Although the name of American composer Harold Arlen (b. 15 February 1905; d. 23 April 1986) is less familiar than that of many of his contemporaries, he wrote the music to over 400 songs, many of which have become world-renowned standards, and one of which is recognized as the Number One Song of the Twentieth Century by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Most of his songs were originally composed for Broadway shows or Hollywood musical films. Collaborating with the greatest of American lyricists – Ted Koehler (“Stormy Weather”) and Yip Harburg (“Over the Rainbow”) in the 1930s, Johnny Mercer (“That Old Black Magic,” “Come Rain or Come Shine”) in the ’40s, Dorothy Fields, Ralph Blane, Truman Capote, and Ira Gershwin (“The Man That Got Away”) in the ’50s – Arlen shuttled frequently between New York and the West Coast, and the sparkling success of his songwriting career endured well into the 1970s.
Chaim Arlook (or Hyman Arluck) was born to the prominent Cantor Samuel Arluck and his wife Celia Orlin in Buffalo, New York. He sang in choir at an early age and began to study the piano at nine. His musical tastes ran – counter to those of his parents – toward ragtime and jazz, and by the age of fifteen he was playing, singing, and arranging for The Snappy Trio in the dives and cabarets of Buffalo. Quite against his parents’ wishes, he dropped out of school at sixteen, but was soon making enough money to afford sporty clothes and a Model T, the first one in his neighborhood.
The Snappy Trio, with the addition of younger brother Julius Arluck (later Jerry Arlen) on the saxophone, developed into The Southbound Shufflers in 1923, and in 1924 a song – his first – called “My Gal, My Pal” was copyrighted by “Harold” Arluck. He then joined a local band, The Yankee Six, that grew into a very popular and high-priced eleven-man ensemble called The Buffalodians. They played in a classy downtown Buffalo restaurant, where Harold Arluck met up with and befriended an “eccentric” young dancer from Boston named Ray Bolger. The Buffalodians decided to take their act on tour and ended up in New York City, where Bolger and Harold (now Arlen, in echo of his mother’s maiden name), took an apartment together on 57th Street. .
What Harold really wanted to do with his life was to sing. Recordings made between 1926 and 1934 occasionally feature him as a band vocalist with The Buffalodians, Red Nichols, Joe Venuti, Leo Reisman and Eddie Duchin. But what the band leaders really valued in Harold Arlen was his talent for arranging. His own song, “The Album of My Dreams,” was a substantial hit when sung by Rudy Vallee in 1929, but Arlen was still intent on a performing career.
He landed a part in a Vincent Youmans musical, which led to an association with lyricist Ted Koehler. Their first collaboration was “Get Happy,” a “noisy” song that was featured in a 1930 Broadway revue and established them as the hottest new songwriting team in town. From that point until 1934 they wrote two new shows each year for The Cotton Club; “Stormy Weather” was first intended to be sung by Cab Calloway, but instead had its sensational introduction by Ethel Waters.
Koehler and Arlen, together and separately, undertook many other projects during the Cotton Club years: they spent a year in Hollywood on their first film venture, Let’s Fall in Love, turned out a few songs for Broadway (“I’ve Got a Right To Sing the Blues”), and worked with other collaborators on occasion. Arlen wrote at least three full Broadway revues, two of them with E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg, and continued to pursue his own performing career.
Arlen had met and fallen in love with Anya Taranda, a striking Powers model still in her teens (and one of the original “Breck Girls”), while working on Earl Carroll’s Vanities in 1932. Their romance got off to a slow start, but once it was under way, the couple was inseparable. It took nearly five years, however, for Arlen to work up to a proposal of marriage; his father had objected to the match since Anya was a Catholic. In the event, the families were amicably reconciled. Harold and Anya moved to Hollywood and lived a glittering social life, dining with the Gershwins, the Moss Harts, and the Irving Berlins, golfing with the Marx Brothers, Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, and George Burns.
In 1938 Arlen and Harburg were signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to write songs for The Wizard of Oz (in which the old roommate Bolger played the Scarecrow). The producers did not appreciate “Over the Rainbow” and tried to cut it from the score on three occasions. Thanks to Arlen’s tenacity and support from associate producer Arthur Freed, it was kept in, and ultimately won the Academy Award® for Best Music, Original Song. Sixty-two years later it was dubbed the Number One Song of the Twentieth Century.
Arlen’s long association with Johnny Mercer was initiated in 1941 with a film score assignment from Warner Brothers. Their very first song together, “Blues in the Night,” gave its title to the film. The pair moved on to Paramount (“That Old Black Magic”), then RKO (“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”), and ultimately to Broadway (St Louis Woman 1946). And in a spare moment (1944), Arlen turned out another Broadway smash hit with Harburg, Bloomer Girl.
Subsequent highlights of Arlen’s burgeoning career were scores for films My Blue Heaven with Ralph Blane in 1950 (the title song became the second best-selling song in history next to “White Christmas”), The Petty Girl with Johnny Mercer in 1950, The Farmer Takes a Wife with Dorothy Fields in 1952, and A Star is Born (with Judy Garland singing Oscar®-winning “The Man That Got Away”) with Ira Gershwin in 1954, then Broadway musicals House of Flowers with Truman Capote in 1954, and Jamaica (starring Lena Horne) with Harburg in 1957.
In the 1950s Arlen began to be adversely affected by personal misfortunes and health problems. In 1951 Anya, after repeatedly threatening her husband and others with physical harm, was institutionalized, and remained so for six years. Arlen’s father died in 1953, and shortly thereafter the composer himself had to be hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer. His mother died in 1956, and Arlen was so grief-stricken that he could not play or compose for nearly a year. But the return of his wife and the birth of a son, Samuel, lifted his spirits and he was ready to work again (Saratoga with Johnny Mercer, 1959).
Anya died in 1970 from a brain tumor, after agonizing years of deteriorating powers of speech and motor control. Harold Arlen had always been inspired by her through thick and thin, and now the once gregarious socialite began to lose his lust for life. He confined himself to his Central Park West apartment in New York, eventually contracted Parkinson’s Disease, and died of cancer at the age of 81. He is buried with Anya in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
(For an amusing, if surreal, account of Harold Arlen’s early success, view the eight-minutes-eighteen-seconds Merrie Melodies cartoon from 1936, “I Love To Singa.”)
– Lucy E. Cross