Who Is Harry Warren?


Last Sunday jazz pianist Joe Reid and I debuted a one-hour program of music devoted to the composer Harry Warren at an enthusiastic retirement community in Milton, MA.

Mr. Warren had a long and extraordinarily successful career as a songwriter, but his name is not as familiar as that of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or the Gershwin Brothers — all of whom were his contemporaries.

Warren and lyricist Al Dubin wrote the first song in this blog post, “Lullaby Of Broadway,” for the Hollywood movie musical Gold Diggers of 1935 — and it earned them an Academy Award for Best Song in a Motion Picture.

It’s kind of ironic, however, that this love song to Broadway was written in California.

Harry had grown up in New York, and wanted for much of his adult life to move back east and write for the theater.

But he ended up living in California for over 50 years — where he composed more than 400 songs for 90 different movies.

And the songs he co-wrote — including such gems as “The More I See You,” “Serenade In Blue,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,””The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and “At Last” — continue to be performed at weddings, included in commercials, featured in movies, etc. to this day!


Harry was the born on Christmas Eve, 1893, in Brooklyn, NY, and he was christened Salvatore Antonio Guaragna — the second youngest of eleven children. His father was a successful custom boot maker who had emigrated from Italy and changed the family name from Gauragna to Warren when Harry was a child.

Harry was very musically inclined, teaching himself how to play his father’s accordion as well as singing in the choir at his Catholic church. He dropped out of school at age 16 to play drums with his godfather in a band that toured up and down the Hudson River valley with a traveling carnival.

He also taught himself to play the piano, and ended up finding employment at the Vitagraph Motion Picture Studios in Brooklyn, NY, doing a wide variety of tasks including prop master, assistant director, and accompanist for the silent movie star Corinne Griffith to help her summon different emotions while she filmed her scenes.


During WWI he joined the Navy and was stationed at the tip of Long Island in Montauk. Since he played piano, he ended up entertaining his fellow soldiers a lot — and also started writing his first original songs.

In December 1918, right after the war had ended, he married Josephine Wensler, and their first child, Harry Junior, arrived the next year.

After WWI, Harry found work playing piano in cafes, bars, and silent movie theaters in order to support his young family.

In 1920 a couple of men from a music publishing company heard him playing piano in a Brooklyn saloon — including one of his original songs, “I Learned To Love You When I Learned My ABCs.” They brought him to meet their boss, Ruby Cowan, who hired him as a staff pianist and a song plugger.

He spent his days and nights visiting theaters, clubs, bars and restaurants all around Brooklyn in order to pitch his company’s latest songs to vaudeville performers, band leaders — anyone who might perform the song and thus help to make it popular so that people would buy sheet music which they could play at home.

Warren later claimed that his basic shyness prevented him from being particularly effective as a song plugger — and perhaps this shyness is also part of the reason why his name hasn’t become better known by the American public.

His first hit, “Rose Of The Rio Grande,” was a collaboration with composer Ross Gorman and lyricist Edgar Leslie in April 1922.

Gradually he was able to do less song plugging and more composing — collaborating with lyricists such as Gus Kahn, Ted Koehler, Irving Kahal and Ira Gershwin (when his brother George was focused on one of his classical music projects) among others…

Harry’s early hits caught the attention of Hollywood, and from 1929-1932 he wrote songs for several minor movies — commuting via the train from New York to Hollywood and back again.

But he did not enjoy his time in California, finding it too parochial — and disrespectful to songwriters.

He later explained: “It was nothing like it is today. The railway station was a wooden building. If you rented a car, you were lucky the wheels didn’t fall off, and there were very few decent places to eat. Hollywood looked to me like a small town in South Dakota, and when you finally got to the Warners studio in Burbank, it was like being on the frontier. You could look out the windows of the music department at the San Fernando Valley and see nothing but wide open land. All I could think about was New York. What made it even worse, the studio was empty — they had laid off most of their people for the summer. Although they had made a fortune with The Jazz Singer in 1927, by the summer of 1932 they were in real trouble.”

Many executives in Hollywood thought movie musicals were done after a flood of them were produced following the 1927 success of the first talking/singing motion picture, The Jazz Singer.

But Darryl Zanuck at Warner Brothers had a hunch that new technologies and the creative vision of Busby Berkeley might turn things around.

So in 1932 Warren was lured back west by Zanuck to write a complete score for a new film, 42nd Street, with lyricist Al Dubin.

And as it turned out, Depression-era audiences were cheered by the singing and dancing of Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell and wowed by Berkeley’s innovative, grandiose and oftentimes bizarre group dance extravaganzas.

