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volume 3
november 2000

Did he write that?

Index of the journal Tracking  

  America's great unknown songwriter Harold Arlen
by Frank Ferriano Winter, 1990
  University of Wisconsin, Whitewater

Composer, arranger, pianist and vocalist Harold Arlen was born Hyman Arluck, February 15, 1905, in Buffalo, New York, the son of a cantor. He showed exceptional musical talent in childhood. He dropped out of school and formed a band, and made a living primarily as an arranger and a performer. He began concentrating on composition in the late 1920s. From the late 1920s to the mid 1930s, Arlen wrote many songs which were featured in shows at Harlem's Cotton Club. In the early 1930s, he began writing music for Broadway musicals and Hollywood musicals. Chances are you will know more than one of them, though you never knew who wrote them.

1 Harold Arlen, who passed away in the Spring of 1986, was one of America's most unique and versatile popular song composers, yet he was probably the least known (by name) to the general public. During his career, Arlen composed full and partial scores for over twenty stage productions of various types. These included three Cotton Club Reviews, Bloomer Girl, St. Louis Woman, and Free and Easy (a Blues opera). He also wrote songs for twenty-nine films (not all musicals) that included The Wizard of Oz, Blues in the Night, Casbah, and the 1953 version of A Star is Born. Arlen never thought in terms of writing hits but of composing the best melody for each particular situation he was hired to write for.
2 His versatility was demonstrated in that he wrote outstanding songs in many styles, e.g., ballads, i.e., "Over the Rainbow", "My Shining Hour", and "Last Night When We Young"; rhythmic tunes like "Get Happy", "It's Only A Paper Moon", and "That Old Black Magic"; torch songs like "One For My Baby", "Come Rain Or Come Shine", and "The Man (Gal) That Got Away"; and quasi march tunes like "I Love a Parade" and "We're Off to See the Wizard". Although typed by some as a Blues writer, "Blues in the Night" is the only Arlen song that employs the standard Blues form. However, many Arlen songs did evoke the spirit of the Blues and Jazz, i.e. "Stormy Weather", "I've Got the World on a String" and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea". Many Jazz musicians from Jack Teagarden to Miles Davis have played, sung and improvised on Arlen songs (Harrington, 1986: 16). He also wrote several catchy calypso melodies for the shows House of Flowers and Jamaica.
3 Another Arlen trademark was that many of his songs did not contain the standard thirty-two measure chorus that was characteristic of most of the songs from the Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood Musical genre. Another important facet of Arlen's songs were his lyricists which included Johnny Mercer, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, Ted Koehler, and Ira Gershwin. Song stylists as diverse in age from Ethel Waters to Barbara Streisand have been drawn to Arlen's work, and several popular entertainers have adopted Arlen melodies as their own for various reasons, i.e. Judy Garland "Over the Rainbow", Lena Horne "Stormy Weather", and Frank Sinatra "Last Night When We Were Young", and "One for My Baby". Perhaps because of these associations many people did not know that Arlen was the composer of these songs. In Arlens' own words, "A fine songwriter is one who can tackle any style and be interesting" (Harrington, 1986: 16). The following are four examples of Arlen's anonymity:
4 First; when the touring company of Porgy and Bess visited Cairo (Egypt) in 1955 some of its members went to a symphony concert. In addition to some standard classical repertoire the concert concluded with a piece called "American Folk Music" which turned out to be a suite composed around five of Arlen's songs ("Stormy Weather", "Blues in the Night", "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues", "Ill Wind", "Accentuate the Positive". After the concert Robert Breen (the Porgy and Bess conductor) asked the orchestra conductor "... do you know who wrote the songs? ..." To Breen's astonishment the conductor answered "... nobody wrote them. They are just old American ballads that we made into a Folk Melody ..." Breen informed the Egyptian conductor that the songs were written by the same man (Arlen) who was still alive, which left the man in a state of disbelief (Zinnser, 1960: 42). This story is one of several examples of the idea held in many parts of the world that Arlen's music is indigenous American folk music even dating back to the time of Stephen Foster (Zinnser, 1960: 42; and Jablonski, 1961: 18).
