(January 30, 2005)

Harold Who?

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Even if you haven't been paying attention, you know the music of Harold Arlen: Judy Garland sang Arlen's "Over the Rainbow" and somehow brought color to that black-and-white Kansas farm in "The Wizard of Oz."

Frank Sinatra sings his "I've Got the World on a String," written in 1932, in a current credit-card commercial.

As television reported the death of Johnny Carson, nearly every story included a clip of Bette Midler singing "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)." Arlen wrote it in 1943.

But for every hundred people who can sing Harold Arlen's music by heart, there are likely 99 people who don't know that he's responsible for "Over the Rainbow" or "The Man That Got Away" or "Come Rain or Come Shine."

That will change, if the organizers of the Harold Arlen Centennial have anything to say about it. For the next year, there will be concerts and CDs and tributes to Arlen - born Hyman Arluck on Feb. 15, 1905, the son of a Buffalo cantor - whose infectious melodies still demonstrate a musical mastery and range that put him right up there with Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Cole Porter.

Except when it comes to name recognition.

After Arlen's death in 1986, Irving Berlin wrote of him: "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."

Over the course of his career - from his first song, "Get Happy" with Ted Koehler in 1929, to "Promise Me Not To Love Me" with E.Y. "Yip" Harburg in 1976 - Arlen worked with dozens of collaborators . His son, Sam, says that may have kept him from becoming a household name.

"If he had only worked with one lyricist, in some ways maybe he'd be better known, because it would have been like a writing team, as opposed to the different people. But you wouldn't have had these great songs, because everybody puts in something special. And when you have Harburg and (Johnny) Mercer and (Ira) Gershwin and (Truman) Capote and all the different lyricists he worked with, great things came out of that."

Great things as diverse as "A Sleepin' Bee" for Diahann Carroll, "If I Only Had a Brain" for Ray Bolger and "The Man That Got Away" for Garland.

Changes in writing partners had less of an impact on Arlen's style than the variety of the shows he was working on, his son says.

"His style changed according to the project more so than the collaborator," Arlen says. "(They) were writing for a certain time period or type of show. So (he) had to adapt to that. Then it becomes that perfect melding of the lyric and the melody."

Singer Michael Feinstein says that Arlen's range can be attributed to his painstaking approach to music.

"One of the things that makes a song good is the perfect combination of lyric and music," Feinstein says. "Harold was certainly a very savvy guy who could recognize how words themselves change the character of a tune." For example, "The Man That Got Away," Feinstein says, began life as "I Won't Believe My Eyes," with a lyric by Johnny Mercer. It was sweeter at first:

I've seen the table
That held the Declaration
And Betty Grable
In my imagination,
But I have never seen the likes of you.

But in 1954, looking for a song for Judy Garland to sing in "A Star is Born," Arlen revisited the melody and Ira Gershwin wrote the lyric:

The road gets rougher,
It's lonelier and tougher.
With hope you burn up,
Tomorrow he may turn up.

"Suddenly," Feinstein says, "the tune takes on a grittiness and a feeling of lament that is not experienced in the other words."

Feinstein says that Arlen was adept at drawing on his life to put emotion into his songs.

Throughout his career, Arlen would successfully tap into black music, something young Harold was exposed to back in Buffalo. His father rented an apartment to a black family and encouraged his son to see other religions, other ways of life. Along with that came exposure to ragtime, jazz and the blues - which Arlen extrapolated into classic songs like "A Sleepin' Bee" and "Blues in the Night."

Sam Arlen, a saxophonist who has just released a CD of 13 favorite songs by his father - "Arlen Plays Arlen: A Timeless Tribute to Harold Arlen" (JoSam Records, $18.98) - says that if his father had had his choice, he would have been in front of the piano, not behind it. Harold Arlen wanted to sing.

"It wasn't in his mind to be a composer. All through his life, he continued to sing," Arlen says. (It was Harold Arlen who first recorded "Stormy Weather," although Ethel Waters introduced it on stage.) As a singer, he was more responsive to performers' needs, Arlen says, than other non-singing composers who would demand that the songs be sung as written.