Here’s a photo of Al Dubin, Busby Berkeley and Harren Warren at the Warner Brothers studio.


42nd Street yielded several hits, including the title song, “42nd Street,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me” — which has now become a habit with me (and which I find myself singing at all hours of the day and night).


42nd Street had been completed by the end of 1932, but Warner Brothers waited until spring of 1933 to release it.

Warren had returned to his office in New York at the Remick music publishing company.

He still hoped his future would be in Broadway theaters.

However, 42nd Street tested so successfully with preview audiences before it was released that Warner Brothers rushed a similar film into production — Gold Diggers of 1933, which was filmed in 28 days!

Warren and Dubin wrote five songs for Gold Diggers of 1933 and then signed a contract — renewable annually at Warner Brothers’ discretion — to continue writing songs there.

And since he proved to be a tremendous composer of hit songs, his contract was renewed over and over again — thus keeping him in California.

Gold Diggers of 1933 outdoes 42nd Street in the wildness and lavishness of its production numbers.

Busby Berkeley was now the man of the hour and was given more or less free rein to pursue his cinematic visions.

For example, the movie opens with Ginger Rogers and a chorus line of women all wearing bikinis made out of huge coins singing the optimistic anthem to capitalism, “We’re In The Money.”

During the rest of the 1930s Harry Warren worked on 20 movie musicals with Al Dubin — for which they created standards such as “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “Lulu’s Back In Town,” and “September In the Rain.”


Often the songs Warren and Dubin created had very little to do with the plot.

But they DID fuel the imagination of  Busby Berkeley.

He would get inspired by their song titles and then manage — in some fantastic and unusual way — to include their songs in the plot of the movie.

In the 1934 film Dames Dick Powell’s character sings “I Only Have Eyes For You” to Ruby Keeler’s character on the Staten Island ferry.

Then they both fall asleep on the subway, and he dreams that he sees Ruby’s face everywhere — floating in geometrical patterns in the air, and then on the faces of a huge chorus of women who are all wearing masks of Ruby Keeler’s face while climbing up and down huge staircases and/or riding an elegant Ferris wheel.

At the climax of the song, all of these women bend over and form a giant mosaic of Ruby’s face using painted puzzle pieces on their backs.

If you have never seen this movie sequence, you can find it on YouTube.

It’s quite surreal.

This is not the only hit song Harry wrote about eyes.

In 1938 he wrote a song with lyricist Johnny Mercer for Louis Armstrong to sing in the Warner Brothers movie Going Places.

Armstrong plays the trainer of a wild-tempered race horse who only calms down when Mr. Armstrong’s character sings or plays this next song on the trumpet to him.


Given Mr. Armstrong’s decades-long relationship with marijuana — which he once described as being “a thousand times better than whiskey” — I have to think that the lyric might also have been something of an in joke between Mercer, Warren, Armstrong, and their fellow musicians.

Mr. Warren had a deep well of melodic ideas which he tapped into whenever he was composing a song.

Usually he and his lyricist would come up with a title and bat around ideas for lyrics.

Then Harry would compose a melody for which the lyricist would write words.

The list of great songs for which Harry Warren composed the music is quite extraordinary.


From 1931 – 1945, Harry co-wrote more hit songs than Irving Berlin, and had more Oscar nominations for best song (11) and wins (3) than Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, or Hoagie Carmichael.

Warren ended up winning an Oscar three times — for the afore-mentioned “Lullaby Of Broadway” with lyricist Al Dubin, “You’ll Never Know” with the lyricist Mack Gordon, and “On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” with lyricist Johnny Mercer.

Warren also had more hit records — 42 songs! — on “Your Hit Parade” than any of his peers.

And yet his name is not familiar to many of us.

There appear to be many reasons for this.

As mentioned earlier, Harry was a shy man and not much of a schmoozer.

He didn’t go to a lot of Hollywood parties where a songwriter might sit down and promote his catalog of songs.

He also didn’t hire a publicist to keep his name in the papers the way many of his fellow songwriters did.

In fact at one point a few of his friends hired a publicist for Harry on his behalf, and Harry fired the man as soon as he found himself mentioned in a gossip column.

I was steered towards Warren and his music by a chapter called “I’m Just Wild About Harry Warren” in one of Michael Feinstein’s terrific books — Nice Work If You Can Get It: My Life In Rhythm and Rhyme.

Michael befriended Harry near the end of his life, and has championed his music ever since.

Feinstein’s anecdotes about Warren provide a lot of texture and detail which other biographies omit or gloss over.

For example, the man who wrote the music for so many happy songs was heart-broken by the sudden death of his son Harry, Jr. in 1938.