5 In 1957 one of Arlen's last Broadway shows (Jamaica) was reviewed by a popular periodical. After extolling the singing and physical virtues of the show's star, Lena Horne, for several pages, one page devoted a picture and paragraph to Arlen describing him as a "little-known hit man [whose] ... rich and virile melodies have proved enduringly popular with Americans, but Arlen himself has remained a little-known composer ..." This was probably because many of his hits were written for shows and films which were not big hits with the exception of The Wizard of Oz (Life, Nov. 18, 1957: 112). Another example of Arlen's anonymity was experienced by the composer himself while riding in a New York City taxicab, "... the cabby was whistling 'Stormy Weather' ..." When Arlen asked who wrote the song the cabby replied "... sure, Irving Berlin ..." two other guesses were Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter, and when informed that this passenger had written the song the cabby asked "... who are you?" (Jablonski, 1961: 19-20).
6 To test Arlen's anonymity for himself this writer conducted an informal poll of fifty people mostly involved with music or theater. The group was asked to identify compositions by Harold Arlen. Although some knew the name only two people identified Arlen compositions correctly. One was a graduate student who had just read Arlen's obituary and the other was a Jazz musician which was not surprising since many Arlen songs are favorites of many Jazz musicians and singers. Most people questioned were astonished that the same man who wrote the score for The Wizard of Oz, also wrote songs like "Blues in the Night" and "Stormy Weather". Harold Arlen's real name was Hyman Arluck. He was born in Buffalo, New York on February 15, 1905. His father was a very successful cantor who was well known in synagogues as having a good voice and an ability to improvise. These talents were inherited by young Hyman. It was hoped that Arluck might follow his father's footsteps or become a lawyer or doctor, but as a young high school musician Hyman discovered the exciting Black American music of Ragtime, Blues and Jazz. This in addition to Hyman's familiarity with the Jewish synagogue music and some formal training with piano lessons were to be factors in the future Harold Arlen's success as a versatile songwriter.
7 At age fifteen Arlen began earning money playing piano in Buffalo cafes and movie theaters. He formed a trio which later expanded in size and eventually became known as the Buffalodians (Jablonski, 1961: 31-51; and Ewen, 1970: 247). Arlen was pianist, vocalist and arranger for the group and was the group's only improvisor. Even though he wrote some songs in addition to his other contributions, Arlen's goal in this period was to be a performer. Equally accomplished as a singer and pianist, Arlen was hired by band leader Arnold Johnson which took the young Arlen to New York City.
8 Several twists of fate caused Arlen to change his career from performer to songwriter. First, Rudy Vallee recorded several songs composed by Arlen. This was 1929 and also in the same year Arlen became the rehearsal pianist for Vincent Youman's Great Day because of an illness to Fletcher Henderson who was the company's regular rehearsal pianist. During a break in one of the rehearsals Arlen began playing an original rhythmic vamp which captured the attention of Will Marion Cook (who was directing the show's black choir) and future Hollywood songwriting great, Harry Warren. The latter introduced Arlen to lyricist Ted Koehler and the result of completing the vamp was "Get Happy". The song was not only a hit (Ruth Etting included it in the 9:15 Review 1930) but marked the first of several partnerships with outstanding lyricists the rest of his career (Jablonski, 1961; Ewen, 1970). In the next three decades Arlen, along with Koehler, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin, and other lyricists produced many of what this writer and others believe as some of the best popular songs for the Broadway stage and Hollywood films.
9 Between 1930 and 1934 Arlen and Koehler wrote most of the songs for the annual Cotton Club Reviews. Among these songs were "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea", "I Love a Parade", "I've Got the World on a String", "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day", "Stormy Weather", "As Long as I Live" and "Ill Wind". Many of these songs were written for legendary black performers i.e. Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, and Lena Horne (Jablonski, 1961: 245, 6). The Arlen/Koehler team produced more standards for other vehicles (stage and screen) which included: "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues" (1932); "Let's Fall in Love" (1933); The American Negro Suite (Six Songs for Voice and Piano) (1940); "When the Sun Comes Out" (1941); and the score to Danny Kaye's first movie Up in Arms (Jablonski, 1961: 245-251). The Arlen/Harburg collaboration produced the following:
10 "It's Only a Paper Moon" (1932); the score for the review Life Begins at 8:40 with Ira Gershwin and "Last Night When We Were Young". This song was written in 1935 for Metropolitan Opera star Lawrence Tibbett who befriended the songwriting team. He was so taken with this song that he had it put in a movie he was making but it was cut on the final print. Ironically, both Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra were also unsuccessful in having this song performed in films they starred in. However, both singers performed and recorded the song which insured its longevity (Jablonski, 1961: 101). From 1936 through 1939 Arlen and Harburg wrote scores for six films, the crowning achievement of these was The Wizard of Oz. Because of this film's perennial popularity almost every song is familiar. "Over the Rainbow" which won the Academy Award for best song in 1939 came very close to being cut from the score, because some on the MGM executives thought it was too complicated for the film. Arlen and producer Arthur Freed were able to keep it in, but only after it was cut three times! Judy Garland, who was not aware that this song was almost cut, made the song her personal signature for the rest of her life. She told Jablonski, "... it is very gratifying to have a song that is more or less known as my song, or my theme song, and to have it written by the fantastic Harold Arlen ..." (Jablonski, 1961: 121). Arlen and Harburg's sense of humor was also present in At the Circus in which Groucho Marx introduced "Lydia the Tatooed Lady".
