Critic Alec Wilder wrote of Harold Arlen’s gift for songwriting, “Arlen… is fully a product of American jazz, big band music, and American popular song.”
Harold Arlen might have earned his place in the history of American music, writing only one of his compositions—a sentimental ballad. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the signature song in his score for the 1939 movie classic, The Wizard of Oz, is widely considered to be the ‘number one’ pop song of the 20th century.
From the very early days of his career, Arlen wrote riff tunes and rhythm numbers, popular with jazz artists Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. He used ‘blue notes’ and ‘blues licks’ in his compositions, though he was quick to say that he didn’t really write ‘the blues.’ Working on Harlem’s Cotton Club revues in the 20s, Arlen composed for the Duke Ellington Orchestra and vocalist Ethel Waters.
By the 30s, Harold Arlen had followed the migration of New York songwriters west to Hollywood where he was in demand writing for movie musicals. It was July 1938, when Arlen and his lyricist partner E.Y. Harburg, signed with Metro Goldwyn Mayer to write the music for The Wizard of Oz. In only two months, they completed the score. Surprisingly, Arlen and producer Arthur Freed had to fight studio bosses to keep “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the movie.
After the success of Wizard, Arlen continued to write hit songs for 40 years. He composed some 400 pieces for Broadway stage shows, Harlem revues and major motion pictures. Many, including “Get Happy,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” are considered essential standards by jazz musicians today.
This week on Riverwalk Jazz, in rare archival interview clips, Harold Arlen speaks about his career and how he wrote some of his most enduring songs.
Guests Dick Hyman, Carol Woods and Nina Ferro join The Jim Cullum Jazz Band in a concert of Arlen’s best-known songs and little-known gems. On the bill are ”Blues in the Night,” “American Minuet,” “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” “Get Happy,” and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.”
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: Arlen w/Wizard cast June 1939 Photo courtesy of Yip Harburg Estate.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2009