In 2005 the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of Harold Arlen’s birth — the greatest American composer that nobody knows.
That year, I came to know Arlen and his music in a profound way.
Arlen – whose real name was Hyman Arluck – grew up a Cantor’s son in Buffalo, New York. But most people, even in Buffalo at that time, found it hard to recognize the name.
Ah, but the songs.
Everybody knows the songs, especially “Over The Rainbow,”
Other Arlen classics: “Stormy Weather,” “Get Happy,” “The Man That Got Away,” “Paper Moon,” “Blues in the Night” “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)” “That Old Black Magic” “I Love A Parade,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and many more.
Those songs and others will be performed by an all-star cast of Villagers at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23 in Savannah Center. It’s called “Journey Over the Rainbow” and features: Carolyn Hoffman, Bill Davis, Billie Thatcher, Janice Swartz, The Skipper, Bonnie Williams, Frank Ardino, Phil Caltabellotta, Janet Maloney and Bill Krone.
The Kevin O’Connell Band will provide the live musical backing for the event, which is directed by Barry Corlew and produced by Susan Feinberg and Carolyn Hoffman. Part of the proceeds will benefit The Jewish War Veterans Judith A Resnik Post 352 of the TriCounty Area, and Villagers for Veterans.
The show is set during the time of the movie premier of the “Wizard of Oz.” That’s the movie where “Over the Rainbow” made its debut.
“What a song,” said Villager Billie Thatcher. “I love singing that song because it means so much to me and so many people.”
“Over the Rainbow” – which earned an Academy Award — was voted the No. 1 movie song of all time by The American Film Institute. In 2001, it was voted the No. 1 song of the 20th Century by the National Endowment for the Arts and Recording Industry Association of America.
The local Arlen musical really started last year when I told Hoffman about Arlen’s remarkable legacy. “I never knew Harold Arlen did so much,” she said. “It’s an amazing collection of music. We want to do something.”
I felt the same way when I first learned of Arlen’s work and that’s when Arlen’s Centennial comes into the story.
In 2005, I wrote a cover story for the Buffalo News “First Sunday” Magazine about Arlen’s life
I spent months researching Arlen – who died in 1986. He was a Jewish kid who grew up in a working class, mixed race neighborhood. His family rented out an upstairs apartment to an African-American family. Arlen loved listening to his father sing at Temple but, as a teenager, used to hang out in the downtown bars and clubs and listen to jazz.
How does a Cantor’s son compose “Stormy Weather?”
I wanted to find out and interviewed many people who knew Arlen and worked with him. Here are some of the responses:
“The generation of Arlen and George Gershwin was raised with….the melting pot experience,” musician and musical scholar Michael Feinstein told me. “Gershwin was the first person who combined jazz elements and the black experience into a white man’s world. Arlen went even further.
“He took all that came before him and was able to recognize it and synthesize it into a unique voice. That sound will never be duplicated.”
“I believe he was the only white composer who could take the complete black area of the blues and make it his own,” Marvin Hamlisch told me. Hamlisch was a composer who won a Pulitzer Prize, in addition to an Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy Awards. He died in 2012.
“Harold definitely felt the suffering, anguish and emotions in people,” Arlen’s son, Sam, told me. “That was something that came out in his music.”
Arlen did not write lyrics for his music. He teamed with different lyricists over the years. E.Y. “Yip” Harburg wrote the words to “Over The Rainbow.” He and Arlen were paid $25,000 to write the songs for “The Wizard Of Oz” and it took 14 weeks.
“To work with Arlen is to experience some of the deepest pain of creativity as well as the most exciting joy,” Harburg once said.
Judy Garland once said “Over the Rainbow,” was the song, “closest to my heart (because) it is so symbolic of everybody’s dream and wish.” Arlen teamed with Ira Gershwin to write “The Man That Got Away” for Garland’s movie “A Star Is Born.”
Like Garland, Arlen endured personal anguish. His wife, Anya, suffered from illness and depression. She died in 1970. In later years, Arlen was lonely and felt forgotten by the public. He found solace in hard liquor.
But, “his music is timeless,” jazz guitarist/singer John Pizzarelli told me. “Arlen seems to be telling you when all hope is lost, you can always find something in the music.”
In the years after his death, artists such as Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra kept his music alive. More contemporary artists, such as Eric Clapton and Tori Amos also recorded Arlen’s songs. George Harrison of the Beatles said that “The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea” was one of his favorites and Harrison put in on a CD. Here is a video:
In Buffalo, after my story appeared, Arlen was inducted into that city’s Kleinhan’s Music Hall’s Hall of Fame. I was invited to speak at the Music Hall for a Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert honoring Arlen’s work.
The Buffalo International Airport now plays Arlen’s music over its speaker system to welcome travelers.
Harold Arlen finally got his just due in his hometown.
Now, some wonderfully talented performers will bring Arlen’s music to The Villages.