We are repeating this series celebrating the immense Jewish contribution to popular music over the last century, which I introduced here. This article was first published on September 1, 2019.
SO FAR in this series we have covered the major names of the early 20th century: Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern. There were literally hundreds more writers, some as well known in their day as the ones I have mentioned, and their songs have lasted, even if the names are forgotten.
It was in the 1900s that Broadway’s theatres started moving away from operetta and vaudeville towards reviews and musicals. Songs were also written purely for the sheet music and recording market, not just for shows.
One of the first hits of the new type was Shine On, Harvest Moon in 1908. It is credited to Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth, though some authorities give different writers. Bayes was born Dora Goldberg to Jewish parents in Illinois in 1880 and made her Broadway debut in 1901, when she was 21. She divorced her first husband to marry Norworth, an Episcopalian, in 1908. They starred together in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies of 1908 which featured Shine On, Harvest Moon. Bayes and Norworth had a strained relationship off-stage. She earned more than him and tended to treat him like a servant. He in turn flirted with other women. They divorced in 1913.
Here is Shine On, Harvest Moon by Flanagan and Allen, I guess from the 1940s.
Norworth meanwhile had written Take Me Out to the Ball Game in 1908 with Albert Von Tilzer, whose parents were Polish Jewish immigrants by the name of Gumbinsky. (Albert’s older brother Harry was also a songwriter who had taken his mother’s maiden name and added ‘Von’ to make it sound classier. Albert did the same.) Neither Norworth nor Von Tilzer had been to a baseball game when they wrote the song (they saw their first Major League games 32 and 20 years later respectively) but it has become become the unofficial anthem of US baseball. The chorus is traditionally sung during the middle of the seventh inning of a baseball game, as here:
Here is a lovely clip of Frank Sinatra (I had no idea he was a great dancer) and Gene Kelly in the 1949 film Take Me Out to the Ball Game directed by Busby Berkeley.
Two huge early hits were Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland (1909) and Let Me Call you Sweetheart (1910). The music for both songs was composed by Leo Friedman with lyrics by Beth Slater Whitson, who was not Jewish. I can find out next to nothing about Friedman except that he was born in 1869 in Illinois and died in 1927 in Chicago.
Here is Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland performed by Judy Garland in the 1949 film In the Good Old Summertime:
Here is Let Me Call You Sweetheart by Dean Martin and Kate Smith in 1967:
And here I must indulge my love for Liberace. I think this is from 1959:
In 1920 Von Tilzer wrote the music of (I’ll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Time with lyrics by Neville Fleeson (not Jewish). It was first performed by Nora Bayes. It gained a new lease of life during the Second World War, and here’s a clip from the 1941 Abbott & Costello film Buck Privates with the Andrews Sisters.
Unusually, Jewish composer Joseph Meyer (1894-1987) was born in California, not New York. He wrote the music for California, Here I Come which featured in the 1921 Broadway musical Bombo, starring Al Jolson.
Jolson was born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire. Birth records were not kept at the time and Jolson gave his birth year as 1885. His father, a rabbi and cantor, emigrated to New York City in 1891 and after four years he was able to afford to bring his wife and four children over.
The words of California, Here I Come were written by Buddy DeSylva (not Jewish). Jolson recorded the song, often called the unofficial state song of California, in 1924, and is often credited with co-writing the words.
The music for the brilliant song Who’s Sorry Now? was written by Ted Snyder with lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Snyder (1881-1965) gave Irving Berlin his start in the music business by hiring him in 1909 as a song plugger for his publishing company, as I wrote here. Kalmar (1884-1947) ran away from his home in New York at the age of ten and worked in a travelling tent show as a magician. He performed in vaudeville mainly as a comedian and began writing material for his own and other performers. He did not have much success until he met Ruby and they began working together. Ruby (1895-1959), also from New York, failed at his early ambition to become a professional baseball player. He then toured the vaudeville circuit as a pianist. Kalmar and Ruby were a successful songwriting team for nearly three decades, and their partnership was portrayed in the 1950 musical Three Little Words, the name of another of their hits, starring Fred Astaire as Kalmar and Red Skelton as Ruby. This is the film’s trailer:
Who’s Sorry Now? was featured in the 1946 Marx Brothers film A Night in Casablanca,
but it is best known as a hit for Connie Francis. She had released nine records which all flopped when she went into the studio in October 1957 for the last session in her ten-record contract with MGM. Her father wanted her to record Who’s Sorry Now? but she didn’t like the song, and deliberately took so long at the session with other numbers that there was almost no time left. She recorded Who’s Sorry Now? with just a few seconds to spare on the tape. In April 1958, it reached No 4 in the US and No 1 in Britain. Here is a live TV performance.
In 1925 Meyer and DeSylva came up with If You Knew Susie which was a huge hit for Eddie Cantor, born in New York in 1892 to a Jewish couple called Iskowitz from Belarus. I am not sure when this clip was filmed:
1926 brought Are You Lonesome Tonight? by Roy Turk and Lou Handman. As far as I can discover they shared the writing of the words and the music.
Roy Turk was born in New York City in 1892 and during World War I he served in the US Navy. Afterwards he began writing song lyrics and became a staff writer for music publishers on Tin Pan Alley. Lou Handman was born in New York in 1894, and played piano in vaudeville shows for soldiers in the First World War. After the war he became a song plugger for Irving Berlin and started writing his own material.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? is unusual in having a spoken ‘bridge’ which begins:
I wonder if you’re lonesome tonight
You know someone said that the world’s a stage
And each must play a part.
This refers to the ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII. In 1960 Billboard reported that the section was written by songwriter and vaudeville pianist Dave Dreyer. This is the first version of the song to be released on record, by Charles Hart in 1927:
The King’s version of Are you Lonesome Tonight? was recorded for his first LP after his service in the United States Army. It was included at the suggestion of his manager Col Tom Parker because it was his wife’s favourite song. The story goes that Elvis had cut eight songs for the Elvis is Back! album when he began recording Are You Lonesome Tonight? at 4am on April 4, 1960. He asked everyone apart from his backing musicians to leave the studio and had the lights turned out. He recorded it twice but was not happy with his performance, telling producer Steve Sholes: ‘Throw that tune out; I can’t do it justice.’ Sholes asked Elvis to do one more take, claiming that one of his backing group, the Jordanaires, had clattered into his microphone stand while recording in the dark. Presley performed the song once more, and this was the take that was used.
There is a video on YouTube of Elvis singing it at one of his last performances, in June 1977, but I don’t recommend that you watch it: it’s too sad.
Tomorrow I will cover some more songs.