Chester Design Associates, Chicago
Harold Arlen (1905–1986) broke through when Hollywood songwriter Harry Warren (“Chattanooga Choo-Choo”) heard him improvise on the piano and advised him to turn a certain riff into a song. Warren said he knew just the right wordsmith: Ted Koehler. Warren was right. The song was “Get Happy,” the year was 1929, and Arlen and Koehler were a natural team. They succeeded Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields at the Cotton Club, where they turned out two shows a year from 1930 to 1934. Arlen and Koehler wrote “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and soaked up more than just the ambiance of the legendary club where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway performed.
Arlen was jazz crazy. Ethel Waters, who sang Arlen’s songs when both worked at the Cotton Club, said that Harold was “the Negro-est” white man she knew. He composed the signature songs of Lena Horne (“Stormy Weather”) and Judy Garland (“Over the Rainbow”). The Wizard of Oz, which he wrote with the lyricist Yip Harburg, was his greatest popular triumph. With Harburg he also wrote “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and a ballad Sinatra turned into pure gold: “Last Night When We Were Young.” Arlen’s masterly collaborations with Johnny Mercer, starting with “Blues in the Night” in 1941, made him the natural heir to Gershwin as a composer of jazz songs.
Arlen’s love of jazz was matched by his debt to the Jewish liturgy. For Arlen, a Louis Armstrong “hot lick” on the cornet was the nearest thing to his father’s chanting in Temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse, New York. “I don’t know how the hell to explain it,” he said, “but I hear in jazz and in gospel my father singing.” Unlike Al Jolson’s cantor father in The Jazz Singer, the Warner Brothers’ celebrated “talkie” of 1927, Arlen’s papa liked his son’s secular songs so much he sometimes sang the Sabbath prayers to the tune of “Over the Rainbow” or “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
Panel photo captions:
Yellow brick road scene from The Wizard of Oz, Courtesy of MGM/Photofest ©MGM. Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Judy Garland, and Bert Lahr are off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz.
Harold Arlen (right) and Yip Harburg, Courtesy of Photofest. Arlen and Harburg collaborated on songs as various as “Paper Moon,” “Last Night When We Were Young,” and “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” who “has eyes that folks adore so, / And a torso even more so.”
Poster for Stormy Weather, Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Pictures/Photofest ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Lena Horne’s performance of the title song is a highlight of this 1943 movie from Twentieth Century Fox based loosely on the career of the dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Lee Wiley, and Frank Sinatra are among other singers with memorable covers of the song.
Lena Horne sings “Stormy Weather”, Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Television/Photofest ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. This Arlen and Koehler masterpiece begins dramatically with what the composer called a “front shout” of dejection: “Don’t know why / There’s no sun up in the sky.”
“I hear America singing,” Walt Whitman wrote. People will always want to hear the songs Americans sang during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and on into the prosperous postwar era that lasted until the war in Vietnam polarized the nation in the 1960s. When rock-and-roll vanquished swing and syncopation, and television defeated radio for home entertainment dominance, the glory days of the great American popular song were over. But though no longer ubiquitous, the songs of Kern, Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Arlen, et al. do more than survive—their genius has made them immortal.
Without pretension the songs chronicle our culture and our history. A song could offer solace to an unemployed worker in the 1930s (“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”) or to the lonely on the home front in World War II (“Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night in the Week”). It could convey euphoria (“I Got Rhythm”), narrate a tale of revenge (“Goody, Goody”), provide a postmortem on an affair that’s over (“Thanks for the Memory”), lift spirits (“On the Sunny Side of the Street”), celebrate a city (“My Kind of Town”), seduce a lover (“All the Way”). More than anything else, the American songbook is a testament to the genius of our composers and lyricists—and a monument to the idea of the American romance as conceived and celebrated by Jewish songwriters who captured the feeling stated in the title of a Rodgers and Hart song: “Falling in Love with Love.”
Panel photo caption:
Detail from group photograph taken at the convention of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, September 24, 1940. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, Atlanta, GA. Third and fourth from the left are Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern (glasses), arms linked. At the extreme right stands Leo Robin, who wrote the words for the Oscar-winning “Thanks for the Memory,” Bob Hope’s signature song.
Arlen, Harold, 1905-1986, Koehler, Ted, 1894-1973, Fields, Dorothy, 1905-1974, Harburg, E. Y. (Edgar Yipsel), 1896-1981, Mercer, Johnny, 1909-1976, Gershwin, George, 1898-1937, Jolson, Al, d. 1950, Kern, Jerome, 1885-1945, Berlin, Irving, 1888-1989, Gershwin, Ira, 1896-1983, Rodgers, Richard, 1902-1979, Hart, Lorenz, 1895-1943