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 15, 2019.
ANOTHER selection of wonderful songs by writers whose names many not be so familiar in our series celebrating the Jewish contribution to popular music over the last century.
Al Dubin was born in 1891 in Zurich to a Jewish family originally from Russia. His father was a doctor and his mother a science teacher. They moved to Philadelphia when Al was two, and by the age of 14 he was playing truant to see Broadway shows, and to spend time on West 28th Street (the ‘Tin Pan Alley’ district) where he tried to sell material to vaudeville entertainers.
At school he excelled in athletics, and was captain of the football team, but his fondness for alcohol, girls and nights out often got him into trouble, and a few days before graduation he was expelled.
He enrolled in medical school, but was expelled from that in 1911. After that he worked as a staff writer for the Witmark Music Publishing Company. In 1917, Dubin was drafted into the US Army. On his first weekend pass, he went to see a show at the Majestic Theater in New York. There he met Broadway singer Helen McClay. They were married in 1921 after Dubin converted to the Catholic faith and McClay was granted an annulment of her first marriage.
In 1929 he wrote the lyrics to Tiptoe Through the Tulips with music by Joseph Burke (not Jewish), which featured in the film Gold Diggers of Broadway, sung here by Nick Lucas:
In the early 1930s, he teamed up with Harry Warren (not Jewish), with whom he collaborated through the remainder of the decade. The two wrote as many as 60 songs per year. Among them were numbers for several films choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Here is 42nd Street, the title song of the 1933 film starring Ruby Keeler (this may be sacrilege but honestly I don’t think she was very good):
The same year they wrote the songs for Gold Diggers of 1933, including We’re in the Money, sung by Ginger Rogers:
Yet another 1933 film was Roman Scandals, with Keep Young and Beautiful, performed by Eddie Cantor in a way that would not be permitted today:
Dubin and Warren wrote the beautiful I Only Have Eyes for You for the 1934 film Dames, the first film in which Berkeley directed the musical numbers as well as choreographing them.
Here Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler sing it:
and here is the dance version:
In 1935 Dubin and Warren won the Academy Award for Best Original Song with Lullaby of Broadway, which featured in the film Gold Diggers of 1935. This time Berkeley directed the whole film as well as choreographing.
Here it is sung by Winifred Shaw in a rather strange scene:
and here is the dance version:
I have to say I find Busby Berkeley’s work, spectacular and clever as it is, a bit creepy. I get the impression that he treated his dancers like so many robots and would probably have preferred it if they were.
Dubin’s lifestyle included excessive eating, drinking and drugs, and he fell on hard times in the 1940s. Estranged from his wife, he struggled to find work both in Hollywood and New York. He spent his last few years at the Empire Hotel in New York, alone and in ill-health. On February 8, 1945, he collapsed in the street and was treated in hospital for barbiturate poisoning and pneumonia but he died three days later at the age of 54.
Back to 1929, and Mean to Me with words by Roy Turk, who co-wrote Are You Lonesome Tonight? which I wrote about here, and music by Fred Ahlert, about whom I can find out very little. He was born in New York in 1892 and gained a law degree before switching to music. His career took off when he teamed up with Turk in 1928. One of their first hits was Mean to Me featured in this slightly odd video of Turk and Ahlert with singer Babe Blake. The item is introduced by Jack Benny.
They followed this up with Walkin’ My Baby Back Home, a hit in 1931 for several artists including Ted Weems and his Orchestra:
Later in 1931 Bing Crosby chose a Turk-Ahlert song as his signature tune. It was called When the Gold of the Day Meets the Blue of the Night, but at Crosby’s suggestion it was changed to Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day). Because of his contribution he was included in the song-writing credits. Here it is in a short film:
In 1934 Roy Turk died of pneumonia at the early age of 42. The following year Ahlert collaborated with lyricist Joe Young (not Jewish) on I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, which was popularised by Fats Waller:
Please indulge me in my love for Liberace (I’m not sure when this was made):
Finally, the wonderful 1931 song All of Me, written by Seymour Simons and Gerald Marks. Simons was born in Detroit in 1896 to a prominent Jewish family originally from Poland. He enrolled for an engineering degree at the University of Michigan but was more interested in writing music. He played the piano and several other instruments, and he and a fellow student wrote two student union operas. After the second he announced to his father that he was dropping out of college to become a composer. His father replied: ‘Get your engineering degree first! You can write your songs later!’ Simons duly graduated and went to work as a research engineer at a Detroit motor plant, but the First World War intervened and he spent it in aeronautical research. After the war he started writing songs and seems not to have had any further employment in engineering. In 1922 he formed his own orchestra, and later went into orchestra bookings through his own agency. He wrote many songs, the best known of which is All of Me. The lyrics were by Gerald Marks, who came from Saginaw, Michigan.
Here it is sung by Al Bowlly in 1932:
And how about this? Nick Ziobro, then aged 15, gives the winning performance in the 2012 Great American Songbook High School Vocal Competition. He is now a professional actor, singer and pianist.
More songs in tomorrow’s concluding instalment.
To read the collected TCW columns by Margaret and Alan Ashworth, plus new features including Tracks of the Day, please bookmark https://am-records.com