Over the Rainbow, "Stormy Weather," and "One for My Baby" are just a few of Harold Arlen's well-loved compositions. Yet his name is hardly knownexcept to the musicians who venerate him. At a gathering of songwriters George Gershwin called him "the best of us." Irving Berlin agreed. Paul McCartney sent him a fan letter and became his publisher. Bob Dylan wrote of his fascination with Arlen's "bittersweet, lonely world." A cantor's son, Arlen believed his music was from a place outside himself, a place that also sent tragedy. When his wife became mentally ill and was institutionalized he turned to alcohol. It nearly killed him. But the beautiful songs kept coming: "Blues in the Night," "My Shining Hour," "Come Rain or Come Shine," and "The Man That Got Away." Walter Rimler drew on interviews with friends and associates of Arlen and on newly available archives to write this intimate portrait of a genius whose work is a pillar of the Great American Songbook.
About the Author
Walter Rimler is the author of George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait and A Cole Porter Discography.
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The Man that Got Away
The Life and Songs of Harold Arlen
By Walter Rimler
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
He came to music through his father, Samuel Arluck, who was a cantor in Buffalo, New York. The elder Arluck thought enough of his son's singing to give him a spot in the synagogue choir, where the boy made his debut at age seven. Shortly after that he performed his first solo, which he nearly botched due to an attack of stage fright — a problem his father solved by stepping on his foot.
Samuel Arluck was a no-nonsense fellow. By the age of twenty he'd already begun his career, singing in a small congregation in Louisville, Kentucky. When another job offer came his way, he jumped at it even though it was from the equally small Clinton Street congregation in another midsize town, Buffalo. It's not clear why he wanted the new job, but he took it even though that meant rushing into marriage. The temple elders in Buffalo required that their cantor be a married man, so the twenty-one-year-old Arluck had to find a wife. He did that by going to Cincinnati, where he knew a woman, Celia Orlen, who was the same age as he and, like him, an immigrant from Vilna, Poland — although they hadn't met there but in the United States when he'd been in Ohio on a cantorial singing tour. There is no evidence they'd been more than passing acquaintances. Given her illiteracy, they couldn't have had a correspondence. But he found this dependable Orthodox woman acceptable, and she was pleased by his offer. Soon they were standing under the canopy in her home, her rabbi officiating, with none of his relatives present. Then they went to make a life together in an unfamiliar town.
A year later, on the evening of February 14, 1905, Celia gave birth at their home on 389 Clinton Street to a boy whom she and Samuel named Joseph. In the early morning hours of February 15, a twin, Harry, arrived. Harry was injured by a forceps delivery and lived just eight hours. When he died, Joseph was renamed Hyman (the H in memory of his brother) although his parents often called him Chaim — Hebrew for "life"— or Hymie. He would be Hyman Arluck for twenty years until, as he began making a name for himself in music, he made his name literally, by changing Hyman to Harold and joining the first syllable of Arluck with the second of Orlen, his mother's maiden name, to get Arlen.
Six years after his birth, the family became complete with the arrival of another son, whom the Arlucks named Nathan but called Julius and nicknamed Udie. These name changes were never explained, but it wasn't uncommon for Eastern European Jews, especially those who had lost infants, to superstitiously switch names around in order to fool evil should it be stalking their children.
The cantor did well at the Clinton Street shul and by the time of Udie's birth had moved to the larger Pine Street Synagogue and bought a duplex within walking distance of it, at 65 Pratt Street. The Arlucks lived downstairs and rented the upstairs to Anderson and Minnie Arthur and their three children, a black family. The neighborhood was mostly Jewish, but African Americans were moving in, and goodwill prevailed between the groups. The Arluck and Arthur children were in and out of one another's homes and attended the same school, Bennett Park #32, which had been the first in the city to integrate. To her dying day, Minnie kept a mezuzah on her door, given to her by the cantor. It was a friendship that, according to George K. Arthur, a grandson, "made Arlen feel at home among African Americans and with their music."
As a boy Arlen collected dance band records. When he was a little older he went downtown to hear live jazz. His father wasn't pleased by these musical choices but was himself at least partly to blame. "I hear in jazz and in gospel my father singing," Arlen later recalled.