"(He) always believed that you take a song and you give it a life of its own," Arlen says.

And Arlen wasn't above pitching in to help a singer out.

Jonathan Schwartz, the WNYC radio personality and music historian, tells the story of the 1954 original cast recording of Arlen's "House of Flowers." Diahann Carroll had a bad cold. Singing "I Never Has Seen Snow" was within her range, but the cold kept her from hitting the highest note at the song's end.

Arlen stepped into the recording booth and, Schwartz points out, it is Arlen's voice singing that one note.

Sam Arlen adds: "Diahann sang all the way up, Harold sang that one note, and Diahann sang all the way down."

Arlen left school at 16 and became a professional musician in and around Buffalo, where, playing with a band called The Buffalodians, he met a Boston dancer named Ray Bolger, who would later play the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz." When Arlen moved to Manhattan in 1925, he and Bolger were roommates.

Arlen played, sang and arranged music for bands and even tried his hand at a solo career in vaudeville.

While sitting in for an ailing rehearsal pianist on the musical "Great Day," Arlen playfully developed a little melody. He was teamed up with lyricist Ted Koehler, and when that melody was released as "Get Happy" in 1929, they had a hit on their hands - and a job writing shows at Harlem's famed Cotton Club. From 1930 to '34, Arlen and Koehler banged out hit after hit - "Stormy Weather," "Ill Wind," "I Love a Parade" and "I've Got the World on a String."

Arlen was soon writing melodies for Broadway shows, although the songs were invariably better than the shows they were in, with two exceptions: "St. Louis Woman" (lyrics by Johnny Mercer) in 1946 and "Jamaica" (lyrics by Harburg) in 1957, which marked Lena Horne's Broadway debut and ran for 500 performances.

Off to see the wizard

Regardless of the success of these Broadway shows, Arlen was inducted into a loose fraternity of East Coast songwriters - Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin among them - and gravitated to Hollywood.

When these songwriters got together at what was affectionately called "the Gershwin Salons," Schwartz says "it was inevitably a musical occasion" where they would share what they were working on.

Feinstein says that at one such gathering in 1938, at Ira Gershwin's home, Harburg and Arlen played "Over the Rainbow" for the assembled writers. Harburg had thought the ballad too highfalutin for a Kansas farmgirl to sing. Over the course of the conversation, Gershwin suggested Arlen play the melody more simply. After that change, Harburg was sold, though he admitted to having trouble finishing the lyric. Feinstein, Ira Gershwin's longtime assistant, says Gershwin thought about it and then threw in the last line: "If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why, can't I?"

Now they had Dorothy's ballad and Garland recorded it. But when they went to the first screening, the song had been cut. The producers felt it slowed the movie down. Arlen and Harburg fought to get it back in. At the second screening, it still wasn't in. The writers fought again, this time joined by one of the producers. At the third screening, Arlen and Harburg got their way.

And "Over the Rainbow" got the Oscar.

Last June, it topped the American Film Institute's list of 100 best movie songs. ("As Time Goes By" from "Casablanca" was No. 2 and the title tune from "Singin' in the Rain" was No. 3.)

"The Wizard of Oz" succeeds, Jonathan Schwartz says, because the songs "are so well integrated into the story." He attributes this to the chemistry between Harburg and Arlen. Schwartz adds that while Arlen may not have been given his due early on, "increasingly through the years, he's been recognized as one of the top five or six composers of popular song."

Harold Arlen died on April 23, 1986, in his Manhattan apartment.

Sam Arlen said the goal of the centennial celebration is clear: "We want his name to come to the forefront. You recognize the songs, you pass it on to generations. Recognize that pen or pencil went to paper to create these songs and give credit to the composer."

Tony Bennett found a kindred soul

For Tony Bennett, there was a lot to like about Harold Arlen.

First, Arlen's father was a cantor who understood bel canto singing and passed that on to his son. Bel canto is the bright, pure-toned kind of singing used in Italian opera and by cantors - including those with whom Bennett studied singing at the American Theater Wing.

