Harold Arlen: Rainbows & Blues

By Ian Whitcomb

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to



       In the 1940s Harold Arlen, a successful songwriter with “Blues in the Night” currently high in the hit parade, was riding in a taxi. The driver was singing “My mama done tol’ me” and Arlen casually asked who wrote it. The driver shrugged and said, “ Who cares?  It’s just an old Negro blues ”. No. “I wrote it”.” What’s your name?” “Harold Arlen” “WHO?”

       A decade later at a concert in Cairo there was a segment devoted to “American folk songs”. Every one was an Arlen number. The world was so used to this music it seemed to be always there, a gift written in the wind.  But to a certain extent they were folk tunes successfully folding the melancholy of Eastern European Hebraic music into the rhythmic culture of African-Americans. Arlen was an exemplar of the true American melting pot at its dazzling best.

       He was born Hyman Arluck in Buffalo, New York. His father

was cantor at the local synagogue and led the choir. Hyman was early on imbued with his father’s way with music, his improvising exotic tunes to the sacred texts in that characteristic wail.  On the family piano his mother introduced her son to Chopin but he was already in the thrall of popular music, especially ragtime. By the 1920s he had left home to travel with dance bands on riverboats, playing (self-taught) piano and singing. One of these bands, The Buffalodians, managed to get booked in New York. By this time Hyman (under his new more acceptably commercial name of Harold Arlen) was writing arrangements and was steeped in black jazz, especially that of Louis Armstrong. Indeed in a Satchmo riff on one of his Hot Five records there sat the same phrase his father used to render in his synagogue “Cantillations’. The two cultures echoing each other.

       In New York there was a bustling jazz scene and it was here one of the top black bandleaders, Fletcher Henderson, became aware of Arlen’s work and hired him to arrange for his outfit. However Arlen saw himself as a singer—he was a good one with a soft affecting delivery—and he decided to go solo on vaudeville. Eventually, in, 1929, he landed himself a role in a Broadway musical. When the rehearsal pianist fell ill one day he took his place and cued the dancers. He started fooling with a pick-up vamp that grew into a catchy tune. People encouraged him to get words set and with the help of songwriter Harry Warren, he was introduced to seasoned lyricist Ted Koehler. The tune was lively and spirited, with a revivalist feel so Koehler, a man of the world, made a gospel shout throwing in words like  “hallelujah “ and “judgment day”. He named it “Get Happy”. The song took off and was the making of a new team. One night spot in need rhythmic numbers for their dusky dancers was the notorious gangster-run, Cotton Club inarrlmin Harlem.

       Harlem was getting to be the In-place for the wealthy white, mink set. The club was whites only except for the entertainers; guests were bedazzled by the cream of black entertainment: singers like Ethel Waters, the bands of classy Duke Ellington and energetic Cab Calloway. Arlen and Koehler were hired to provide material for the revues—from 1930 to 1934 they wrote two shows a year.

       Arlen was the more anxious, serious of the two creators. He kept a manuscript block in which he’d jot down useful phrases as they came to him—perhaps on a walk-- gradually piecing them into finished works. Sometimes, carried away by the muse, he’d add extra bars thus breaking out of the conventional 32 bar prison. For his part Koehler would lie on a sofa and get Arlen to play his new tune endlessly, sometimes all night, till he’d fashioned suitable words. Suitable was important; Koehler had knocked around black underground life and knew the vernacular, the latest slang—he was even called upon to contribute to the saga of the drug-soaked Minnie The Moocher with the call and responses of her wedding day. It sat well with the whizzing Cab Calloway. And so did the sinuous Arlen music, with the composer jotting down the rhythms of the black bands and noting the dance steps.

       For the hot club shows they wrote a heap of bubbling rhythm numbers (what Arlen dubbed “noisy songs”), tailored for specific performers: “Between the devil and the Deep blue Sea”,

 “I Love A Parade”, plus one of the most optimistic and upbeat anthems of the Great Depression, “I’ve got the world on a string”. Harold’s reflective Hebraic/black side was revealed in a specialty number originally written for the departing Calloway. But fortunately it better suited the moody but star-washed Ethel Waters who’d been brought in as a replacement. Waters had been having a rough ride professionally and personally. Her last hit “Am I blue?” dealt with some of her sorrow, as songs can do like doctors, but “Stormy Weather” struck her angst like a therapeutic silver hammer. It was to become her life theme.

