Wednesday, August 12, 2015

You Love His Music--The Great Unknown Harold Arlen

from my personal collection
from my personal collection
One of America's most beloved songs is Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It was cut from the film but director Arthur Freed insisted it was returned. MGM executives thought the barnyard scene was ugly, the song slowed the picture down, and the idea was too sophisticated for the general public. Freed insisted it was Rainbow or him.

The next screening of the movie the song was back in. 

The movie ended. The audience was silent, then broke into applause and cheers. 

Judy Garland's interpretation of the song was so good people believed she was singing from the heart in her own words. The song became associated with Garland. 

Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and all the Wizard of Oz songs, were written by Harold Arlen and the lyrics by E. B. 'Yip' Harburg.

Arlen also wrote the music to:
image from Amazon
image from Songbook
from my personal collection
from my personal collection
image from eBay
from my personal collection
Image from Amazon
from The National Museum of Play
Judy Garland loved Arlen's songs even before Wizard. She performed Stormy Weather at her famous Carnegie Hall concert of 1961. What was not included on her best selling album of that concert was her calling for Harold Arlen to stand up to be recognized for having written the music.

Arlen, biographer Walter Rimler contends, was an unknown man during his life and remains unknown today--in spite of having written some of the most beloved, ground-breaking, and complex songs.

Reading The Man thatGot Away was glorious fun. The whole early Twentieth Century musical world appears, from Tin Pan Alley to Paul McCarthy. Arlen wrote for Broadway revues, Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club, Ethel Waters, Judy Garland, for Hollywood including The Cabin in the Sky, The Wizard of Oz, and Gay
Purr-ee (which I loved as a girl).

Arlen was born Hyman Arluck, son of a Yiddish-speaking cantor in Buffalo, NY. He grew up in a mixed neighborhood and was drawn to jazz and gospel music. He competed at amateur nights and played piano at the burlesque house. He organied a local group then in his early twenties published his first song. 

His parents were not amused, and asked Jack Yellon (author of Happy Days are Here Again and Ain't She Sweet) to “talk sense” into their son. After hearing Arlen play, Yellen called the rabbi and advised he admit defeat: his son was going to be a musician like his old man. Just different music.

Arlen went to New York City where he met Ray Bolger. Arlen's group made records that caused Bob Crosby to consider him “one of the best stylists” he ever heard. From there Arlen went on to write for Broadway. After floundering he met Vincent Younmans who brought Arlen up to speed on the music scene and modern styles.

It was a pivotal moment in American pop music with the rise of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, the Gershwin brothers, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and Yip Harburg.

Arlen wrote Get Happy with Ted Koehler. He realized his future was not in performance; he was a song writer. He could tap into mystical inspiration and summon music. He was writing for a commercial market, but he knew he was creating “art.”

image from Ruth Etting website
Johnny Mercer founded Capitol Records which changed music. Now artists didn't need to wait for a Broadway show or a movie contract to premiere their songs. It also meant the demise of the Tin Pan Alley style of songwriting.

Arlen meet the love of his life, a beautiful seventeen-year-old chorus girl Anya Taranda. His Jewish parents and her Russian Orthodox family kept them from marrying. When an undiagnosed brain tumor caused personality changes in Anya, Arlen struggled in his marriage and drank to excess, but they never divorced.

His friends considered Arlen a decent and kind man who wanted fame but didn't like the limelight. He helped Judy Garland with her medical bills. He shared his home with his parents and his unemployed brother and his family.

Arlen's musical compositions reflected his wit and humanity and his tendency toward depression. His life had its challenges: disapproving parents, an ill wife, the lack of work or lyricists to work with, his alcoholism. His later years brought Parkinson's disease.

Arlin always had the regard of his peers. Paul McCarthy bought the rights to Arlen's songs and published The Harold Arlen Songbook. NPR celebrated his 80th birthday with his songs. And if at his 1986 death few Americans knew his name his music is beloved.

I thank the publisher and NetGalley for a free ebook in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Man that Got Away; The Life and Songs of Harold Arlen
by Walter Rimler
University of Illinois Press
Publication August 2015
$29.95 hard bound

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