"Plus, I sing jazz," says Bennett. "So it was a good combination to be with a composer who wrote music that would fit those two things - bel canto and jazz."

But there was more than that.

"He was the most consummate musician and talented person that I ever met. He was able to sing like any good performer. He played beautiful piano. He had a great knowledge of music theory. And then he also composed. He would sit down at the piano, when demonstrating a song, and sing it so damn well you'd say, `I can't sing it that good.'"

And Arlen was generous.

"Richard Rodgers told everybody, `Please sing the song the way I wrote it.' Which is really what you should do. You should do what the composer had in mind. But then Harold Arlen was so flexible. He'd say, `Look, my songs are just tools for performing. Change it any way you want. ... so it works for you on the stage.'"

Bennett says he feels a kind of obligation to keep alive the music of Arlen and Cole Porter and George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.

"Without getting up on a soapbox, I try to tell people, `This is American music, the best popular songs ever written.'"

Come rain (or sleet) or come shine

If not for Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, Ossie Davis might've ended up a postmaster instead of an actor.

It was Christmas 1956 and Davis was working at the post office next to the Mount Vernon Public Library, helping to handle the extra crush of holiday mail. It had been a long time between acting jobs and he was considering giving up acting and taking a full-time job at the post office.

Then he heard about "Jamaica," a new musical from Arlen and Harburg that would mark the Broadway debut of Lena Horne.

Davis auditioned, got the part of Cicero, and never looked back. The show ran 500 performances at the Imperial Theater and Davis put the post office behind him.

He recalls Harburg as "one of the most charming, talkative, informative, stimulative, creative artists that the country's ever produced." Arlen was quiet, an "intense musical musician" who "thought music and talked music and that was always on his mind."

The experience left Davis grateful for the work, and the career path.

"They came along just in time."

Not Berlin, Rodgers, or Porter ...

In "Harold Arlen: Happy with the Blues"(Da Capo Press Music Reprint Series, 1985), biographer Edward Jablonski tells a story that is classic Arlen. Here's an excerpt:

"One day Harold was taking a taxicab ride crosstown in Manhattan. After he had settled in his seat, he found himself confronted by a classic situation. The cabby was whistling `Stormy Weather,' an Arlen standard dating back to the Thirties. It was an opportunity for experiment that the composer could not ignore.

"`Do you know who wrote that song?' he asked the driver.

"`Sure. Irving Berlin.'

"`Wrong,' Arlen informed him, `but I'll give you two more guesses.'

"The cabby thought hard, and at times audibly if not understandably explaining that the name of the composer was on the tip of his tongue but he just couldn't come up with it.

"Arlen prompted him: `Richard Rodgers?'

"`That is the name I was thinking of,' the cabby admitted, `but he's not the one.'

"`How about Cole Porter?'

"`That's who!'

"`No, you're wrong again,' Arlen told him. `I wrote the song.'

"The cab darted across an intersection before the driver, still thinking, finally asked, `Who are you?'

"`Harold Arlen.'

"At this the cabby turned around in his seat and asked, `Who?'"

Centennial road warriors

"Over the Rainbow: The Music of Harold Arlen" teams the Broadway stars Faith Prince and Tom Wopat with jazz artist Loston Harris and blues singer Barbara Morrison. Prince and Harris phoned in from the six-week tour:

Faith Prince calls from Greenville, S.C. - before stops in Milwaukee, Wausau, Purchase College on Feb. 6 and Carnegie Hall on Valentine's Day for a 100th birthday bash - and can't resist a gentle lament: "It's brutal, baby, but fun."

Prince's role here is clear: "I hold down the Broadway and standard set" - singing "Get Happy," "Down With Love," "A Sleepin' Bee," "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe," and "Lydia the Tattooed Lady."

"At first I thought it was going to be me and Tom and this symphony thing. And then we were backed by these incredible jazz musicians. And then Loston and Barbara, who are fabulous, but they are hard-core jazz. I'm like `the cheese stands alone,' trying to hold down the Broadway and the standards."

