If ever a composer defined the term “standard,” it would undoubtedly be Edward Chester Babcock, better known by his stage name of Jimmy Van Heusen.
Van Heusen was by all reckoning a complex, multi-talented individual with personal charisma to match. He lived the life of a rock star before rock stars existed. Van Heusen was not only a Hollywood jet-setter, he was also a test pilot. A raconteur of wine, women and song who some say could out-Sinatra Frank himself. The man’s musical output was so prodigious and influential that it is too monumental a task to summarize his career in anything less than a book. So for the purposes of this article, we’ll simplify and summarize three distinct phases of Van Heusen’s career.
Tin Pan Alley Beginnings
Van Heusen credits the great Harold Arlen for his entree to the music business. As a student at Syracuse University during the 1930s, Van Heusen became close friends with Harold’s brother Jerry Arlen, who compelled his elder sibling to listen to some of Jimmy’s compositions. The influential songwriter managed to place a couple in some New York City venues, and Van Heusen was off and running. He soon moved to New York and became a fixture in Tin Pan Alley during the late 1930s. Van Heusen had no huge successes during this phase of his career; he made his living as a staff pianist at a publishing firm. It is quite likely, however, that he influenced and probably improved many of the songs he worked on for other composers. Later in his career, friends would ask Van Heusen for help with a note or two, and usually he would tinker with and improve the entire song, then refuse any credit for doing so. Thus it stands to reason that Van Heusen had his hand in a number of Tin Pan Alley tunes from 1938 and 1939, which makes the sum of his musical output even more incredible.
After making some noise in late 1938 with “It’s the Dreamer in Me,” a Tommy Dorsey song, Van Heusen scored a major hit in 1939 with “Darn That Dream.” Charting big for Benny Goodman, the song was composed with lyrics provided by bandleader Eddie DeLange, who in turn offered Van Heusen a songwriting partnership. DeLange had the name and the contacts; Van Heusen supplied the talent. Through 1939 and 1940 the pair composed a number of hits, many of which revolved lyrically around the “Dream” formula, such as “Deep In A Dream.” Other hits from this collaboration were “Heaven Can Wait,” “Shake Down The Stars,” and “All This and Heaven Too.”
It’s interesting to note that “Darn That Dream” was composed for a Broadway musical called Swingin’ the Dream, which was a swing band musical loosely based on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The show tanked, closing after just 13 performances, but the song captured the public’s imagination in a big way. It is somehow appropriate that Van Heusen’s first hit was composed for a Broadway flop, because he would have quite a few such hits throughout his career. In fact, although Van Heusen quickly developed a Midas’ touch for movies, his stage efforts were virtually all failures — yet a number of hits somehow emerged from these Broadway bombs.
By 1939 the 27-year-old songwriter was known for his knack for hit melodies. At this time Van Heusen stumbled into a collaboration with Johnny Burke, who was employed by the Irving Berlin Publishing Company. Like Van Heusen, Burke was a contract pianist who was rapidly rising as a songwriter. In Burke’s case, his specialty was lyrics, and his poetic skills seemed much better suited to the young Van Heusen than did DeLange’s.
Legend has it that Burke was visiting the publisher Van Heusen worked at, and offhandedly asked Jimmy if he “had any tunes.” Van Heusen played one, and Burke then put down some lyrics for “Oh, You Crazy Moon,” which got picked up by a few orchestras and became a minor hit. Supposedly Burke stopped by after “Moon” was published, and the pair cranked out “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” The song was recorded by Tommy Dorsey, featuring a vocal by a little-known guy named Frank Sinatra. The melody had a few leaps and skips that fit Sinatra’s style perfectly, and the song became his first national hit in 1940.
The pair’s fourth collaborative effort was “Imagination,” also penned for Dorsey. As complex as “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” is, “Imagination” shows Van Heusen’s knack for creating an easy melody that surprises and captivates the listener. Although “Imagination” uses just one octave, Van Heusen manages to twist things around and moves through a series of unexpected note progressions to create a melody that surprises and rewards the ear. The tune hit #8 for Dorsey and Sinatra, and went to #1 for Glenn Miller. Ella Fitzgerald charted respectably with the song, and it was so popular that even Ted Straeter’s Orchestra briefly put a version on the charts.
It is said that at this point the song caught the attention of Hollywood producer Mark Sandrich, who was unable to get the melody out of his head. Sandrich is alleged to have shouted “get that guy!” when the song was on the radio, and thus Van Heusen was summoned to Hollywood.
Burke was well established as a lyricist in Hollywood, having penned numbers for some Bing Crosby films. Burke and Van Heusen were quickly tapped to compose the soundtracks for the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road” movies, of which the songs became as popular as the films. Stringing together a series of hits, the songwriting duo earned the nickname “The Gold Dust Twins” for their uncanny success. Van Heusen would ultimately compose the music for 23 Crosby films, the most notable song being “Swinging On A Star,” from Going My Way in 1944. The song garnered Jimmy his first of four Academy Awards.
