Harold Arlen: Tunesmith

It’s bewildering that we haven’t yet done a post on Harold Arlen (Hyman Arluck, 1905-1986) this late in the game, given that he wrote some of my (and America’s) favorite songs. To quote his rival Cole Porter, let’s chalk it up to being “Just One of Those Things”. I think perhaps I didn’t know about Arlen’s vaudeville background, our original purview here. But it turns out he had one, so here we go! (We would have gone ahead anyway)

The son of a Buffalo cantor, Arlen started out a piano player in vaudeville houses, as a solo accompanist and with bands. In his early years (throughout the ’20s) he played with combos with names like Hyman Arluck’s Snappy Trio, the Southbound Shufflers, and the Buffalodians. By mid-decade he was based out of NYC, and towards the end of the ’20s he had begun to write songs, mostly in collaboration with Ted Koehler. Their first hit was “Get Happy”. A measure of how popular this tune was is that it was used in close to a dozen movies in the early ’30s. Another measure is the fact that YOU undoubtedly know it, and its 90 years old!

In 1930, two big things happened to raise his profile. One, he began to write songs for original shows at the legendary Cotton Club, which he through 1934. Fruit of this residency included “I Love a Parade” (1931),  “I’ve Got the World on a String” (1932), “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (1932) ,”Stormy Weather” introduced there in 1933 by Ethel Waters, and “Ill Wind”, introduced there by Adelaide Hall the following year.

Secondly, he began to write for Broadway. Shows he contributed to in the early ’30s included Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1930 and 1932 editions), You Said It (1931), Americana (1932), George White’s Music Hall Varieties (1932-33), and Life Begins at 8:40 (1934-35) with Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr, with whom he would soon work on a creation all three of their names would be forever linked with, and I should hope you know what that is. Popular songs of this period include”Let’s Fall in Love” (1933) and “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (1933, co-written with Yip Harburg and Billy Rose).

In the mid ’30s he went out to Hollywood, a hugely productive time, during which his main songwriting partner became Yip Harburg. During this period he wrote the tunes for the movies Strike Me Pink (1936) with Eddie Cantor; The Singing Kid (1936) with Al Jolson; the classic Warner Brothers animated short I Like to Singa; Stage Struck (1936 ), a Busby Berkley effort with Dick Powell and Joan Blondell; and Gold Diggers of 1937. At the same time, there were two more Broadway shows, The Show is On (1936-37) and Hooray for What (1937). Then came the films The Wizard of Oz (1939), and the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939), for which he and Harburg wrote “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”.

In the ’40s his principal collaborator was Johnny Mercer, with whom he penned “Blues in the Night” (1941). “That Old Black Magic” (1942), and “Accentuate the Positive” (1944). His later Broadway shows included Bloomer Girl (1946-47, with Harburg), St Louis Woman (1946, with Mercer) , House of Flowers (1954-55, with Truman Capote),  Jamaica (1957-59, with Harbug), and Saratoga (1959-60, with Mercer). Later films included My Blue Heaven (1949, with Ralph Blane), The Farmer Takes a Wife (1952, with Dorothy Fields), A Star is Born (1954, with Ira Gershwin, he wrote the song “The Man That Got Away”) and the animated feature Gay Purr-ee (1962, with Harburg).

Other stage and screen stars who interpreted his work in concert, on record, or in musical film shorts and features included Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Harry Richman, Cab Calloway, Red Nichols, Phil Spitalny, and Freddie Martin, and a gazillion others. And above all, Judy Garland, star of The Wizard of Oz, A Star is Born, and Gay Purr-ee!

To find out more about the history of vaudeville and its veterans such as Harold Arlen, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous