In the 1970s, Jule Styne announced that he was the most talented composer living. He was right. No one else could write a hit tune tailored to a talent or dramatic situation the way that or could. No one could sit down and write a tune on any subject at all the way that he could. Jule Styne’s ego made him fearless, He was a theatre man, a collaborator—self-confident, yes, but not what we call today “a diva.” He simply realized that he knew it all. He may have been a little crazy—but he was crazy like a fox. (Have you not noticed by now that most artistic geniuses have at least one screw loose?)
Many consider Styne the ultimate composer when it comes to writing to suit the talents of specific stars. He tailored Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for Carol Channing, Gypsy for Ethel Merman, Funny Girl for Barbra Streisand, and Bells Are Ringing for Judy Holiday. In fact, some feel that when he was faced with writing a show that didn’t have a star in the lead, say, Hazel Flagg which featured Helen Gallagher, his scores suffered. Although his best shows remain indelibly associated with their original stars, they are also cohesive, well-integrated scores that stand the test of time and the inevitable succession of interpreters. It is Styne’s versatility and superb artistry that have led many to dub him our greatest living composer.
Jule Styne’s family emigrated from England in 1913 and settled in Chicago, where he was born on December 31, 1905. By the time he was a teenager, Chicago was already on its way to becoming one of the capitals of jazz. The early jazz groups, known as the Chicagoans, did not escape the notice of the young prodigy. Despite a solid classical background (he made his debut at the age of nine as a solo pianist with the Chicago Symphony), Styne felt more and more drawn to the music of the backroom bars and nightclubs.
A scholarship to the Chicago College of Music enabled Styne to perfect his technique and to study composition, theory, and harmony. He formed his own dance band, for which he played the piano and contributed arrangements. He then joined some of the smaller bands touring the country, most notably that of Art Jarrett. Styne’s early days in Chicago, and all of the great musicians playing there, influenced him greatly. He later referred to the time as “a feast.”
In 1934 Styne moved to New York, where he earned his living as a vocal coach and then an accompanist for Harry Richman, a top Broadway and nightclub performer. A year later, Styne received an offer from Twentieth Century-Fox to come to Hollywood to coach Alice Faye, Tony Martin, Shirley Temple, and other Fox stars.
Styne had already had a big hit with his first song, “Sunday,” written in 1927, and it didn’t take the studio long to move him into the composers’ stable. Styne moved from Fox to Republic and then to Paramount and Columbia. His principal collaborators during his Hollywood years were Frank Loesser and Sammy Cahn. Styne wrote no smash-hit film musicals but he did write many standards, especially for the early career of Frank Sinatra. Among his films are Anchors Aweigh, Tonight and Every Night, The Kid from Brooklyn, Romance on the High Seas, The West Point Story, Two Tickets to Broadway, My Sister Eileen, and Meet Me After the Show.
After experiencing some success in Hollywood, Styne, along with Cahn, attempted to write a Broadway musical. The result, Glad to See Ya (1944), was planned as a vehicle for Phil Silvers. His unavailability and other problems forced the show to close out of town, but a standard did emerge from the score, “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.” The team had much better luck with their next offering, High Button Shoes (1947). This time they got their man, Phil Silvers. The Styne and Cahn score contained at least one song destined for the Hit Parade, “Poppa, Won’t You Dance with Me?” Other standouts were “Can’t You Just See Yourself?” and “I Still Get Jealous.”
Two years later, Styne collaborated with lyricist Leo Robin on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), an adaptation of Anita Loos’s popular novel. It was noteworthy as Carol Channing’s Broadway debut as Lorelei Lee, singing a song that would become her trademark, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The show also featured such hits as “Bye Bye Baby,” “A Little Girl from Little Rock,” and “You Say You Care.”
Styne’s next show wasn’t as successful, but it marked the first meeting between Styne and his longtime collaborators Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Two on the Aisle (1951) was one of Broadway’s last great revues before the television variety show sounded the death knell for the form, and it featured Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray. Styne’s next important collaborator was Bob Hilliard, with whom he worked on Hazel Flagg (1953). The hit from the show was “Every Street’s a Boulevard (in Old New York).
Director/choreographer Jerome Robbins was working on a musical version of Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin, and the show was in trouble out of town. He called in the writing team of Styne, Comden, and Green to bolster the score by Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh, and the dynamic trio added “Never Never Land,” “Distant Melody,” and “Captain Hook’s Waltz.” After its hit Broadway run, the show became a perennial favorite on NBC television.
Next, Styne, Comden, and Green collaborated on the Judy Holliday vehicle Bells Are Ringing (1956). Comden and Green had cut their teeth writing for and performing with Holliday, as members of The Revuers. For the new show, they gave their star two great hits, “The Party’s Over” and “Just in Time.” Say, Darling (1958), the trio’s next Broadway outing, was a play about a musical, a roman a clef on the making of The Pajama Game. Alas, it never received its due, probably because it was more of a play with songs than a full-fledged musical. Its one hit was “Dance Only with Me.”
Styne then collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on what some consider the greatest musical of all time, Gypsy (1959). Styne and Sondheim perfectly tailored their bravura score to Merman’s talents with such songs as “Some People,” “Together,” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” All the elements of the production came together and climaxed with one of the most brilliant songs in Broadway history, “Rose’s Turn.” Styne next collaborated with Comden and Green on Do Re Mi (1960), whose big hit was “Make Someone Happy,” introduced by Nancy Dussault. Subways Are for Sleeping (1961) was the threesome’s next offering, and although the score was better received than the show, one song “Comes Once in a Lifetime,” got noticed.
The composer’s biggest hit, Funny Girl, opened in 1964 starring Barbra Streisand. She clearly inspired Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill to write a series of brilliant songs including “People,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” and “Who Are You Now.” Carol Burnett was hoping to make as big a splash as Streisand had in Styne’s next show, Fade Out-Fade In (1964), but, although the score was up to the team’s usual standards, it was not to be. The writers returned to Broadway with Hallelujah, Baby! (1966), featuring an exceptional score married to a problematic libretto by Arthur Laurents. Darling of the Day (1968) was an especially heartbreaking production for Styne. He and E.Y. Harburg collaborated on a superior score but the inability of leads Vincent Price and Patricia Routledge to do justice to the songs hurt the proceedings. Styne’s next show, Look to the Lilies (1970), would fare even worse. A vehicle for the great Shirley Booth, the score, written in collaboration with Sammy Cahn, never achieved its potential. Things went from bad to worse for Styne with his next show, Prettybelle. It had the elements of a hit, star Angela Lansbury and lyricist Bob Merrill, but it closed out of town. Merrill and Styne reteamed for Sugar, a musical version of Some Like It Hot that ran for over a year following its 1972 opening. Styne collaborated with playwright Herb Gardner on the score for One Night Stand (1980), which didn’t even live up to its title, closing in previews.
In the fitful Broadway seasons of the eighties and nineties, Styne was relegated to the wings. His attempt at musicalizing Treasure Island with Susan Birkenhead got no further than Edmonton, Canada. She also collaborated on Styne’s final score, The Red Shoes (1993) with additional lyrics by Bob Merrill. It closed after only five performances.
Styne died on September 20, 1994 and, though his late work may not have been as memorable, he left us with an astonishing legacy of great shows including Gypsy, Funny Girl, and Do Re Mi. (KB)
When I write music I hear the orchestra, I don’t hear a piano. I play piano orchestrally, too. I hear the brass, I hear the woodwind. George Gershwin made a sound at the piano that he learned from a player piano he heard on the corner. He was playing the orchestra all the time. He felt more than he knew and that’s a wonderful thing. Feelings is the whole ball game. If you don’t have feelings you can’t compose you can’t sing. You can act feelings. I think that when Sinatra in the ’40s sang I think he was getting feelings that he hasn’t got. He was falling in love when he sang, he was talking to somebody. He just didn’t sing the words. He was inside the song. Sinatra always made the song his song. He took that song. Time After Time
Jule Styne: "I wrote the tune. I said [to Comden and Green], 'I’m just gonna write a top tune. Find a title to this, "da da da.”' You could call the tune anything. ‘da, da, da.” It sings by itself. For three months it was called ‘da da da.’ No title, they couldn’t write the song. So I said, ‘I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna see my friend Frank Loesser.’ This is done. Many lyric writers [have helped each other]—Leo Robin has helped Ira Gershwin—you need someone to talk to.
So, I went to Frank, I said, 'Frank, I’m writing with Comden and Green.' He said, ‘They don’t understand what a popular song is. What it consists of. It’s something that you remember melodically, not lyrically but melodically. You don’t remember the melody you ain’t remembering the song. They don’t understand that.’
