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Harold Arlen Biography

Last updated: 08/10/2008 12:00:00 PM

Despite the fact that he has created an extraordinary number of classic songs (some often mistaken for folk songs), Harold Arlen, unlike his songs, needs an introduction.

Harold Arlen was born in Buffalo on February 15, 1905. His father was a cantor and provided his earliest musical experiences. At seven he sang in his father's choir; two years later he began piano lessons, working his way up to the more secular Etudes of Chopin. But then at the age of twelve, he discovered jazz - Chopin's loss, our gain. Before long the cantor's son formed his own band, The Snappy Trio; he was the pianist-vocalist and devised the jazzy arrangements. To his parents' dismay, the Trio performed in Buffalo's tenderloin as well as on the lake boats plying the waters between Buffalo and Toronto. Successful, the Trio expanded into a quintet, The Southbound Shufflers, and to his parents' further consternation, young Hyman (as he was then known) dropped out of high school, a victim of history, mathematics and Latin.

But his musical talents received high marks and he was asked to join one of the most successful local bands, The Buffalodians, as vocalist, pianist and arranger. With this group, in mid-Jazz Age Arlen moved into the big time: New York. Eventually he left the band to write arrangements (for Fletcher Henderson, among others), then he worked as a single (vocal and piano) in vaudeville and, ultimately, he was cast in a singing role in a Broadway musical, Vincent Yourmans' GREAT DAY. By the time the show opened, Arlen was long gone.

Yourmans discovered that his would-be vocalist could read and write music and drafted him as a kind of musical secretary. Then one day the rehearsal pianist for the dancers called in sick and Arlen filled in. During the frequent waits, he played around with the dancers' "pickup" or vamp, the bar or two intro to their cues. As the day progressed, the little snippet evolved into a full-fledged song, to everyone's delight. One admirer, aspiring songwriter Harry Warren, then working for a publisher as a song-plugger, said to Arlen, "l know just the guy to write this up."

He turned out to be Ted Koehler and the dancers' former vamp emerged as GET HAPPY, Harold Arlen's first professional song. It was a tremendous hit in 1930 (and has been around ever since) and sprung him out of a performing career. The songs popularity led to an invitation to write for Harlem's celebrated Cotton Club Revues, resulting in several classics, among them STORMY WEATHER, which in turn led to his first film contract and yet another classic, LET'S FALL IN LOVE.

Many believe that Arlen's relative anonymity can be attributed to a long (and successfully productive) sojourn in California, where he remained for nearly two decades from the mid thirties, writing for the screen there were occasional excursions to New York to work on Broadway, but his Hollywood residence confined him to the background while the stars and starlets shone up front.

This genuinely shy and modest great man did not mind. It was a good life, reasonably tension-free, and he and his beautiful wife, Anya, enjoyed the languid pleasures of Beverly Hills, partying with their friends: the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Warren, et al. Meanwhile, Harold Arlen quietly accumulated one of the most impressive catalogs in the history of American popular song, not merely lucrative Hit Parade material (plenty of those), but evergreens - songs that have long outlived their original films and shows.