He was one of the greatest improvisers I've ever heard. Let me tell you a story about him. I brought home a record of Louis Armstrong, I don't remember now which it was. My father spoke in Yiddish. And you have to remember, he was brought into this country originally to Louisville, Kentucky, so he must have picked up some of the blacks' inflections down there. Anyway, I played him this record, and there was a musical riff in there — we used to call it a "hot lick" — that Louis did. And my father looked at me, and he was stunned. And he asked in Yiddish, "Where did he get it?" Because he thought it was something that he knew, you see.
Young Arlen was attracted not only to jazz, but to show business. He and a neighbor, Hymie Sandler, showed up at vaudeville houses on amateur nights to compete for prize money — as comedians. They did pretty well, too. Arlen also earned money on his own as a pianist at the Gayety Theatre burlesque house on Pearl Street, which featured a troupe called Billy Watson's Beef Trust ("Beef" referred to the size of the female strippers, who were advertised as weighing between 170 and 225 pounds). And he played piano in movie theaters. One of them had a pipe organ, whose pedalboard was a mystery to him, which meant he could play no bass notes. But he pleased the audience anyway. "I loved to walk up the aisle after I'd finished my playing," he recalled, "or to sweep off the bench to take a bow." That this theater also featured a troupe of vaudevillians made him enjoy the job all the more, especially as he'd become infatuated with one of the singers. "She was a little above burlesque," he recalled. "And she reeked of the most glorious perfume — cheap perfume, maybe — but it was wonderful! What a thrill when she took me around backstage and introduced me." It was at around this time that he became a clothes hound, spending much of his money — and he was earning a fair amount — on silk shirts and bell-bottomed trousers. He would iron the pants himself to make sure the cuffs had perfect edging.
He was amiable, fun-loving, and well liked. His cheeks still had their baby fat, his thick black hair rose in successive waves, and he had blue eyes and a slim, wiry build. He was attractive to girls. While still in grade school he had his first romance — with a dark-haired beauty named Lily Levine. They were still going together when they moved on to Hutchinson High. This bothered her parents because he was, he said, determined to become a musician — not the respectable kind with a dependable income like his father, but the sort who ended up playing piano in joints. Moreover, music was making him ignore his homework and cut classes.
His parents were no less concerned and didn't hesitate to tell him. This, plus their problems with each other, caused him to spend less and less time at home. The cantor considered Celia "a naturally nervous and sick woman ... You have to know or guess how to answer her in order not to get her excited because after all, she is always right." According to Arlen's friend and biographer Edward Jablonski, Celia felt dominated by Samuel and in turn dominated her sons and others. Once, when she was visiting her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Sandler, one of the Sandler boys was so engrossed in his comic book he failed to return her greeting, so she retaliated by giving him and all the Sandlers the silent treatment. It went on for weeks until the cantor told her to stop it.
These family difficulties made Arlen decide at the age of fifteen to run away from home. One Friday evening as his mother was lighting the Sabbath candles, he slipped out of the house and headed to the waterfront, where he and a friend had arranged to board a ship and work as galley hands. A couple of hours later, choppy seas made his friend seasick, leaving Arlen to do both their jobs. That was enough for them. They jumped ship the next day, and after wandering aimlessly and penniless for a few hours in Detroit they gave up. With the help of a sympathetic train conductor they made their way back to Buffalo, where Arlen faced more recriminations. For the next five years he stayed put, but all that time he was working on a more realistic getaway — forming and joining bands, making his way up the musical ladder until he could get to New York City.
