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Overview for Harold Arlen
Harold Arlen

Harold Arlen



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Also Known As: Harold Arluck,Hyman Arluck Died: April 23, 1986
Born: February 15, 1905 Cause of Death: cancer
Birth Place: Buffalo, New York, USA Profession: Music ... composer songwriter singer pianist


A giant of American song, Harold Arlen wrote the music to some of the most enduring musical numbers of the 20th century, including the songs from "The Wizard of Oz," most famously its signature song, "Over the Rainbow," as well as such classic standards as "Get Happy," "Stormy Weather," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "Blues in the Night," "That Old Black Magic" and hundreds more. An accomplished arranger and jazz musician in his teens, Arlen began writing songs for the Cotton Club during its heyday in the 1930s before graduating to Broadway and Hollywood. He collaborated with some of the greatest lyricists of his day, from Ira Gershwin and Johnny Mercer to E.A. "Yip" Harburg, who penned the words to his memorable "Oz" songs. His work for feature films was no less memorable, though the films they accompanied rarely met the high standards of his music, save perhaps for "A Star is Born" (1952), which featured "The Man That Got Away." Arlen's work declined along with his health in the late 1960s, though his songs remained evergreen thanks to countless cover versions in nearly every genre of music - from jazz and pop to rock and blues. In a career that spanned over half a decade, Harold Arlen brought swing, bounce, blues and joy to the sound of modern-day America.

Born Hyman Arluck on Feb. 15, 1905 in Buffalo, NY, he was one of two twin boys born to cantor Samuel Arluck and his wife, Celia. Arlen's twin brother passed away a day after their birth, and a third son, Julius, was born seven years later in 1911. Arlen began singing at his father's synagogue at an early age, and was introduced to the piano by his mother, who hoped that he would pursue a career as a music teacher. He began piano studies at the age of eight, but found that his interests lay more with modern compositions like jazz than the classical works of the past. At 12, he penned his first original composition, "Indianola," which drew inspiration from ragtime music. Arlen soon began playing piano in various bands and at local movie and vaudeville houses before forming his own act, The Snappy Trio, at the age of just 15. The group proved lucrative, and Arlen decided to drop out of high school to pursue music as a career. His parents objected strongly, so he attended a vocational school to allay their concerns. Meanwhile, The Snappy Trio had expanded to a five-piece called The Southbound Shufflers, which featured his brother Julius on saxophone. They soon became a popular fixture on the summer beach resort circuit.

Arlen began experimenting with songwriting in the summer of 1924. Though the entire material amounted to nothing, he was soon invited to join a larger group, The Yankee Six, which enjoyed a devoted audience among college crowds. The band later expanded into an 11-piece outfit called The Buffalodians, which played larger ballrooms as well as society events While performing at Geyer's, a restaurant in downtown Buffalo, Arlen met and befriended a young dancer from Boston named Ray Bolger, who would accompany the Buffalodians on their first national tour in 1925. The following year, Arlen returned to songwriting, penning a solo piano piece, "Minor Gaff (Blues Fantasy"), which became his first composition to bear his new stage name, Harold Arlen. Though he enjoyed composing, he viewed it as a means of drawing a paycheck, much like arranging, en route to his goal of becoming a popular singer.

However, it was his arrangements that drew the greatest notice, especially among other musicians. Bandleader Arnold Johnson hired him to arrange several songs for a revue, which Arlen accepted on condition that he also sing in the production. The position soon focused almost primarily on arranging, so Arlen left the band to become a solo singing act in vaudeville. His fortunes, however, continued to pull towards songwriting rather than singing; in 1929, his tune "The Album of My Dreams" became a hit for singer Rudy Vallee. That same year, he landed a performing gig in the musical "The Great Day." During rehearsals, he was asked to fill in for the show's ailing piano accompanist. While waiting between numbers, Arlen picked out a new arrangement for one of the show's numbers, which the composers liked enough to suggest that he create a new song out of it. With lyricist Ted Koehler, Arlen transformed the arrangement into one of his earliest hits, "Get Happy." Soon afterward, he abandoned his singing aspirations to pursue songwriting on a fulltime basis.

"Get Happy" was picked up the following year as the first act finale for a show called "The Nine-Fifteen Review." Though a flop, the song became exceptionally popular, drawing attention to the Arlen-Koehler team. They soon became in-demand writers on the New York stage and cabaret scenes. In the former capacity, they wrote such enduring tunes as "Sweet and Hot" and "It's Only a Paper Moon" for a string of forgotten musicals. However, their work for the famed Cotton Club in Harlem enjoyed greater popularity; between 1930 and 1934, Arlen and Koehler penned their signature material - a blend of upbeat rhythm numbers like "Get Happy," as well as jazz tunes, ballads and torch songs - for two shows a year at the Cotton Club. Among the songs penned during this period were such classics as "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," "I Love a Parade" and "I've Got the World on a String." They also began writing for one of the Cotton Club's biggest stars, Cab Calloway, including "Stormy Weather," which became a sizable hit for Ethel Waters in 1933.