11 Although Arlen began to collaborate with others he and Harburg wrote several film scores in the 1940's including Cabin in the Sky (1942) which included "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe" (Jablonski, 1961: 253). They returned to Broadway in 1944 to write the score for Bloomer Girl (1944) which followed in Oklahoma's footsteps as a completely integrated musical. This turned out to be Arlen's most commercially successful stage work. He and Harburg wrote eighteen songs for this production including "Right as the Rain" and "The Eagle and Me". The show met with almost unanimous critical acclaim and ran for 654 performances (Jablonski, 1961: 125-131; Ewen, 1970: 256). Although remaining very close friends, Arlen and Harburg did not work together until 1957 when they wrote the score for Jamaica starring Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban. This was Arlen's second most commercially successful musical running for 557 performances. Twenty functional, humorous and clever songs were written for this show including "Push De Button" and "Napoleon". The composers' lyrics of the latter include: Napoleon's a pastry. Bismark is a herring. Alexander's a Creme de Coca mixed with Rum And Herbie Hoover is a vacuum (Jablonski, 1961: 208). In spite of the commercial and critical success of Jamaica Arlen thought that Bloomer Girl along with St. Louis Woman (Johnny Mercer lyricist) and House of Flowers (Truman Capote lyricist) had more musical unity (Jablonski, 1961: 211-212).
12 Harburg attributed three factors to Arlen's success. Arlen's longevity is one of the three keys to his genius "... his songs get better with time ... You don't tire of them as you do with pop tunes ..." The second attribute of Arlen's music is its universal appeal "... A lot of people can write songs but only an artist can make other people feel the music deeply. Harold touches something in all of us ... But what he has above all is individuality (the third key). He and George Gershwin are the two men in this field who uniquely have this gift ..." Harburg also commented on what problems Arlen's individuality brought to a lyricist "... I often have to wait a day or two to let the melody work on me, to see what Harold is doing ... He's so afraid of being banal that he revises over and over ..." (Zinnser, 1960: 47).
13 Arlen also had a close friendship and collaboration with Johhny Mercer. Although there was a brief collaboration in New York in the early 1930's the bulk of the Arlen/Mercer scores were written during World War II. Their first major collaboration was for the film Blues in the Night which originally was to have been a serious and realistic story about jazz, with the title Hot Nocturne but the movie itself became another mediocre stereotype of Jazz musicians. The title was changed when the Jimmie Lunceford Swing Band had a hit recording of one of the film's songs "Blues in the Night" before the film was released. This song was the only Arlen song that employed the standard twelve bar Blues form, but it was only part of the song. The whole song is fifty-eight measures. The song ranks as one of Arlen's best and most well known. Also in the film was "This Time the Dream's on Me" (Zinnser, 1960: 142; Ewen, 1970: 255). Other films which were also ordinary or dated because of their World War II themes, produced the following Arlen/Mercer classics: "That Old Black Magic;" "One for My Baby", (written for Fred Astaire for The Sky's the Limit). Astaire said this song was one of the best pieces of material ever written for him. Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett have recorded this song several times and it is a favorite of both singers (Jablonski, 1961: 144). "Accentuate the Positive" (1945) became an Academy Award winner for the composers and the title song to Out of This World (1945) is another standard.
