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 8, 2019.
HERE is another selection of songs which have become standards even though the names of the composers may not be familiar today.
We start with Milton Ager and Jack Yellen. Ager was born in 1893 to a Jewish family in Chicago, the sixth of nine children. Leaving high school after only three years, he taught himself to play the piano and worked as an accompanist to silent movies. He moved to New York City to write music.
Jack Selig Yellen was born Jacek Jeleń in 1892 to a Jewish family in Poland. They emigrated to the United States when he was five years old, and he grew up in Buffalo, New York, the eldest of seven children. He began writing songs in high school. After graduating from the University of Michigan he became a reporter for the Buffalo Courier while continuing to write songs on the side.
He was retained to write material for the Russian-born Jewish vaudeville star Sophie Tucker, producing one of her best-known songs, My Yiddishe Momme. Yellen wrote the lyrics, which are part English, part Yiddish, in 1925 and they were set to music by Lew Pollack, another Jewish immigrant.
Yellen and Ager met in New York and started to collaborate. One of their first songs was Ain’t She Sweet, published in 1927 and performed here by Ben Bernie and His Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra, with vocals by Scrappy Lambert and Billy Hillpot.
It was recorded in 1961 by the Beatles when they were working in Hamburg as a backing bank for Tony Sheridan. I think this is one of their best numbers, good rock ’n’ roll with the great John Lennon on vocals.
Yellen and Ager entered the music publishing business as part owners of the Ager-Yellen-Bornstein Music Company.
In 1929 they wrote Happy Days are Here Again, which featured in the 1930 film Chasing Rainbows. Sadly the footage is believed to have been lost in a fire at the MGM vault in 1965. Here is a 1930 recording by Harry Hudson’s Melody Men.
After it was played at the 1932 Democratic National Convention, it was adopted as the theme song for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s successful 1932 presidential campaign. The song is also associated with the repeal of Prohibition soon after Roosevelt’s election. Liquor stores put out signs saying ‘Happy days are beer again’.
Here is a short Pathe film about the first case of beer to arrive in New York:
Yellen and Ager wrote Happy Feet for the 1930 film King of Jazz, which apparently does survive in near-complete form. The film featured the Rhythm Boys (Bing Crosby, Al Rinker and Harry Barris) who are seen in this brilliant clip, as well as the sensational Al ‘Rubber Legs’ Norman.
I have just found this clip from King of Jazz of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which I am sure readers will enjoy. (For my full article on Gershwin, see here.)
Going back a couple of years, the song Crazy Rhythm was written in 1928 for the Broadway musical Here’s Howe by Irving Caesar, Joseph Meyer and Roger Wolfe Kahn.
Caesar was born Isidor Keiser, the son of a Jewish secondhand book-seller who had immigrated from Romania, in New York City in 1895. His older brother Arthur Caesar became a successful Hollywood screenwriter. The Caesar brothers grew up in Yorkville, the Manhattan neighbourhood where the Marx Brothers lived, and the families knew each other.
At the age of six, shortly after he started school, Irving wrote his first poem:
I see the flowers free
And a little bird singing on a tree
It sings to me the whole day long
And I love to hear its pretty song.
In 1915, he answered a newspaper advertisement and found himself appointed secretary to Henry Ford’s Peace Ship, whose ill-fated mission was to try to stop the war engulfing Europe. While on the mission, Caesar wrote little songs telling the Germans to stop behaving so badly. He urged Ford to have the lyrics translated into German and have them dropped into the trenches to sway the Kaiser’s troops. His scheme was not accepted.
Here is a scrap of film of the Peace Ship, the Oscar II:
Caesar wrote the lyrics for George Gershwin’s first major hit, Swanee, which I wrote about here, as well as I Want to Be Happy and Tea for Two with Vincent Youmans (not Jewish) for the 1925 musical No, No, Nanette.
Here is a 1937 version of I Want to Be Happy with Ella Fitzgerald.
Here is Tea For Two by Doris Day and Gordon MacRae from the 1950 film of the same name, which was based on No, No, Nanette.
Wolff Kahn, to use the original spelling of his middle name, was born in Morristown, New Jersey, into a wealthy German Jewish banking family. He began studying the violin at seven and is said to have learned to play 18 musical instruments before dropping out of school at 16 to lead his own orchestra. He then opened an agency booking other bands.
On August 16, 1926, Time magazine wrote: ‘If it is strange that Otto Hermann Kahn, sensitive patron of high art in Manhattan, should have a saxophone-tooting, banjo-plunking, clarinet-wailing, violin-jazzing son, it is stranger still that that son, Roger Wolfe Kahn, has become a truly outstanding jazzer at the perilous age of 18. Roger’s ten orchestras, one of which he leads, have netted him some $30,000.’
Joseph Meyer featured in yesterday’s Broadway Medley Part I as the co-writer of California, Here I Come (1922) and If You Knew Susie (1925).
Crazy Rhythm was first recorded in 1928 by Kahn and his orchestra.
It featured in the 1984 film The Cotton Club as a great dance routine by Gregory and Maurice Hines.
A few years after co-writing Crazy Rhythm Khan quit showbusiness to concentrate on the other love of his life, aviation, eventually becoming chairman of the National Aeronautic Association (NAA).
Also in 1928 came I Wanna Be Loved by You written by Harry Ruby, Bert Kalmar and Herbert Stothart (not Jewish), who were later to be the musical team behind The Wizard of Oz, which I wrote about a couple of days ago.
I Wanna Be Loved by You was written for the 1928 musical Good Boy but will always be known for Marilyn Monroe’s performance in the 1959 film Some Like It Hot, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.
That’s probably a good note to end on. More songs on Monday.
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