And according to Feinstein, Warren’s marriage remained deeply scarred by this tragedy for decades afterwards…

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

During his decades-long career in Hollywood, Harry worked primarily for four movie studios: Warner Brothers in the 30s, 20th Century-Fox in the early 40s, MGM in the later 40s, and finally Paramount in the 50s.

He co-wrote his last big hit — “That’s Amore” — with lyricist Jack Brooks in 1953 for Paramount’s movie The Caddy starring Dean Martin (which earned Warren his tenth Oscar nomination for best song in a motion picture).

In the mid-1950s, however, Hollywood stopped making many big musical films — so Harry expanded his horizons.

In 1955 he co-wrote the theme song for the TV show The Life and Legend Of Wyatt Earp.

He also wrote scores and title songs for dramatic movies including “Marty” in 1955, and “An Affair To Remember” in 1957 — and continued writing songs for Jerry Lewis’ comedic movies after Dean and Jerry parted ways.

He even returned to Broadway with a musical, Shangri-la, based on a James Hilton novel which sadly was not a success.

To keep himself busy, he composed a bunch of short piano vignettes, and in 1962 wrote a complete Catholic mass with Latin text.

One of his biggest successes came in 1980, when producer David Merrick and director/choreographer Gower Champion adapted the original 1933 Hollywood blockbuster 42nd Street into a Broadway musical which also included many other songs Warren and Dubin had written for Warner Brothers movies.


Warren’s lifelong dream of having a hit show on Broadway was realized.

And yet, according to Michael Feinstein, Merrick and Champion were not very inclusive of — or respectful to — Harry, even managing to leave his name off the poster for what became a huge musical success.

So — although it earned him plenty of money — the Broadway version of 42nd Street brought him very little happiness or satisfaction.

Another deep breath in.

And out.

I am going to end this blog post with song Harry wrote with lyricist Mack Gordon for the 1942 20th Century Fox film Iceland.


I am well aware that my ongoing curiosity about the songs, songwriters, and performers of bygone eras is in large part a coping mechanism to drown out the distressing realities of our current political landscape here in the USA.

Perhaps his songs will give you a few minutes of solace and distraction, too!

And yet the real world in which most of Warren’s songs were written included a huge economic crisis, the genocides of millions of human beings, the use of atomic weapons, public lynchings, and many, many other horrific undertakings by the human species.

Blessedly his songs have survived — with some of us still singing them.

As I was finishing the first draft of the patter for our hour-long program of Harry’s songs, I learned that the wonderful jazz singer Rebecca Parris — who was based in Duxbury on the South Shore of Boston with her partner, the pianist Paul McWilliams — had died after sitting in for a couple of songs with McWilliams at the Riverway Lobster House in South Yarmouth, MA.

I also learned from reading her obituary in a local paper that “There Will Never Be Another You” was the last song she performed before leaving the restaurant, collapsing outside., and being taken to Cape Cod Hospital.

So it seems a fitting way to end this blog post in honor of Harry and in honor of Rebecca — and in honor of all of the other singers who have breathed life into Harry’s songs over the past nine decades.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for playing piano so beautifully while simultaneously recording all of these songs with me so that I would have accurate versions of Harry’s songs to practice and learn.

Thank you to Joe Reid for playing over 50 shows a year with me in retirement communities, restaurants, synagogues, assisted living homes, senior centers, and coffee houses around the greater Boston area.

Thank you to Harry Warren and his lyrical collaborators for writing these songs.

Thank you to Michael Feinstein and others who have written about Harry.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to what I know is a lengthy post.

Let’s keep humming and singing Harry’s songs for years to come!



29 thoughts on “Who Is Harry Warren?

  1. Very Enjoyable Will. it surprised me that while actually knowing some of the songs I had never heard of this guy. There are so many forgotten geniuses to be discovered! Thanks P

    • Yes, indeed. I had the same experience while beginning to read about him…”He co-wrote that? And he co-wrote that!” A song like “At Last” continues to be played and sung at weddings all over the USA (and maybe other parts of the planet, too — depending upon where American pop music has infiltrated different countries over the past many decades). He did not go out of his way to promote himself while he was alive; so other songwriters (I’m thinking about someone like Richard Rodgers, for example, who was very media-savvy) may have had more opportunities to shape the narrative about American popular song in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Hurrah for forgotten geniuses being re-discovered and savored and honored in some way!

    • I have pages and pages of notes from reading about Harry which didn’t make it into this blog post! Hopefully what DID make it is accurate. Rebecca Parris’s death is, of course, a reminder for all of us to seize the day… THANK YOU for reading and listening AND driving me to and from last night’s open mic!!!

    • Thank you for reading and listening, Jennie! He co-wrote many, many familiar gems — and many more that were hits which I am not (yet) familiar with… I think a bunch of his hits were re-used in Warner Brothers cartoons, which may be where/how I first heard many of them!

      • A pleasure to read and listen. Yes, so many familiar gems, Will. And I think you’re right about cartoons. Walt Disney did more for bringing classical music to mainstream America by using them in his cartoons. Much the same as Harry Warren. Thank you, Will!

  2. This is fascinating, Will–it must’ve taken you forever to write it! I had no idea of this man’s talent–I’m not all that familiar with this genre of music and even I have heard of many of his songs! Loved hearing your rendition of Lullaby of Broadway!

    • Thank you for listening and reading, KerryCan! I did take a lot of notes while reading one biography and then many individual chapters about Mr. Warren in various books about songwriters and the music of the first half of the 20th century in the USA. So many other interesting details I could share — maybe in a future post. May we continue singing and humming his songs for many more decades to come…

  3. Thank you for this, Will. I had the same experience as others–knowing so many of the songs but without any idea of who Harry Warren was.
    I’m sure your own concert program was a success and deeply appreciated.

    • Thank you for reading and listening! Mr. Warren is worthy of more respect and appreciation and name recognition. I love the way his music continues to live on — via Youtube, Turner Classics, being re-used in contemporary TV shows/movies/commercials, etc. And yes, our one-hour programs of music (interspersed with some history and personal anecdotes about the songwriter) are generally well-received. I love hearing the stories people share with us afterwards about particular songs and the meaning/resonance a song has had in their own lives. Music can re-awaken all sorts of memories and feelings…

  4. Thanks, Will, for this fabulous post! I just lost myself in Harry Warren, not only reading this, but then in looking up lots of his stuff on you tube, for a good chunk of this afternoon. Just what I needed to ease back into my life here after being away for 16 days. Many thanks!

  5. What a great post, Will! Thank you! I got lost in Harry Warren for a good chunk of an afternoon, following up on all your references, watching YouTube videos, etc. A real pleasure!

  6. It’s so interesting to read these biographies you post, and learn about the lives of people I hadn’t heard of but who have touched my life through their music. Thanks for writing this

  7. Thank you Will for this very informative and interesting post. I really enjoyed learning the truth behind where these wonderful songs came from. Great job at bringing the much deserved kudos and allowing us all to remember the magic of Harry Warren! 👍🏻

    • Mr. Warren deserves much acknowledgement and respect for his significant musical achievements. THANK YOU for making time to read and listen to this blog post. I love when your blog posts — with new, often astounding photos — appear in my email inbox…

  8. Wow, what a thought-provoking article about a man I had only recently heard of. The Lawrence Welk show on public broadcasting recently did a whole show of Mr. Warren’s songs and I was amazed at the songs credited to him. Mr. Warren was in the audience and duly acknowledged at the show’s end. I would have loved to see the process of how a song came together for the composer and lyricist. What’s special to me is that my parents “song” during their WWII courtship was a Harry Warren song – You’ll Never Know. Thank you Will for the insight into this incredibly talented man.

    • Hi, Jeff. THANK YOU for reading and then leaving such a detailed response to my blog post. I have been working with a great jazz pianist for the past six years (since I was laid off from a full-time day job that I had held for 16 years…) and so far we have put together 19 one-hour programs of music devoted to particular composers and lyricists (and also to a few performers such as Ethel Merman and Fred Astaire for whom a bunch of terrific songs were written). Every biography I read reveals new details about the personal and creative lives of these gifted men and women PLUS the historical context (such as WWII) during which a particular song came to be written and recorded. “You’ll Never Know” is a beauty. Hurrah that your folks developed a strong connection with it! Music does have a fascinating and somewhat mysterious way of tapping into — and opening up — our hearts.

  9. Pingback: Harry Warren - American Catholic History

  10. An interesting post, Will. And what beautiful music!
    I’d never heard of this musician, though his songs sound familiar, particular ‘Broadway’ and Jeepers creepers’. The singing and piano performance are beautiful. Is that you singing, Will?

    • Thanks for making time to read and listen, Cynthia! Yes, I am singing on all the recordings with the wonderful pianist Doug Hammer. We always rehearse in the professional studio he built in his basement many years ago — and record everything. I haven’t performed this program of music recently, but re-reading my blog post makes me want to book it again now that more and more retirement communities are hosting (usually well-masked) musical performances again. Your lovely comment is reminding me that I need to go back and add links to a bunch of songs now available on Pandory, Spotify, Apple Music, etc. which I released (with Doug’s help) during our Covid pandemic time…

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