Harry Warren, (born December 24, 1893; died September 22, 1981) was the most successful and most prolific composer for motion picture musicals and probably only surpassed by Berlin in terms of hit songs. After a few hit Broadway shows, he went to Hollywood and enjoyed long relationships with each of the major studios and wrote hits for almost every score. Most of all, he was a character. Beloved but rough, Warren, like many of his Lower East Side brethren like Berlin and Cantor, was street smart and knew how to pick and win a fight.
Warren spoke about his growing up on the streets of New York and his early career as a songwriter in an extended interview with Michael Feinstein. Most of the quotes herein are from that interview.
Like Harold Arlen, and unlike his contemporaries Gershwin, Arlen, Berlin, Porter, etc. Warren was hardly a household name. People never heard of him nor knew what he looked like. Part of the problem was the studio system. Since he wasn’t a great Broadway composing star like Porter or Berlin, the studios took him for granted and didn’t hype his pictures. You’d never see, “Harry Warren’s 42nd Street” on the credits or on the marquee. And too, Warren didn’t act the part of the artist. He looked like any number of first generation Italians and never went in for the Hollywood party scene.
Though he denied it, perhaps he protested too much, Warren never seemed to mind not being as well known as writers far below his talents. Still, he spoke of it an awfully lot. “I’m a Capricorn. They call the Capricorn the hard way guy, you know, you have to go the hard way. Well, a lot of things happened to me where – if I go to a hot dog stand and there’s a lot of people standing around, and I keep saying ‘Give me a hot dog,’ he probably waits on everybody but me, and finally when it gets to me he says, ‘Wait your turn.’ That’s what happens to me all the time.
“Even on the lot the cops used to stop me in the beginning, you know; they knew Al Dubin because he was big and fat, you know, and kind of lurched a little bit. And Mack Gordon they knew. He always had a big heater in his mouth. But I look like a nudnick, like the average guy, so they’d always stop me.
“Even when we had the ASCAP show in New York at Lincoln Center. I arrived in a tuxedo at the door – the fellow stopped me. He didn’t stop the other people. He stopped me. He said to me, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Where the hell you do think I’m going?’” That’s the story of my life.”
Warren was also stopped at the entrance to the 1935 Academy Awards. And he won that year for “Lullaby of Broadway.” The famous 1924 Aeolian Hall concert that introduced “Rhapsody in Blue” also featured an early Warren effort titled “So This Is Venice” but his name was left off the program. But he professed not to mind it. He said, “Michelangelo didn’t sign his paintings. If they don’t know my work then the hell with them.”
Born Salvatore Guaragna, the last of 11 children (or 11th of 12), to Italian immigrants, he got his love for Italian opera, especially Puccini, from his family. (Harry wasn’t the only Warren in show business, his brother “Mousy” was a well-known song plugger.) “My sister was a dancer with Broadway shows. But she wasn’t a star or anything. I was always interested in music as a child. I don’t know why, I never had a musical formal education at all, but I had a terrific thirst for music. I started playing the harmonica but I was always musical, I don’t know why. My two sisters and my brother loved to sing four part harmony. Old time songs, of course. That’s my earliest recollection of music. Until I got to be an alter boy. My mother was very religious I had to go to church. From an alter boy listening to the choir was just fantastic to me. I couldn’t get to church fast enough. Finally when I got old enough I got into the choir and I think that started my whole musical education. We sang some wonderful masses. We didn’t sing Gregorian music.
“But I guess my parents didn’t understand that, you know. I those days, your father – my father was a handcraft boot maker – felt you should have a trade. Despite all of that, I finally overcame it and got into the music business. As I grew up and I got to be about fourteen, I was a drummer with a band. My godfather was a band leader. He had a band that went on the road with a carnival show, and I started with him.
“We toured the East, these little towns up the Hudson in the summer time. I learned all the marches that they used to play in those days. Then I got fooling around with the piano. I was a lousy piano player too. Never a good piano player. In fact, a producer told me I was the lousiest piano player he ever heard. I said, ‘If I was a good piano player would I be a songwriter, I’d be playing with an orchestra?’
“Later on I started play weddings and christenings and things like that and learned all the overtures. I never had a formal musical education, you know. But I learned how to write music just by being so interested in it, I guess.
“Some of the cafes and saloons for instance where I used to play in back rooms we had singing waiters. They had a great repertoire – they sang, ‘In the Heart of the City That Has No Heart’ or ‘By the Sea.’ We had one fella named Skinny McAnn who used to sing a lot of English comedy songs—double entrendre. Very funny songs. I grew up with all that stuff and loved it and still love it.
“And I always had a thirst for show business. I finally got a job at the Vitagraph Movie Company in Brooklyn because I could sing, and I sang in the Vitagraph quartet. From that I got to be an assistant director of some pictures. I picked up the piano in the meantime. I had a little training in church, where I used to sing in a choir. But I was inquisitive about music, how to write a song down, and of course my worst subject in school was mathematics. That’s all music is when you write it own, it’s mathematics. But I finally got the idea of it, how to write the notes in a bar and how to divide it, you know.
“I was assistant director for a fellow named Webster Campbell who was married to Corinne Griffith, who was a big star at the time. Well, I used to play the piano for her on the sets. Of course in those days there were silent movies. You could play, play for dramatic scenes. I used to make up tunes, and she liked for me to play for her. I also played for dance scenes. And they would look off the screen to an imaginary orchestra and applaud. You had to have something to give them the rhythm to dance to, you see.
“From that I worked in the old time movie theatres, the open air houses, where I used to play the piano for the silent movies. At night, out in the East New York, there was an open air movie where I got $12 a week, and they paid me off in nickels and dimes. It used to weigh a ton. I’d get on a trolley car with one side lopsided.
“I also wanted to write songs, and at Vitagraph the casting director had a friend who was a lyric writer, a fellow named Howard Johnson. I came to New York and played him some songs. He said, ‘Well you have a pretty good idea of the tunes, but the words and titles are not so hot,’ I was trying to write both words and music, you see. Then the war came on, and I went into the Navy – that’s the First World War, not the Civil War. In the Navy I played piano and we had a little band. I was stationed out at Montauk Point Naval Air Station. I was a flying piano player.
“After the war, I got this job with Stark and Cowan Music Publishers, and I had a song called “I Learned to Love You When I Learned My ABC’s” which I had written words and music for. Just as they’d decided to take the song and publish it, Woolworth – a big outlet for sheet music – decided to take all the music off the counters. So the song was never published.
“I had another song that they liked very much, and that was the first tune I ever had published –‘Rose of the Rio Grande.’ They still play it today, and that’s how I started. I got $20 a week as a song plugger. No raise. And I never collected the royalties on that song. They gave me a promissory note and then they sold the company and I never collected the money from the bank. The bank moved and then went out of business.
“Lots of times I did the music first, but I also wrote to lyrics or titles. That’s harder, because you’re confined to the cadence and the lyric, you know, and how are you going to change it? But I loved to write; to me it wasn’t work. I enjoyed it. That was the great thing. I didn’t care what the hours were. I used to play piano in saloons on Saturday night too. Don’t forget when I got $20 a week as a song plugger I was still taking side jobs, playing weddings and bar mitzvahs. Trying to make a buck, you know, because you couldn’t live on twenty bucks a week – even then.
“First I wrote some pop songs with Young and Lewis who were very big at that time. I don’t think I had any big songs though. And I started with Bud Green, you know; we wrote some songs together. We had one hit called ‘I Love My Baby, My Baby Loves Me.’ It was very big at the time. The first show, I think, was with Billy Rose; it was called Sweet and Low. And in that show I had ‘Would You Like to Take a Walk?’ and ‘Cheeful Little Earful’–with Ira Gershwin lyrics. That show was a big success, and then we did another show called Crazy Quilt and I had ‘Million Dollar Baby in the Five and Ten Cent Store’ in that one. Then I did a show for Ed Wynn called The Laugh Parade, and that had ‘You’re My Everything’ in it.
“After that I got to California. I hated it. Oh, I thought it was the most awful place in the world. It was some change from being in the city and Lindy’s every day for lunch. All of a sudden I was out in what was almost a desert; the Warner Studios in those days in Burbank was really in a desert. You looked out the window, and you couldn’t see anything. And hotter than hell, you know, in a heat wave. It was just awful. No air conditioning at that time. The time I went there to write 42nd Street – with Al Dubin – there were no writers on the lot. It was summertime and the lot was practically closed. Nobody working.
[At Warners] “we did write on the lot; we had an office. The writers and the directors were always nice. We didn’t have any trouble with them, but we had trouble with the fellows upstairs in the main office. I don’t think they cared much about songwriters, if you know what I mean.