14 In 1946 Arlen and Mercer wrote the score to the stage production of St. Louis Woman. Although the show ran for only 113 performances and received mixed reviews from the critics, it is now considered to be the richest musical score written by the Arlen/Mercer team. Some of the songs are "Come Rain or Come Shine", "Any Place I Hang my Hat is Home", and two others "Legalize My Name", and "A Woman's Prerogative" which helped the career of one of the show's principles, Pearl Bailey (Jablonski, 1961: 150-152). After this show Arlen and Mercer wrote the score for the film Pretty Girl (1950) and the ill-fated stage production of Saratoga in 1960. For the latter the composers wrote twenty songs, many of which are of the same high quality as their well known tunes. But unfortunately a weak book hindered the show to the point where it ran for only 80 performances (Jablonski, 1961: 213-217). Mercer recalled that, "... some guys bothered me ... I couldn't write with them in the same room with me, but I could with Harold. He is probably our most original composer, he often uses very odd rhythms which make it difficult and challenging for the lyric writer ..." (Jablonski, 1961: 139). Mercer also said "... Harold and I have a good feeling about songs ... I don't know why that is because we don't come from the same neck of the woods or anything, but we really have a thing about Jazz and Blues and creativity, originality and structure. I appreciate his work so much that possibly he thinks I get the right words to it ..." (Wilk, 1974: 139). Mercer also told William K. Zinnser that he "... sees Arlen's work as a fusion of classical Jewish music with early Negro Jazz — a combination that keeps the lyricist alert for anything. Harold's melodies are way out because Jewish melodies are way out ..." (Zinnser, 1960: 45).
15 According to Zinnser, Mercer also saw a strong affinity between Arlen and Gershwin especially in their grasp of Negro idioms. Mercer believed that "... Arlen is more inventive than Gershwin in trying to find new formats for his songs. The rhythm of both men is wonderful but George's often strikes me as mathematical ... while Harold's comes from the bottom of his feet ..." (Zinnser, 1960: 45). Another close friend and occasional collaborator was Ira Gershwin. Their most significant work was for two films A Star is Born (1953) and Country Girl (1954). Fifteen songs were written for the two films including the classic torch song "The Man (Gal) That Got Away" sung in A Star is Born by Judy Garland. This film marked a reunion with The Wizard of Oz composer and heroine. Garland and Frank Sinatra both made hit recordings of the song (Zinnser, 1960: 179-181). Gershwin stated that, "... Arlen is not a thirty two bar man.
16 As one of the most individual of American show composers he is distinctive in melodic line and construction. Frequently when collaborating with him the lyricist, whether [it be] Koehler or Mercer or Harburg or myself, finds himself wondering if the resulting song isn't too long or difficult or too mannered for popular consumption. But there is not cause for worry. Many Arlen songs take time to catch on, but when they do they join his impressive and lasting catalog ..." (Jablonski, 1961: 181). Gershwin also agreed "... that Arlen in his blue vein was an extension of George Gershwin in his, but Harold is not an imitator. He is always original, always himself ..." (Zinnser, 1960: 45). The important difference between the two composers according to Ira was that Arlen was greatly influenced by Jewish Synagogue music (Zinnnser, 1960: 45).
17 In 1954 Arlen combined with author Truman Capote for the Broadway show House of Flowers, the show starred Pearl Bailey, met with mixed reviews and ran for 165 performances. Many people, including Arlen, regarded it as having some of Arlen's best and most unusual songs including "Two Ladies in the Shade of a Banana Tree", "A Sleeping Bee" and "I Never Has Seen Snow". Jablonski describes the latter as "... one of the most distinctive and distinguished songs written for the theater, concert stage, or whatever ..." (Jablonski, 1961: 1981). Capote recalled, "... I had no true understanding of songwriting ... but Arlen ... was very tolerant and infinitely encouraging ... For him music is the entire story. There inside a world of sound he is always courageous, intelligent, and incapable of cliche. His songs almost invariably contain some melodic surprise, some difficulty which is one of the reasons he has not had the recognition he deserves. He is too versatile and inventive to have created a large single image (like Gershwin or Porter). Of course for those who really know his music, Arlen has a sound, a style that is immediately recognizable, one more haunting and original than any of his contemporaries, a real 'Blues in the Night' ..." (Jablonski, 1961: 46).
