Equally at home writing for Broadway, Hollywood, and the Cotton Club, Harold Arlen is perhaps the greatest unknown songwriter in the history of American Popular Song. While Arlen’s total output doesn’t equal that of Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, or Jule Styne, and except for Bloomer Girl, he never had a hit show, the quality of his work was consistently brilliant. And if his role as one of America’s finest composers is unknown, so too is his expert singing.
Arlen’s unique singing style, influenced by liturgical singing and the techniques of black vocalists, led to jobs in vaudeville. He appeared on the Loew’s vaudeville circuit and actually appeared at the Palace Theatre on Broadway, the ultimate in vaudeville circuit. In fact, Arlen would continue singing throughout his career though he preferred to put his energies to recording. He eventually cut sides with Red Nichols Orchestra as well as on the Capitol, Columbia, and Walden labels.
Arlen, got his start in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. He first sang in the choir of a synagogue, where his father was a cantor. The young Hyman Arluck, to parallel The Jazz Singer, was interested in secular music to a greater extent than the hymns and prayers he sang. While in his teens he founded The Snappy Trio, a group that soon evolved into the equally well named, Southbound Shufflers. Arlen and his fellow musicians played local functions and on the excursion boats that plied Lake Erie. His first real success was with the group, The Buffalodians for which Arlen sang and arranged the music. They actually earned a recording contract and, in 1925, Arlen was emboldened to try his luck in New York City.
He became a singer, arranger, and pianist in several dance bands before landing a job that would lead his career into a new direction, playing in the pit orchestra of the Broadway revue, George White’s Scandals of 1928.
While a rehearsal pianist for the Vincent Youmans show Great Day, Arlen was encouraged by then Broadway composer Harry Warren to become a composer. The reason? A musical riff Arlen used to call the performers back from their rehearsal breaks was developed into his first hit, “Get Happy,” written in collaboration with his first great songwriting partner, Ted Koehler.
Their success led to a job writing the scores for a series of Cotton Club revues. It was there that Arlen really became acquainted with black singing styles and adapted many of the techniques into his vocals and compositions. While at the Cotton Club, Arlen and Koehler wrote tremendous hits including “Kickin’ the Gong Around,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “I Love a Parade,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day,” “Ill Wind,” “As Long As I Live,” and, in 1933, their greatest hit, “Stormy Weather.” At the Cotton Club, Arlen cemented his relationships with black performers including Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, and Ethel Waters. He continued writing non-stereotypical scores for black performers throughout his career. In fact, Lena Horne called Arlen the blackest white man she had ever met.
The success of the Cotton Club shows led Arlen and Koehler back to Broadway and a series of great revues, including The Nine Fifteen Revue (1930, “Get Happy”), Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1930, “Hittin’ the Bottle”), Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1932 (“I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” “Rockin’ in Rhythm”), Americana (1932, “Satan’s Li’l Lamb”); George White’s Music Hall Varieties (1932); Life Begins at 8:40 (1934, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and E.Y. Harburg, “Fun to Be Fooled,” “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block,” “You’re a Builder Upper”), and The Show Is On (1936).
Success in the revue format led, in turn, to book shows, many of which were prominently featured black performers. These shows included You Said It (1931, “Sweet and Hot,” “You Said It”); Hooray for What! (1937, “Down with Love”), Bloomer Girl (1944, “The Eagle and Me,” “Right As the Rain”), St. Louis Woman (1946, “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Come Rain or Come Shine”), House of Flowers (1954, “I Never Has Seen Snow,” “A Sleepin’ Bee”), Jamaica (1957, “Push the Button,” “Napoleon”), and Saratoga (1959, “Love Held Lightly”).
While these shows were rarely commercially successful, the scores Arlen wrote, mainly in collaboration with E.Y. Harburg or Johnny Mercer, were as rich as any on Broadway. Among the great stars who appeared in Arlen shows were Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Ricardo Montalban, Celeste Holm, Dooley Wilson, Ed Wynn, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, the Nicholas Brothers, Ray Walston, Geoffrey Holder, Josephine Premice, Carol Lawrence, Ossie Davis, and Howard Keel.
Arlen also had a long career in Hollywood writing for such films as The Wizard of Oz (1939, “Over the Rainbow”), At the Circus (“Lydia the Tattooed Lady”), Blues in the Night (“Blues in the Night,” “This Time the Dream’s on My”); Star Spangled Rhythm (“That Old Black Magic,” “Hit the Road to Dreamland”), Cabin in the Sky (“Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe”), The Sky’s the Limit (“My Shining Hour,” “One for My Baby”), Up in Arms (“Now I Know”); Here Come the Waves (“Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive”), Out of This World (“Out of This World”), Casbah (“For Every Man There’s a Woman,” “Hooray for Love”), Mr. Imperium (“Let Me Look at You”), The Farmer Takes a Wife (“Today I Love Everybody”), A Star Is Born (“The Man That Got Away”), and The Country Girl (“Dissertation on the state of Bliss”).
Arlen’s gentle nature, dapper good looks, and quick sense of humor were the hallmarks of a remarkable man. He always wrote with a complete belief in and understanding of character. He never let the audience know, as so many composers do, that there is a composer behind the character. He always mirrored his characters’s points of view, and yet each character’s voice is unique yet unmistakably Arlen’s. Even his revue songs were never simply pop songs.
