My Friend Harry Warren

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.

You can find Ian's main website at



       Harry Warren, prolific movie melody man and constant hit-getter, was never a household name, never a media darling like George Gershwin or Irving Berlin. His name was never up on a marquee. Indeed he would show up at the Academy Awards, where he won three Oscars, and fans would peer in his car and pronounce; “Who’s he? Oh- it’s nobody!”

       But in fact Harry Warren wrote as many hits as all the famous Broadway writers. He was, however, working in the Hollywood dream factory, far from prestigious, highfalutin, Broadway. The world sang his melodies, pumped relentlessly from the silver screen:  “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “ We’re in the Money”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”.

Fred Astaire sang his songs, so did Bing Crosby. Just prior to the coming of Rock & Roll he gave Dean Martin a screen-produced hit in “That’s Amore”.

Ironic that his last hit should be an Italian title, since all –American Harry was the son of Italian immigrants: his real name was Salvatore Antonio Guaragna.

His greatest period was in the 1930s when he and his lyricist Al Dubin created hit songs for a string of Warner Bros. musicals, starting with the classic “42nd Street”. He’d written pop hits in the jazz age 1920s but it was in Hollywood that he truly flourished. He could write in any style, running the gamut follywwod swhsre he truly flourished . he could write the gamut  rom sweet and sentimental love ballads like ‘You’ll Never Know” (an Academy Award winner) to hip jazzy stuff like “Jeepers Creepers” and “ Lulu’s Back In Town” — he kept up with the times quietly. But his heart was still home in New York among the sterling simple songs he’d plugged in his youth in Tin Pan Alley


I learned this in the early 1970s when Harry was a sprightly septuagenarian and ready to talk about his life — having been overlooked by the media for all these years. I was researching for my pop history book “After The Ball” and Harry entertained me for weeks. We would meet in his studio hut at his modest Beverly Hills home. There was a small spinet piano and above it a picture of Puccini. “He was my idol—he wrote real music,” pronounced Harry, a man of certain opinions. Had he had a formal musical training?   No, he had learned on the job: first as a drummer and later as a pianist in movie theatres and bars. He taught himself how to jot down a lead sheet for his ad hoc bands, proud about the influence of Catholic Church music on his style.

 By this time he was writing tunes but no words. He linked up with a successful lyricist called Edgar (“For Me and My Gal”) Leslie and they wrote a 1920 hit called “ Rose of the Rio Grande”. Harry’s originality shines through in this early effort,. The verse starts in a remote key, suddenly homing on peaceful C major in the happy chorus --plus in the middle there’s another joltingly pleasant key change once more. He had been listening keenly to concert music and opera.

       “I wrote the chorus with few notes and plenty of bar space so that those goddam smarty boots arrangers with Paul Whiteman and so on had a gap to stick in lots of their flashy fills.”

Interesting to note that Whiteman’s star reed player Ross Gorman, the man who played the famous glissando that opens “Rhapsody In Blue”, gets a co-composer credit on “Rose”. That was the way business was done in those unprotected days. But Harry was linked with the great George Gershwin when one of his current throwaway pop songs, “So This is Venice”, was played by the Whiteman band at the famous 1924 concert when “Rhapsody” was premiered.   Harry chuckled when he told me this: he had no love for Gershwin. “ He was an ‘I’ -guy, like so many of them. Wanted his picture in the papers, like his pal Irving Berlin”.  He leaned conspiratorially closer to me “ In the war I used to say: “You know what? --They bombed the wrong Berlin”. Oh, poor Harry felt very overlooked- just a journeyman songsmith.

Again with Edgar Leslie he turned out a nifty foxtrot, a hit for Al Jolson, about “Pasadena” a city he’d never been near. New York was always home for him, the camaraderie with his Tin Pan Alley pals—fellow workers in the song factory. “Pasadena” is a clever flowing melody and, once more, he inserted shocking, but satisfying, key changes.  (There’s a video on You Tube of Harry and I rendering this song, with Harry singing "extra” obbligato  lyrics and harmony and me on ukulele).

As the Roaring Twenties dived into the great Depression Harry was elevated into Broadway revues where he contributed hits like “Cheerful Little Earful” and  “You’re My Everything”.  His style was getting smoother, displaying an ability to move easily from jaunty peppy rhythm numbers to sentimental ballads but he always kept up with the times, noting the growing popularity of bigger, nosier bands spouting repetitive riffs: “See, I never was a jazzer — Puccini was my man, and Walter Donaldson — but you had to move with the flow in the song market, I had a family to feed”.

He was signed to Remick, the publishers, and with the flood of talkie musicals his skills were demanded at Warner Bros., who had started the musical craze with “The Jazz Singer” in 1927. The studio needed more songs fast so they bought Remick. Apart from Harry the package included a lyricist character — the rotund, cigar chewing, gambling, carousing Al Dubin, who had written the immortal “Tiptoe Through The Tulips”.

