(1905-1986)

The famous Broadway songwriter Harold Arlen was born Chaim Arluck. Arlen derived his stage name from a combination of his mother's and father's surnames (Cantor Arluck and Celia Orlin). Arlen started his professional career as a pianist during the 1920s.

A partial list of Arlen's credits include :

Stormy Weather
Get Happy
The Man that Got Away
World on a String
Let's Fall in Love
Anywhere I Hang My Hat is Home
For Every Man There's a Woman
Big Time Coming
I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues
Accentchuate the Positive
Come Rain or Come Shine
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)
Paper Moon
That Old Black Magic

The song Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which was part of Arlen's outstanding score for the movie The Wizard of Oz, won an Academy Award for Best Song and Blues in the Night, from the movie of the same name, was nominated in the same category.

Harold, Harold darling, stand up ...

Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, 1961,
coaxing a shy Harold Arlen out of his seat for an ovation,
during the recording of what is arguably her most popular album of all time.

If happy little bluebirds fly,
Beyond the rainbow,
Why, oh why can't I?

— Lyric, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"
from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture The Wizard of Oz ©1939

The following anecdote underscores the anonymity problem suffered by composer Harold Arlen, composer of over 400 songs, many of which have become Standards.

One day Harold was taking a taxicab ride cross-town in Manhattan. After he had settled in his seat, he found himself confronted by a classic situation. The cabby was whistling Stormy Weather, an Arlen standard dating back to the Thirties. It was an opportunity for experiment that the composer could not ignore.

"Do you know who wrote that song?" he asked the driver.

"Sure. Irving Berlin."

"Wrong," Arlen informed him, "but I'll give you two more guesses."

The cabby thought hard, and at times audibly if not understandably explaining that the name of the composer was on the tip of his tongue but he just couldn't come up with it.
Arlen prompted him: "Richard Rodgers?"

"That is the name I was thinking of," the cabby admitted, "but he's not the one."

"How about Cole Porter?"

"That's who!"
"No, you're wrong again," Arlen told him. "I wrote the song."

The cab darted across an intersection before the driver, still thinking, finally asked, "Who are you?"
"Harold Arlen."

At this the cabby turned around in his seat and asked, "Who?"

Harold Arlen was born Hyman Arluck in Buffalo, New York on February 15, 1905. Arlen's father, Samuel Arluck, was a pillar of Buffalo's Jewish community. Samuel was cantor of a large synagogue, and directed the choir there. Young Hyman was encouraged to sing and otherwise pursue a musical education. At nine, the Arlucks bought Hyman a piano. He excelled at the piano to such a degree that he soon was required to seek out a teacher who could offer lessons that were challenging to the child prodigy.

Although his teachers dished up a repertoire of classical music, and his father encouraged his studies of Hebrew traditional songs, he was much more interested in modern music. He began collecting jazz records at about age thirteen. Even at a young age, Hyman somehow managed to get out to see jazz bands whenever they traveled to Buffalo. By fifteen, Arluck had formed a jazz trio ("The Snappy Trio") that became a popular attraction at Buffalo cabarets. The normally shy boy played the piano and sang in the group, and also penned their musical arrangements.

The Trappings of Success at an Early Age

By sixteen, Arluck was earning a comfortable living wage as a band leader and pianist. He dressed the part, and also purchased the ultimate status symbol, the first Ford Model T car his neighborhood had ever seen.

The teen-aged musician caused quite the commotion when he announced he was going to pursue music as a career, and dropped out of high school. He finally agreed to attend a local vocational high school, in order to silence his parents' complaints.

The early part of the Roaring Twenties was good to Arluck and his Trio, which soon became a quintet, The Southbound Shufflers, which included Arluck's younger brother Julius on saxophone. Arluck wrote the music to his first copyrighted tune, "My Gal, Won't You Please Come Back to Me?" in collaboration with his friend Hyman Cheiffetz, who wrote the lyrics. The song did not enjoy a great deal of popularity, but it didn't matter. Hyman Arluck's musical career was in high gear. The 11-piece "big band" he eventually joined, The Buffalodians, was the area's top dance band and constantly in demand.

By 1926, Hyman Arluck decided to change his name (merely because he was unhappy with it). The name Harold Arlen was a take on his mother's maiden name, Orlin. Although a few of his early works were copyrighted under his given name, he never went back to it, and the bulk of his oeuvre was written under his new "stage name."

Harold Arlen: Toast of the Cabaret Circuit and Broadway

1930 found Arlen working in a Broadway pit orchestra, in the revue production George White's Scandals of 1928. A skilled pianist, he also occasionally played piano for rehearsals. His first big break as a composer came when composer Harry Warren heard a little riff that Arlen would play to cue the dancers to come onstage for their next number. The tune was very upbeat and catchy, lyricist Ted Koehler added the words, and "Get Happy," a smash hit (and metaphor for Depression-era escapism) was born.

The smash success of "Get Happy" opened doors for Arlen. He agreed to write the music for a series of revues at Harlem's world-famous Cotton Club. It was at the Cotton Club that he was exposed to blues and other black musical styles, which he integrated neatly into his own compositions. This created a modern, popular sound. Arlen's 1932 tune "I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues," epitomizes his grasp of the genre. 1933 brought the biggest hit for composer Arlen and lyricist Koehler, "Stormy Weather."

He's the blackest white man I've ever met.

— jazz singer Lena Horne.

By the time "Stormy Weather" had become a hit, Arlen had developed strong relationships with such black musicians as Lena Horne, Ethel Waters and Cab Calloway. Arlen would write non-stereotypical music for black performers until the end of his life.