It’s the lucky song and lucky performer to be joined forever in musical matrimony. Judy Garland was forever joined to Arlen and Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow.” Arlen, this time with lyricist Ted Koehler, supplied Ethel Waters with “Stormy Weather,” a song with which she was forever associated. That is until Lena Horne came along and sang it in the film of the same name. From then on it became Horne’s song.(KB)
Ted Koehler: "Harold liked to walk. I didn’t. However, he used to talk me into walking and I remember one day it was cold out and to pep me he started to hum an ad lib marching tune. I guess I started to fall into step and got warmed up. By the end of the walk, the song was written."I Love a Parade
Ethel Waters knew she had a great song to sing the minute she heard this tune. “When I got out there in the middle of the Cotton Club floor … I was singing the story of my misery and confusion … the story of the wrongs and outrages done to me by people I had loved and trusted…. I sang ‘Stormy Weather’ from the depths of my private hell in which I was being crushed and suffocated.”Stormy Weather
Johnny Mercer: "It’s one of Harold’s nicest tunes. It’s kind of a poor lyric, I think. Build on the thing about ‘the drink’s on me.’ I think it’s too flip for that melody. I think it should be nicer. I was in a hurry. I remember the director didn’t like it. I could have improved it, too. I really could. I wish I had. But, you know, we had a lot of songs to get out in a short amount of time, and we had another picture to do."This Time the Dream's on Me
Harold Arlen: "The words sustain your interest, make sense, contain memorable phrases and tell a story. Without the lyric, the song would be just another song."That Old Black Magic
Johnny Mercer meant his 1942 lyric, set to Harold Arlen’s tune, to refer specifically to Judy Garland, with whom he was having an affair. The song consists of the famous line: “I should stay away, but what can I do?”That Old Black Magic
Harold Arlen called this song one of his “tapeworms,” because the melody sort of wanders along. Arlen credited Mercer with much of the success of the song: “[It’s] a wandering song. Johnny took it and wrote it exactly the way it fell. Not only is it long—forty-eight bars—but it also changes key. Johnny made it work.”One for My Baby
Johnny Mercer to the BBC: When I was working with Benny Goodman back in ’39, I had a publicity guy who told me he had been to hear Father Divine, and that was the subject of his sermon, “Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” Well, that amused me so, and it sounds so Southern and so funny that I wrote it down on a piece of paper. And this was, what, five years later? And Harold Arlen and I were riding home from the studio after a conference about getting a song for the sailors. … And Harold was singing me this little tune he had sung me before. Now, that’s a strange thing about your subconscious, because here’s a song that’s kind of lying dormant in my subconscious for five years, and the minute he sang that tune, it jumped into my mind as if it dialed a phone number. Because it doesn’t really fit. The accent is all different. I just think there’s some kind of fate connected with it.Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive
Arlen was noodling around on the piano looking for a tune when a phrase caught Johnny Mercer’s ear. Mercer exclaimed, “I’m gonna love you like nobody loved you…” Arlen jokingly replied, “Come hell or high water.” The proverbial light bulb went off over Mercer’s head and he answered, “Of course, why didn’t I think of that? ‘Come rain or come shine.’” The song was finished before the night was over.Come Rain or Come Shine
Hugh Martin on working on 1954’s A Star Is Born: “I wanted her to sing it moodily, quietly, and so did Harold Arlen, I found out later. When I went back to New York, he called me and said, ‘What happened?’ I told him that she had belted it. He said, 'Oh no! It shouldn’t be belted. It’s an introspective song.’ Both Harold and George Cukor thought I was right. The day of the recording, George said, ‘Can you do anything to stop her from yelling that song and making it such a tour de force? If she does that, I don’t have a movie.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, 'Well, if you know she’s a star in the first fifteen minutes, you don’t have any place to go.’”The Man That Got Away
Arlen considered this song one of his top two compositions.Last Night When We Were Young
“Ain’t It De Truth,” was an early hit for Lena Horne which she performed in the film, Cabin in the Sky only to have the number cut, supposedly at the request of a jealous Ethel Waters, but possibly because she sang the number in a bathtub and it was considered too risqué for its time. Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg later interpolated the song into Jamaica.Ain’t It De Truth
“Harold Arlen was one of my oldest and best friends. We would talk on the telephone for hours. Never about songs. Conversation would start when one us would ask, 'How did you sleep last night?' This would continue until we were both worn out and too tired to sleep.
Music by Harold Arlen is, Stormy Weather, Over the Rainbow, That Old Black Magic, Blues in the Night and many other songs that will stay around for a long time.
He wasn’t as well known as some of us, but he was a better songwriter than most of us and he will be missed by all of us.”Irving Berlin
“"Harold was a great singer. Everybody wanted Harold to sing. Harold could perform a song better than anybody and he got all kinds of offers to go on the air and to go on stage and so on. But he refused to do it. Harold is really a purist in every sense of the word as an artist, I mean it in the good sense. He would not compromise his talent by being half singer and half writer as others do. He wanted to be a writer. The difference today there are no writers there are only performers, only singers. They sell their stuff and they act it out.”E.Y. Harburg