If American Popular Song had its own Mount Rushmore, George Washington’s place would be filled by Irving Berlin, the “father” of the songbook. Oscar Hammerstein II would fill the slot occupied by Abe Lincoln; the man who penned the words that tell us who we are and what it all means. Cole Porter would play Teddy Roosevelt’s part; he added soul and took us places we didn’t realize were so important and so beautiful.
You’ll notice we skipped Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was there at the beginning, and then he saw it through the formative years. He knew the importance of it all, and wrote the words that defined America. He also understood the importance and qualities of the black man long before others did. In a way, Jefferson was a bit of the other three all rolled in one. His counterpart in the pantheon of American Popular Song can only be assigned to Harold Arlen.
Arlen doesn’t quite harken back to the earliest days, when Berlin first melded “jass,” operetta, and folk music into pop. But he was certainly on hand to wean the genre, forming his first band in 1920 and publishing his first song in 1924. This was done as Harold Arluck, as Arlen’s birth name was Chaim Arluck. He took his stage name in 1928, and within a year was performing on Broadway.
The son of a Cantor, Arlen was a singer/pianist and performer first, songwriter second. After composing his first hit “Get Happy” in 1929, the roles began to reverse. The song featured catchy lyrics by Ted Koehler, and was an immediate sensation. “Get Happy” became an early standard, and was such a standard that the definitive version wasn’t recorded until Judy Garland featured it in concerts beginning in 1950. Today it remains closely associated with Garland.
Arlen’s work with Koehler resulted in a string of hit songs for stage, screen, and recordings. Some of their most notable collaborations are as follows: “I’ve Got the World on a String,” which was a massive hit for both Cab Calloway and Bing Crosby in 1933, and has since gone on to be identified with Frank Sinatra. “Let’s Fall in Love” was introduced the same year; a hit for Eddie Duchin.
Arguably the pair’s most memorable hit was “Stormy Weather,” which was also from 1933. Performed by vocalist Ethel Waters at the Cotton Club, “Stormy Weather” pushed the envelope of popular song with its black blues undertone. Arlen was in fact a fixture at the Cotton Club during this time, which was one of the most important stages on the planet. In addition to regulars like Louis Armstrong, Calloway and Waters, the Cotton Club featured the top white entertainers of the time. The energy level was intense, and Arlen’s song output was prodigious.
Along with Koehler, Arlen collaborated with Yip Harburg during his Cotton Club tenure. Probably the best known song from this period is “It’s only a Paper Moon,” which would be a massive hit for two decades, and later strike again as the title song of a 1973 hit film of the same name. His association with Harburg at this time led to some songs written with Ira Gershwin; the standard “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block” from 1934.
In 1935 Arlen headed to California, under contract to movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. Arlen embraced the Hollywood lifestyle, marrying starlet Anya Taranda in 1937. The couple defied typical Hollywood odds, however, remaining married until Taranda died of a brain tumor in 1970. Their marriage truly was “for better or worse,” as Anya suffered a breakdown during the 1950s and spent years in a sanitarium. Arlen was thoroughly devoted throughout the difficult period. Their marriage was so consuming that by all accounts Arlen lost his zest for life after her death. He became reclusive at age 65, stopped writing songs, and generally withdrew into his New York city home for the last 16 years of his life.
That brief biographical sidebar is essential to understanding the psyche of Harold Arlen; it helps to gain better insight into his most important work. So now we’ll turn back to Hollywood circa 1937…
So what was this most important work? Why, “Over the Rainbow,” of course. In 1938 Arlen teamed again with Yip Harburg to develop the songs for a phantasmagorical musical adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Oz was a series of books penned by Frank L. Baum at the turn of the century; these books could be considered the “Harry Potter” of the day. The movie version differed substantially from the story, and although there had been a very successful stage version of Wizard of Oz in 1902, none of those songs had any staying power and were more or less forgotten by 1938.
So with a fresh canvas to work on, Arlen and Harburg worked with screenwriter Noel Langley, and then later with writers Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf, who finalized the script. This collaboration with Harburg resulted in well-known classics like “If I Only Had a Brain” and “Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead!” The most important song is “Over the Rainbow,” which incredibly, was nearly cut from the final film.
