Today is the birthday of one of the great Tin Pan Alley songwriters, Irving Caesar (Isidore Caesar, 1895-1996). Raised on the Lower East Side, his father was a socialist lawyer who ran a bookshop. Caesar received musical training as a youth, attended a Quaker boarding school and had a year at City College before getting a job on Henry Ford’s goodwill “Peace Ship” during World War I.
Thus, his entree into show business was unusual; neither poverty nor vaudeville were his pathway in. In 1918 some of his songs were used in the Raymond Hitchcock show Hitchy-Koo and thus began his career. He wrote tunes for dozens of Broadway shows through 1943, including No,No, Nanette; Pins and Needles and several editions of George White’s Scandals and the Greenwich Village Follies. Primarily a lyricist, he usually wrote in collaboration with tunesmiths like George Gershwin and Vincent Youmans. Of Caesar’s 700 some-odd songs, many have become among America’s best-known, including “Swanee”, “I Want to be Happy”, “Tea for Two” and “Just a Gigolo”. The latter tune was covered by David Lee Roth in the 1980s. As a result, I had the strange experience of first being introduced to Irving Caesar when Caesar was a guest on the David Letterman Show! He was about 90 years old at the time, and Dave treated him with characteristic dismissiveness and disrespect — just some old coot, apparently, for the audience to laugh at.
This interview, conducted in 1972 by Ian Whitcomb, is somewhat more rewarding:
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc