As longtime readers of my blog probably recall, when I was laid off from my day job as assistant director of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education seven years ago, I decided to devote my life to making music.
A few months after my lay-off, a Boston-area jazz pianist named Joe Reid reached out to see if I might like to do a gig at the retirement community where his dad lives.
I had met Joe several years earlier — when HE was in the midst of a life transition from working full-time as a lawyer to working full-time as a musician — and promptly said, “Yes!”
We needed to prepare an hour of music, and I mentioned that I had long loved many songs co-written by composer Harold Arlen — a list which includes “My Shining Hour,” “I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Accentuate The Positive,” “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” “Blues In The Night,” “That Old Black Magic,” “If I Only Had A Brain,” “Over The Rainbow,” “Happiness is Just A Thing Called Joe,” “Let’s Fall In Love,” “Get Happy,” and “It’s Only A Paper Moon.”
I had sung a few of these songs in a program of music featuring the lyrics of Johnny Mercer with singer Bobbi Carrey and pianist Doug Hammer — because one of Mr. Arlen’s many collaborators was Mr. Mercer.
And I was familiar with others due to the movie version of The Wizard Of Oz, for which Mr. Arlen composed the music and Yip Harburg wrote lyrics (and a lot of uncredited dialogue — a topic I will explore in a future blog post dedicated to Yip).
I biked over to Joe’s house — in the town next to mine — with a bunch of sheet music.
We spent about 90 minutes running through thirteen songs — picking comfortable keys and exploring tempos/feels for each of them.
And that was it for rehearsing with Joe.
Joe (on the left) is very much a “let’s-trust-in-the-moment” kind of musician who welcomes improvisation and spontaneity.
I, too, value spontaneity — and I also appreciate structure.
So I booked time with pianist Doug Hammer at his studio north of Boston.
We recorded all of the Arlen songs once or twice so that I could have a set of piano-only tracks to play on my iPod as I walked around Arlington memorizing lyrics.
And some of the versions we recorded — such as the version of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” included in the player at the beginning of this blog post — came out surprisingly well.
“It’s Only A Paper Moon” was written for a 1932 play (not a musical) called The Great Magoo set in Coney Island which was not a big success.
It is credited to Arlen, Harburg, and impresario Billy Rose — who was somewhat infamous for adding his name to the songwriting credits of other people’s work after having contributed an idea or two during the creative process.
You may recognize Rose’s name because he was married for many years to the great performer Fanny Brice, and his character appears in the movie Funny Lady starring Barbra Streisand as Brice.
Somehow this Coney Island hot dog made me think of him…
Luckily the song was rescued from The Great Magoo and included in a movie called Take A Chance the next year — which led to successful recordings by a wide range of musicians over the past 70+ years.
I love the metaphors and imagery used in the song — all things one might encounter at an amusement park like Coney Island.
I also love the sentiment of the song — that if someone believes in and loves another person, their belief and love can be transformative.
And looking at these photos, I am struck by the way an amusement park transforms from day to night…
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and I would like to dedicate Doug’s and my version of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” to all of the folks who have at one time or another believed in me — including friends and acquaintances in the WordPress blog-o-sphere.
Your positive feedback regarding my music and my blog continues to touch and inspire me every day.
Thank you to Pixabay for the great color photographs of Coney Island and other amusement parks around the world.
Thank you to Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg and Billy Rose for writing this wonderful song.
And to Joe Reid for asking me to do a gig with him seven years ago.
Since then Joe and I have done hundreds of gigs together and created twenty five different one-hour musical programs.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for his engineering excellence and his playful virtuosity at the keyboard.
And THANK YOU for reading and listening — and even leaving a comment or two from time to time.
I haven’t written a new blog post for over a year.
And I am amazed to discover — after visiting my stats page — that people have continued to visit my site.
THANK YOU to everyone who nosed around my blog while my creativity was lying fallow for the past thirteen months.
I’m sure exactly how or why I stopped writing new posts.
Partly — because we have created an economy which encourages us to replace and discard things as often as possible — I needed a newer computer, which a friend extraordinarily gave to me at the end of last year!
Partly I lost blogging momentum.
And partly I didn’t feel that I had much to share that would brighten anyone’s day.
But I HAVE continued to write new songs as well as create demos of my songs using Apple’s wonderful GarageBand program.
And I have continued to offer hour-long programs of music at retirement communities, assisted living homes, senior centers, and public libraries accompanied by pianist Joe Reid or pianist Molly Ruggles.
I was inspired to finish working on it by the youth-led climate march earlier this month.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, I had a somewhat unusual childhood.
My mom, siblings, and I spent our summers at my grandmother’s home in Queens, NY (where my mom had grown up) while my dad stayed home in Washington, DC.
A few days each week we’d walk to the end of the block, get on a bus to Flushing, and then ride the #7 train into Manhattan so that we could go on interviews for TV commercials, voice-overs, modeling jobs, plays, and movies.
As I look back, I realize that it was rare for us ever to drive anywhere using a car during these summer months. We just used buses or trains.
Maybe this is why I still like to use public transportation.
When we started out, my older sister was five and I was an infant. Eventually my younger brother and sister were born and joined the process.
This is what I looked like as a small child.