Although most of Van Heusen’s 1940s standards were recorded by Crosby — and to a lesser degree, by Sinatra — he scored hits with a surprising number of artists. Jo Stafford hit the charts with “It Could Happen to You” in 1944, and in 1945 “Like Someone in Love” was a hit for Dinah Shore…and for Crosby. “But Beautiful” struck gold in 1948 for Margaret Whiting with Frank DeVol’s Orchestra. That song naturally charted for Crosby too…as well as Sinatra.
Not all of Van Heusen’s 1940s efforts were collaborations with Burke. In the case of “Nancy (With the Smiling Face)” he had a one-off hit with lyrics by comedian Phil Silvers. The story goes that both men were at a dinner party at Sinatra’s home, and Silvers was so charmed by young Nancy that he was inspired to generate lyrics, while Jimmy obliged with an impromptu tune.
The Van Heusen-Burke partnership lasted well into the 1950s. One of their last projects was Carnival in Flanders, a Broadway musical financed by Crosby. Like most musical theatre that Van Heusen touched, the show was an abject failure, closing after six performances. Naturally it spawned one of Van Heusen & Burke’s most beloved compositions, “Here’s That Rainy Day.”
Throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, whenever Van Heusen wasn’t writing hit songs, he was usually carousing with Sinatra. And when he wasn’t carousing, he worked as a test pilot for the Lockheed Corporation. If ever a songwriter was bigger than life, it was Jimmy Van Heusen.
Sinatra, Sammy Cahn and the Academy
The Van Heusen-Burke collaboration was starting to cool despite its continual success, and by 1954 Jimmy was ready to work with a new lyricist. Sinatra in the early 1950s was, by Sinatra standards, struggling to sell records. He was playing out the string with his Columbia contract, and the results were mediocre. Sinatra took something of a break from recording, relying instead on his film career to sustain his popularity and pay the bills. He began to show a glimmer of past and future glory with a 1954 LP titled Songs for Young Lovers on the Capitol label, which included the Van Heusen standard, “Like Someone in Love.” Suddenly he scored with four top ten hits in 1954 and 1955…
Of this string of hits, it was the 4th that excited Frank the most. In ’55 Sinatra played a role on television that called on both his acting and singing skills, a new production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. “Love and Marriage,” composed by Van Heusen, with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, was created for this production. Right around the same time, Sinatra was starring with Debbie Reynolds in The Tender Trap, for which the title tune was also penned by Van Heusen and Cahn. Both songs were so well received and so musically creative that Sinatra was suddenly ready to get back in the studio. As Van Heusen was one of Sinatra’s closest friends, he would be called on again and again to furnish songs for a resurging career.
Frank was definitely on the rebound during the middle and late 1950s, despite the advent of rock and roll. He was evolving toward a jazzier, more swinging sound, and each new album seemed to get brighter and better. With three successful albums in 1957, Sinatra was ready to tackle new ground in 1958. He asked Van Heusen and Cahn to compose a song for a concept album that would take listeners on a trip around the world. As one of the early jet-setters, Sinatra wanted to share the experience with his fans, an audience that for the most part couldn’t afford it. Van Heusen and Cahn developed “Come Fly With Me” at Sinatra’s request, which became the title track for the album.
Although not released as a single, the song carried the album to the top of the charts, Sinatra’s first. At a time when the pop charts were ruled by Elvis, Pat Boone, Perry Como and a host of rock and rollers, Come Fly With Me was atop the album charts for five weeks. The concept was obviously a good one, and a year later Come Dance With Me — again with a title track by Van Heusen and Cahn — reached #2 and garnered a Grammy Award. That album stayed on the charts for almost three years, and to that point was one of the best-selling LPs in the short history of 12″ vinyl.
During this era, the Sinatra/Van Heusen/Cahn collaboration produced a string of standards. Although “Come Fly With Me” might’ve been the most important in the way it propelled Sinatra into the stratosphere career-wise, it really received little recognition at the time. Three songs that did receive appropriate accolades were “All The Way” from 1957’s The Joker Is Wild, and “High Hopes” from 1959’s A Hole In The Head. Both starred Sinatra in the lead role, and both songs collected Academy Awards for Van Heusen and Cahn. A later film song, “Call Me Irresponsible,” was performed by Jackie Gleason in Papa’s Delicate Condition but of course the hit single was released by Sinatra. That song collected the best song Oscar in 1963.
Jimmy might’ve added one more statue to his collection when the songwriters were nominated for 1961’s “Pocketful of Miracles,” from the film of the same name. The song was an instant standard, but was introduced in the film only by an unseen choir over the opening credits. Had it been sung by Frank for the film, it probably would’ve won.
Thus we have three distinct phases of Van Heusen’s career. But as any student of The Great American Songbook will tell you, all we’ve really managed to do is understate the importance of an interesting man who probably composed more “standards” than anyone else in music history.