Paul Francis Webster

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  • Biography
  • The Great Songs

Lyricist Paul Francis Webster was born in New York City on December 20, 1907. After growing bored with his studies and dropping out of New York University, he worked on various ships throughout Asia, and in the late 1920s, found a job as a dance instructor at Arthur Murray Studios—which must have made his parents very proud. Though he has remained off the radar of most Tin Pan Alley aficionados, Webster, though largely unknown penned many standards and won three Academy Awards out of sixteen nominations.

Though he has remained off the radar of most Tin Pan Alley aficionados, Webster, though largely unknown penned many standards and won three Academy Awards out of sixteen nominations.

Webster’s first chart success was 1932’s “Masquerade,” written with John Jacob Loeb. They also wrote the classic song “Virgins Wrapped in Cellophane,” the basis of a production number in the show Murder at the Vanities. Actually, the number is forgotten now (and no one was paying much attention at the time, either), but the title is enough to make it endure. Several minor hits followed, and then Webster hit the big time with “Two Cigarettes in the Dark” (1934), featured in the film Kill That Story. Lew Pollack was the collaborator on that song and a number of others, all written for Hollywood beginning in 1934. In 1941, Webster enjoyed an especially fruitful collaboration on the musical Jump for Joy. The hit was “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” but the score also included “The Brown-Skin Gal in the Calico Gown,” “Chocolate Shake,” and the title number, which Webster coauthored with Sid Kuller. The following year, 1942, Webster and Hoagy Carmichael wrote “The Lamplighter’s Serenade.” He and Carmichael also wrote “Baltimore Oriole” (To Have and Have Not), “Billy-a-Dik,” “Doctor, Lawyer and Indian Chief” (The Stork Club), and “Memphis in June” (Johnny Angel), all in 1945.

The 1950s were especially good for Webster. Peggy Lee made a hit out of the Sonny Burke collaboration “Black Coffee.” In 1953, Webster and Sammy Fain wrote the score for the Doris Day film Calamity Jane. “Secret Love” was the hit of that fine score, which also included “Just Blew in from the Windy City” and “A Woman’s Touch.” Webster spent much of the early fifties updating lyrics for filmed versions of operettas, including The Merry Widow (1952) and Rose Marie and The Student Prince (both 1954). In the latter half of the fifties, Webster found his real niche—he began writing a string of very successful movie theme songs, including “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” (1955—Sammy Fain), “Friendly Persuasion” (1956—Dimitri Tiomkin), “Giant” (1956—Tiomkin), “April Love” (1957—Fain), “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” (1957—Fain), “A Certain Smile” (1958—Fain), “Raintree Country” (1958—Johnny Green), “Song of Green Mansions” (1959—Bronislau Kaper), “Imitation of Life” (1959—Fain), and “Tender Is the Night” (1961—Fain), the last a hit for Tony Bennett. Bennett also scored hits with “A Time for Love” (1966—Johnny Mandel) from An American Dream and “Days of Love” from Hombre (David Rose).

Having become one of the primo progenitors of movie themes, Webster went on to write three more enduring ones: “Somewhere My Love” (1966), written with Maurice Jarre for Doctor Zhivago; “The Shadow of Your Smile” (1965), written with Johnny Mandel for The Sandpiper; and what is probably now his biggest moneymaker—the theme to Spider-Man, written in 1967 with Bob Harris.
 Paul Francis Webster continued writing through 1983 and died on March 22, 1984. (KB)

Listed by composition date

1941
I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good
Jump for Joy
1942
Baltimore Oriole
The Lamplighter's Serenade
1945
Billy–A–Dik
Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief
Memphis in June
1948
Black Coffee
1952
Watermelon Weather
1953
Secret Love
1954
I Speak to the Stars
1965
The Shadow of Your Smile
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