       It’s the first of Arlen’s steps to break out of the standard 32 bar format: It’s 36 bars with a bluesy dramatic interlude. A torch song but here the pain is internalized, tossing around in the body even though there may be sun outside. The words are plainly suited for a black woman—there’s even reference to Hoagy Carmichael’s warning that Old rockin’ chair is waitin’.  The tune is an elegant lament, easy on the notes with a last line in each section that lands on a blue note (“Keeps rainin’ all the time”), part of a flatted chord whose emotional home is the synagogue (Gershwin loved this sound). The middle part reeks of a revivalist camp meeting but a very quiet, tasteful one.

       When Ethel Waters introduced “Stormy Weather” in 1933 she was demanded to do 12 encores. Koehler and Arlen had touched into the heart of a black sadness but they also embraced a universal mood, as all great songs do. As Waters herself later put it:” I was telling the things I couldn’t frame in words… I sang from the depth of a private hell in which I was being crushed and suffocated”.

       The success of ‘Stormy Weather’ resulted in Hollywood calling. Arlen already had had a film entry with ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon” in  “Take a Chance”. He wasn’t restricted to Koehler—he’d been working in New York with Yip Harburg, the left-leaning lyricist who had written “Brother can you spare a dime?’ “Paper Moon” takes a jaundiced look at the tawdriness of show business; Tin Pan Alley is swiped as producing cheap stuff like “ a melody played in a penny arcade”llywoo

. Actually Arlen’s jaunty and poppity tune fitted in well with the alley tradition; he didn’t despise pop —he’d vocalized “Baby Face” on a 1920s disc. And his version of “Stormy weather’ recorded with the refined Leo Reisman band showed him to be a superior crooner exuding a velvet sadness.

       Harburg appreciated his partner’s “American approach”, removed from the Vienna school of so many theatre writers. “I took a shine to the gutsy earthy quality. It was a combination of Hebrew and black music’’. The new combo made decent material for undistinguished movies. Arlen was comfortable in Beverly Hills and it was to be his base till the end of his career-- which was brought to a mountain top when the couple were signed to MGM’s The Wizard of Oz” in 1938.

       They had only 14 weeks to write the score. Light songs like  “Ding dong! The witch is dead” and “If I Only Had a Brain” (with its Gilbertian patter, a masterly job by Harburg) were a comparative cinch to produce. Arlen called them “lemon drops”. But he felt they needed a big romantic number with a majestic sweep, a real soaring melody. He had a hard job dreaming it up but it came to him one night while driving on the Sunset Strip with his wife. He jotted it down at once, adding a little middle part that sounded like a child’s practice piece. Judy Garland, playing Dorothy at 14, loved it but others objected to the octave leap on “Somewhere”, too hard for the public to hum. It kept getting cut at previews until associate producer Arthur Freed finally won over studio boss Louis B. Mayer. The precious public embraced “Rainbow”; it was number one for seven weeks in 1939 and won an Academy Award as best song of the year. Judy Garland later said it was closest to her heart of all her songs.  And Ira Gershwin had lent a hand by providing the haunting tag: “ If happy little bluebirds fly/ beyond the rainbow/why oh why can’t I?”

       Arlen returned to Broadway but never had much success there. He needed breadwinners so in 1941 he got a call to Hollywood for an assignment with top lyricist Johnny Mercer. In complete contrast to the fantasy and romance of “Oz” the two writers, who had never worked together before but had great respect for each other, were told to write material in a jazz and swing vein for a film called “Hot Nocturne’. A key scene had a blues singer in jail ruing his plight. Arlen went to great lengths to get to the bottom of true rootsy blues, studying the work W.C Handy, “Father of The Blues”. Once again he broke the strictures of form, stretching the traditional 12 bar blues into a 52 bar epic—not easy pop, but he knew Mercer would come up with suitably down-home words. After all, the man was a southerner from deep blues country. Mercer warned of women who entrapped men- “My mama done tol’ me”—and how she’d be a “two face worrisome thing who’d leave ya t’sing the blues in the night”. The result is a gently mournful blues poem well structured and finely wrought like jewelry. The tune trundles along-- there’s even a train whistle to complete the tragic scene.