My family became very familiar with the lobbies, elevators, and waiting rooms of many advertising agencies (depicted in the TV series Mad Men) such as Young & Rubicam, Doyle, Dane & Bernbach, and Grey Advertising.
The ratio of interviews to actual jobs was very steep — and in my early years we considered ourselves a success if each one of us managed to film one commercial per summer.
However, the summer before fifth grade I was cast as a standby in a musical which was trying out at the newly-built Kennedy Center.
My parents allowed me to do this partly because we could live at home during the out-of-town preview period (although I would miss the start of fifth grade that fall), partly because most Broadway musicals flop, and partly because it would be exciting to watch Bob Fosse and the rest of his creative team build a new show,
The musical — Pippin — proved to be a hit, and we ended up moving to my grandmother’s house in Queens year round.
This is when my and my siblings’ careers gained a lot of momentum — since we were now able to audition for work year-round.
This is what I looked like as my career gained momentum…
During the next three years I ended up doing many commercials, a couple of made-for-TV movies, another play, and a lot of voice-over work.
Then I entered prep school, and my life as a child performer came to an end.
This is my last professional headshot.
With hindsight — and many years of psychotherapy — I have come to see how odd it was to learn to say “yes” to almost anything we were asked in an interview such as “Do you like to eat peanut butter on bananas?” or “Can you roller skate backwards?” or “Would you be comfortable singing and dancing on a tugboat in the harbor?”
People who said “no” (as one of my siblings did when asked if they liked to eat peanut butter on bananas…) didn’t get hired.
We were supposed to say “yes” and then — if we found out we had gotten a callback visit — we quickly learned how to do whatever we had claimed to be able to do during the initial interview.
Even more sobering is to realize that much of the time I was using my g-d given talents to encourage people to buy stuff that they didn’t need (more clothing, for example) or that was unhealthy to ingest (such as Ring Ding Juniors, Lifesavers, Oreos, and Dr. Pepper) as part of an economy built on our ongoing over-consumption of natural resources.
The climate march this week and Greta Thunberg’s speech in Washington, DC a few days before it — in which she explains how necessary it is for all of us human beings to pull the emergency brake NOW on our fossil-fuel-driven lives — gave me a few minutes of much-needed hope.
But I continue to feel deeply discouraged by the stuckness/denial/apathy/fear regarding fossil-fuel consumption and climate change that I see all around me — in the media, in the advertising industry, in my neighborhood, in my friends’ lives.
Almost everyone seems to be continuing to take lots of trips via airplanes and automobiles, continuing to eat lots of meat, continuing to use our air conditioners as much as we want, and continuing to behave as we have been behaving for the past many decades here in these not-so-united states.
And really, why should I expect anything different?
I know from psychotherapy how very difficult it can be to change one’s behavior.
We in the USA have grown up in an era of hopes and dreams and habits and assumptions which are based on using way more than our fair share of fossil fuels.
Of course we can travel anywhere — and as often — as we want.
Of course we can own as large a house as we want.
Of course everyone can own and drive a car, everyone can apply for jobs which require a car to commute, everyone can eat as much as we want in any season of the year — foods which may have traveled thousands of miles before ending up on our plates — and everyone can squander the amazing inheritance of fossil fuels from millions of years of photosynthesis by billions of plants that all of us here on planet earth have inherited.
And if you can’t afford to do these things, you can pay for them using one or more credit cards and become ever more deeply in debt.
As you may know from having read previous blog posts, I am blessed to have cobbled together a very modest living during the past six years (after having been laid off from my day job helping run a non-profit in Harvard Square) which depends largely on bicycling and public transportation.
And I live quite happily without a cell phone.
But my sweetheart of 27 years DOES commute to work using a car.
And I gratefully use his cell phone when we drive to see friends and family around New England and New York.
Another deep sigh.
What will it take for us to pull the emergency brake on our selfish, out of balance, unsustainable, fossil-fuel consuming, all-too-human habits?
I think of the anecdotes I have read about conventional farmers who have converted to more sustainable, organic farming practices — but it’s often (very sadly) because they or someone in their family has developed some sort of disease as a result of exposure to toxic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc.
I wish we human beings could choose to make deep changes in our life habits without having to experience health/climate crises in our personal lives.
But maybe that’s the path we are on…
What do you think?
How have you changed your daily habits in response to climate change?
Where do you find hope in these challenging times?
Thank you, as always, to the folks who share their photos and graphics at Pixabay which is a wonderful resource for imagery.
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.
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!
I was looking through a list of past gigs on my web site recently and was surprised to realize that almost 15 years has passed since I was part of a vocal quartet called At The Movies.
Three of us — Nina Vansuch, Michael Ricca and I — had attended a week-long cabaret symposium at the O’Neill Theater Center on the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound in the summer of 1999.
Our teachers included musical luminaries such as Margaret Whiting and Julie Wilson along with Broadway actress Sally Mayes and a slew of other generous (and mostly inspiring) experts from the worlds of musical theater, jazz and cabaret.
We came back to Boston fired up and ready to sing.
I don’t remember who had the idea that we three would join forces — maybe Nina and/or Michael and/or Brian will weigh in some day with THEIR memories of how we got started using the comments section at the end of this blog post.
I’m pretty sure, however, that it was Nina who brought another wonderful singer AND pianist AND arranger — Brian Patton — into the mix.
For four years we met after work — usually at Nina’s place in Belmont or Brian’s place in Jamaica Plain — to eat dinner and make song choices and work on arrangements and write patter and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
I remember many delicious meals cooked by Nina — and also a lot of patience from Brian as we fine-tuned our harmonies.
I had forgotten, however, how much publicity we got.
Thankfully Nina scanned some of it and included it on her web site.
Gradually we added some outside eyes and ears to our creative process, bouncing rough drafts of performances off local directors and working for a while with a warm and loving choreographer/director named Marla Blakey who lived on Martha’s Vineyard.
At one point in her career Marla had worked in this capacity with Bette Midler and also with the vocal group The Manhattan Transfer.
So we were honored and excited to learn from her AND to hear some of her stories about how show business unfolds behind the scenes…
As you can see from the media clippings and hear from the recordings I have included in this blog post, we had a lot of fun together.
Most — or maybe all — of our great photographs were taken by a very talented friend of Nina’s named David Caras.
You can visit his web site by clicking here if you are curious to see more of his work.
After we had sold out Scullers Jazz Club (thank you for booking us, Fred Taylor!) a couple of times, we decided to record a CD, which can still be purchased at CD Baby by clicking here.
We recorded it at Doug Hammer’s studio north of Boston along with additional musicians Gene Roma (drums), Chris Rathbun (bass), and Spartaco John “Sparkie” Miele (saxophone).
In addition to the songs I have included in this blog post, you can find other songs from our CD — “Journey To The Past,” “Wives & Lovers,” and “That’ll Do” — in the right hand column of this blog.
My memory is also hazy as to why we decided to focus on songs written for or performed in movies…
There are so many great songs in existence — just waiting to be sung! — that we probably knew that it would be wise to narrow our focus a bit.
It may also have been related to Michael’s somewhat savante-like knowledge of movie history.
We performed at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (where I then worked) and also at the Boston Public Library as part of First Night; participated in John O’Neil’s wonderful CabaretFests in Provincetown, MA, Newburyport, MA, and Newfound Lake, NH (thank you, John!); traveled to perform in Providence, RI at the Hi-Hat Club (thank you, Ida Zecco!) and to NYC at a club called Arci’s Place (thank you, Erv Raible — may you rest in peace!) I think our last gig may have been in Quincy for John McDonald (thank you, John!)
One thing I came to appreciate as a result of being part of At The Movies is that an audience doesn’t just enjoy the music when they go to a concert.
Most of us also enjoy observing the relationships we see in action on stage — both the planned and the spontaneous interactions that unfold during a performance.
After four years of working and playing — and dining — together, however, our creative collaboration came to an end.
But thanks to the digital magic of zeros and ones, the songs we recorded at Doug Hammer’s studio for our CD Reel One live on…
And I was able to find these media clippings on Nina’s web site (thank you, Nina!)
Perhaps someday we will dig our harmony practice cassettes out of the basement and do a few more shows together.
I am not sure why I love reading about the lives of songwriters.
And learning many of their songs.
And then sharing what I have learned in one-hour musical programs at retirement communities, public libraries, senior centers, memory cafes, and coffeehouses.
But I do!
The most recent program I put together with jazz pianist Joe Reid features the life and music of Dorothy Fields.
She was a terrific lyricist who co-wrote hit songs from the late 1920s right through the early 1970s.
When many of her friends and contemporaries — such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Oscar Hammerstein, Larry Hart — were either dead, discouraged or stymied by evolving musical trends such as folk and rock, Dorothy Fields achieved one of her biggest hits on Broadway, the wonderful musical Sweet Charity.
She was 61 years old.
Dorothy Fields was born into a theatrical family and raised to be a wife and mother — NOT an actress or a songwriter (both of which occupations her parents strongly discouraged…)
Her father was half of a very famous and successful vaudeville team called “Weber & Fields” who had started as childhood friends performing in the Bowery and had risen as adults to the top ranks of theatrical entertainment in the US .
Eventually her father tired of performing and touring, and began to produce shows by other people, including a young team of songwriters named Rodgers & Hart, who were friends with Dorothy’s older brother Herbert (having collaborated together on original theatrical productions while attending Columbia University).
Dorothy and her three siblings had been exposed to theater their entire lives, and Dorothy played lead (male!) roles in amateur theatrical productions at her high school, The Benjamin School for Girls at 144 Riverside Drive on the upper west side of Manhattan.
So it seems a bit surprising (to me, anyways) that her parents attempted to dissuade her from a life in the theater.
When she was growing up, the family had blank books into which everyone was encouraged to jot down ideas for jokes, skits, plots and routines — which served as inspiration when a new show was being created by her father.
And both of her brothers were very successful on Broadway and in Hollywood as writers.
In fact, later on in her life, Dorothy and her older brother Herbert co-wrote the librettos (aka scripts) for shows by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin — including the smash hit, Annie Get Your Gun — which had originally been HER idea as a starring vehicle for her friend Ethel Merman.
Dorothy was supposed to write the songs with one of her most beloved collaborators, Jerome Kern, until Kern unexpectedly died.
Among other hits, she and Jerry had co-written “The Way You Look Tonight,” which won an Academy award for best song in a motion picture in 1936.
After a period of mourning, she and her producers — Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein — asked Irving Berlin if he would consider joining the project.
And the rest is history…
But Dorothy was born in 1905, when middle and upperclass women were expected to become wives and mothers (not actresses or songwriters or librettists).
Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920 — when Dorothy was 15 — and her life illuminates many of the social changes that unfolded in the US until her death in 1974.
Dorothy managed to finesse her parental/societal expectations by BOTH marrying young (to a doctor) AND pursuing a career as a lyricist.
Although she worked with a “who’s who” list of composers during her long career, three of them stand out as being particularly significant in her creative life: Jimmy McHugh, Jerome Kern, and Cy Coleman.
Jimmy McHugh was a Catholic pianist from Boston, where he had left a wife and son (whom he dutifully supported from afar) when he moved in his 20s to Manhattan to find work as both a composer and business manager for music publishing companies.
He crossed paths with Dorothy when her friend J. Fred Coots — whom she had met while golfing and who went on to write hits of his own such as “You Go To My Head” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” — began introducing her to music publishing companies as a budding lyricist.
Dorothy and Jimmy hit it off creatively — and possibly romantically — although they were both extremely protective of their private lives and mindful about the potential for bad publicity.
During their ten-year collaboration they wrote hits including, “I Feel A Song Coming On,” “On The Sunny Side Of the Street,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”
I love learning that “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” was not an immediate hit (one critic called it “sickly” and “puerile”) and was cut from two different shows before it finally caught on as part of the Blackbirds of 1928.
Persistence, persistence, persistence!
Her next significant collaborator was Jerome Kern. They wrote songs — including “Pick Yourself Up,” “I Won’t Dance,” and “A Fine Romance” — for Hollywood movies with stars such as Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
Here she is with Jerry Kern (on her left) and George Gershwin (on her right) at a nightclub in the 1930s.
Jerome Kern was older than many of his contemporary songwriters (Gershwin, Arlen, Youmans and others looked up to him when they were starting to write songs) and had a reputation for speaking his mind — and not suffering fools gladly. Some people in the entertainment industry were intimidated by him.
But not Dorothy. She loved him and even gave him a nickname which few others would have dared to choose: “Junior” (Dorothy was 5″ 5″ tall and towered over Kern, who was much shorter).
I have wondered whether the lyrics she wrote for their song “You Couldn’t Be Cuter” might have been something of an “in joke” between the two of them.
Here’s a version of that song — combined with an earlier hit she wrote with Jimmy McHugh, “Exactly Like You” — that I recorded with pianist Doug Hammer earlier this year.
Her third significant collaborator was Cy Coleman, a composer who had already written hit songs with Carolyn Leigh (including “The Best Is Yet To Come,” “Hey, Look Me Over,” and “Witchcraft”) before he met Dorothy at a party.
She was 59 years old, and he was 35.
He asked her if she might be willing to explore working together, and she allegedly said something like, “Thank g-d someone asked me…yes!”
They ended up collaborating on a musical inspired by a Fellini film — “Le Notti Di Cabiria,” about a prostitute looking for love — which Bob Fosse and his wife Gwen Verdon had seen and which had immediately inspired Fosse to start working on a musical version for Verdon to star in.
With Neil Simon added to the creative team as librettist, Fosse, Verdon, Fields and Coleman created what became the hit musical Sweet Charity — which went on to become a movie starring Shirley MacLaine and John McMartin, and which gave us songs such as “Hey, Big Spender,” “I’m A Brass Band,” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”
Dorothy Fields achieved a remarkable level of success in a male-dominated industry —where women were expected to be on stage, not behind the scenes as part of the creative team.
She was not a glamour girl nor a prima donna — although she was always very well-dressed and had separate closets for her shoes, dresses, suits, sportswear, and evening gowns.
She was reliable, respectful and professional.
And she was a hard-worker.
At one point she said, “I wrote the words to ‘I Feel a Song Coming On,’ but I don’t believe a word of it. A song just doesn’t ‘come on.’ I’ve always had to tease it out, squeeze it out. Ask anyone who writes — it’s tough labor and I love it.”
I’ll end with two more gems she wrote with Jimmy McHugh — “Don’t Blame Me” and “I’m In The Mood For Love” — which I recorded with pianist Doug Hammer at his terrific studio, Dreamworld, in Lynn, MA.
Thank you to Dorothy Fields and her many collaborators for writing such terrific songs.
Thank you to pianist Steve Sweeting for recording “I Feel a Song Coming On” and “The Way You Look Tonight” with me many years ago at his apartment in Brighton, MA.
And thank YOU for reading and listening to this blog post.
And here in the USA we mostly don’t think about them.
And that’s just the human-to-human devastation…
There is also an extraordinary wave of extinction of other forms of life on planet earth unfolding right now… and most humans don’t want to think about that either.
We are ignorant — choosing to ignore the complicated and heart-breaking repercussions of our actions because it is too painful.
And because the challenges of how we might change some of these patterns seem too vast.
And because our media tends to give us a very limited glimpse of what is happening here on planet earth.
And because our media — which at its most basic level exists to entice human beings to BUY THINGS — has very little incentive to do anything other than reinforce the allure of fame and wealth and celebrity and insane over-consumption.
Over-consumption of cars and alcohol and clothing and accessories and medication and food products and music and fossil fuels and hair dye and eyeliner and TV shows and lipstick and sunblock and pesticides and movies and plastic bags and electronic devices and travel and “entertainment” and a myriad other things that most of us do not need.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
“When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep,” the songwriter Irving Berlin once wrote and set to music.
According to Wikipedia (and a book edited by local musical expert Ben Sears called The Irving Berlin Reader) it was based on Berlin’s real life struggle with insomnia.
He wrote in a letter to Joseph Schenck:
“I’m enclosing a lyric of a song I finished here and which I am going to publish immediately… You have always said that I commercial my emotions and many times you were wrong, but this particular song is based on what really happened… The story is in its verse, which I don’t think I’ll publish. As I say in the lyrics, sometime ago, after the worst kind of a sleepless night, my doctor came to see me and after a lot of self-pity, belly-aching and complaining about my insomnia, he looked at me and said ‘speaking of doing something about insomnia, did you ever try counting your blessings?’”
Mr. Berlin certainly had experienced many things that might have hung heavily on his heart.
He emigrated to the US when he was a small child to escape the anti-semitic pogroms unfolding in Czarist Russia.
His father died when he was young, which catalyzed Irving (or Izzy as he was called by his family) into leaving school and earning money as a paper boy on the streets of lower Manhattan.
His own son died when he was less than a month old on Christmas Day.
Mr. Berlin served in both the first and second World Wars, producing (and performing in) theatrical revues to raise money, lift the spirits of a country at war, and comfort soldiers fighting all around the planet.
As a Jewish man, he must have been deeply affected by the unimaginable reality of the Holocaust… and atomic weapons… and so many other astoundingly destructive human creations of the 20th century.
Mr. Berlin used the song in the 1954 film White Christmas.
Bing Crosby’s character sings it to Rosemary Clooney’s character to comfort and (it being a Hollywood movie — perhaps to begin a romantic relationship with) her.
I join with millions of people who have sung this song in the past 62 years to restore a sense of peace and gratitude in their lives when they are tossing and turning in the middle of the night.
And as 2016 slouches towards 2017, I also count my blessings:
Clean water at the twist of a faucet…
A functioning furnace…
Fossil fuels to power the furnace and stove and water heater…
My sweetheart of almost 25 years…
One remaining parent + a wonderful step parent…
Siblings who love and communicate with each other…
Employment that involves relatively modest consumption/destruction of natural resources (CDs of music to the families in Music Together classes, electricity to play them, fossil fuels to heat and sometimes cool the karate studio where we lead classes, gasoline to power the hybrid car in which jazz pianist Joe Reid and I drive to gigs, electricity to run the PA systems where we perform)…
The magic of digital recording…
My trusty iPods for learning songs…
My ukuleles and laptop computers for creating new songs…
My rhyming dictionaries for inspiration…
The amazing interlibrary book/CD/DVD loan system for more inspiration…
How our bodies can heal themselves…
US citizen privilege….
Once one starts, the list of blessings goes on and on and on.
Thank you yet again to Pixabay photographers for the lovely images in this blog post.
Thank you to Irving Berlin for his musical and poetical genius.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for his reliable studio plus his exquisite rapport while playing the piano (and simultaneously engineering our sessions).
And thank you, brave and hardy soul, for reading — and listening to — this blog post.
I shared this song by Barbara Baig a couple of years ago in a blog post.
Today I found myself thinking about it a lot.
Many people in the USA are very happy today.
I honor their sense of excitement and accomplishment.
Many people in the USA are very surprised and scared and shocked today, too.
I honor these feelings as well.
I don’t know what comes next, but I am pretty sure that the effects of yesterday’s election will ripple for weeks and months and years to come — not just here in the US but all over our planet.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
I dearly hope that the horrible coincidence of learning the results of our election with the anniversary of Kristallnacht is just that…a horrible coincidence and not an uncanny foreshadowing of what may lie ahead in our not-very-united-states.
As soon as we start viewing — and scapegoating — fellow human beings as “other,” we are heading down a very unhappy and slippery slope…
I was very glad that jazz pianist Joe Reid and I were booked to perform our hour-long program of songs co-written by Harold Arlen this afternoon at a retirement community in Newton.
We all needed to sing together — beautiful, timeless songs which touched our hearts and connected us with each other.
Not surprisingly, one song moved us to tears — “Over the Rainbow,” which Mr. Arlen wrote with Yip Harburg in 1938 for MGM’s masterpiece, The Wizard of Oz.
Filming for The Wizard Of Oz began on October 13 1938.
A month later Kristallnacht occurred in Germany, Austria and parts of Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic.
The emotional resonance of “Over The Rainbow” — written by two American-born, fully assimilated Jewish songwriters for a movie produced by a Jewish-owned film company — cannot have gone un-noticed at the time.
No wonder so many of us are still moved to tears by it, almost 80 years after it was written.
I love “Let Me Be Strong,” too.
Barbara Baig wrote it when she lived in Somerville, MA and was an active member of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists (BACA).
