Harold Arlen (February 15, 1905 – April 23, 1986) was an American composer of popular music, having written over 500 songs, a number of which have become known worldwide. Arlen was born Hyman Arluck on February 15, 1905, in Buffalo, New York, the child of a Jewish cantor. His twin brother died the next day. He grew up in Buffalo attending public schools, learned the piano as a youth, and had private music study with instructors Arnold Cornelissen and Simon Bucharoff, while singing from age seven in his father’s synagogue. Arlen was fascinated early in his life with the sound of ragtime. By age fifteen he became a professional ragtime pianist piano for local Buffalo bands, silent films, night clubs and lake steamers. In his late teens formed a band as a young man, The Snappy Trio, which later became The Southbound Shufflers. After arranging for the Buffalodians and achieving some local success as a pianist and singer, he moved to New York City in his early 20s and worked as an accompanist in vaudeville.
In Manhattan, Arlen found a home as a singer, pianist, and arranger with dance bands. His jobs included arranging for Fletcher Henderson and serving as a rehearsal pianist for radio and theater. At this point, he changed his name to Harold Arlen. Between 1926 and about 1934, Arlen appeared occasionally as a band vocalist on records by The Buffalodians, Red Nichols, Joe Venuti, Leo Reisman and Eddie Duchin, usually singing his own compositions. He eventually worked with Arnold Johnson’s pit orchestra for the Broadway revue George White’s Scandals of 1928 and appeared at the Palace Theatre in New York and did several tours with Loew’s vaudeville circuit. In 1929, Arlen took a melody which he devised while practicing and composed his first well-known song, “Get Happy,” with lyrics by Ted Koehler. He continued to work on Broadway writing songs for musicals 9:15 Revue, Earl Carroll Vanities (1930 and 1932), Americana, George White’s Music Hall Varieties, The Show is On. He also wrote entire scores for the Broadway shows You Said It, Cotton Club Parade, Life Begins at 8:40, Hooray For What, Bloomer Girl, St. Louis Woman, House of Flowers, Jamaica, Saratoga, and Free and Easy (a blues opera).
Throughout the early and mid-1930s, Arlen and Koehler wrote eight revue shows for the Cotton Club, a popular Harlem night club, one of which included the anthem “Stormy Weather,” first performed by Ethel Waters, as well as for Broadway musicals and Hollywood films. Arlen and Koehler’s partnership resulted in a number of hit songs, including the familiar standards “Let’s Fall in Love.” Arlen continued to perform as a pianist and vocalist with some success, most notably on records with Leo Reisman’s society dance orchestra. Arlen’s compositions were popular with jazz musicians because of his facility at incorporating a blues feeling into the idiom of the conventional American popular song.
In the mid-1930s, Arlen married Anya Taranda and spent increasing time in California, writing for movie musicals. Though he moved to Hollywood in the ’30s, Arlen kept penning songs for Broadway, working with other lyricists like Dorothy Fields, Leo Robin, and Ira Gershwin as well as Koehler. It was at this time that he began working with lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. One of their first collaborations, “Down with Love,” was featured in the 1937 Broadway show Hooray for What! In 1938, the team was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to compose songs for 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Arlen was a longtime friend and former roommate of actor Ray Bolger, who starred in The Wizard of Oz. The most famous of these is the song “Over the Rainbow” for which they won the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song. They also wrote “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” for Groucho Marx in At the Circus in 1939, and “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” for Ethel Waters in the 1943 movie Cabin in the Sky.
In the 1940s, Arlen teamed up with lyricist Johnny Mercer, and continued to write hit songs like “Blues in the Night”, “Out of this World”, “That Old Black Magic”, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”, “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home”, “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).” Having composed the tune for Judy Garland’s early musical persona as a yearning, innocent girl with “Over the Rainbow,” he also wrote the melody which bookends her career as a world-weary, “chic chanteuse” with “The Man That Got Away,” written for the 1954 version of the film A Star Is Born. In addition to composing the songs for The Wizard of Oz, Arlen is a highly regarded contributor to the Great American Songbook.
In 1970 Arlen’s wife Anya died from a brain tumor, and he began to lose interest in life, withdrawing from friends and family and becoming more reclusive. In 1979 he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and on April 23, 1986, at the age of 81 he died in New York City. Arlen’s list of hits and accomplishments is amazing; they include songs for the films Take a Chance, Star-Spangled Rhythm, The Sky’s the Limit, as well as, The Wizard of Oz. Arlen also composed tunes for the plays Earl Carroll Vanities, Rhythm Mania, and St. Louis Woman. The incredible array of unforgettable compositions includes “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” besides “Over the Rainbow,” which was voted the twentieth century’s No. 1 song by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Numerous jazz artists have recorded his songs, as well as pop performers across the spectrum. Arlen made a few recordings as a performer, among them sessions with Duke Ellington and Barbra Streisand.
My collection includes the following works by Harold Arlen:
The Wizard of Oz: We’re Off to See the Wizard, and Over the Rainbow.