“I’d run across Dubin in New York but we were never close. He was good at penning sob stuff--he would cry like a baby even as he demonstrated the number. Al had a big heart on his sleeve and also lots of ripe tales from the racetracks and brothels. But he was a cold supper man — got home so late that supper was stone cold whereas I, you see, was a sensible home-loving hot supper man”.

On arrival in Hollywood this odd couple were housed in a bare little room with a table and a piano. At first Harry hated the West Coast and wanted to go back East but Al loved the nightlife and racetracks. However they soon developed a way to work together.

Their very first assignment turned out to be a backstage musical, “42nd Street” — the movie that revitalized the dying Hollywood musical. (Ironic that Harry’s first job was glorifying a Broadway street. In fact most musicals from the screen traded on Broadway as the Showbiz center even as they dampened the takings at New York box offices.)

The talkies had conquered but by 1932 audiences were fed up with the endless stagy tuneless junk being cranked out. Busby Berkeley’s moderne streamlined choreography and geometric angles on sexy chorus girls (he zoomed his camera through their legs and built three revolving stages for one sequence), revolutionized movie dancing, hitherto stagebound.

Dubin & Harry’s job was to provide suitable music to help realize the choreographer’s dream. Musically they were largely left to their own devices with orders like: a comedy one here, a ballad there, and finally big dramatic production number.

“It was sure hard working with Dubin”, said Harry. “He spent so much time at the racetrack. He’d scribble his lyrics on the back of a racing card, and phone them in. But he always came up with up-to-date lines to fit my melodies”.   “Shuffle off to Buffalo”, a comedy number has a jaunty, almost ragtimey tune, with a cynical couplet warning the girls about faithless lovers; “When she knows as much as we know she’ll be on her way to Reno” (for a quickie divorce).

 Conversely the ballad ‘”You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” was inspired by a line overheard by Dubin from a love-smitten studio girl to her boyfriend. Yet romantic Harry underscored the flip sentiment with a well-knit melody line, long and sinuous like so many of his songs. The influence of opera?

 For the big finale, in which we even see a girl murdered, he came up with a grand minor key dramatic opus, “42nd STREET”, full of stormy catholic harmonies bursting with tension. Berkeley and his crew often had to wait around on the set while the songsmiths polished up their work, or Dubin finished his cigar. The crew were in the songsmith thrall and rightly so,

 In a later movie Harry produced a melancholy minor tune for his only social protest song, “Remember My Forgotten Man”. His tunes are characterized by really catchy opening lines that adhere to the brain and won’t go away. “I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store” is a prime example.

Harry consented to talk about writing techniques, but going only so far. “Coming up with a novel release or middle part is hard — there seem to be so few that work. There weren’t any at all till the 1920s”. Why are so many songs imprisoned in 32 bars? “ That’s for the all-important dancers. You gotta have regular units otherwise they get lost”.

When he wrote that Swing classic “Chattanooga Choo Choo’ did he immerse himself in big band jazz?” “ No sir! I hated that din; I stayed home, never went near the South, and just wrote a cheerful folksy tune. With “You’ll Never Know” I harkened back to my simpler and straightforward Tin Pan Alley days”. Old-fashioned or not, swingsters and the world embraced his song, which won an Academy Award. Tiring of my technical questions Harry summed up the situation thusly

“If a song doesn’t come naturally — forget it. I’ve always written how I feel—for ordinary people, like me. Let’s take break.”

We did. We had an appointment in Santa Monica with a documentary crew making a film about the history of pop music, from rock. When we arrived an orchestra was being shot. They were playing a Scott Joplin rag. Joplin had just been rediscovered via “The Sting” movie. Harry gripped my arm and demanded why there was all this fuss about ragtime.  I tried to explain.

“ Look--We never heard of this Joplin in the business. He never scored a hit.  If you want a rag I can write you one. It’s easy when you know how!” Ever the compleat songwriter. A song for every style or mood.

After the interview Harry asked me back to the hut for a drink and some cozy chat. “No technical talk, please.”


 Once there he sat down at his little spinet piano and demonstrated one of those heartfelt foursquare songs he’d been moved by back in his happy Alley days. Such as “I Miss You Most of All”  (“The chairs in the parlor all miss you; the pictures all frown on the wall.”) He had me sing him some British Music Hall songs. He loved Gilbert & Sullivan.

Just before Harry’s death (at 87) in 1981, I was pleased to be able to phone Harry from London to tell him that a Royal Military Band had just played on BBC TV a Warren song in honor of the Queen Mother’s birthday; “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby”. (Her majesty’s favorite song was his “You’ll Never Know”). So Warren music had reached royal ears. He was mighty pleased. His beautiful melodies, fine and unforgettable, continue to give pleasure wherever good music is played. He may not be a household name but he has filled our hearts with joy.


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.

You can find Ian's main website at