Milton Ager

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  • The Great Songs

Born in Chicago on October 6, 1893, Milton Ager enjoyed a double career as both a pop songsmith and a contributor of special material for a variety of performers, especially Sophie Tucker. Ager began as a song-plugger for Watson, Berlin, and Snyder in 1910. He moved from Chicago to New York for the publishing company in 1914 to arrange songs. In the early 1920s Ager met lyricist Jack Yellen and a great team was born.

Milton Ager enjoyed a double career as both a pop songsmith and a contributor of special material for a variety of performers, especially Sophie Tucker.

Ager’s early hits included “Everything Is Peaches Down in Georgia” (1918) and “Anything Is Nice If It Comes from Dixieland” (1919—both Grant Clarke). Sophie Tucker introduced several Ager/Yellen songs including “Lovin’ Sam (The Sheik of Alabam’) (1922), “Louisville Lou” (1923), and “Mamma Goes Where Papa Goes” (1923). In 1924, they hit their stride with “I Wonder What’s Become of Sally,” “Big Boy,” “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and “Big Bad Bill Is Sweet William Now.” In 1927 they surpassed themselves with “Ain’t That a Grand and Glorious Feeling,” “Crazy Words, Crazy Tune,” “Is She Still My Girlfriend,” “Forgive Me,” and “Ain’t She Sweet?,” the biggest hit of their career.

Eddie Cantor introduced “Hungry Women” in Florenz Ziegfeld’s production of Whoopee (1928), the same year as their quintessentially twenties number,“My Pet.” In 1929, Ager and Yellen joined the vast exodus to Hollywood, writing “I’m the Last of the Red Hot Mamas” for Sophie Tucker to sing in the film Honky Tonk (1929). Thus, a theme song and lifelong nickname were born. The team’s last successes were the title song for the film Glad Rag Doll” and “Happy Days Are Here Again,” composed for Chasing Rainbows.

Yellen and Ager split up in 1930 and Ager wrote few hits after that, retiring in 1944. (KB)

The making of the song

Jack Yellen described the writing of this classic to David Ewen: “In the last week of production, the producer of Chasing Rainbows phoned me and said he wanted a song for a scene in which a group of World War I soldiers receive news of the armistice. I relayed the message to Ager, whom I hadn’t seen in weeks. He said he would stop in at my house next morning, on his way to the golf course. He came in, sat down at the piano, and lighted a cigar. ‘Got a title?’ he asked finally. I didn’t have any, but blurted out ‘happy days are here again.’ The first tune he played was good enough. He kept playing the melody and I scribbled off the first words that came to me and handed him the corny lyrics. His only comment was that he didn’t think the lyric should start with the title. I said I thought it should, and the conversation ended.”Happy Days Are Here Again

More then a counter-seller

According to Jack Yellen, “It was written to be a ‘counter-seller’—a ballad not plugged professionally, but which the girls behind the music counters plugged at their pianos through friendship for favored song salesmen. I had friends among such girls in various cities around the country, so one evening we wrote ‘I Wonder What’s Become of Sally.’ It was strictly an ear of corn, but when I left Ager’s apartment, I had a feeling that we had written something more than a ‘counter-seller.’”I Wonder What Became of Sally

Paying off the sheriff

Jack Yellen remembered, “Milton Ager and I finally became our own publishers because we couldn’t get a break with other publishers. We scraped together a few thousand dollars and rented a couple of rooms in a dilapidated building on Broadway. We were almost broke when Max Winslow, professional manager for Waterson, Berlin, and Snyder, phoned me to send over a copy of ‘Lovin’ Sam’ to his office. He wouldn’t tell me what he wanted it for. About two weeks later we heard that Grace Hayes had gone into The Bunch and Judy, an Otto Harbach-Jerome Kern show, and was a riot with ‘Lovin’ Sam’ in a cabaret scene. We paid off the sheriff and were in business.”Lovin’ Sam, The Sheik of Alabam

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