Today is the anniversary of the birth of Harold Arlen in 1905. Harold Arlen may be the most underrated and innovative of the composers at the heart of the canon of American popular song. He is surely one of the greatest if least known. I want to take a brief timeout to observe his birthday in the interest of anger management.
Working with a variety of lyricists, from those in whom he brought out the best, such as Yip Harburg (“Over the Rainbow”) and Ted Koehler (“Stormy Weather,” “I’ve Got the World On a String,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “When the Sun Comes Out”), to those who regularly scaled the heights, such as Johnny Mercer (“One for My Baby,” “Accentuate the Positive,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “This Time the Dream’s On Me”) and Ira Gershwin (“The Man that Got Away”), Arlen supplied the haunting melodies — jazz and blues with a Jewish heart (Arlen’s father was a cantor).
One can get a sense of the variety and magnitude of his achievement from Ella Fitzgerald’s Harold Arlen Songbook. To borrow the Johnny Mercer lyric, “clear out of this world” — and a great way to explore this brilliant songwriter.
Last year, Walter Rimler told the story of Arlen’s life and work in The Man That Got Away. Late last year Ethan Mordden knowledgeably reviewed the book in the Wall Street Journal. Mordden notes: “In a playful mood, Arlen and Mercer concocted ‘Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive,’ an irresistibly cheerful sermon on survival that, 71 years after it appeared, is still the youngest tune in the inventory. It’s teenage joy. Yet Arlen remains a secret, a celebrity to connoisseurs only.”
I have to say that I never really heard the song until I heard Nancy LaMott’s rendition (video below). Now that is inspirational.
“Over the Rainbow” has touched hearts all over the world since Judy Garland first sang it in The Wizard of Oz. NPR’s Susan Stamberg recalled the story behind the composition of the song late last year in connection with the publication of Rimler’s biography. Eva Cassidy made it new in her 1996 live recording of the song at Blues Alley in DC, released posthumously, I think (video below).