18 Arlen also had other distinguished lyricists as partners for several films in the late forties and early fifties. They included Dorothy Fields, Leo Robin, and Ralph Martin. "For Every Man There's a Woman" was added to the list of Arlen's standards. Leo Robin had a long time partner, Ralph Rainger. This team produced many familiar standards including "Moon Over Miami", "Love in Bloom", "June in January", "Thanks for the Memory", and "Easy Living" (Jablonski, 1961: 164). Like Arlen this team has also experienced much anonymity. Robin told Jablonski that "... it was refreshing to work with a writer like Harold ... who is not bound by the conventional formulas of the music business. However it is remarkable that while he avoids the commercial cliches so many of his songs ... have found favor with the people ..." Robin also recalled Arlen's ability to sing and demonstrate his songs (Jablonski, 1961: 164). Blane, who had known Arlen in New York in the thirties, was best know for his and Hugh Martin's score for Meet Me in St. Louis, the nostalgic film starring Judy Garland. Blane was in awe of working with Arlen who he idolized. He was so intimidated that he had difficulty coming up with lyrics, but Arlen offered to help Blane and the results were some very engaging songs that revealed Arlen's sense of humor. This is one example form the song "Deductable":
  "Producer gets an angel,
Producer gets a flop,
The angel doesn't worry
'Cause the flow comes off the top
19 Once Blane overcame his initial fear of working with his idol they collaborated on a second film Down Among the Sheltering Palms (1953) (Jablonski, 1961: 168-170). Dorothy Fields, who had preceded Arlen as Cotton Club song writer and worked with songwriter giants Jerome Kern and Irvin Berlin, teamed up with Arlen for the film Mr. Imerium (1951) which starred Enzo Pinza and Lana Turner. Fields was impressed with Arlen's versatility as a composer, and joined a list of knowing people who were disturbed by the stereotyping of the composer as a Blues writer. She also described Arlen as the sweetest person she'd ever known which was reflected in his "pure lyric line and good taste" (Jablonski, 1961: 171-172). Arlens's last major work Free and Easy, a Blues Opera with an interesting if stormy history.
20 Robert Breen who was conductor of the Porgy and Bess tour cited earlier became an Arlen advocate when he discovered that companion pieces he had picked to be played and sung by the Porgy and Bess cast and orchestra were all written by Harold Arlen (Jablonski, 1961: 220). Breen thought it would be a good idea for Arlen to write a Blues Opera which he (Breen) would direct. The idea was born in 1953, but did not come to fruition until December of 1959. There were many reasons for this delay including Arlen's other commitments and illness. There were also several re-directions and legal problems caused partly by the fact that many of the songs and story ideas were going to be taken from St. Louis Woman. After many hurdles were overcome a "Blues Opera Suite" lasting twenty-five minutes was premiered by Andre Kostelanetz in August of 1957. A change in producers in 1959 brought a change in title to Free and Easy and a re-orchestration of the score by Jazz composer/arranger Quincy Jones, with a smaller Jazz orchestra on the stage instead of the orchestra pit. The show finally opened with performances in Brussels and Amsterdam in December of 1959. The official opening was in Paris on January 15, 1960. In spite of very good press notices and enthusiastic opening week audiences the audiences dwindled until it had to close. Many of the Arlen/Koehler, and Arlen/Mercer standards were included in the show plus many new Mercer/Arlen songs, but unfortunately the opera died in Paris.
21 After 1960, Arlen's work tapered off due to his health and reluctance to expend energies on "flops" like Saratoga and Free and Easy. One significant work was a full length musical cartoon called Gay Purree (1961). Long time friend "Yip" Harburg wrote the lyrics and the voices of Judy Garland, Robert Goulet and Red Buttons were used. In the two decades before his passing Arlen garnered some of the recognition many thought he deserved. Twentieth Century, the televison show hosted by Walter Cronkite devoted two complete shows to Arlen. In March of 1965, Cue Magazine presented a tribute to Arlen at Lincoln Center's Fischer Hall with performers like Eileen Farrell, Sammy Davis Jr., Bert Lahr, and Lisa Kirk. In 1973 he received the prestigious Handel medal, New York's highest musical award for its citizens. In 1979 Arlen was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame along with Leonard Bernstein, Abe Burrows, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Lowe, Frank Loesser and the turn-of-the century team of Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart. ASCAP saluted Arlen on his 75th birthday in 1980 with an elaborate birthday greeting in the New York Times (Jablonski, 1961; and New York Times, April 21, 1979: 21). The National Academy of popular music presented a musical tribute on March 15, 1982 featuring Dinah Shore, Marvin Hamlisch, Carol Channing, Julie Styne and many others (Jablonski, 1961). On April 21, 1986, Harold Arlen died at the age of 81 leaving a great legacy of popular songs in America, with at least thirty-five songs recorded as standards. The last part of this paper will be devoted to other impressions of Arlen by peers and of popular music historians.