Having written revue songs for Broadway and Vaudeville, his next step was to write an entire score for a Broadway production. Of his seven "book" (scripted) productions, only 1944's "Bloomer Girl" was a hit. Despite the failure of the plays, the quality of the songs Arlen was writing was on par with that of the bigger-name Broadway composers. Beside Horne, stars such as Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Celeste Holm, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Ray Walston, Geoffrey Holder and Ossie Davis appeared in Arlen's shows, and more importantly, recorded his music.

Somewhere Over The Rainbow

By 1938, Arlen's songwriting and arranging talents had come to the attention of Hollywood's movie moguls. His first major motion picture was an adaptation of L. Frank Baum's fantasy, The Wizard of Oz Arlen and his new lyricist, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, were given a matter of months to complete the musical selections for a movie of epic proportions. The movie was to star 14-year-old Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, the Kansas girl who wakes up in a magical world of munchkins, witches (good and bad), and a mysterious wizard.

"Ding-Dong The Witch Is Dead," "If I Only Had A Brain," "The Merry Old Land of Oz," "We're Off To See The Wizard," and of course "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" were among the musical pearls yielded by the Arlen/Harburg collaboration on Wizard of Oz. An interesting bit of trivia: "Over The Rainbow" was to be omitted from the movie, once because of the one-octave musical jump in the first word, "Some-where," and two more times for other reasons. The show's producer, who'd hired Arlen and Harburg, fought tooth-and-nail with MGM Studios' front office to keep the music in the picture. It was kept, and went on to earn an Oscar, and eventually be dubbed "America's Most Popular Song" in 2000. Scores of jazz and pop singers have covered the tune over the years.

Over the Rainbow ... has become a part of my life. It is so symbolic of everybody's dream and wish that I am sure that's why people sometimes get tears in their eyes when they hear it. I have sung it dozens of times and it's still the song that is closest to my heart. It is very gratifying to have a song that is more or less known as my song, or my theme song, and to have had it written by the fantastic Harold Arlen."

— Judy Garland

The unassuming Arlen was shy, humble, and never a great self-promoter. Despite the commercial success of so many of his songs, his name is not recognized as readily as, say, Irving Berlin or George and Ira Gershwin. Yet popular singers and jazz artists alike have embraced his oeuvre. Arlen is certainly among the composers whose songs have been recorded the most.

Come Rain or Come Shine

Arlen's success with Harburg on Wizard of Oz led to collaborations with other lyricists, among them such admirable talents as Johnny Mercer, Leo Robin, Dorothy Fields, Truman Capote, and Ira Gershwin.

The catchy tunes came one after another for the gifted composer. Some of his musical themes were quite ahead of their time with regard to style; that's why they endure as Great American Standards today. Arlen's songs proved to be consistent chart-toppers. His "Blues in the Night," (lyric: "My momma done tole me, when I was in pigtails...") was so enormously popular that it crossed-over and a parody of the song was sung by Elmer Fudd to Bugs Bunny in a cartoon in the late 1940s.

  • All in all, Harold Arlen wrote over 400 songs between 1924 and 1976. Thirty-one different lyricists provided words to the music.

Arlen's Most Popular Tunes and the singers that made them "their own"

Get Happy (Judy Garland)
Between the Devil and The Deep Blue Sea (Ella Fitzgerald)
I Love a Parade (various)
I Gotta Right to Sing The Blues (Billie Holiday)
I've Got The World On A String (Frank Sinatra)
It's Only a Paper Moon (various)
Stormy Weather (Lena Horne)
Ill Wind (Tony Bennett)
Over The Rainbow (Judy Garland)
Blues in the Night (Ella Fitzgerald)
That Old Black Magic (Louis Prima)
My Shining Hour (Frank Sinatra)
One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)(Frank Sinatra)
Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive (Ella Fitzgerald)
Out of This World (Sammy Davis, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald)
Come Rain or Come Shine (Frank Sinatra)
The Man That Got Away (Judy Garland)

Arlen the Singer

Although it was his choice to focus on songwriting and arranging, Harold Arlen was a great singer of his own works, and of others'. Lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg said, "Harold was a great singer. Everybody wanted Harold to sing. Harold could perform a song better than anybody and he got all kinds of offers to go on the air and to go on stage and so on, but he refused to do it. Harold is really a purist in every sense of the word, as an artist who would not compromise his talent by being half singer and half writer, as others do."

Difficult Last Years

By the 1960s, Arlen was still composing. Enjoying popularity and financial success, his last years were nonetheless emotionally bleak for him. His beloved wife, Anya, had been having difficulties with her speech and control of her movement. She died of a brain tumor on March 9, 1970. Despite efforts by family and friends, nobody could cure Arlen's deep despair over Anya's passing.

By the 1980s, he was suffering symptoms of Parkinson's Disease. Once the toast of New York society, Arlen withdrew and rarely went out or attended performances. He died peacefully at his home on New York City's Central Park West, surrounded by his family, on April 23, 1986.

Harold Arlen Centennial

The Arlen family embarked on an ambitious program of events celebrating Harold Arlen's Centennial, in 2005. Radio programs, recordings, and festivals celebrating Arlen: The Great American Composer took place throughout the year, in venues all over the United States, and the U.K. and Australia as well.

SOURCES:

  • http://www.haroldarlen.com/bio.html
  • http://www.thepeaches.com/music/composers/arlen/
  • http://thewizardofoz.warnerbros.com/
  • Bloom, Ken: "The American Songbook," New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2005
  • http://www.jbuff.com/harl.htm
  • http://www.ascap.com/ace/
  • http://www.haroldarlen2005.com/music_title_01.html

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