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CARAMOOR AND HAROLD ARLEN ACCLAIMED
The Caramoor Summer Music Festival up in Katonah, New York — one of my favorite musical institutions — is hosting a concert this coming Saturday devoted to Harold Arlen — another of my favorite musical institutions. I can’t resist dropping a word or two (thousand) on them jointly.
These are not my first words aimed at Arlen. Almost twenty years ago, in 2005, I worked up quite a profile for Vanity Fair magazine on the occasion of his centennial. The story was assigned, edited, paid for, and then killed just before it went to press, bumped by then-Editor in Chief, Graydon Carter to grab space for some late-breaking dirt in the dominion of gossip. I no longer remember what.
I tossed the axed article, along with nine-plus months of research and interviews, into a file bin filled with such stuff and moved on. Ten years later, in February 2015, at the instigation of my Wizard of Oz-loving ten-year-old daughter, Sara, I recycled elements of that profile into an Arlen 110th Birthday piece for Huffington Post.
Now, in the name of Caramoor’s American Songbook series and “Over the Rainbow: The Songs of Harold Arlen,” upcoming this Saturday, July 8, at 8:00pm, helmed by music director Ted Sperling, whose stellar music and theater credits cannot possibly be squeezed into this sentence, and featuring an extraordinary cast of vocalists — Julie Benko, Mikaela Bennet, Aisha de Haas and Nicholas Ward — here is a bit more of what I once learned about Harold Arlen.
Celebrated even in his own lifetime for being uncelebrated, Arlen was born Hyman Arluck in Buffalo, New York on February 15, 1905, and died in 1986, a nominally forgotten songwriter who had been writing unforgettable songs for often forgettable Hollywood and Broadway musicals for over thirty years. To the public, his name was an afterthought, though most people could probably hum at least one Arlen song; if not “Stormy Weather” then “Blues in the Night” or “That Old Black Magic” or, surely, “Over the Rainbow.”
Arlen, in fact, was quite the enigma. Behind his music were secrets that he rarely shared: of alcoholism, depression and — at the root of both, perhaps — a beloved wife in and out of psychiatric institutions. His back-story was a conjunction of incongruities: he was a Jew — a cantor’s son — who found early success writing for Black entertainers at Harlem’s Cotton Club; an urbane New Yorker whose greatest achievement was the Hollywood score for a children’s fantasy flick, The Wizard of Oz; a composer artisan who crafted brilliantly original songs for sometimes dopey, if not inane, B-movies; a Broadway aspirant who longed to write hit shows like Richard Rodgers, but failed in this ambition, even while composing some of musical theater’s loveliest individual songs.
Reticence defined him from the outset; his initial career breakthrough came almost entirely by accident. Landing in New York in 1926 as a 21-year-old piano player, vocalist and arranger for a hot outfit called The Buffalodians, he was cast as a singer in a Broadway-bound musical called Great Day in 1929. Self-effacingly filling in one day for the show’s absent rehearsal pianist, he cut the tedium for everyone by improvising ever-more delightful variations on an endlessly repeated dance pickup, until it was pointed out that what he really had there, was “a song.”
Arlen next found himself introduced to lyricist Ted Koehler, a Tin Pan Alley pro, who supplied Arlen’s inadvertent song with lyrics and a title that emphasized the music’s innate rhythmic buoyancy: “Get Happy.” The result, as Arlen himself later recalled, “was a very noisy song.”
The noisy success of “Get Happy” propelled Arlen toward songwriting as a career. Fearful that his unexpected hit would prove an unrepeatable stroke of luck, he began studiously setting down melodic ideas — “jots,” as he called them — in pocket notebooks, pursuing inspiration with what can be termed Talmudic zeal. “Harold would write a tune,” recalled one of his early collaborators, the veteran lyricist Jack Yellen, “then stand in the corner and pray for the next one.”
Prayer was, in fact, at the heart of “Get Happy”’s appeal; Arlen’s melody was a clarion call to a different kind of prayer, one of secular, hedonistic joy. Koehler’s lyric captured this heady combination via a Black spiritual’s language of salvation: “Sing Hallelujah, come on, get happy!”
The pair were soon offered a plum job at Harlem’s notoriously segregated Cotton Club, writing Black-sounding songs for Black singers and dancers to perform in front of White audiences. Over the next four years, Arlen and Koehler transcended this tacky job description, composing timeless songs that obliterated racial stereotyping: “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “I Love a Parade,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Ill Wind,” “As Long as I Live” and, supremely, “Stormy Weather.” Blossoming under the Cotton Club’s deadline pressure, Arlen poured out melodies that far outlived their initial nightclub setting. What defines them still is the young composer’s poignant affinity for both cantorial and African American blue notes, his adventurous instincts structurally, an exhilarating, jazz-based, syncopated rhythmic sense and, at bottom, a profound, sincere, soulfulness.
