IN this series celebrating the immense Jewish contribution to the popular music of the last century or so, this is the last round-up of songs from before the Second World War which are standards to this day, even though the writers’ names may have been forgotten.
Lyricist Howard Dietz and composer Arthur Schwartz worked together on and off for nearly 30 years.
Dietz was born into a poor Jewish family in Manhattan in 1896. He started work at fifteen as a copy boy on the New York American, mainly to earn money so he could go to the theatre. On the advice of his employer he enrolled at Columbia University to study journalism. While there he won $500 (about $11,000 today, or £9,000) in a competition for the best advertisement for Fatima cigarettes and blew it all on a big party for his friends, who included Oscar Hammerstein II and Lorenz Hart. On the strength of the publicity he was offered a job at the Philip Goodman advertising agency, so he left university and took it. One of Goodman’s clients was Samuel Goldwyn, who needed a trademark for his new film company. Dietz devised the lion ringed with a banner bearing the Latin slogan Ars Gratia Artis (Art for art’s sake) which is still used at the start of every MGM film.
He joined Goldwyn Pictures Corporation as publicity director in 1919 and by 1924 he was director of advertising and publicity for MGM, a position he held for more than 20 years. At the same time he was writing sketches and songs for Broadway. In 1924 he had a fan letter from a lawyer called Arthur Schwartz, begging him to collaborate on four songs. Dietz turned him down. However in 1929 they were brought together by a producer for a review called The Little Show.
Schwartz was born in Brooklyn in 1900, the son of an attorney. He showed musical talent as a child, teaching himself the piano, and by the age of 14 he was earning pocket money accompanying silent films. His father was set on his son having a law career, and Arthur did qualify, but tunes kept coming into his head which he would jot down and keep in a secret drawer in his office. After some of his songs were accepted for shows, he gave up the law in 1928 to concentrate on songwriting.
The Little Show was a success and more followed. Probably the pair’s biggest hit was Dancing in the Dark which they wrote for The Band Wagon of 1931, the last stage show to star Fred and Adele Astaire before Adele’s marriage and retirement. Here it is sung by Bing Crosby.
1934 brought Revenge with Music, which featured You and the Night and the Music.
We will come back to Dietz and Schwartz later in the series.
So far all the writers I have featured were American, but there is an Englishman who deserves a place on the roll of honour. Eric Maschwitz was born in Birmingham in 1901. His father was a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant and his mother was Australian. He was educated at Repton School and Cambridge University. He became editor of Radio Times in 1927, marrying the actress Hermione Gingold the same year. Maschwitz worked for the BBC’s variety department from 1933 and devised the radio show In Town Tonight, which I wrote about here. In 1936, using the pen-name Holt Marvell, he wrote the lyrics of These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You) with composer Jack Strachey (not Jewish).
Here it is by the marvellous Nat King Cole:
Maschwitz had a brief but successful foray into Hollywood in 1937, sharing an Oscar nomination for his co-adaptation of Goodbye Mr Chips. In 1939 he wrote A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square with Manning Sherwin (not Jewish).
Here it is by the Glenn Miller Band:
During the Second World War Maschwitz served as an officer with the Intelligence Corps. Later he became Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC, where he asked for ideas for a science fiction drama series. The result was Doctor Who, which started in 1963.
Composer Ralph Rainger was born Ralph Reichenthal in New York in 1900. A talented pianist, he won a scholarship to New York’s prestigious Damrosch Institute of Music, but his family wanted him to pursue a more ‘sensible’ career. He left the Institute after one year and worked his way through law school. But he could not give up music and shortly after his graduation from Brown University Law School in the late 1920s he began taking jobs as a professional pianist, arranger and accompanist for vaudeville entertainers.
In 1930 he moved to Hollywood and met lyricist Leo Robin, who came from Pittsburgh. They were the same age and had similar backgrounds in that Robin’s father, too, had wanted him to be a lawyer, so to please him Leo had gone through law school. Like Rainger he could not resist the call of music and like Rainger he defied his father. He started on Broadway and moved to Hollywood in 1929.
For over a decade, Rainger and Robin were Paramount’s most successful songwriting team, producing hundreds of film songs for stars as disparate as Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert and Shirley Temple. The greatest was Thanks for the Memory, sung by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross in the film The Big Broadcast of 1938. It won that year’s Academy Award for Best Original Song and became Hope’s signature tune.
Rainger was 41 when he was killed in a plane crash near Palm Springs California in 1942. He was a passenger on an airliner which collided in mid-air with a US Army Air Corps bomber. Robin carried on writing with a variety of partners, and we will hear of him again.
Finally, Fain and Kahal. Sammy Fain was born Samuel Feinberg in New York in 1902 but the family soon moved to Sullivan County in New York State where his father was a cantor. Fain taught himself to play the piano and began composing songs, and when he left school he returned to New York City to pursue songwriting. His first job was as a stockroom boy for Mills Music Publishing. After his boss heard him playing his own songs in the audition room he was promoted to song plugger. Fain did not have a lot of success with songwriting until he met lyricist Irving Kahal.
I can’t find out a lot about Kahal. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1903. By the time he was about 20, he was performing in New York vaudeville sketches.
Fain and Kahal soon became successful. In 1930, they wrote You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me for Maurice Chevalier in the film The Big Pond. (Pierre Norman is also credited, but it is not certain what he contributed.) Here it is sung by Chevalier.
The song was used in other movies, including Monkey Business (1931) where the Marx Brothers steal Chevalier’s passport and sing this song to try to prove they are Chevalier. The scene starts at about 34mins.
The same film included Chico Marx playing Fain and Kahal’s When I Take My Sugar to Tea (at about 50mins)
It’s sung here by Bing Crosby:
These songs and others are featured in this 1931 short film about Fain.
The duo also had successes on Broadway, but a rare flop was Right This Way, which ran for only 15 performances in 1938. It included the songs I Can Dream, Can’t I? and I’ll Be Seeing You. The first soon became a hit but I’ll Be Seeing You disappeared. Kahal told his wife Edna: ‘Damn it, this is the greatest song I’ve ever written and nothing’s been done with it.’
Kahal died in 1942 from kidney disease at the early age of 38, still believing that I’ll Be Seeing You would never be heard again. A year or so later, with the war separating sweethearts from each other, it suddenly caught on. Bing Crosby recorded it in 1944 and it went to the top of the chart. An earlier recording by Frank Sinatra which had been shelved was dusted off and released, reaching No 4. Vera Lynn made a lovely version but my favourite is by Anne Shelton, which was used in the 1979 film Yanks.
‘He truly loved that song,’ Kahal’s widow Edna said much later. ‘Of course, I always felt that it was deserving. I just pray that somewhere, somehow, he knows.’
There’s a postscript: Last summer the Nasa rover Opportunity, which was sent on a 90-day mission to Mars but lasted 15 years until it was overwhelmed by a dust storm, sent a message: ‘My battery is low and it’s getting dark.’
In February this year technicians made their final attempt to contact Opportunity by beaming Billie Holiday’s I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) across the 140million miles of space. There was no reply.
This is the last in this series for a while, but I hope it will be back.
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