Revisiting a composer first addressed in 2016, Harvey Granat today welcomes new guest Walter Rimler, author of The Man That Got Away: The Life and Songs of Harold Arlen, and Talya Smilowitz, cabaret performer and cantor at Congregation Dor V’Dor, in Oyster Bay, New York. As always, MD/pianist David Lahm accompanies.
I begin as I began: If Harold Arlen (1905-1986) aka Hyman Arluck, had written nothing else but “Over the Rainbow” he’d still have been worthy of a place in the pantheon. (The song’s coda, “If happy little bluebirds fly…” was, by the way, suggested by Ira Gershwin.) If he had listened to his parents and not run away at the tender age of 15 – becoming a burlesque accompanist – he would’ve been a cantor like his father.
“What prompted you to write about Harold Arlen?” our host asks Rimler. Having completed a book on George Gershwin, it was fresh in the author’s mind that the icon was a great fan of Arlen, especially of his unorthodox song construction. They became great friends.
Arlen first pursued a singing career. (Ethel Merman said he sang like an angel.) By 1925, however, changing his name, he’d paired with Ted Koehler to write the first act finale for the revue that brought him to Gershwin’s attention. No opinion is suggested as to what changed his path. Serendipity perhaps.
“Forget Your Troubles, Come On Get Happy” Granat sings jauntily. Revues were all the rage. “There were book shows,” Rimler notes, “but the books were pretty stupid and Arlen just liked to write songs.”
The two men agree influences range from liturgical music on which Arlen was raised to his father’s Louisville jazz predilection to African American neighbors. “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues” is an early example. In the early 1930s, Arlen and Koehler were hired by The Cotton Club where an all black cast entertained an all white audience. Shows ran at midnight and two a.m., so people could come after having seen something on Broadway.
Granat performs “I’ve Got the World on a String” with natural ease, shoulders rising and falling. Shows like Wake Up Sweetheart, I Want to Say Goodnight Again and The Great Magoo proved as ignominious as their titles, but the second gave us “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” popularized by an Ella Fitzgerald recording. (Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg/Billy Rose.) Granat feeds us the lyrics. Everyone sings along. “Let me hear you in the balcony,” the host encourages.
“Stormy Weather” was written for Ethel Waters. Talya Smilowitz vocally comes in from the top, creating appealing frisson. She has a warm, resonant voice but is somewhat distracted by having to read the music/lyrics.
Granat offers Arlen’s favorite, “Last Night When We Were Young.” Carried on David Lahm’s sensitive piano, it emerges gentle, rueful. Rimler tells us Judy Garland found the song in a remainder bin and kept trying to get it into films, but was unsuccessful.
When Arlen was asked to write a title tune for the film “Let’s Fall in Love,” he apparently disappeared into the men’s room and returned with a theme. Rimler confirms the composer was fast, often jotting down ideas on the fly. “He believed these came from outside himself and said a little prayer before performing.” The song swings in romantic. Lahm conjures a line of chorines.
It was Arthur Freed, then a lyricist, but shortly to become one of MGM’s most famous producers, who recommended Arlen and Harburg for The Wizard of Oz. It was also Freed who went to the mat – threatening to quit -when the studio found “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” too “sappy,” intending to cut it. This melody, by the way, was sketched during a cab ride. Smilowitz’s interpretation is palpably tender. Without needing to read, she fully immerses herself in the lyric. It’s lovely.
In 1944, Arlen started to work with Johnny Mercer. Pressured to write a ballad for Hot Nocturne, they came up with “St. Louis Blues” which Granat delivers with gusto. Rimler tells us the composer “started out to write a 12 bar blues and ended up going on and on.”
Smilowitz returns with “Right As the Rain” from Bloomer Girl (with Yip Harburg). The artist changes octaves with utter fluidity. A duet of “Come Rain or Come Shine” (with Mercer), is performed by Smilowitz and Granat. They face one another blending voices and sincerity. Ira Gershwin’s favorite lyric is “The Man That Got Away” written with Arlen for the Judy Garland/ James Mason A Star is Born. Smilowitz sings it with an inappropriate smile.
Granat declares Arlen’s personal life was upsetting to read about. Rimler shares the history: At 27, the composer met and married a 17 year-old, Russian Orthodox chorus girl. Neither of their families ever reconciled to it. On top of that, his wife sunk into metal illness, even coming at him once with a knife. She was in and out of institutions. During a hiatus, the young woman was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor. The evocative sad melodies make sense, our host comments.
“Harold Arlen is one of the most successful, yet under the radar composers in the history of American Songbook.”
Opening: Harvey Granat and Walter Rimler