The Nicholas Brothers were still kids when they first danced at The Cotton Club in revues scored by Harold Arlen. “I remember him coming in the daytime to rehearsals in the empty club and playing and singing for us the new songs he’d written,” Fayard Nicholas told me, when he was 91. “I remember Harold singing ‘Stormy Weather” that way. Duke Ellington was there. Ethel Waters was there. Cab Calloway was there. Arlen sang so very beautifully. Were we uncomfortable with this white man writing all our songs? No. We were very comfortable. Oh, yes. It didn’t bother anybody. Why? The man could write. He had a great talent, and we knew it.”
By the mid-1930s, many of Arlen’s Cotton Club songs had become Hit Parade smashes. On Broadway, he was realizing similar successes with song contributions to prestigious revues, plus one critically acclaimed musical of his own, written with lyricist “Yip” Harburg in 1937, called Hooray for What!. When Hollywood beckoned, Arlen was ready to go. He and Koehler made an initial foray in 1933, spending a month writing songs for the film Let’s Fall in Love. A few years, later he returned more or less for good, joining an expatriate community of N.Y.C. songwriters riding out the Wall Street Crash in swimming pool-centered, Southern California comfort, churning out songs for the major studios.
From 1934 to 1954, Arlen wrote over 150 songs for 29 Hollywood films. His lyricists on these jobs were quite simply the best: Koehler, Harburg, Dorothy Fields, Ira Gershwin, Lew Brown, Leo Robin, Ralph Blane and, most significantly, Johnny Mercer. The movies themselves were, with few exceptions, mediocre. The music, however, constituted a staggering stylistic catalogue. Jaunty Depression-era baubles? Arlen wrote some of the best: “Public Melody Number One” (with Koehler), “I Love to Sing-A” and “Fancy Meeting You” (with Harburg). Lilting World War II escapism? “Hit the Road to Dreamland” (with Mercer) can still make just about anyone smile nostalgically. Number-One hits? Take your pick: “That Old Black Magic” or “Ac-centchu-ate the Positive” (both with Mercer).
Then there were the ballads, a songwriter’s ultimate test. “It Was Written in the Stars” (with Robin) remains an exceptional, nearly unsurpassable paradigm. It was Mercer, however — the laconically erudite Southern good ole’ boy — who drew from Arlen “My Shining Hour,” “This Time the Dream’s on Me,” and “Out of this World,” along with a pair of torch songs that rank among the composer’s crowning song achievements in Hollywood: “One for My Baby” and “Blues in the Night.”
Where “One for My Baby” was the thing itself as a torch song, a perfect shard of pain, “Blues in the Night” was an aria of loss, a multi-act opera, practically.
Singer Margaret Whiting recalled for me the night she heard “Blues in the Night” for the first time. “I used to have a party at my house on Saturday nights and all the songwriters in town used to come. This particular Saturday, Martha Raye, Mel Tormé, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were there for an early dinner before the rest showed up. When Johnny called and asked, ‘Can I come over with Harold?’ I said, ‘Sure.’
“They sat at the piano immediately and played through the score of a picture they were working on called Blues in the Night. Great songs. We were eating and laughing. “Get me a plate later!” Johnny shouted — you know, seven people just having a ball. Then suddenly they were singing this song: “My Mama Done Told Me,” they called it — they would change it later to match the picture’s title.
“Dead silence. We put our plates down. Our mouths were open, all of us. I heard Martha say: ‘I can't say anything,’ Mickey too. I heard Mel say: ‘That's the best song I've ever heard.’ And Judy just said: ‘Play it again.’
“They played it seven different times. Really.”
“Blues in the Night” was not even the best song that Arlen ever wrote for the movies. One late afternoon in the summer of 1938, he told his lyricist Yip Harburg that he’d finally sweated out a melody for the last piece of their Wizard of Oz score, the song that had eluded them; a ballad for the little girl from Kansas.
Harburg didn’t initially appreciate his partner’s newest tune. He considered it too grandiose for Dorothy’s character, and out of scale with the whimsical score he and Arlen had thus far written (a score of “lemon drops,” as Arlen characterized it).