       So taken was everybody, especially studio executives, that the song became the title of the picture. In 1942 this artful “blues;’ was a number one hit. A bevy of big bands made recordings, including Benny Goodman, the “Swing King”.

During the 1940s Arlen continued to create movie songs with ”gentleman” (of the old-fashioned Dixie brand) Johnny Mercer. Many were for trifling pictures but some, like “That Old Black Magic”, went on to become standards. Sinatra made that one a reflection of his amorous techniques. Mercer’s words are effective and more than compensate for the tapeworm (Arlen’s word) length of the melody. Another wonderful tapeworm is “One for My Baby”, a classic late, late saloon melancholy philosophy, wandering to 48 bars and written as special material for a Fred Astaire film.

       There were other writing partners up into the 1950s, when the old order went through dramatic changes. Musicals were not in such great demand and rock and roll was round the corner breathing heavily. But just before the flood Arlen was presented with a job, a drama studded with a few songs, and his co-writer would be none other than Ira Gershwin. For 1954’s “ A Star is Born” Arlen was reunited with his “rainbow” girl, Judy Garland. Her new team would fashion another gem with “The Man That Got Away’’.

       In the story outline, it was called “The Dive Song”- a key dramatic moment when Norman Maine (James Mason), the alcoholic washed-up film director, discovers Garland trying out the number at an after-hours cabaret session. She delivers a tour de force in one take. Time magazine called it “an unforgettable lump in the throat” and likened her dark and sobbing tones to Bessie Smith and “Tara’s Harp”. It is her personal property, a summing up of her emotional state at the time. Arlen was in the depths, too—his father had died, the man who had been his greatest musical influence. Nevertheless the composer had birthed a wintry wind of a tune that employs chromatics winningly and spins away to 62 bars, like an operatic aria.

       Funnily enough a loftier world, an artsier one, called to him as the 50s turned into the 60s and the services of the great craftsmen were not needed. Rock and roll found a new set of writers attuned to the young sensibilities. Arlen wrote a musical, with arty shades, with Truman Capote. It was a flop but  “A Sleepin’ Bee” has become a standard. Richard Rodgers swore by it.

       Loftily Arlen wrote a “Blues Opera Suite” that was performed at Carnegie hall. But as the twilight of the great American songbook fell Arlen settled into a comfortable life in his New York apartment, consoled by his collection of paintings and his books. Outside, on the new tremulous Broadway, “Hair” delivered a bright package rumbling to a tribal drum, promising nudity. What odd subject could next be dragged onto the stage? Jesus Christ was about to become a superstar. Meanwhile, the man who had concocted subtle snaky blues, daily sat at his piano trying out phrases, coaxing tunes, but, as he said, ideas needed a framework for a show. This was not to be.

       His fellow workers always had praise for him. As Ira Gershwin wrote: “Frequently the lyricist finds himself wondering if a resultant song isn’t too long, or too difficult, or too mannered for popular consumption. But there’s no cause for worry. Many Arlen songs take time to catch on, but then they do and join his impressive and lasting catalog”.

       In today’s rap-happy scene Arlen’s music is not an outdated melody played in a penny arcade. “Get Happy” adorns TV commerials; “Over the Rainbow’ was the highlight of this year’s Oscar ceremony. Even a taxi driver might not know the composer’s name but knows “Rainbow” because his son is learning it on the ukulele. Harold Arlen never forgot his co-writers, always maintaining a good song is a wedding of words and music. “A good lyricist is a composer’s best friend”.

         Ira Gershwin had the last word. Asked which comes first the words or the music he winked at Arlen and said “The contract”. Harold shrugged and jotted down a melodic fragment that had just happily landed.



Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to