Samuel “Sammy Cahn” Cohen (June 18, 1913 – January 15, 1993) is recognized as one of the leading lyricists of the popular song era. For most fans of American pop, Cahn’s songs will be forever tied to movie musicals — he garnered four Academy Awards — and Frank Sinatra. But his legacy as a lyricist actually covers a much broader spectrum, having notable success on the pop charts with many different artists.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll examine the variety of his chart hits first, and then examine the unique Sinatra-Cahn symbiosis.
Cahn’s first success as a lyricist came with “Rhythm Is Our Business,” set to music by Saul Chaplin, which was a hit for Jimmy Lunceford’s Orchestra in the 1930s. The duo of Cahn and Chaplin struck gold in 1937 with new lyrics and updated music for “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein,” which was originally composed in Yiddish for a Broadway musical that tanked. Legend has it that Cahn pleaded with the Andrews Sisters to record the song, which ultimately became one of their all-time top hits.
After a few years of laboring in Tin Pan Alley, Cahn and Chaplin were a household name to some extent in the late 1930s and early 40s. The duo has often been compared to “George and Ira” or “Rodgers and Hart” or “Lerner and Lowe,” but Cahn’s association with Chaplin has since been overshadowed by his relationship not with a composer, but rather with a vocalist.
The duo worked in the Warner Brothers Studios. The “Cahn and Chaplin” label might’ve gone on to the heights of Rodgers and Hart, except Saul Chaplin left for a better deal — and more high profile musical work — at MGM Studios. Success and fame would continue to follow both men for almost another half century. Prior to going their separate way, one of their notable customers was Tommy Dorsey, who was then the top dog of the top orchestra at the height of the “Big Band” era. Dorsey ruled the charts in the early 1940s, and introduced Cahn to his young up-and-coming male singer: Frank Sinatra.
Notable “Magic” Chart Hits
By 1942 Cahn was collaborating with Jule Styne. This duo would reach even greater heights than Cahn/Chaplin, beginning notably with “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” a monster #1 hit for Vaughn Monroe. Hit followed hit; Cahn and Styne made perhaps one of the greatest gifts to America in the immediate postwar era with the incredibly powerful “It’s Been a Long, Long, Time.”
This was followed in 1948 by the remarkable “It’s Magic.” Although this song did not hit number 1 on the Billboard charts, in terms of cumulative sales and weeks on the charts it ranks as one of the top hits of all time. It topped some charts regionally, and topped various sales, jukebox, and airplay charts around the country. Even based on Billboard numbers, it had a formidable run. Keep in mind, this was at the peak of “competitive” recordings — each record label putting out versions by the artist they felt most appropriate to provide either an alternative or perhaps an improved version.
- Doris Day (Columbia) spent 21 weeks on the charts, peaking at #2.
- Tony Martin (RCA Victor) spent 13 weeks on the charts, peaking at #12.
- Dick Haymes (Decca) spent 14 weeks on the charts, peaking at #13.
- Gordon MacRae (Capitol) spent 9 weeks on the charts, peaking at #20.
Cumulatively, “It’s Magic” spent the equivalent of 13 months on the charts. The song was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost out to “Buttons and Bows,” which rode the wave of an extremely popular recording by Dinah Shore. If there’s any question that Dinah ruled the airwaves in the late 1940s, it was reinforced in 1949. Again Cahn and Styne were nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar, again with a strong performance by Doris Day, this time for “It’s a Great Feeling.” But Dinah had another monster — this time a duet with Buddy Clark — the now classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which garnered the award.
Thanking the Academy
After missing with those two hits — and a number of prior nominations dating back to 1942 — Cahn might’ve well wondered if he would ever take home a statue. Even with vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Mario Lanza, Vic Damone, and of course Day, none were forthcoming. It wasn’t until 1954 that “Three Coins In The Fountain,” with movie version by Sinatra and a top pop hit by the Four Aces, that Cahn struck Academy gold. This success was followed by a steady stream of Oscars: “All the Way” in 1957, again with a vocal by Frank Sinatra in the film The Joker Is Wild. “High Hopes” by Sinatra and Eddie Hodges in the 1959 film A Hole in the Head. Last but not least the classic standard “Call Me Irresponsible” performed by Jackie Gleason in Papa’s Delicate Condition from 1963. From 1955 onward Cahn collaborated mostly with Jimmy Van Heusen, who shared each of the Oscars following Styne’s “Three Coins.”
As mentioned above, Cahn and Sinatra met while both were “working” for Tommy Dorsey. Sinatra was under contract as Dorsey’s male vocalist, while Cahn sold lyrics to the fabled bandleader on a freelance basis. Cahn was known as a lyricist who could “write to order.” In other words, give him a subject or whatever point you wanted to make, and Cahn would crank out lyrics…and he would do it quickly. Dorsey, who was known to be impetuous at times, appreciated the fact that Cahn could meet a deadline. Sinatra liked Cahn’s style, and after ascending to movie superstardom, relied on Cahn to pen the title tracks for a series of albums that were designed to restore the singer to the top of the pop heap. Songs like “Come Fly With Me” were written expressly at Sinatra’s request, as was the follow up “Come Dance With Me.” Another was “Ring-A-Ding Ding,” released in 1961. Cahn’s straightforward lyrics were a perfect fit for Sinatra’s sometimes staccato stylings, and resulted in some of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ most memorable recordings.
The singer/songwriter combination won an Emmy award in 1956 for Sinatra’s version of “Love and Marriage,” which was also a sizable hit for Dinah Shore. Neither would’ve envisioned its use in the TV comedy Married with Children, as it was originally used in a TV production of Our Town.
Cahn’s efforts slowed after the mid 1960s, he wrote lyrics for a couple of mediocre Broadway shows. Regardless, he was generally sought after and rightfully regarded as an icon of American Popular Song until his death in 1993.
Public domain photos