The way there began with his first group, the Snappy Trio. He was its singer, pianist, and booking agent. Hymie Sandler became the drummer. Another friend, Teddy Meyer, played violin. Of the three, Arlen was the only real musician. He hadn't had much formal training — some classical piano lessons, which he quickly abandoned — but he was a fine instinctive pianist and a gifted singer, and he had a real feel for jazz. Because of him, the group always had gigs. The first was at a tavern called the Maple Leaf Cafe, where they earned $35 a week plus tips. This went on for six weeks until the new year, 1920, ushered in Prohibition — causing the Maple Leaf and places like it to shut their doors. Undeterred, the trio got work in downtown vaudeville houses where they made even better money — as much as $60 a week plus tips — doing four shows a day, seven days a week. One job was in the town of Gowanda, ninety miles to the south, where they played at a Grange Hall dance. The promoters had insisted that the band include a saxophone, a problem Arlen solved by borrowing a clarinet, inserting a kazoo into the mouthpiece, and producing a sound good enough to fool — or charm — his audience. To keep the jobs coming, he joined the Buffalo Musicians' Union, Local 43. It was a white union, blacks having been relegated to their own Local 533. Still, whites and blacks sat in with each other's bands, and there was a lot of musical cross-pollination. Work was plentiful; there were speakeasies and theaters all over town in the early 1920s. "If you couldn't get along with the leader or members of one band," a current union official says of those days, "you could kiss them off, go across the street, and get another job." Arlen and Sandler quit Hutchinson High, and while their friends who'd remained were getting by on allowances in the twenty-five-cents-a-week range, Arlen was buying the first Model T Ford in his neighborhood.
This was his life in the early 1920s as he approached his own twenties — a pianist, singer, and bandleader who was becoming well known in Buffalo. The Snappy Trio turned into a foursome when they added a real saxophonist. That made a name change necessary, and they became the Se-More Jazz Band. With two more members, they renamed themselves the Southbound Shufflers — with no imminent plans to travel south, only a job on a summer excursion boat, the Canadiana, that sailed east to Crystal Beach, Ontario. When Sandler left the group to join the New England Six, another of Arlen's friends, also named Hyman, entered the picture. This was Hyman Cheiffetz, whose ambition was to become a song lyricist. He talked Arlen into writing the music for his first song — the self-published "My Gal, My Pal (Won't You Come Back to Me)." It's an old-fashioned waltz with old-fashioned words ("My Gal My Pal life's not the same dear without you / I pray for you each day and never again will I doubt you"). On the cover Arlen identifies himself as Harold Arluck, using his new first name for the first time. The lyricist also made a name change, spelling his first name "Hymon."
Not a single copy was sold. So Arlen didn't feel he'd found his calling. It seemed to him that improvisation was where his creative talent lay — in his own solos and in those he wrote for the rest of the band. He made his living playing popular songs but played them as a jazz musician, paying little attention to the fact that Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin were turning pop song composing into an art form. He was more excited by the singers, instrumentalists, and arrangers who were also taking artistic flight. His favorite group was the Original Memphis Five, whose personnel included the Dorsey Brothers and pianist Frank Signorelli. He made his first trip to New York City to hear them in a Brooklyn dance hall, and "when they came off the stand," he recalled, "I stood there with as much awe as if the president of the United States had just finished speaking." Shortly after that he accepted an offer to join the Yankee Six, an up-and-coming group favored by Buffalo's college crowd. When five new musicians were added, one of them, Dick George, teamed with Arlen to become the ensemble's featured duo-piano team. The Buffalodians, as they renamed themselves, were now the city's premier group, heard often in its poshest nightclub, Geyer's Restaurant and Ballroom.
Arlen's parents watched all this with foreboding. To stop his son's slide, the cantor asked a friend, Jack Yellen, to talk sense into him. Yellen was a Polish-born member of the Pine Street congregation and, as a journalist for the Buffalo Courier, a respected citizen of the community at large. But he had another occupation, one that took him downstate to Tin Pan Alley, where he wrote song lyrics. He'd already had one hit, "A Young Man's Fancy," and before long he and composer Milton Ager would write "Happy Days Are Here Again" and "Ain't She Sweet." It would seem that the cantor had made a curious choice in asking Yellen to be his intermediary, but if anyone could tell the boy about the pitfalls ahead of him it was this man — who knew the business well and who was called "Napoleon" around Broadway because of his gruff, bullying personality. Yellen tracked Arlen to a roadhouse named Minnie's, heard him at the piano, and immediately phoned the cantor to say, "It's all your fault. He's going to be a musician."CHAPTER 2
New York, NY
In 1924 Cantor Arluck was offered a position with a prestigious synagogue, Temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse, New York, and he, Celia, and Udie moved to a house near Syracuse University. Not long afterward, the Buffalodians were booked by their agent into a restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, and then it was on to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and, in the spring of 1925, New York City.
