Harold Arlen Biography

Hyman Arluck, 15 February 1905, Buffalo, New York, USA, d. 23 April 1986, New York City, New York, USA. Acknowledged as one of the all-time great composers, Arlen was the son of a cantor and sang in his father’s synagogue. However, he was soon playing ragtime piano in local bands and accompanying silent pictures. In the early 20s he played and arranged for the Buffalodians band, then in 1925 shook off small-town connections when he took a job in New York City, arranging for Fletcher Henderson, and working in radio and theatre as a rehearsal pianist. Indeed, one of his first compositions began as a rehearsal vamp, and was developed into ‘Get Happy’, with a lyric by Ted Koehler. Ruth Etting introduced it in the flop 9:15 Revue in 1930.

Arlen was soon composing songs regularly, and collaborated with Koehler on several Harlem Cotton Club revues, one of which included ‘Stormy Weather’. Ethel Waters elevated that song into an American classic. Among Arlen and Koehler’s other early 30s Cotton Club hits were ‘Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea’, sung by Aida Ward, ‘I’ve Got The World On A String’ and ‘As Long As I Live’, which was introduced by the 17-year-old Lena Horne with Avon Long. After contributing to Broadway shows such as Earl Carroll’s Vanities (‘I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues’), You Said It, George White’s Music Hall Varieties and Americana, Arlen joined forces with E.Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg and Ira Gershwin to write songs for the 1934 revue Life Begins At 8:40, which starred Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Luella Gear. These included ‘You’re A Builder-Upper’, ‘Let’s Take A Walk Around The Block’, ‘What Can You Say In A Love Song?’ and ‘Fun To Be Fooled’. Harburg was Arlen’s lyricist in 1937 for the composer’s first ‘book’ show, a vehicle for comedian Ed Wynn, entitled Hooray For What! (‘Moanin’ In The Mornin’’, ‘Down With Love’, ‘God’s Country’ and ‘In the Shade Of The New Apple Tree’).

After spending several years in Hollywood writing for films, Arlen returned to Broadway in 1944, and teamed with Harburg again for Bloomer Girl. Their splendid score included ‘The Eagle And Me’, ‘I Got A Song’, ‘Right As Rain’ and ‘Evelina’. Two years later, Arlen worked again with Johnny Mercer on the all-black musical St. Louis Woman, which resulted in two enduring standards, ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine’ and ‘Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home’. During the 50s, Arlen composed the music for three more Broadway musicals: House Of Flowers (‘Two Ladies In De Shade Of De Banana Tree’, ‘A Sleepin’ Bee’), for which he also co-wrote the lyrics with author Truman Capote; Jamaica (with Harburg, ‘Take It Slow, Joe’, ‘Ain’t It The Truth?’, ‘Push The Button’, ‘Incompatibility’); and the least successful of the trio, Saratoga (with Mercer, ‘A Game Of Poker’, ‘Love Held Lightly’, ‘Dog Eat Dog’ and ‘Goose Never Be A Peacock’).

In between, and in parallel with his work for Broadway, Arlen wrote prolifically for the screen. After composing ‘Long Before You Came Along’ (with Harburg) for Rio Rita in 1929, during the 30s he contributed complete scores or occasional songs to movies such as Take A Chance (‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’), Let’s Fall In Love (‘Love Is Love Anywhere’, title song), The Singing Kid (‘You’re The Cure For What Ails Me’), Stage Struck (‘Fancy Meeting You’, ‘In Your Own Quiet Way’), Strike Me Pink (‘Shake It Off With Rhythm’, ‘The Lady Dances’), Artists And Models (‘Public Melody Number One’), Gold Diggers Of 1937 (‘Let’s Put Our Heads Together’), The Marx Brothers At The Circus (‘Lydia, The Tattooed Lady’), Love Affair (‘Sing, My Heart’), and The Wizard Of Oz. This film, which starred Judy Garland, is one of the most beloved in the history of the cinema, and Arlen and Harburg’s memorable numbers included the immortal ‘Over The Rainbow’, ‘Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ and ‘We’re Off To See The Wizard’.

Arlen’s songs continued to be featured throughout the 40s and into the early 50s in films such as Blues In The Night (‘This Time The Dream’s On Me’ and the superb title number), Star Spangled Rhythm (‘That Old Black Magic’, ‘Hit The Road To Dreamland’), The Sky’s The Limit (‘One For My Baby’, ‘My Shining Hour’), Cabin In The Sky (‘Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe’), Here Comes The Waves (‘Accent-Tchu-Ate The Positive’, ‘Let’s Take The Long Way Home’), Up In Arms (‘Tess’ Torch Song’), Out Of This World (‘I’d Rather Be Me’, title song), Casbah (‘What’s Good About Goodbye?’, ‘For Every Man There’s A Woman’, ‘It Was Written In The Stars’), My Blue Heaven (‘Don’t Rock The Boat, Dear’, ‘The Friendly Islands’), Mr. Imperium (‘Let Me Look At You’) and The Country Girl (‘Live And Learn’). In 1954, Arlen, with Ira Gershwin, was associated with another of the cinema’s most treasured movies, and once again it starred Garland. For the remake of A Star Is Born, the two men wrote what is considered to be the ultimate ‘torch’ song, ‘The Man That Got Away’, along with ‘Gotta Have Me Go With You’, ‘It’s A New World’, and ‘Someone At Last (Somewhere There’s A Someone)’. It was a fitting climax to the Hollywood phase of Arlen’s career, although he did provide songs such as ‘Mewsette’, ‘Little Drops Of Rain’ and ‘Paris Is A Lonely Town’ for the delightful 1962 cartoon, Gay Purr-ee.

Many of the above songs, written with collaborators such as Lew Brown, Leo Robin, Dorothy Fields and Jack Yellen, as well as the other distinguished lyricists already mentioned, are among the most cherished in the history of American popular music. They have been consistently recorded by all the leading artists, and the composer also made the occasional record himself, playing the piano and singing with artists such as Duke Ellington and Barbra Streisand. He also had hits in the early 30s with his own ‘Little Girl’, ‘Stormy Weather’, ‘Let’s Fall In Love’, ‘Ill Wind’ and ‘You’re A Builder-Upper’. Over the years, many tributes have been paid to him, and in 1993 a revue entitled Sweet And Hot: The Songs Of Harold Arlen, devised and directed by Julianne Boyd, was circulating in the USA.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.