Theatre yesterday and today



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Harold Arlen, honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1996

as part of the Great American Composers series.

Called “the most original of all of us’’ by George Gershwin, composer Harold Arlen was a master of the blues and jazzy rhythms of Harlem and the south. Songs like “Blues in the Night,” “Stormy Weather,” “That Old Black Magic,’ “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive’’ and ‘’The Man that Got Away,” are only five of the five hundred to which he is credited. So how did Hyman Arluck, the Jewish son of a cantor in Buffalo, New York come to be one of the most important contributors to the Great American Songbook? Read on in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”

I’m two days late for the 116th birthday of Harold Arlen (born Hyman Arluck on February 15, 1905), whose compositions for film and theatre endure to this day. It was his belief that songs didn’t so much as flow out of him as given to him — a gift from God — which makes sense, what with him being the son of a deeply religious man. According to biographer Walter Rimler, “it was his job, once the main idea came, to work hard on them, to make them as good as he could. But the initial idea, he believed, came from some other place.” As one example, Arlen was stuck when it came time to write The Wizard of Oz’s major ballad, and it was only while driving down Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles, with his wife behind the wheel, that he told her to pull over.

“Out of the blue came the entire melody,” Rimler states. “He always kept with him a sheet of music paper that he called his jot book. He pulled it out. He had a pencil. He wrote it down. And we have ‘Over the Rainbow’ as a result.” Arlen later said it was the automobile horns in heavy traffic that gave him the inspiration.

As a Jew in Buffalo growing up in a mixed neighborhood, Arlen was drawn to jazz and gospel music. He played piano at a local burlesque house while still a teenager and competed at amateur nights with his original material. By his early twenties, he had already gotten his first song published. Only this did not please his parents. A family friend, Jack Yellon (who wrong the song “Happy Days are Here Again,” among many others), was invited to “talk sense” into the boy. After hearing Arlen play, Yellon delivered the sobering news to the cantor: his son was going to be a musician like his old man — “just different music.”

Hyman Arluck, the year of his bar mitzvah (1918).

Dropping out of high school, Arlen went to New York City to ply his trade as a songwriter. He found the creative atmosphere of Harlem, specifically the music coming out of the Cotton Club, most hospitable to his sensibilities (he would eventually become the club’s staff composer). By age twenty-five, while mostly serving as an accompanist, he was also steadily writing his own songs. It wasn’t long before he struck it big with “Get Happy,” an instant popular hit.

Over time, his surging rhythms had him tailoring songs in films and stage musicals for great African-American artists like Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. With St. Louis Woman, which opened on Broadway in 1946, Arlen’s keen ear provided astoundingly great musical numbers for the all-African American cast, and they found their perfect match in the engaging wordplay of lyricist Johnny Mercer, a native son of Savannah, Georgia. Among the songs they wrote for the show were “Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home,” “I Had Myself a True Love,” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

Second only to Irving Berlin in the number of credits listed in the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Biographical Dictionary, his 1986 obituary in the New York Times claimed that more than 35 of the 500-odd songs whose music he [Arlen] wrote had become what musicians call ‘standards’ — that is, pieces of music that the musicians retain in their repertories year after year.” And what sort of standards? In addition to the ten already cited, how about these additional five? “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” ‘’Let’s Fall in Love,” “One for My Baby” — even “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”

There are plenty more. And Arlen had a thoroughly original singing voice (perhaps inherited from his father) which I offer here as an example of how he could sell his own tunes as well (or possibly better) than those great recording artists who continue to sing his songs: