Sam Stept

Sam H. Stept was a composer of quintessential pop standards who is best remembered for one of the definitive songs of the 1940s, “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” His other key standard was “That’s My Weakness Now,” which was arguably the definitive song of the 1920s. Others include “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” and “Johnny Get Your Gun,” which was a companion tune to “Apple Tree.”

As a musical legacy, that roster is certainly impressive, but it only tells a fraction of Stept’s story.

Sam Stept was born in Odessa, Russia in 1897. His family emigrated when he was 3, and settled in Pittsburgh. Sam was clearly a musical talent; he was working in an assortment of publishing houses and vaudeville venues as a pianist before the age of 20. He even had a stint as a bandleader in the Cleveland market. But the most significant development in Stept’s early career was a songwriting partnership with lyricist Bud Green.

The recording industry of the 1920s was still very much in its infancy, even though cylinders were already a thing of the past. A song could be a hit in one market and virtually unknown in another. Stept and Green worked in the heyday of Tin Pan Alley, cranking out tunes and earning a modest living. At the time there was a virtual industry of songwriters to sate America’s appetite for recordings. The market was at its peak, the mood was an optimistic party with no end in sight. America could afford an abundance of songwriters to tickle its fancy.

It was during this time that Stept and Green were most prolific, but their songs seemed to continuously run out of steam before scoring as national hits. This is unfortunate, because some of their modest hits could’ve easily earned additional recognition for Sam in the Great American Songbook. The pair often collaborated with other songwriters during the first half of the 1920s, with Stept even trying his hand as lyricist from time to time. Sam was by now well known in the business, working with publishers ranging from Irving Berlin to Harold Dixon.

By 1927 Stept and Green had at least a decade of experience in the music business, and felt it was time to make larger steps. They formed their own publishing company, recognizing that others had made a decent amount of money from the fruits of their labor. Their timing was most fortunate.

Green and Stept formed their own publishing company in 1928, and managed to have two tunes picked up by pixie vocalist Helen Kane. One of these was “That’s My Weakness Now,” which had first been recorded by Cliff Edwards. (Edwards, who performed under the stage name Ukelele Ike, is perhaps best remembered as the voice of Jiminy Cricket.) Whether it was written for Kane or improvised, three of the verses were changed to suggestive nonsense lyrics, two of which Kane sang as “Boop boop ba doo.”

Stept’s melody was enchanting — Ukelele Ike’s version had been gaining popularity from the start. But it was Kane’s impish performance that really caught fire. The line seemed to fit the flapper era perfectly, and it became the soundtrack for a generation of young women wearing scandalous short dresses and frequenting speakeasys. Kane’s “boop boop ba doo” became the inspiration for Betty Boop, the animated character that would debut in 1930.

The song was a massive hit, spawning numerous cover recordings. Even Paul Whiteman and Bing Crosby, the hottest new star of the day, tried their hand at the tune. As songwriters and publishers, Green and Stept were flush with financial success.

A few more hits followed over the next year. Although none of these approached the success of “Weakness,” they helped cement Stept as a songwriter of significant status. As mentioned, the timing of this success was most fortunate for Stept, as the 1929 market crash and ensuing Great Depression put a lot of “average” songwriters on bread lines.

The public was still managing to pay for entertainment despite the economic hardships, and the “talking” motion pictures were the tonic of choice. So the next move was to Hollywood, where the Green & Stept team worked on a number of songs for the motion picture industry. These included songs for everything from large scale musicals to serial westerns, and Green/Stept songs became ubiquitous.

The duo eventually sold their publishing firm in Hollywood, Bud Green moved back to New York, and the Green and Stept collaboration effectively ended. Sam then worked with a number of different lyricists, including legends like Ned Washington, Eddie DeLang, and Lew Brown, who was also originally from Odessa. One of Sam’s longest lasting collaborators was Charles Tobias, who provided the lyrics to “Comes Love” and “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree.” Tobias is arguably best remembered for composing the music for the Merrie Melodies animated shorts.

Although Stept might be best known to today’s listeners for “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree,” his best and most prolific work was from the 1920s and 1930s. Unfortunately his songs were performed mostly in films and on long forgotten recordings, so the bulk of his work is largely unknown.

He was also the victim of a nasty and undeserving pop culture attack in 1950 that more or less was a terrible coda to a great career. The US Army was searching for a new official song to replace the old “Caissons” march, and turned to Tin Pan Alley for suggestions. From over 800 submissions, Stept’s “The Army Is Always There” was selected as the winner, and the song was played at Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration. Word got out that Stept — who had proved his patriotism beyond all doubt during World War II — had been born in Russia. Because it was an era of Red Scares and McCarthyism, this was parlayed into all sorts of negative commentary which darkened Stept’s career.

So we take this as an opportunity to set the record straight, and on behalf of the American musical public, issue an apology to Sam H. Stept. His place in the Great American Songbook is secure, as songwriter who defined the flapper era, as songwriter who set the tone for parted lovers during World War II, and as songwriter for the forgotten soundtrack of the 1930s.