This Day in Jewish History / 'Wizard of Oz' Composer Dies

Though famously little-known among the general public, Harold Arlen composed dozens of classic American songs.

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April 23, 1986, is the day on which composer Harold Arlen died at the age of 81. Although one of the most prolific, successful and admired writers of popular songs in the U.S. in the 20th century (in 1980, officials at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers estimated that 35 of Arlen’s 500-plus songs could be considered American “standards”), Arlen has long been famous for his relative anonymity among the general public, certainly when compared with such composers as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Richard Rogers.

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Hyman Arluck was born on February 15, 1905, in Buffalo, New York. The next day, his twin brother died, and as the survivor, his parents, Samuel and Celia Orlin Arluck, named him Hyman, the Anglicized version of the Hebrew name "Chaim," meaning "life."

Samuel Arluck was a successful cantor in Buffalo, and his precocious son began singing in the choir at his Pine Street synagogue at age 7. Soon after that, Hyman Arluck began piano lessons. Quickly, he found himself drawn to jazz music, a new genre, and by age 15 he had formed an ensemble with friends, Hyman Arluck’s Snappy Trio. They were successful enough playing at red-light cabarets in town that Hyman was soon able to buy himself a Ford Model T — and that he decided to leave school, to his parents’ consternation.

Arluck wanted to be a performer, and throughout his career, he was often considered the best vocal interpreter of his songs. But, although he had moved to New York by the mid-1920s and found work in vaudeville, he began to accept that his calling was as a composer when, as an actor, he was asked to fill in for an ailing rehearsal pianist in the 1929 play “Great Day” on Broadway. His improvisations caught the attention of the show’s composer, who introduced him to lyricist Ted Koehler. Together, Koehler and Arlen (he had renamed himself the year before, combining his mother’s maiden name with his father’s family name) turned Arlen’s improvisations into the song “Get Happy,” which became a hit.

Arlen and Koehler went on to write regularly for Broadway and for the musical reviews at Harlem’s Cotton Club, where their songs were interpreted by performers like Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and Ethel Waters (who approvingly called him “the Negro-est white man I know”).

Arlen’s best-known songs include “Stormy Weather,” “Let’s Fall in Love” and “I Love a Parade,” all with words by Koehler; and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” all written with Johnny Mercer. With E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, Arlen wrote probably his most beloved number, “Over the Rainbow,” together with the rest of the legendary score of 1939’s “Wizard of Oz” film.

In 1937, Arlen married Anya Taranda, a 22-year-old model and showgirl. She was of Russian Orthodox upbringing, and his parents did not approve. The marriage was touched by additional tragedy: They had no children, and in the 1950s, Anya was institutionalized for seven years, after she tried to kill her husband. Yet they remained together, and when Anya died, in 1970, Arlen was bereft.

Shortly before his death, he adopted the adult son of his brother Julius "Jerry" Arluck, so that his estate would have an heir. Today, Samuel Arlen runs the company that owns the rights to the Arlen catalog.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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Wikimedia Commons