Harold Arlen once described his melodies as “tapeworms.” Though not the first thing that leaps to mind upon hearing the breathtaking beauty and artistic invention of his songs, Arlen did have a point. As a composer, he routinely broke out of Tin Pan Alley’s standard 32-bar model to let his songs wind and wander, but never at the expense of memorable tunes.
“I don’t think I’m trying to be different,” Arlen said in his biography Happy With The Blues. “Sometimes I get into trouble; in order to get out of trouble I break the form: I start twisting and turning, get into another key or go 16 extra bars in order to resolve the song. And often as not, I’m happier with the extension than I would have been trying to keep the song in regular form.”
Arlen’s illustrious lyric partners agree. “His tunes are studded with harmonic and rhythmic surprises that are distinctive and unmistakably his own,” said E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. “His melodies are so fresh and original that they challenge the lyricist.”
“Harold’s melodies are way out—they take unexpected twists and turns,” said Johnny Mercer.
Ira Gershwin added, “He is always original, always himself. His songs are, well, peculiarly constructed, so that I never know what to expect. I remember thinking that ‘The Man That Got Away’ was too long and unorthodox to be a hit, but it grew on people. Harold’s songs always do.”
Among the songs that have grown on the public over the years are such standards as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Blues in the Night,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “I’ve Got the World On a String,” “One For My Baby” and “Accentuate the Positive.” Arlen’s work has been covered by luminaries like Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Aretha Franklin, Diana Krall, Dr. John, Carly Simon, Tom Jones and Harry Connick, Jr.
Born Hyman Arluck on February 15, 1905 in Buffalo, N.Y., he was the son of a celebrated cantor. Explaining his father’s influence, Arlen told Harpers in 1960: “He improvised wonderful melodies to fit the texts that had no music, and that’s undoubtedly where my sense of melody comes from.”
When he was 9, Hyman’s mother bought him a piano. A reluctant student, he dutifully practiced his classical exercises. Everything changed when at 12 he learned a ragtime jazz piece called “Indianola.” Suddenly, boy and piano were inseparable.
At 15, he quit school and began to play in movie houses, then formed a jazz trio that grew into an 11-piece band called the Buffalodians. They gigged in nightclubs and the lake steamer boats around Buffalo.
Arlen said in his biography, “My professional piano was a kind of attempt at aping what jazz I heard at the time and superimposing on that my own ideas—which led to orchestrating and my beginnings. When I look back on it—though I didn’t realize it then—the orchestrations showed an enormous amount of melodic invention, even though it was limited to hot solos.”
When he was 21, he had his first solo piano piece published, “Minor Gaff (Blues Fantasy).” The sheet music misspelled his name as Harold Arluck. Shortly after, he changed his surname to Arlen, after Orlin, his mother’s maiden name.
At 22, Arlen moved to New York City with dreams of being a singer and actor. His debut as a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith was a happy accident. In 1929, he had a small part in a show called Great Day. One day when the rehearsal pianist was out sick, Arlen filled in. He improvised a vamp for the dancers. The catchy tune caught the ears of the show’s director, who introduced Arlen to lyricist Ted Koehler. Koehler put words to it, titling it “Get Happy.” Arlen had his first hit.
For the next four years, Arlen and Koehler were an in-demand team for bluesy rhythm numbers, penning songs such as “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “I Love a Parade” and most notably, “Stormy Weather” for the Cotton Club revues in Harlem.
Arlen said, “It all happened so suddenly. I was given a contract with a certain amount of money each week, whereby I could do whatever I pleased. That was terribly inviting. And as soon as the first song was written, I knew then and there that everything I touched before this—traveling, arranging, singing for auditions—wasn’t quite suited to my temperament.”
As Arlen’s star rose, he divided his time between Broadway and Hollywood, finally becoming a permanent West Coaster in the late ’30s. After writing outstanding songs for some less than memorable movies, Arlen and his lyric partner E.Y. Harburg were assigned the job of scoring Frank Baum’s children’s classic The Wizard of Oz.
When they’d finished what Arlen called the “lemon drop” songs (“We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead”) the pair turned their attention to a show-stopping ballad. “I felt we needed something with a sweep, a melody with a broad, long line,” Arlen said. “Time was getting short, I was getting anxious. My feeling was that picture songs need to be lush, and picture songs are hard to write.”
The ballad came out of the blue one day while Arlen and his wife were headed to a movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He jotted down the melody in his car while driving on Sunset Boulevard. “It was as if the Lord said, ‘Well, here it is, now stop worrying about it!”
“Over the Rainbow” was his crowning achievement, a song that has come to be, in the words of Judy Garland, “symbolic of everyone’s dreams.” In 2003, it was voted number one movie song of all-time by the American Film Institute.
Arlen would always name The Wizard of Oz as his favorite score. “Because it was written for a children’s classic and we happened to capture it perfectly,” he said. “Now you can always find weaknesses, even in a score that excites you, but not in The Wizard of Oz. Though it is not a big score, everything it says, it says well lyrically and musically.”
In the ’40s and ’50s Arlen continued his work for stage and screen, collaborating with Johnny Mercer on some of his best-loved songs. His other film successes, came in 1953 with the score for the Judy Garland vehicle A Star Is Born and the following year with House Of Flowers, a collaboration with novelist Truman Capote.
Like many of his Tin Pan Alley contemporaries, Arlen slowed down when the rock era began. His last successful musical, 1961’s Gay Purr-ee, featured a collaboration with Peggy Lee. After that, he wrote three shows that were never staged. When his wife died in 1970, Arlen withdrew from friends and family, losing interest in his work. He died from cancer in 1986.
“I was one of the fortunate,” Arlen once said of his career. “Now and then it gets troublesome—there’s much heartache—but I’d be an unappreciative fool if I weren’t deeply thankful. In my lowest moments I am grateful for whatever gift I have and the audience I found.”
—by Bill DeMain