Harold, who had only recently been excited by downtown Buffalo, was now playing the Palace Theatre in Times Square. The Buffalodians were booked there for two weeks and then moved to Gallagher's Monte Carlo Restaurant at 51st and Broadway, which had a downstairs cabaret featuring a gangly comic dancer named Ray Bolger. Bolger and Arlen had already met when they shared the bill at Geyer's in Buffalo. Now they became good friends. Each was intent on remaining in New York and making it big, so they chipped in on the rent for an apartment in a rooming house on West 57th Street.
In later years, Bolger would talk about how Arlen kept him up at night as he worked at the piano on band arrangements and how, rather than being bothered by this, he'd been fascinated to hear the man thinking aloud musically. The two stayed up late discussing their ambitions. Bolger had been intent on a stage career going back to 1917, when he saw Fred Stone leap "out of a haystack looking just like a scarecrow" in a play called Jack O'Lantern. But Arlen was still pondering his ultimate goal. Did he hope to make it as a pianist in a city glutted with virtuosos? Or did his future lie in creating dance band orchestrations? He certainly had a gift for instrumentation — one that had already led to a friendship with one of his heroes, Fletcher Henderson, whose recordings he'd collected and who was leading his band at the Roseland Ballroom, not far from the Monte Carlo. When Henderson heard the Buffalodians, he asked Arlen to do an arrangement of "That's Dynamite" for him, which Arlen gladly did. But Arlen wasn't looking to make a career out of such work. It was laborious and kept him in the shadows, out of the spotlight. Nor did he want to be a bandleader like Henderson; while heading the Southbound Shufflers he'd grown tired of handling their bookings, scheduling, and payroll — jobs he wasn't especially good at. He told Bolger his goal was to make it as a singer.
The decision crystallized one night at the Silver Slipper nightclub. After finishing a show with the Buffalodians, he'd headed there for some after-hours entertainment, and when the orchestra struck up "I'm Coming Virginia" — a song he loved because of Bix Beiderbecke's cornet solo on the recording by Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra — he impulsively took the stage, grabbed a microphone, and sang the vocal. Then, to his amazement, he saw that Beiderbecke himself was in the audience; not only that, this musician, whom he idolized, crossed the dance floor, walked to the bandstand, and said to him, "Great, kid!" "Holy Jesus, that meant so much to me!" Arlen later recalled.
In May 1926 the Buffalodians recorded six songs for Columbia Vita-Tone, and Arlen was the featured vocalist on two: Irving Berlin's "How Many Times?" and "Baby Face" (music by Harry Akst, lyrics by Benny Davis). These and later recordings leave no doubt that he was a first-rate singer. Music critic Will Friedwald has written that, while his voice would sometimes go very high, making him sound like "one of the stratospheric tenors of the era," it could also be "warm and deep" and "sizzling and lusty." He was, Friedwald, concluded, "ahead of the curve," along with Bing Crosby, Cliff Edwards, and Hoagy Carmichael, "as an early example of a white vocalist influenced by black jazz styles." Crosby himself was a fan, writing in a 1947 letter, "I've always considered him one of the best stylists I've ever heard."
Excerpted from The Man that Got Away by Walter Rimler. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Buffalo, NY 5
Chapter 2 New York, NY 10
Chapter 3 "Get Happy" 16
Chapter 4 The Cotton Club 20
Chapter 5 Anya 27
Chapter 6 "Stormy Weather" 31
Chapter 7 On Broadway with Ira and Yip 40
Chapter 8 "Last Night When We Were Young" 45
Chapter 9 Marriage 50
Chapter 10 Death of Gershwin 56
Chapter 11 Hooray for What! 62
Chapter 12 The Wizard of Oz 68
Chapter 13 An Itinerant Songwriter 76
Chapter 14 Writing with Johnny Mercer 82
Chapter 15 "One for My Baby" 88
Chapter 16 "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" 97
Chapter 17 St. Louis Woman 102
Chapter 18 Descent into Misery 108
Chapter 19 "She Was Sweet and Adorable and Then She Went Mad" 114
Chapter 20 A Star Is Born 120
Chapter 21 House of Flowers 127
Chapter 22 In Search of Fame 136
Chapter 23 An Opera 140
Chapter 24 Two Debacles 148
Chapter 25 The 1960s 152
Chapter 26 Waiting 164