- - Wednesday, November 25, 2015



By Walter Rimler

University of Illinois Press, $29.95, 248 pages, illustrated

Perhaps it is because songs are called by the name their lyricist has given them that their composers sometimes seem to be less-known than the wordsmiths. Unless, of course, when they have been part of an indelible duo that has somehow entered the lexicon of musicals, like Rodgers and Hart, or Kern and Hammerstein, or after Kern and Hart dropped off, that rare successful remarriage Rodgers and Hammerstein. But when, like Harold Arlen (1905-1986), you wrote many of your most celebrated songs with three major lyricists, Johnny Mercer, E.Y. (Yip) Harburg and Ted Koehler, it’s harder to claim your place in the sun. If for many, the tunes he wrote with Harburg for the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz” are the tops, “That Old Black Magic,” “One For My Baby” and “Ac-Cen-Tchu-Ate-the Positive” (Mercer), and “Stormy Weather” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” (Koehler) — not to mention the eponymous one he wrote with Ira Gershwin — “ain’t exactly chopped liver!” as he and his contemporaries might have said.

Born Hyman Arluck in Buffalo, N.Y., the son of a cantor, Arlen was a singer and pianist as well as a prodigious writer of songs, composing more than 500. Walter Rimler, who has written on George Gershwin and Cole Porter, takes as the epigraph to his informative biography a Mercer and Arlen song titled “I Wonder What Became of Me.” A bit misleading; and I think if this otherwise admirable account of a troubled but very successful life has a fault it is perhaps to overstate the extent to which he dwelt in the shadows, although it is correct to say that “his personal story was and still is barely known.”

Until now, that is, thanks to Mr. Rimler, who tells us that he was an uncommonly devoted son and uxorious above and beyond the call of duty or love, since his wife, actress Anya Taranda, suffered terrifying periodic bouts of mental illness, during which she actually tried to harm him physically. An unusually sensitive soul, it is not surprising that this high-strung artist struggled with alcoholism, on occasion so bad that he needed hospitalization. Reading Mr. Rimler’s sympathetic but unflinching account of Arlen’s travails gives one an enhanced admiration for his productivity and the grit and determination that enabled him to produce such jewels amid so much turmoil.

But of course, music and Arlen’s musicality dominates this book, as it should. Rightly hailing the young man as a “real musician,” Mr. Rimler informs us, “He hadn’t had much formal training — some classical piano lessons, which he quickly abandoned — but he was a fine instinctive pianist and a gifted singer, and he had a real feel for jazz.” For me, Arlen is a consummate musician who, even among his generation of songwriters, is really outstanding. If it is perhaps too strong to say he is absolutely without peer, he has a quality unique among them to make the notes summon up an image in a way that almost makes the lyrics superfluous: two examples being the wild, unpredictable tempestuousness in “Stormy Weather,” and the bouncy optimism that resonates as he accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative. So perhaps his sheer musicality is indeed peerless.

Very much a man of his time and place, Arlen disdained rock music and Mr. Rimler quotes him as using a derisive scatological Yiddish expression (“that farkakteh stuff”) to describe it. But he lived long enough to know that he could still appeal to later generations of fans, some of them quite distinguished themselves. No less than Paul McCartney wrote that “It means a lot to me to be appreciated by people like yourself, as I am a great admirer of your work,” and put his money and his confidence where his words were by having his company purchase the publishing rights to Arlen’s songs. And despite a natural chagrin at being displaced by a new kind of song writer, the older guy genuinely admired Paul McCartney, writing to him that “Your work over the years has fascinated and excited me. And I would like you to know that ‘Michelle’ is one of my favorite songs.”

Mr. Rimler is quite correct in his judgment that although Harold Arlen “didn’t have the fame of his predecessor and contemporary Irving Berlin or his successor Paul McCartney his work affected people just as much. The story of his life, which he led with humor and dignity against a backdrop of tragedy, helps us understand what it was like to create timeless songs in the age of the great American songbook.” Timeless hits the nail on the head: Arlen truly was and remains a man for all seasons musical and emotive.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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