Though he died prematurely at age twenty-nine, composer-lyricist Jerry Ross won Tony Awards® for two of the best-loved musicals in Broadway history, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees – both written with Richard Adler, his frequent collaborator. Born in the Bronx in 1926, Ross (originally Jerold Rosenberg) grew up in a Russian Jewish household and gained a reputation as a performer already in his youth, when he sang in the Yiddish theater, though a bronchial condition put an end to his career as a singer. But he was also writing songs – first in high school, then in college, where he studied with the composer, conductor, and arranger Rudolph Schramm at New York University. Around the same time he became friendly with the singer Eddie Fisher, who in the 1950s would host two television shows, and Fisher recorded one of Ross’s early songs.
In 1950 Ross met Richard Adler, with whom he would collaborate on his biggest hits. The writing team put out a number of catchy songs and eventually caught the attention of writer and producer Frank Loesser. Ross and Adler scored their first No. 1 hit in 1953 with “Rags to Riches,” sung by Tony Bennett.
It was also in 1953 that Ross and Adler’s songs had their Broadway debut in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, a revue featuring Harry Belafonte (who nabbed the Tony® for Best Featured Actor in a Musical), Hermione Gingold, Orson Bean, and Polly Bergen. Not a bad start on Broadway, though the following year would bring the world a far more memorable work, The Pajama Game. With John Raitt as a factory superintendent and Janice Paige as his love interest – a union representative pressing for higher wages – the show was an out-and-out hit, playing for 1,063 performances and winning several Tonys®, including those for Best Musical and Best Choreography. Among its popular numbers was the song “Hey There,” which became a No. 1 single when Rosemary Clooney recorded it. In 1957 the show was made into a movie starring Raitt and Doris Day.
Astonishingly, the year after The Pajama Game premiered on Broadway brought forth another smash hit from Ross and Adler, Damn Yankees (1955), a Faustian story of ambition, lust, greed – and baseball. Stephen Douglass played the baseball-fan-turned-superstar-slugger; Gwen Verdon the femme fatale with killer gams; and Ray Walston the Mephistophelian salesman. Once again the musical won Tonys® aplenty, including Best Musical; once again, the show played for more than a thousand performances; and once again the musical would make the transition to the silver screen (1958), with Tab Hunter, Verdon, and Walston. The much-performed “You’ve Gotta Have Heart” is one of the show’s best-known tunes.
Ill health ended Ross’s early singing career and eventually ended his life, which was cut short in 1955. His two hit musicals, however, continue to be performed regularly everywhere. Damn Yankees enjoyed a Broadway revival in 1994; The Pajama Game returned to the Great White Way in 1973 and 2006.