I recorded it many years ago with Doug Hammer on piano at his wonderful Dreamworld studio in Lynn, MA, plus Gene Roma on drums and Chris Rathbun on bass.
Thank you, Barbara, for writing this song.
May all of our hearts remain open in the days and weeks to come… as we move through our joys and our fears here on planet earth.
Let us be strong.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
Thank you to Pixabay for the photos.
And thank you to anyone who reads and listens to this blog post!
I have loved Stephen Schwartz’s music ever since I heard the cast album of Godspell in 1971.
I don’t remember how I came to own it, but I played that record over and over again.
So I was wildly excited and nervous when — at age ten — I auditioned for a new musical being directed by Bob Fosse with songs written by Mr. Schwartz.
I sang Cat Stevens’ song “Father and Son” at the audition. (My aunt had given me and my siblings many of Cat Stevens’ albums, which I also loved.)
I vaguely remember standing on a stage, singing to a few people in a darkened theater.
At one point during the audition — or maybe during a callback? — the pianist played a particular section of “Father and Son” in different keys in order to get a sense of my vocal range.
I gamely sang higher and higher until my voice finally cracked.
I must have also have read from some sort of script, but I don’t remember doing any dancing during the audition.
Much to my delight and terror, I ended up being cast as the standby for the role of Theo. I did not attend the first few weeks of rehearsals, but joined the cast midway through the creative process in NYC.
I remember that Ben Vereen was very friendly and welcoming, even though he was one of the stars and was working his butt off during rehearsals.
Mostly I watched from the sidelines and kept a low profile.
I moved with the cast and crew to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where Pippin previewed.
The Kennedy Center had only recently been built and was enormous. I spent a lot of time exploring the different theaters and backstage areas — as well as the snack room where I often heated up a slice of pizza using an amazing new (to me at least) technology called the microwave oven.
I also spent a lot of time hanging out unobtrusively in the back of the theater, watching rehearsals and mimicking all of the dance routines to the best of my ability (which grew over time…once we were living in NYC year-round I studied tap and jazz at the Phil Black dance studios on the corner of Broadway and 50th street).
The role of Theo — Catherine’s son — was never large and grew smaller as the show was tightened up and re-written out of town.
And then, much to my parents’ surprise — since so many Broadway shows close out of town or last only a few weeks once they open in New York — Pippin proved to be a big hit.
I had to be backstage for every performance, but I never played the role of Theo on stage.
The various standbys — me, the standby for Irene Ryan, the standby for John Rubinstein, and the standby for Ben Vereen — along with the understudies for the other main roles would rehearse our parts with the stage manager on matinee days between the afternoon and evening performances.
Ben’s standby was a lovely man named Northern Calloway, whose day job was playing the role of “David” on Sesame Street, which was filmed in a converted theater on the upper west side of Manhattan.
Jill Clayburgh’s understudy was Ann Reinking, who was then a member of the chorus (but who may have begun dating Bob Fosse during Pippin and went on to all sorts of success afterwards as a performer and as a choreographer).
A boy named Shane Nickerson played the role of Theo each night.
He and I became friends.
Shane’s sister Denise had played the role of Lolita in an unsuccessful musical version of the Nabokov novel and then was cast as Violet Beauregarde in the original movie of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Except she was not really Shane’s sister. She was actually his aunt. But that is another story — and a fascinating example of how we human beings often play roles in real life as well as on stage.
Other than an ever-present anxiety that I might have to perform the role if Shane were to become ill, I had a lot of fun backstage.
I fetched hot beverages for some of the dancers before the show began at the coffee shop across 46th street (where the stage door was located).
I learned how to play chess with one of the younger stage hands.
I watched endless poker game conducted by dressers, musicians and stage hands at a big table behind the orchestra pit while the show was running.
I became friends with the back stage hair dressers and helped brush out the many different wigs which the chorus members wore during the show.
And I hung out with the wonderful animal handlers, Jack and Mary, who took care of the duck and the sheep who appeared nightly in the show.
Among other duties they had to walk the sheep up and down 46th street and along 8th avenue in order to encourage it poop before it went on stage.
The sheep liked to eat cigarette butts, which was not conducive to its health; so I would keep an eye out for them when we strolled around the theater district, chatting with surprised passersby.
I remained as a standby in the original cast until I grew too large for the role. (Theo enters in the second being carried on the Leading Player’s shoulders, and this was a very direct way to gauge my growth month by month…)
I was not the first to leave the company — that was probably Jill Clayburgh, who was replaced by Betty Buckley early in the run, and also dear Irene Ryan, who died about the same time — but it was a very sad and awkward experience for me.
Show business can be very confusing regarding matters of the heart.
A cast and crew come together to create a show or film a movie — or even just a TV commercial — and everyone strives (at least while on stage or when the cameras are running…) to be friendly and part of a team/family while they are attempting to make some magic together.
And then, when the shoot of the movie or the run of the play is over, everyone becomes a free agent again.
And one may never see any of them again.
Were any of those people my friends? Did any of them think about me when I was no longer part of the cast? I certainly thought about them for years afterwards.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
It is humbling to learn on Wikipedia how the lives of various Pippin cast members unfolded before and after their time on stage at the Imperial Theater in the early 70s.
