From the time of his birth until he wrote the music to his first popular hit, "Get Happy," the growth of Harold Arlen (1905-1986) from cantor's son to jazz pianist, composer, and arranger could not have been better orchestrated if he wrote it himself.
Born in Buffalo, New York, on February 15, 1905, Harold Arlen (originally named Hyman Arluck) received his first introduction to music from his father, a cantor. As a youngster of seven, Arlen sang in his father's choir. Two years later, he began demonstrating his musical skill at the piano. He studied classical music and remained a student of classical piano etudes until 1917, when the jazz age introduced America to a new form of music. Arlen was immediately intrigued with this new style and was soon arranging songs and playing piano with his own group, the Snappy Trio. He assumed the leadership role, by arranging and performing numbers in a jazz format. He was also the vocalist.
The trio experienced immediate success and redefined themselves into a quintet, the Southbound Shufflers. The Shufflers entertained around the United States and across the border in Canada. Arlen's blossoming musical career quickly established him in the Buffalo music scene and, to his parents' dismay, he left school early to pursue a musical career. He was quickly absorbed into a popular local group, the Buffalodians, where his talents as pianist, vocalist, and arranger continued to define his future. It was not long before Arlen and his band were drawn to Broadway.
In New York City, Arlen landed a singing role in Vincent Yourman's Broadway musical Great Day. When Yourman discovered the young actor's many talents, Arlen was quickly moved to a role behind the scenes where he played piano for the performers and arranged music for the shows. His stage career ended, but his composing and arranging career flourished. It was during this time that Arlen teamed up with Ted Koehler, a young lyricist, for what would prove to be a long and successful relationship. Sometimes referred to as the "melody man," Arlen penned tunes to Koehler's words. He churned out a successive string of hits including "Get Happy," "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," "I Love a Parade," and "I've Got the World on a String." In 1931, Arlen took his talents to the stage with his first Broadway show You Said It.
The first Koehler/Arlen collaboration, Get Happy, was produced while working on Yourman's musical Great Day.. This tune was received with such enthusiasm by audiences that the duo quickly found new opportunities. In 1930, Arlen and Koehler joined Harlem's renowned Cotton Club. During the very productive years between 1930 and 1934 Koehler and Arlen produced many tunes for that club's revue that have become jazz and blues classics. One of the most popular performers at the Cotton Club, Cab Calloway, played and recorded such classics as "Trickeration," "Kickin' the Gong Around," "Without Rhythm," and "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day." The durability of these songs can be seen in the continued popularity of Calloway's recordings that are still sold today.
The years at the Cotton Club were among Arlen's most prolific. Noteworthy tunes emerging during this era included "Ill Wind," "Blues in the Night," and the seductive "Stormy Weather." "Stormy Weather" became a wildly popular song and eventually a trademark of singer, Lena Horne. It led the creative team to venture into movies, where they experienced their first film success, Let's Fall in Love. This film classic cemented Arlen and Koehler's reputations on the West Coast, and the pair continued their successful collaboration in Hollywood through many more film classics.
While working in Hollywood, Arlen's style caught the attention of film producer, Arthur Freed. He signed Arlen to collaborate with lyricist E. Y. Harburg on a fantasy film. Both the movie-1939's The Wizard of Oz (1939)-and the musical score have remained popular for the greater part of a century. The best-known song from the score was "Over the Rainbow." It earned an Academy Award for the duo and became the hallmark song for the movie's star, Judy Garland. During his time in Hollywood, Arlen scored many other movies including Cabin in the Sky (1943) and A Star Is Born (1954).
The Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s was ruled by a small group of businessmen best known for creating the "star system." They decided who would be a star, based in large part on an individual's ability to draw movie-goers to the theatre. Composers did not fall into that category. While Arlen remained in demand for the next two decades, because of the star system he remained behind the scenes and enjoyed a quiet life as a composer of songs that others made famous. However, his work was continuous and he maintained a good income during his years in Hollywood. A quiet man who preferred time with his wife Anya, son Sam, and the family dogs, he was content with his golf, tennis, and swimming. Although not a household name, his prolific songwriting was responsible for helping make others in Hollywood famous.
Arlen's productive career spanned the jazz age of the 1920s through Hollywood's bountiful years of the 1930s and 1940s. His talent for scoring both movies and Broadway musicals placed him among the finest composers and arrangers of the time. His works on Broadway continued even after his move to the West Coast. They include Life Begins at 8:40 (1934), Hooray for What? (1937), Bloomer Girl (1944), St. Louis Woman (1946), Saratoga (1959), and House of Flowers (1954). During his long career, Arlen teamed with other well-known lyricists such as Johnny Mercer, writing such popular hits as "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive," "That Old Black Magic," and "Blues in the Night." In 1954, he wrote the music for the Broadway hit House of Flowers with author Truman Capote and in that same year he worked in Hollywood with Ira Gershwin on the film The Country Girl.
Arlen continued to work into the 1960s, although there were few opportunities that enticed him. This was a time when he produced lesser-known orchestral compositions such as "Mood in Six Minutes," "Hero Ballet," and "Minuet,"-each of which was scattered throughout various films and shows, but did not achieve the acclaim of his earlier compositions. Arlen enjoyed shedding his reputation as a blues composer, and took advantage of this time to further expand his talents.
Arlen earned his place among such songwriting greats as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, and Jerome Kern. Praise from such peers was high indeed. Gershwin referred to him as "the most original of composers." Rodgers took this a step further, saying "I caught on pretty soon to his unusual harmonic structure and form" which was "his own and completely original." Among Arlen's favorite pieces was a little-known song titled "Last Night When We Were Young," a favorite of performers like Frank Sinatra.
Although his career seems to have followed a direct path from local popularity to Broadway to Hollywood, Arlen did not become a household name. Even at the peak of his career he chose to remain behind the scenes, satisfied to compose and arrange music for others to perform. Arlen left a portfolio of over 300 tunes, many of which are still played every day throughout the world. After his death in New York City on April 23, 1986, Irving Berlin summed up the life of this brilliant composer at an ASCAP tribute, saying: "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." Arlen's music remains fresh and continues to be performed throughout the world.
Jablonski, Edward, Rhythm, Rainbows, and Blues, Northeastern University Press, 1997.
Billboard, April 27, 1996.
Time, September 4, 1995.
Harold Arlen Biography, http://www.mplcommunications.com/mbr/haroldarlen/arlen/featuredbio.html (February 23, 1999).