So I played it for him. He said, 'It has to have a rolling title.' I played it over and over. I came back and he said, 'I have the title to the song, it goes, "Just in Time."' All he said was, 'Just in Time.' And they wrote a very good lyric to it. It’s a very good lyric. They’re very nice people. They’re very sophisticated people. They’re well learned and well read."Just in Time
“Cole Porter was my biggest fan. Told me, [‘Just in Time’] ‘is the most beautiful, attractive, pleasant, feel good song. You know when you walk into a room at a party there’s a band and they quickly play one of your songs when you walk in? I have a going order with the bands in California and New York when I walk in a room play "Just in Time." It makes me feel good.’”Just in Time
“Frank Loesser was the one who recognized I had great talent, and he told me how it goes. He said, ‘When you write songs it’s a horrendous thing for a composer who writes a tune and has to wait till the lyric’s finished. Have patience, don’t nudge a lyric writer, you’ll have less.’ For five weeks I went to his house every day after the studio; we were both at Paramount, he got me to Paramount. He asked for me to be his lyric writer. I was at Republic. I asked for him first at Republic. And he hated me [for bringing him to a lesser studio]. He said to me, ‘You don’t understand, all the big movies they have they give to Johnny Mercer, and I get loaned out to Republic and stuff. But I like you. I’m gonna write Sis Hopkins in four days but you won’t hand it in for three weeks 'cause I’ll be in Florida. You have to learn to fake it. Its part of the game you just make up excuses.’
He says, ‘Play me something.’ I play, [what would become "I Don’t Want to Walk Without You."] He says, ‘Shhh! Quiet! Never play that song anyplace. I’m taking it to Paramount and we’ll write it there.’ Every day I went to his house. This was the day before cassettes, the piano player sat at the piano and played it over and over, must have played it 24 times every day. One day he called me up and said, ‘You want to meet me someplace for lunch? ‘Cause at lunch I’m gonna tell you the lyrics of your song.’ A pancake place on Hollywood Boulevard. No dummy lyrics. He doesn’t write dummy lyrics. He writes in his mind. He sang me the whole song by memory.”I Don't Want to Walk Without You
Jule Styne: "I go to Florida for the Arnold Johnson big band to arrange and play the piano. And while I’m there I went walking on the beach down in Hollywood, Florida, with this very pretty seventeen-year-old girl. I was seventeen too. I just walk around humming parts of ‘Sunday.’ She said, ‘What is that? I bet you made that up’ (What an expression, ‘made that up’). She said, ‘I’ll give you a date tomorrow night if you play this song in the club tonight.’ Adolph Deutsch was the other arranger and he helped me finish it up for that night.
“It was the first song of its time every written with a 2/4 1/8, ¼ and 1/8 note tied over to the next bar. That’s a two-beat Dixieland song. It’s almost my biggest standard to this day. Someone every year plays it.
“Then I was playing at the club that night. In the audience is Jolson and Irving Caesar, they’re down in Florida playing golf. Irving Caesar comes up to me and says, ‘I’m a lyric writer. What’s that song you’re playing?’ I said, ‘I wrote it.’ ‘I want to put lyrics to it. I’ll get back to you.’"Sunday
“The song was written for Doris Day, then still unknown. Jule Styne and I brought her to the attention of Mike Curtiz at Warner’s, who gave her her first important chance in the movies which catapulted her to stardom. Another interesting fact about this song is that Jule Styne had played the melody for me for two years, and I kept passing it by because it had a slightly Spanish flavor. Only after I had seen the script for Romance on the High Seas, and saw the song as a number for Doris Day and Jack Carson in a Latin nightclub scene, did the song come into focus for me and I was able to do the lyrics.”It's Magic
Fox thought they had a bomb on their hands with the picture We Believe in Love, when producer Sol Siegel approached composer Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn to write a title tune for the film. Styne asked Siegel why the film wasn’t titled after the book on which it was based, Three Coins in the Fountain. Siegel asked if it would be easier to write for that title and Cahn replied, “It’s a helluva lot easier than ‘We Believe in Love.’” The team worked all night and the next day played the new song for Siegel and Zanuck. Spyro Skouras, then the studio chief, didn’t like it and commented, “the other title had ‘love’ in it and that’s a good thing.” It seemed that the song was dead, but Zanuck told Styne that if he could get a big name to sing it, he could get it into the movie.
Styne had written several hits for Frank Sinatra and he was determined to extract a return favor. Learning that Sinatra was returning to LA from Europe with a stopover in New York, Styne booked himself on the same flight and got a seat next to him. He implored Sinatra for help and, worn down, the singer agreed to record the song the very next morning—but he didn’t want to be paid. Rather, there was a certain painting in a gallery that he admired. Sinatra got his painting, and both the record and the film were smash hits. PS: the song won the Academy Award. As Jule Styne said, “The difference was Frank Sinatra. Without him, it wouldn’t have gotten off the ground.”Three Coins in the Fountain