“Rainbow” is arguably the best known tune in the Great American Songbook. The mood is a perfect blend of deep love and longing, wonderment at the future, fear and optimism. The music is a roller coaster of melody, point and counterpoint…and it is said that Arlen was staring at a drugstore sign when he conceived it. Obviously, the inspiration came from somewhere within the man — indeed, the Thomas Jefferson of American pop.
Shortly after winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song with “Over the Rainbow,” Arlen began collaborating with Johnny Mercer, a protegé of Harburg who would soon find success as singer/songwriter/impresario extraordinaire. Of all the lyricists Arlen worked with, his relationship and professional arrangements with Mercer — Harold simply called him “John” — were probably his most relaxed and successful. The pair was given the task of creating songs for the musical film Hot Nocturne, later re-named Blues in the Night. Legend has it that Harold and John cranked the song out together, with Arlen pointing out some key lyrics he saw in Mercer’s notes. When they finished the song they supposedly knew they had a monster, and rushed to Margaret Whiting’s house to perform it. The plot thickens as supposedly Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Mel Tormé, and Martha Raye were Whiting’s dinner guests that evening, and were all said to be in absolute awe of the song.
Whether or not that story is true is unimportant; the recorded facts are evidence enough that the song was enormous. From 1941-1942 “Blues in the Night” bombarded the pop charts — Woody Herman, Dinah Shore, Jimmie Lunceford, Cab Calloway, and Artie Shaw all had top ten versions! Herman’s was the strongest at the time, peaking at #1, while Shore’s perfect vocal is probably better remembered.
Although “Blues in the Night” is clearly the most important Arlen/Mercer song, “That Old Black Magic” definitely had the most chart success. It went #1 for Glenn Miller and top 10 for Margaret Whiting in 1943, and scored on the charts for a few other artists at the time. It returned in 1948 with a vocal by Billy Daniels, selling millions of records at the time. Daniels changed record companies in 1950; he re-recorded the song for the Mercury label and it charted yet again, becoming a million seller for the new label. In 1955 Sammy Davis Jr. scored a huge hit with his version. And when Louis Prima and Keely Smith stormed the world with their raucous nightclub act in the late 1950s, they charted a duet version in 1958 that would eventually sell millions more. Finally, in the early 1960s, teenage girls pushed Bobby Rydell’s wacky version of “Old Black Magic” to #21. We say wacky, because Bobby sings the classic melody over the background of a big band chuffering away on “Tequila.” There are some bizarre versions of Arlen songs out there, but seldom do they chart as well as Rydell’s.
Arlen’s work with Mercer yielded quite a few hits. One that pushed the boundaries of pop music is “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”, which critics called “an Arlen tapeworm.” The idea was that the song went on and on and wandered all around. It does, and various artists have done all sorts of things with it. Sinatra alone recorded three different studio versions; Tony Bennett hit the charts with the song in 1957 and later recorded a different arrangement — as a tribute to Frank!
Other hits from the Arlen/Mercer pairing include “Come Rain or Come Shine” and the effervescent “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.” The later was a massive hit recording for Mercer, reaching #2 on the national charts. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters covered the song, also topping out at #2. As the 1940s moved on, Arlen and Mercer stopped working together, not “splitting up” but merely moving to different projects. The two would work together from time to time later, and it appears they thought fondly of one another.
At what is possibly the “stormiest” time in Arlen’s life, the early 1950s when wife Anya was mentally ill, he created a terrific song with lyricist Ira Gershwin. “The Man that Got Away” was penned for Judy Garland in the film A Star Is Born, and is certainly one of the great standards from two of the most important names in the history of pop music.
It’s clear from his working arrangements, marriage, and devotion to family that Harold Arlen was a man of integrity. Among the songs he created — some of which are throwaways — he created three of the most important artifacts and influential pieces in the history of American Popular Song. He brought a black, bluesy sound into the mix with songs like “Stormy Weather,” and gave pop a deeper, more meaningful standard with “Over the Rainbow.” Indeed, if the Great American Songbook had a “Mount Rushmore,” Harold Arlen’s visage would be on it.
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Harold Arlen photo above is the work of Carl Van Vechten, and is a public domain image.