1905 — 1986
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Harold Arlen was an American composer who wrote both for Broadway and Hollywood and was known as one of the most skilled and inventive of his generation. Although he didn’t achieve the same level of name recognition as some of his contemporaries, his songs are truly ubiquitous today, none more so than his greatest hit, “Over the Rainbow.”
Born in Buffalo, New York, Arlen’s first musical experience was singing in the local synagogue choir which his father directed. Although he loved to sing his shyness was a major drawback, and his mother invested in a piano for the home in the hope that it would spur Harold to devote himself to music in a way that he felt comfortable. Even though he rarely practiced Arlen quickly outpaced his local teachers on the piano, and soon began to develop a keen interest in jazz after being introduced to the score of the popular ragtime tune “Indianola” at the age of twelve.
Gripped by this new kind of music, Arlen began avidly collecting jazz records and made it a point to see every band that came through his relatively remote hometown. At the age of 15 he began performing himself, first in odd jobs accompanying silent films or playing on Lake Erie excursion boats, but eventually forming and leading his own bands. In 1920 he formed The Snappy Trio with two other adolescents, a band in which he sang, played piano and wrote arrangements. The teenage trio regularly entertained guests in Buffalo’s red-light district.
Before long, Arlen was invited to join more prestigious bands, including the eleven-piece dance band The Buffalodians. It was while playing with them that he met Ray Bolger, a dancer from Boston now remembered mainly for playing the Scarecrow inThe Wizard of Oz. The two experienced an immediate connection and would later become best friends and flatmates after Arlen moved to New York in the mid-1920s.
Along with lyricist Ted Koehler, Arlen scored an early his with his piece “Get Happy” (1930). Even though the show it was used in,The Nine-Fifteen Review, was a failure, the song gained the song-writing duo a lot of attention for their blues-influenced rhythm numbers. In less than a year Arlen was writing songs for Harlem’s famous Cotton Club, which regularly hosted bands led by as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, playing for an audience of the city’s social elites. Many of the songs he wrote for the Cotton Club, including “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (1931), “I’ve Got the World On a String” (1932) and “Stormy Weather” (1933) became hugely popular.
In addition to his commitments to the Cotton Club, Arlen continued to write for other situations. Many of the songs he wrote for Broadway at the time far outlived the shows they were written for, including his famous “I’ve Got A Right To Sing The Blues” (1932) for the showEarl Carroll’s Vanities and “If You Believe in Me” (1932) inThe Great Magoo, a song which was later retitled “It’s Only A Paper Moon.” The following year he went to Hollywood to compose for his first soundtrack. The resulting film “Let’s Fall in Love” would set Arlen on the track to becoming immensely successful in Hollywood.
Up until 1929, Arlen’s main aspiration was to be a singer and pianist, not a composer. Arlen did sing with many well-known acts, including Benny Goodman and Arnold Johnson, but it soon became clear that although he was a good singer, he was a brilliant composer and arranger. Finally in 1929 Arlen was offered a year-long contract composing for the George and Arthur Piantadosi firm, after they were impressed by hearing some of his earlier compositions. Arlen accepted this position, knowing it meant the end of his performing career. Reflecting on this moment, Arlen cast it as an extremely important decision in his life, saying “It got me away from that which I had loved, a goal I had set. And yet I suddenly realized that goal had become something my temperament couldn't take.”
In 1936 Arlen finally married Arya Taranda, a frequent cast-member in his shows since 1932, and together the two of them moved to California to fully immerse themselves in the Hollywood scene. There they were fully integrated into the social circle of many of the leading composers for Hollywood and Broadway, frequently spending time with the families of George and Ira Gershwin,Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, in addition to other celebrities. Although these men were theoretically competitors, it seems they had nothing but the highest esteem for each other and for Arlen, whoGeorge Gershwin called “the most original of all of us” and Irving Berlin complimented by saying “Harold's best is the best.”
The pinnacle of Arlen’s already very successful career came in 1938 when he was asked to compose the score to the upcoming film,The Wizard of Oz. With only around two months to complete the entire score, Arlen immediately teamed up with the accomplished lyricist Yip Harburg and got to work composing what he called “lemon drop” songs, the simple lighthearted works that make up the bulk of the score, including the now ubiquitous “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “The Merry Old Land of Oz” and “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead.” However the two had much more difficulty coming up with a more serious ballad that Arlen felt was necessary to provide the emotional center for the film and balance out all the other, more upbeat pieces.
The resulting song, “Over the Rainbow,” came to Arlen in a moment of inspiration while he was driving with his wife. However, he initially had a great deal of trouble convincing other people of its merits. Harburg was originally skeptical, thinking the song was too difficult and grandiose to fit the image that lead actress Judy Garland was portraying in the rest of the film. Fortunately Ira Gershwin, who was brought in as a tie-breaker, sided with Arlen. “Over the Rainbow” went on to not only win the Academy Award for best film song of the year but also to be recognized in 2000 by the Recording Industry Association of America as the No. 1 song of the 20th century. Of all of the more than 400 songs that Arlen wrote, “Over the Rainbow” is the biggest testament to his remarkable legacy.
Header image courtesy of Performing Songwriter Other images courtesy of Library of Congress and Songbook: Harold Arlen