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
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
"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
"How about Cole Porter?"
"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?"
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
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
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.
- Bloom, Ken: "The American Songbook," New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2005