatever side of the rainbow Arlen now resides he died on April 23, 1986 his shade might have been pleased at the designation. And pleased again by the pretty noises raised in his honor for the celebration of his centenary. From last June through this November, from California to Cardiff, Wales, the music world is singing his praises. Two new CDs are out, one featuring big-band stylings with Arlen's son Sam on tenor sax. (Sam will be performing his dad's songs in a few weeks, March 22-26, at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York.) Yet all this attention only punctured, or maybe I mean punctuated, the genial obscurity of Arlen pere. He remains hardly known to the tens of millions who have been touched, warmed and lifted by his music.
GOOD LUCK, BAD LUCK
Here are ten songs from Harold's hit parade, all written between 1930 and 1935, the year he turned 30. Readers of a certain age will be familiar with them; most you will already have downloaded for life in your internal iPod. Savor the memories: "Get Happy," "Between The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea," "I Love A Parade," "I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues," "I've Got the World on a String," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "Happy as the Day Is Long," "Stormy Weather," "Let's Fall in Love" and the number Frank Sinatra thought so nice he recorded it twice, "Last Night When We Were Young."
Pretty impressive, eh, fellow geezers? It happens that the lyricist for all but two of these songs ("Paper Moon" and "Last Night," both by Harburg) was Ted Koehler, whose name is even less familiar than Arlen's; and that the two wrote many of these hits for revues staged at Harlem's famed Cotton Club, where everyone on stage was black and everyone in the audience was white. It must have pleased the songwriters to hear their numbers performed by the likes of Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters and Lena Horne and played by the house band: Duke Ellington's.
But while Koehler and Arlen were earning their uptown chic, Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira were winning a Pulitzer Prize for the show Of Thee I Sing. Four of Kern's Broadway shows were turned into Hollywood movies, which generated more fame and coin for his catalog with no expenditure of labor. Rodgers and Lorenz Hart had moved to California to write movie songs (like "Isn't It Romantic" and "Mimi" for Love Me Tonight) that were heard instantly in thousands of movie theaters. And Porter had The Gay Divorce on Broadway, with a number, "Night and Day," sung round the world and danced by Fred and Ginger in the film The Gay Divorcee. No Hollywood studio was going to make a movie of a Cotton Club revue. Arlen and Koehler had to be content with the royalties from recorded versions of their tunes.
Over the next decade, Arlen composed hits whose maturity and irresistibility that lodge them securely among the classics. "Over the Rainbow" achieved sustained prominence by the film's frequent network TV airings, as well as by Garland's making it her signature tune and singing it so often it became a joke. (In the 60s, each annual installment of Esquire magazine's Dubious Achievement Awards would keep the mounting tally: "Judy Garland has sung 'Over the Rainbow' 4,362 times.")
In the 40s, Arlen's collaboration with Johnny Mercer produced astonishments at a near-annual rate: "Blues in the Night" in 1941, "That Old Black Magic" in 1942, "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" in 1943, "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" in 1944, "Come Rain or Come Shine" in 1946. But the first four were in mediocre Hollywood musicals, and the last one ornamented the musical play St. Louis Woman, whose short run presaged the trouble Arlen would have writing hit Broadway shows. After that, only two Arlen songs "Hooray for Love" (1948, lyrics by Leo Robin) and "The Man That Got Away" (1954, Ira Gershwin), both for movies secured slots in the all-time juke box.
Chart position isn't the only or smartest argument for a composer's stature. Nor is the ratio of early hits to mature ones. Nor is the longevity of a Broadway show's run. But it is the case that Arlen wrote more evergreens tunes that you (and I) can still hum in his first five years as a professional songwriter than he did in his remaining 35; and that a composer's later songs are less likely to stick in the popular mind if the shows and movies he wrote them for aren't often revived.
Still, a lot of Arlen music did stick and, I suspect, will adhere forever.
Q. What do Elvis Presley, Liberace and Harold Arlen have in common?
A. Each was a twin whose sibling died at birth.
From this haunted start, Hyman Arluck emerged into the world on February 15, 1905, in Buffalo, N.Y. His father Simon was cantor of the Pine Street synagogue, where Hyman sang in the choir. As Edward Jablonski tells the story in his excellent critical biography, Harold Arlen: Rhythm, Rainbows and Blues, father wanted son to follow suit, but the boy dreamed of being a pop vocalist. The plot of The Jazz Singer could have been based on the Arlucks especially when the grown-up Harold fell in love with a Russian Catholic showgirl, Anya Taranda, and married her. A home movie seen in the 1999 TV documentary Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Harold Arlen shows a smiling Anya and, next to her, the mother-in-law, positively glowering in disapproval.
In 1912 Simon and his wife Celia had another son, Julius; later known as Jerry, he would conduct some of his older brother's shows. In the documentary, Jerry's wife Rita said of the Arlucks: "They lived in a black community ... and they were very close to these people, and they were really a part of the family." If it's not literally true, as an early Arlen song says, that "I was born with the blues in my heart," then young Hyman certainly picked it up on the street. Anyway, he imbibed those two musical atmospheres, from the synagogue and the neighborhood, and would expertly fuse them in his music. To do that, for all the world hear him, he had to leave home. Which he planned to do in a hurry. As he later told Ben Bagley, who produced the 1970 LP Harold Arlen Revisited, "To commit suicide in Buffalo would be redundant."
At 15, the singer-pianist formed The Snappy Trio, which soon expanded to a quintet, The Southbound Shufflers. Later he joined the Yankee Six, which was also enlarged, to 11 members, and renamed the Buffalodians. This band toured the East, ending up at the Palace Theatre in New York City. By now Hyman had anglicized his name to Harold; and, taking a syllable from each parent's surname (Arluck, Orlin), he got Arlen.
He still wasn't writing many songs. Remember, he thought of himself as a jazz musician and crooner. "Harold sang like his father," Rita Arlen said, "in falsetto" but with a southbound intonation. His tenor voice is thin, lacy; it wobbles as it warbles. That's not from timidity. Arlen, facing the mic, has the confidence of a showman who knows he can get an audience's attention by whispering, and can pour out a man's sorrows while sounding almost like a girl.
We know Arlen's vocal personality because he often performed in public, and in the early 30s recorded some of his own tunes. (There's one example on The Song Is Harold Arlen, the best Arlen compilation I've found.) And they were hits. Arlen's rendition of "Let's Fall in Love" went to #19, "You're a Builder Upper" to #6, "Ill Wind (You're Blowin' Me No Good") to #3 and "Stormy Weather" all the way to #1.
In those days, the phrase singer-songwriter was virtually an oxymoron. Kern, Rodgers, Sigmund Romberg all stayed behind the scenes. It's true that George M. Cohan, as the star, author and composer of his shows, enjoyed many hit records, by himself and others, a generation before Arlen. And in 1945, Mercer recorded two #1 songs for which he had written the lyrics: the Arlen collaboration "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" and "The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe," with music by Harry Warren. (At the same time, Hoagy Carmichael had a #1 song, "Huggin' and Chalkin'," but he didn't write it.) So far as I can tell, in the decades between Cohan and Mercer, only Arlen sang one of his own tunes to the top of the charts.
To sing his own hits, though, he would first have to write some.