22 In his very comprehensive study of American Popular Song Alec Wilder compared Arlen very favorably with George Gershwin, suggesting that Arlen was a slightly better songwriter (Wilder, 1972: 253). Wilder cites Arlen's background as pianist/arranger as a factor in Arlen's use of sophisticated harmonies. When discussing songwriting with Arlen, Wilder quoted him as never speaking in terms of "... hit songs but only good songs ... unlike Gershwin who became attracted by the concert hall Arlen, except for Free and Easy and a few piano pieces settled for popular music. He chose to develop his talent within "it's ... exacting limits ..." (Wilder, 1972: 253). Wilder analyzed forty-five Arlen songs and came to the following conclusions and observations:
  1. Arlen's experience as a dance band arranger and pianist did not affect his ability as a writer of pure melodies.
  2. He was influenced by his father (the cantor) who according to Arlen was a great improvisor.
  3. His love for Jazz had a "profound effect on Arlen's songs as it did for Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer.
  4. "... Arlen like (Richard) Rodgers reveals a deep rooted need to express himself. In both men there is a very personal almost private approach to creation, rather than the professional capacity to continue to contrive and produce reasonable facsimiles of the real thing (Wilder, 1972: 254-255).
  5. Wilder also believed that Arlen's songs "... suggested a greater musical thoroughness than those of other writers ..." By thoroughness Wilder means that the finished product for Arlen's piano accompaniments were more complete due to Arlen's arranging experience. Wilder also concluded that Arlen's songs were "... those of a man who loved to write, and who loved the creative act for its excitement and fulfillment, rather than one who was simply in the songwriting business (Wilder, 1972: 253).
  6. On Arlens's American qualities Wilder said "... this is very simply because even more than in the case of Youmans or Berlin there is nothing else ... he never drew upon or was influenced by European Music, of any kind. He is totally a product of American Jazz, Big Band Music and American Popular Song" (Wilder, 1972: 289-290).
24 From other peers came the following descriptions of Arlen's work:
  1. Irving Berlin; "... his songs are always in good taste. I don't think it is fair that some people type him as a Blues writer. He has written some of the most beautiful ballads we have ..." (Jablonski, 1961: 18).
  2. Richard Rogers; when he first met Arlen in the late twenties Rodgers thought he "... was a little advanced for me but I caught on pretty soon to his unusual harmonic structure and form. I realized he was the greatest new talent in years. Larry Hart thought he was great. Harold has a real valid talent that is on his own and completely original" (Jablonski, 1961: 18).
  3. Jerome Kern; According to Dorothy Fields who worked with Arlen and Kern, the latter "... had a great respect for Harold and considered him enormously talented ..." Kern was also upset when "Blues in the Night did not win the Academy Award in 1941 even though his and Oscar Hammerstein's "I Love Paris" did. Kern was particularly annoyed because "I Love Paris" was a last minute interpolation in the film Lady Be Good and in Kern's mind should not have been considered for the award (Jablonski, 1961: 118, 143). Kern's ego was legendary so it was very unusual for him to admit that anyone could write a better song than he. Kern also presented Arlen with Jaques Offenbach's cane which he had received from Alexander Wollcott. This was because Kern was so impressed with "Blues in the Night" and also because Offenbach was also the son of a cantor (Zinnser, 1960: 4, 5).
  4. Alan Jay Lerner; "... it was impossible for Arlen to write a bad song ... many of his songs were better than the stage vehicles as a whole ... The Wizard of Oz was the best original film score ..." (Lerner, 1985: 193).
  5. Hal Johnson, Black composer; After hearing and analyzing the Arlen Koehler American Negro Suite (a set of songs written for the concert stage) Johnson stated "... of all the many songs written by white composers and employing what claims to be a Negroid idiom in both words and music, these six songs by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler easily stand far out above the rest. Thoroughly modern in treatment, they are at the same time, full of simple sincerity which invariably characterizes genuine Negro folk-music and are by no means to be confused with the average "Broadway spirituals" which depend for their racial flavor upon (cliche's and stereotypes) ..." (Lerner, 1985: 193).