That same year, Arlen and Koehler headed to Hollywood for their first film assignment, "Let's Fall in Love" (1933), which featured their song of the same name. Upon returning to New York, they wrote their final numbers for the Cotton Club, which closed in 1936, before joining forces with George Gershwin and lyricist E.A. "Yip" Harburg for the show "Life Begins at 8:40," which featured Bolger, comic Bert Lahr, and a young actress-model named Anya Taranda, with whom Arlen had fallen hopelessly in love. The project marked the beginning of Arlen's long, fruitful collaboration with Harburg, which would soon come to encompass some of their most famous work.

After marrying Taranda in 1937, Arlen and his new bride moved to Los Angeles, where they befriended many fellow New York composers who had moved west to try their hand at the movie business, including Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. The Arlens also moved among the Hollywood acting elite, counting such figures as Groucho Marx, Danny Kaye, George Burns and Jack Benny among their immediate friends. In 1938, Arlen himself would become a major Hollywood star when he and Harburg were contracted by producer Arthur Freed to pen the score for "The Wizard of Oz," which featured old friends Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr in the cast. Given only two months to complete all of the music for the film, Arlen quickly knocked out some of the film's more upbeat numbers, including "We're Off to See the Wizard" and "Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead," but struggled to produce a sweeping ballad which he felt was necessary to the film.

The melody of "Over the Rainbow" came to him while driving down Sunset Boulevard, with the bridge surfacing the following day. However, Yarburg felt that the song was too grand a tune for a young Kansas girl like Dorothy Gale to sing, and that it clashed with the simplicity of the film's other songs. Arlen stood his ground, and after receiving Ira Gershwin's approval, the duo completed what was arguably one of the most memorable musical numbers in Hollywood history. To their dismay, the song was struck from the film three times before producer Arthur Freed demanded that the studio retain the song. The following year, "Over the Rainbow" received the Oscar for Best Film Song of the year and it became Judy Garland's signature number for her entire life, as well as continuing to delight generations of children who watched the classic film each year on television, singing along to the timeless tune.

In the years that followed "Oz," Arlen retained his status as one of the motion picture industry's most in-demand composers. That year 1939 also saw the release of the Marx Brothers classic "At the Circus," which featured one of Groucho's signature tunes, "Lydia the Tattooed Lady." Two years later, he teamed with Johnny Mercer to compose a blues number for a feature called "Hot Nocturne." The end result was "Blues in the Night," one of Arlen's most enduring songs, which also became the title of the picture it accompanied. Between 1942 and 1946, the Arlen-Mercer team wrote such high-water marks of the American songbook as "That Old Black Magic," "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)," and "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," all tremendous hits during their heyday. Ironically, each was better remembered than the films in which they were featured, including "Here Comes the Waves" (1944), a Betty Hutton programmer that gave rise to "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate." Similarly, songs like "Anyplace I Hang My Hat" and I Wonder What Became of Me?" were the centerpiece of an otherwise forgettable 1946 musical called "St. Louis Woman."

In 1952, Arlen reunited with Ira Gershwin for a screen musical based on "A Star is Born" (1937). Leading the film's cast was Judy Garland, who had blossomed into a movie icon thanks to "Over the Rainbow," and the duo wrote a number for the film that was tailor-made for her larger-than-life talents: "The Man That Got Away," which was singled out by many critics as the highlight of the film. "A Star is Born" would also mark the end of Arlen's tenure in Hollywood. His string of mediocre film projects, as well as the passing of his father in 1953, spurred him to return to New York. There, he continued to write for Hollywood, including the score for "The Country Girl" (1953), with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. Arlen also collaborated with Truman Capote on "House of Flowers," based on one of the author's short stories. While working on the score long-distance with Capote, who was based in Paris, Arlen was hospitalized with an ulcer that bled so gravely that it required three transfusions. He recovered to complete "House of Flowers," which opened to mixed reviews in 1954.

In 1956, Arlen re-teamed with Harburg for "Jamaica," a musical romance set in the tropics. He convinced Lena Horne, an old friend from the Cotton Club days, to star in the show, which became his first bona fide Broadway success in years, running some 500 performances. The Arlens then returned to California, which began a lengthy fallow period for the composer. He spent much of the time mourning the loss of his mother, who died that same year, and his own health had begun a marked decline. But the grief was tempered by the arrival of a son, Samuel, who was born in 1958. Arlen recovered sufficiently to begin work on a new musical with Mercer called "Saratoga." The project, based on Edna Ferber's novel Saratoga Trunk, featured Broadway leading man Howard Keel, who received good notices for his work, but the show itself was capsized by a ponderous script and sluggish direction.

"Saratoga" would be Arlen's final stage effort (1959), though he would continue to write songs for the next decade. Among his works during this period were the score for "Gay Purr-ee" (1962), an animated musical featuring the voice of Judy Garland, and "Happy with the Blues," a collaboration with singer Peggy Lee. But his final years were also marked by deep sadness. His wife, Anya, suffered a brain tumor that robbed her of her speech and motor control. Her death on March 9, 1970 sent Arlen into a depression that caused him to withdraw from family and friends. He remained largely homebound, struggling with Parkinson's disease, until his death in New York City on April 23, 1986. Less than two decades later, "Over the Rainbow" was recognized as the top song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment of the Arts. The American Film Institute further honored the song by naming it the greatest movie song of all time in 2004.

By Paul Gaita

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