Some are still involved with show business as performers or choreographers or teachers.
Many are dead.
And composer Stephen Schwartz, bless him, has continued to write wonderful songs for Broadway and Hollywood.
I recorded his song “Magic To Do” (the opening number in Pippin) several years ago during rehearsals for a show I put together called Will Loves Steve, which featured songs written by Stephen Schwartz, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Foster, Steve Sweeting, Stevie Wonder and Steven Georgiou — a.k.a. Cat Stevens a.k.a. Yousuf Islam.
Doug Hammer played piano — while simultaneously engineering the track — and Mike Callahan played clarinet.
For many years after Pippin I carried within me a sense that success meant starring on Broadway, or in the movies, or on TV.
Yet now I am amazed that anyone is able to perform EIGHT shows each week, month after month, repeating the same songs and dances and lines and emotions with as much authenticity and enthusiasm as they can muster on any given day.
And the life of a star — with folks asking to take selfies with them wherever they go in public, and having to repeat the same stories over and over again during media junkets while maintaining their youthfulness and beauty and fitness and marketability year after year — seems less and less appealing.
I am slightly surprised to realize that I have learned the same lesson as the title character In Pippin: that a normal life without a lot of fanfare is AOK.
And there is still plenty of humble and unpublicized magic — like what happens in my Music Together classes and during performances at retirement communities and singing along at ukulele meetup groups — to be done each day if one is so inspired…
MMG has been happening — one weekend each spring and one weekend each fall — for 25+ years at various camps around Massachusetts.
When I first started attending it was held in Becket, MA, but now we gather in the woods near Worcester from Friday night until Sunday afternoon.
At the opening circle on Friday night, someone spoke about the recent death of a beloved canine companion.
I was reminded of a wonderful song by a writer named Babbie Green called “At The Pound” (in the player at the start of this post) which I recorded with the gifted pianist Doug Hammer for a CD I did with another singer, Bobbi Carrey, called “If I Loved You.”
Although I have not had a dog in my daily life since my teenage years — when my family had a very loving and patient Corgi named Bryn — I see how invaluable they can be in the lives of my friends and family.
I love “At The Pound” because of the details Babbie includes in the song — such as “now my car’s got a permanent blanket of dog hair.”
I also love how it ends…
“And they praise me for saving her life, saying, ‘oh what a lucky dog she…’ but when I think of all I have learned about loving, it is Molly in fact who saved me.”
Bette Midler — you with the wind beneath your wings who sometimes looks at our planet from a distance — you need to record this song!
Thank you for reading and listening to my blog.
And thank you — yet again — to Pixabay for the lovely photographs.
I am not sure if I would have loved him had I had the opportunity to meet him, but I am very grateful he co-wrote so many wonderful songs.
Jerome David Kern was short and a very snappy dresser.
He loved the color green — including wearing bright green, custom-tailored trousers.
He could be quite critical and bossy — and he did not suffer fools gladly.
He was also very funny with friends.
And he knew bird calls well — and was sometimes melodically inspired by them.
Kern was the composer whom George Gershwin and Harold Arlen — and many other composers of what we now call the Great American Songbook — looked up to and strived to emulate.
He was older than they were, having been born in New York City on January 27, 1885 — the youngest of seven children (four of whom died before the age of six…)
His family moved from apartment to apartment around Manhattan before settling into a house across the river in Newark, New Jersey, which is where Jerry went to high school and where he began writing songs for musical events.
His nickname in high school was “Romie.”
Kern’s first job in the music business was doing accounts payable and accounts receivable for a music publishing company run by the uncle of a friend.
He rose to become a song plugger, eventually earning a shift at Wanamaker’s, which was one of the first — and very grandest — department stores in New York City.
He proved to be a savvy businessman, investing money he received as an inheritance in his early 20s to become a shareholder in the second music publishing company he worked for, TB Harms.
Harms started getting Jerry’s songs interpolated into musical productions.
I learned from reading various Kern biographies that in the early days of musical theater, it was very common for individual songs to be added to a show by another composer.
These interpolated songs could freshen up a show during a long run — and also provided great opportunities for unknown and up-and-coming songwriters.
Harms let him work as a rehearsal pianist for Broadway reviews and shows, which he did on and off for ten years.
Being a rehearsal pianist meant that Kern became well-acquainted with the movers and shakers in the New York theater world — and it also meant he could be on hand to help create a new number if needed.
He also was allowed to accompany singers on short tours, which provided more opportunities to incorporate Harms and/or Kern tunes into their performances as needed.
I was surprised to learn that Kern was very well acquainted with the theater world in London.
Part of the reason Jerry went to London so many times as a young man was to check on TB Harms’ publishing partners in England.
He saw all of the latest shows and schmoozed as many London theater people as possible, pitching his songs for interpolation into London shows as well.
This is when he first met the author, humorist and lyricist P. G. “Plum” Wodehouse, with whom he began collaborating on songs in 1906.
Nine years later — when Wodehouse was living in New York — Kern introduced him to librettist Guy Bolton, who became one of Kern and Wodehouse’s lifelong friends.