“The songwriters were absolutely ignored on the lot. I would say, most of the time. But if a guy came from New York that had just done a show he was supposed to be somebody. And he could be a songwriter. That’s what impressed them. Some of these producers were impressed by fellas who went to college, you know who spoke very good English and analyzed a script in double talk and they thought it was great.
“Buzz Berkley used to do that to the head of the studio when he asked him “How you gonna do this number, Buzz?” He’d give him a double talk, “You see we’re gonna go in this way and have the girls go over there, and we zoom over there, then we move over here and we suddenly break out. He keeps on doing this double talk and the next time one of them waltz through they ask, 'How much is it gonna cost?' That’s all they thought about. Was it any good? Will it look good? They never asked that question. Everything was the budget, what’s it gonna cost. That’s the whole history of making pictures. What’s it gonna cost.
“If they didn’t like a song, they were kind of fresh about it, you know. Very blunt: ‘That stinks; write another one.’ Or some silly crap like that. We always retorted with ‘You stink, get somebody else’–which didn’t affect them at all. I don’t know why. I would have said, ‘Okay, good-by, and get out,’ but they never did.
“[I went to Hollywood for the money]. Don’t forget, when you did a show in New York, if you made two or three hundred a week you made a lot of money. I was getting about $1,500 a week in Hollywood – in those days when taxes were much lower than today.
“Al Dubin was already there under contract with them. Al Dubin was six foot three or four, big husky fella, weighed 360 some pounds. And he ate like Henry VIII. He loved to eat. He’d eat two steaks at one sitting while he was eating a steak he’d ask the chef to make him another one. He could drink a whole case of Coca Cola. Loved to eat and loved to drink too. He loved far away places too.
“I was under contract with Warner’s too. You see, I happened to be with Remick Music Company when Warner’s bought it. And I had a contract; they had to honor the contract. So, Dubin was out there writing some lyrics, rewriting some German lyrics because he knew German–not even translating but getting an idea for writing in English from the German.
“But nobody was making any musicals. Well, I had written some songs for one before, in 1929–a picture based on an old Rodgers and Hart show called Spring Is Here. They made the film but right after that all the musicals were dead for some reason. I don’t know. They didn’t make any more till 1932 when Zanuck got this script that he liked for 42nd Street. When that picture became a success everybody started making musicals again.
“The only recollections I have [of 42nd Street] is that Al Dubin usually disappeared. I would give him a tune and write a lead sheet for him, and I’d never hear from him. All of a sudden he’d come back and he’d have a lyric. He brought in the lyric of ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’–he wrote it down on a menu up in San Francisco. I always say today now with all the wonderful restaurants they have out in California–if he were only alive–he could do some great lyrics. There weren’t too many good restaurants there in those days.
“We’d meet at the studio every day we’d work a few hours and maybe go back at night. I always liked to work at the studio at night was great, it was nice and quiet. I think you can work anyplace. Doesn’t make any difference. The only difference is, it’s easier to work in an office in the studio than dirty up your own house. Dubin used to chew cigars, he’d bite cigars. He’d have a cuspidor in the corner but he’d always miss it. I used to smoke ten or fifteen cigars a day. And all those cigar butts and cigarette butts and Dubin’s chewing tobacco. It was really awful. You couldn’t do that in your own house.
“[I worked] mornings, evenings, even write at night sometimes. When you’re on a picture, you have a certain length of time to have a song, and they usually ask for the song that you haven’t got, you know. Say we’re going to start shooting Monday, and the scene is the one that Dick Powell or Fred Astaire comes in the room and they have this conversation and he sings the ballad. Well, that’s the one we haven’t got written yet. Never fails.
“Half the time it’s hard to explain why I write a song. They come to me subconsciously. I think that if you’re in the business of trying to write songs, I wouldn’t call it a business—a craft—that you think about it incessantly. I know I did when I worked a lot on pictures. I often wondered what would happen on the next picture if I didn’t get anything but it always came. And I think that’s it, the secret of it subconsciously thinking about what you want to write or put yourself in the mood or sometimes it’s the artist himself or a woman, or a band. You fit ‘em like a tailor.
“Some tunes [came quickly], some didn’t. But it was never hard for me, because I liked it. I think the more you write the better you get. The problem is the layoff in between – which I never had. Don’t forget, I worked for almost twenty-five years in the studios without stopping. Warner’s, Fox, Metro, and Paramount.