MGM executives agreed with Harburg. They cut “Over the Rainbow” from the film’s final print three different times, citing the song’s gloominess, its inordinate length, and melodic intricacy. It was Arthur Freed — the determined executive force behind The Wizard of Oz at MGM, and a former Tin Pan Alley songwriter himself — who, on each occasion, battled and won “Over the Rainbow’’’s restoration. In the end, the song would win an Academy Award. In 2004, it was designated the top American movie song of all time by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Sadly, Arlen never replicated on a Broadway stage the seamless narrative beauty of his Wizard of Oz film score, despite returning repeatedly to try. His Broadway existence was so filled with marvelous music in musicals derided by critics or betrayed by bookwriters, it’s hard to say which score stands today as the most egregiously misunderstood. Bloomer Girl, written with Harburg and produced in 1944, was a droll feminist period piece, boasting eloquent, earnestly integrated songs. It was nevertheless viewed, just a year past Oklahoma!, as something of a homespun knockoff. St. Louis Woman, created with Johnny Mercer in 1946 for an all-Black cast that included the Nicholas Brothers and Pearl Bailey, wound up even more cavalierly dismissed, despite an Arlen score that time has revealed to be one of the richest ever written for Broadway, including “Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home” and the incandescent “Come Rain or Come Shine.” House of Flowers, written in 1954 with Truman Capote as librettist and co-lyricist, based on a Capote short story set in Haiti, allowed Arlen to revisit Black music from a new perspective: the lilting, steel drum percussiveness of the Caribbean. The result was a new Broadway sound of exquisite delicacy and heat. House of Flowers, however, was an all-star enterprise undermined by an across-the-board loss of artistic nerve; from its director, the legendary Peter Brook, on down.
Still, the extraordinary quality of Arlen music in all of these musicals did make an impression. By the early-1960s, it was a mark of sophistication in Kennedy-era smart circles to at least know Harold Arlen’s name. For just a moment, it almost became fashionable to rediscover him. Barbra Streisand did, though still in her teens, an unknown kid from Brooklyn worshipfully singing Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” on Manhattan nightclub stages all over town. Ella Fitzgerald rediscovered him, anointing Arlen with an album in her epochal “Songbook” series for Verve Records, alongside the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and Irving Berlin. NBC rediscovered him with an all-Arlen special starring Peggy Lee in 1961; CBS rediscovered him too, with a full-scale Arlen profile on its Sunday night precursor to Sixty Minutes, a show called The Twentieth Century, hosted by Walter Cronkite himself. Even Judy Garland ostensibly rediscovered him, championing Arlen songs on her soon-to-be-canceled network variety show. In fact, Garland never had remotely lost contact with Harold Arlen, not since he and “Yip” Harburg had first made her a star in 1939, writing “Over the Rainbow” for her in The Wizard of Oz.
The arrival in America of The Beatles put an end to all of this. Harold sings Arlen (with friend), a hard-won solo album recorded by Arlen himself in 1965 for Columbia Records — the “friend” being Streisand, by now a Broadway star — also proved an abrupt coda to his momentary mini-vogue. By decade’s end, Harold Arlen was just one more name from a dead civilization that the Woodstock Nation had buried.
Arlen lived another sixteen years beyond the 1960s, increasingly in seclusion, wracked by grief and illness. “I’m not an easy man to get to, I know that,” he told an interviewer in 1964. “I don’t like to talk about myself. I close up. Everything I feel, everything I want to say, I pour out in my manuscripts. It’s all there.”
Two Arlen songs in particular seem to sing of much that he left unspoken. One is “The Man That Got Away,” written with Ira Gershwin for Judy Garland and her triumphant remake of A Star is Born in 1954. The song is an emotional roller coaster, with Arlen’s epic melody perfectly encapsulating the stark, tortured beauty of Gershwin’s lyric in a continually ascending blues-like series of fierce major and minor key epiphanies. Alternately self-lacerating and self-affirming, the song resounds like a cry from Arlen’s own storm-tossed life.
The second song is “Last Night When We Were Young,” which Arlen acknowledged as perhaps his favorite. Like many Arlen tunes, the complex melody is — as Arlen himself characterized it — “another tapeworm” structurally, one that traces its own deeply moving dramatic arc, from sweet yearning, to rage, to resignation. “Yip” Harburg’s lyric, a fiercely wistful reflection on lost youth, captures this profoundly.
For all the affectionate descriptions of Harold Arlen by colleagues and friends as a frequently passive, always gracious, ever-deferring soul, there was also the heroic Arlen who played his newest melody for George Gershwin shortly after writing it in 1934, even before “Last Night When We Were Young” had a lyric. To Arlen’s dismay, Gershwin — a masterful musical experimenter in his own right, a mentor, a close friend, and an enormously enthusiastic Arlen admirer — could not comprehend what Harold had done this time, finding his latest melody too complicated. “People can’t sing these songs,” Gershwin told Arlen, intimating that Arlen should really stop writing them.
No composer meant more to Harold Arlen than George Gershwin. In many ways, Arlen had modeled himself as a composer entirely on his idol, George. Yet, in this instance, Gershwin was wrong. And, blessedly, Arlen knew it. Just as Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett, by their own acknowledgement, knew that Harold Arlen, alongside George Gershwin, was the greatest American songwriter of the 20th Century.
Take a drive out to Caramoor this Saturday and you’re sure to hear why.