25 From writers about popular music, the following impressions of Arlen's were made:
  • David Ewen characterized Arlen as "... most serious about his work — painstaking about details, consistency, trying to maintain the highest possible integrity ..." (Ewen, 1970: 258).
  • Charles Hamm reminds us that seven of Arlen's standards were on Variety magazine's gold 100 Tin Pan Alley Song List (1910-1950), which ranks Arlen third behind Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers. Hamm also cites that "Over the Rainbow" was one of the most enduring songs in the history of the radio/television show Your Hit Parade (1935-1958). Hamm also concluded that Arlen "... was surely the most talented and versatile songwriter in the third generation of those born several decades after Berlin and Kern ..." (Hamm, 1983: 355-356).
  • In their study of the Hollywood musical, Taylor and Jackson concluded that Arlen's music is "... remarkably timeless and consistent in his style. His songs are immediately recognizable by the length of their melodic lines (not conforming to the standard 32 bar form) ..." (Taylor and Jackson, 1971: 37). Taylor and Jackson also rank the scores to The Wizard of Oz, Cabin in the Sky, Casbah and A Farmer Takes a Wife as among the best for films. In writing for Bing Crosby, whose mannerisms have intimidated some of the "... strongest personalities among songwriters [Arlen] came up with songs fresh and personal i.e. "Let's Take the Long Way Home" from Here Come the Waves (1945) and "Love and Learn" from Country Girl (1954) while yet ... accommodating his style to Crosby's ..." (Taylor and Jackson, 1971: 37). In his journalistic eulogy Richard Harrington states that "... Arlen's songs were made to last which is exactly what they have done ... No matter which lyricist he collaborated with it was Arlen's songs, they had a directly. It was always the song. The singer was just the frosting on the cake. But more often than not it was the song that defined the singer, not the other way around ..." (Harrington, 1986: 16).
  • Edward Jablonski in his bibliography of Arlen sums up the composers work in the following manner; "... though his name is mentioned regularly with all other great contributions to American popular music, Arlen has also been mentioned in the company of Stephen Foster ..." (Jablonski, 1961: 18). This according to Jablonski also claims that in Europe, Arlen's music is "... more often related to Foster's than to Arlen's musical-comedy contemporaries. Jablonski believes that Arlen may have been the most versatile of the Broadway/Hollywood composers (Jablonski, 1961: 18).
26 It is gratifying that Arlen did receive some well deserved honors before his passing, but it is still an indictment of the average American's lack of knowledge of its genuine popular music heroes that Arlen is still not as well known as some of his peers. Perhaps twenty-first century musicologists will discover that Arlen may have been the best and most versatile of the Broadway/Hollywood composers of the twentieth century.
  • Burton, J. (1960), "Honor roll of popular songwriters." In: Billboard, July 22-29, 1960, 62, 40, 69-70.
  • Cohen, Daniel (1984), Musicals. New York: Gallery Books, 1984.
  • Ewen, David (1970), Great men of popular song. Englenook Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1970.
  • Hamm, Charles (1983), Yesterday: popular song in America. New York: Norton and Co., 1983
  • Harrington, Richard (1986), "Arlen's songs were eloquent jewels." In: Washington Post, April 25, 1986, 16; reprinted in: Milwaukee Journal April 28, 1986.
  • Jablonski, Edward (1961), Harold Arlen. Happy with the blues. New York: Decaps Press (Music Reprint Series), 1985 (original publication: Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961)
  • Lerner, Alan Jay (1986), The musical theater. A celebration. New York: McGraw Hill, 1986.
  • Life (1957), "Little known hit man." November 18th, 1957, 43, 21, 57.
  • Taylor, John Russell and Arthur Jackson (1971), The Hollywood musicals. New York: McGraw Hill, 1971.
  • Wilder, Alec (1972), American popular song. The great innovators, 1900-1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
  • Wilk, Max (1974), They're playing our song. Kingsport Tennessee: Kingsport Press, 1974.
  • Zinnser, William K. (1960), "Harold Arlen. The secret music maker." In: Harpers, May 1960, 220, 42, 47.
  This essay was published in: Tracking: Popular Music Studies,
vol. 3, no. 1 (Winter, 1990)
  1997 © IASPM / USA