“I’ve always written music the way I felt it. I write for the public because I feel like the public, the way they would write if they could. You don’t have to know anything about music to understand what I write.
“No, it wasn’t difficult at all. I liked it a lot.” (KB)
“I’ve had a lot of titles about places that I’ve never been to. I think everybody around those days was writing about far-off places they’d never been to. A lot of fellas wrote southern songs about Dixie and they’d never been down there, they didn’t know anything about it. But they wrote them just the same. I’ve written songs like ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo.’ I’ve gone through Buffalo but I never stayed in Buffalo. Like Kalamazoo. The city of Chattanooga, I’m an honorary citizen, but I’ve never been there.”Shuffle Off to Buffalo
Harry Warren:" We had a gal on the Warner lot and we used to kid her a lot about some guy she was going with. And she was real southern, she had a southern accent. And Al Dubin said to her, ‘Why are you going around with that guy all the time?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know, I guess he’s getting to be a habit.’ And that’s how we wrote, ‘You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me.’”You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me
Harry Warren: "You’re playing for people that don’t know much about music. The most important thing depends on the demonstration. Not the contents of the song. What they’re mostly impressed by is a good demonstration. James Melton was at the Metropolitan Opera House when they brought him out for a picture, and we wrote 'September in the Rain.' When I played and sang it to Jack Warner he didn’t like it. I got Jack Elfeld and I got a hold of Jimmy Melton who was crazy about the song. Jimmy sang the song. Jack said, 'That’s a wonderful song.' I didn’t say, ‘I played it for you and you didn’t like it.’ That’s how you get around those corners."September in the Rain
Johnny Mercer: "My wife and I went to see a movie one night at the Graumann’s Chinese and Henry Fonda played a farm boy in it. And you know how he is, he’s got that wonderful kind of slow delivery, genuine, real, homespun. And in the movie he saw something, something impressed him, and he said, 'Jeepers creepers,' and that just rang a little bell in my head, and I wrote it down when I got out of the movie. ‘Cause you know, 'jeepers creepers' in America in those days was kind of a polite way, I think, of saying 'Jesus Christ.'”Jeepers Creepers
“Johnny Mercer is a very clever fellow. We wrote some nice songs like ‘You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby’–-he gave me that title. I wrote that from the title. And he wrote 'Jeepers Creepers' to the music."You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby
“I’ve had a lot of titles about places that I’ve never been to. I think everybody around those days was writing about far-off places they’d never been to. A lot of fellas wrote southern songs about Dixie and they’d never been down there, they didn’t know anything about it. But they wrote them just the same. I’ve written songs like ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo.’ I’ve gone through Buffalo but I never stayed in Buffalo. Like Kalamazoo. The city of Chattanooga, I’m an honorary citizen, but I’ve never been there.”Chattanooga Choo Choo
Carmen Miranda asked Warren how he came up with all those great Brazilian-influenced tunes for her. He answered, “Honey, they’re not Brazilian – they’re Italian. But don’t tell anybody.”I Yi Yi Yi Yi (I Like You Very Much)
“I’ve had a lot of titles about places that I’ve never been to. I think everybody around those days was writing about far-off places they’d never been to. A lot of fellas wrote southern songs about Dixie and they’d never been down there, they didn’t know anything about it. But they wrote them just the same. I’ve written songs like ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo.’ I’ve gone through Buffalo but I never stayed in Buffalo. Like Kalamazoo. The city of Chattanooga, I’m an honorary citizen, but I’ve never been there.”I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo
Harry Warren: "I didn’t know where to put that title in the melody. I was trying all ways of starting off with the line. Then I finally got it the other way, with the title at the end, which worked out better."On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe
Harry Warren: "I had a dum-dum-dum-dum rhythm going in my head, which was why Johnny Mack [Mack Gordon] and I decided to spell out the name. And I had been in Kalamazoo when I was very young and had carved my name on the wall of the railroad station there. I guess maybe that was the basis for the lyric. It wasn’t the first song to spell out its title, but it was an angle that worked."I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo
“I’ve had a lot of titles about places that I’ve never been to. I think everybody around those days was writing about far-off places they’d never been to. A lot of fellas wrote southern songs about Dixie and they’d never been down there, they didn’t know anything about it. But they wrote them just the same. I’ve written songs like ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo.’ I’ve gone through Buffalo but I never stayed in Buffalo. Like Kalamazoo. The city of Chattanooga, I’m an honorary citizen, but I’ve never been there.”Harry Warren