Kern and Bolton had worked together on a musical called Nobody Home which was presented at the intimate, 300-seat Princess Theatre. Wodehouse contributed some lyrics to their next Princess musical, Very Good Eddie, and officially joined their creative team for Oh, Boy! — which ran for 463 performances (and according to Wikipedia was one of the first American musicals to have a successful London run).
The three men collaborated upon what became a very successful series of musical comedies — most of them presented at the Princess Theatre — during and after the First World War.
These shows were inspirational to many songwriters and librettists, partly because the songs and dances and script were well integrated to advance the storyline of the show.
And no songs by other writers were arbitrarily interpolated into the plot!
In an interview following the success of Oh, Boy, Kern explained, “It is my opinion that the musical numbers should carry on the action of the play, and should be representative of the personalities of the characters who sing them….Songs must be suited to the action and mood of the play.”
Kern collaborated with a wide variety of lyricists during his long career on Broadway and in Hollywood.
One of my favorite songs, “I’m Old Fashioned” was written with lyricist Johnny Mercer for a 1942 film called You Were Never Lovelier, which paired Fred Astaire with Rita Hayworth.
Partly as a result of a dear friend’s uncle giving me a Kern songbook when I left college, I became aware of Kern’s body of work early in my singing life.
I recorded three Kern songs with jazz pianist and composer Steve Sweeting when Steve lived above an ice cream store in Brighton, MA — “I’m Old Fashioned,” The Way You Look Tonight,” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” — which I have included in this blog post.
Jerome Kern was very successful during the 1910’s and 20’s on Broadway and in London.
In fact one newspaper at the time estimated that he was earning as much as $5000 (which would be the equivalent of $63,000 in 2016) each WEEK from sheet music and ticket sales.
He created what is considered to be his masterwork, Show Boat, in 1927 in collaboration with lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II and producer Florenz Ziegfeld.
Ziegfeld had made his reputation with huge revues on Broadway filled with beautiful chorus girls, extravagant costumes, and colossal sets.
Thus many people were surprised that he agreed to produce Show Boat — which featured an integrated cast of black and white performers and dove deeply into painful human phenomena including prejudice, gambling and alcoholism (which were not the usual topics for a night’s entertainment on Broadway).
Ziegfeld, in fact, remained very doubtful about the success of Show Boat — postponing the start of production several times.
Although this was very frustrating to Jerry and Oscar, it also gave them extra time to fine-tune their songs and script before casting and rehearsals finally began.
Many of Kern’s Broadway musicals were adapted into movies, including Show Boat — which was filmed three different times — and his 1933 hit Roberta, with a book and lyrics by Otto Harbach.
The Broadway cast included many performers who went on to become stars including Fred MacMurray and Bob Hope — and Roberta also introduced the musical gem “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”
Along with many other Broadway songwriters, Kern moved with his family to California during the 1930s.
Although the Great Depression was in full swing, the movie industry was making lots of money.
Mr. Kern wrote “The Way You Look Tonight” with another favorite collaborator — lyricist/librettist Dorothy Fields — for the film Swing Time, where it was introduced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, who in this movie was cast as a dance instructor.
“The Way You Look Tonight” won Best Song in a Motion Picture in 1936.
Dorothy Fields later remarked, “The first time Jerry played the melody for me I went out and started to cry. The release absolutely killed me. I couldn’t stop, it was so beautiful.”
In addition to being a composer, Kern was also a collector.
He started collecting books when he first visited London in his early 20s, and ten years later had amassed a collection which — when he auctioned it off in 1929 — earned him almost two million dollars (which would be worth more than $27 million dollars in 2016).
He also collected real estate, antique silver and furniture.
The home he built in Bronxville, NY (north of New York City) was decorated with beautiful paintings, Colonial, Jacobean and Italian furniture, rare vases, lamps with Buddha bases, and books which he had bought during his travels to Europe and around the USA.
And whatever he became curious about, he would soon become an expert in.
As a small example of this, when they were living in Bronxville, Kern and his wife Eva took a trip with their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Newman, to Canada to visit an asbestos plant that Mr. Newman owned.
Jerry asked lots of questions and was particularly concerned about the large amounts of asbestos waste.
After they got home, he did some independent research and wrote a 40-page report — detailing several possible uses for the wasted asbestos — which he gave to his neighbor.
After the huge success of Show Boat in 1927, Kern developed the habit of playing “Old Man River” the last thing before he left his house on a trip and the first thing upon arriving back home.
In fact, during his final trip to New York City from California in 1945 — when he was overseeing yet another revival of Show Boat with Hammerstein and beginning work on a new show with lyricist/librettist Dorothy Fields (produced by Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers) about a sharp-shooting phenomenon named Annie Oakley — he was apparently worried because he had forgotten to play this song before he left his home in California.
Much to everyone’s shock — since he was only 60 years old — Jerome Kern collapsed from a stroke while browsing on the east side of Manhattan.
He died a few days later with his wife and Hammerstein at his hospital bedside.
I would like to end this post with something president Harry Truman said upon hearing Kern had died:
“I am among the grateful millions who have played and listened to the music of Jerome Kern. His melodies will live in our voices and warm our hearts for many years to come.”
Thank you, Jerome Kern, for your wonderful songs — and thank YOU for reading and listening to yet another blog post.