The fact that it takes four performers to fully realize the range of Arlen's work isn't lost on Prince.

"That's how you know there's a God. There's a higher power than we know. Don't you find that's fascinating? Someone who doesn't have that kind of background can go in and absorb the style and the land of what those people feel."

The Purchase performance marks a sort of homecoming for Prince, a one-time Hastings resident who now calls Los Angeles home.

For crooner Loston Harris, the centennial concert offers a chance to honor Arlen and one of his idols, Nat "King" Cole, singing "It's Only a Paper Moon," a hit for Cole.

"I kind of bring that style to Arlen's music. That's what I do naturally," he says.

If you're not familiar with Harris, you will be. After years studying percussion, he came to the attention of Ellis Marsalis, father of the jazz-playing family, at Virginia Commonwealth University. After hearing Harris "goofing on the piano" Marsalis told Harris to put his drums away.

Harris is an Arlen fan. "The hippest thing is Arlen's ability to fuse popular song and jazz," he says.

"The songs he wrote were dealing with angst or pain or lament. Even "I've Got the World on a String" is kind of a happy song, but it's not "Our Love is Here to Stay."

"Today, it's hip to have angst," Harris says with a laugh.

Making Arlen groove

How did Tony-winning actress Tonya Pinkins ("Jelly's Last Jam") catch the Harold Arlen bug?

"Doing `House of Flowers' (for the `Encores!' series). Of course, I knew a lot of his songs, but I don't think I made the connection that he had written so many songs that I liked. Then when I did `House of Flowers,' I was like, `Wow! I was born to sing this music!'"

The revelation led to a Valentine's Day engagement at Joe's Pub last year where Pinkins "took all those tragic torchy love songs and found the positive spin on them. My patter was about how we could take `Blues in the Night' and make it a really hot, sexy love song."

Pinkins says that Arlen wrote so well for women, and for black women in particular, that "if he was alive today, he'd be writing for Beyoncé."

And not only the former Destiny's Child star; Arlen had remarkable range.

"`Shining Hour,' `Paper Moon,' `Old Black Magic.' They're so different in their styles you would never even assume they were the same composer," Pinkins says.

How did Arlen do it?

"Genius," Pinkins says. "And being willing to say yes, instead of `I don't do that,' which a lot of people do. Clearly, he never said `I don't do that.'"

Pinkins is readying two all-Arlen sets for a Feb. 26 engagement at the brand-new Jazz at Lincoln Center space. The concerts, part of Lincoln Center's "American Songbook" series, honor Arlen's centennial. While she's still tinkering with the set list - "definitely `Stormy Weather,' definitely `Blues in the Night,' probably `Get Happy,' because it was his first song" - Pinkins also is trying to adapt Arlen's and Ted Koehler's 1941 "Americanegro Suite," to "create something that would give people the sense of it." It was more "Porgy and Bess" than "Stormy Weather," she says, with "lush ballads and stories and big anthems."

Audiences love Arlen's melodies, Pinkins says. "My God, as soon as they hear the chord, they know what the song is, so they're applauding, because it's a song they love."

So a singer of Arlen has that going for her.

"If you're singing songs people know and love, they're already predisposed to enjoy themselves."

But that doesn't mean Pinkins will stand pat.

"Sometimes something has been done and someone has put their stamp on it and it's like, `OK, we really have to find a new way to approach this,' because people know it from that performer.

"`Stormy Weather' is such a Lena Horne tune, so we took it and we made it this uptempo song and it's great. It just really grooves."

Then she's off, singing "Stormy Weather," not like Lena Horne but like Tonya Pinkins, stopping to point out "I do all bridges and verses that people don't usually do. ...

"I walk around,
Heavy-hearted and sad
Night comes around
And I'm still feeling bad ..."

And it grooves.

She makes it her own, but is quick to point out that Arlen did the hard work.

"It didn't need any fixing," she says with a smile in her voice.