Frank Loesser at 100

America’s great vernacular songwriter Frank Loesser was born 100 years ago today. To celebrate, cable tv network TCM is showing the film of his Pulitzer Prize winning musical How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and Neptune’s Daughter which features Loesser’s evergreen duet “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (see and hear below, I hope — much Loesser material seems to have been removed from Amazon today, after I linked to it). 

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On the NPR show Fresh Air Michael Feinstein will talk about the Great Man and his lyrics + music. Guys anywhere may be whistling “Standing On The Corner Watching All The Girls Go By,” while dolls are swooning to “If I Were A Bell.” Gamblers will pray that “Luck Be A Lady Tonight,” Danes might hum “Wonderful Copenhagen,” NRA members proclaim “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” the lonely complain “They’re Either Too Young Or Too Old,” kid-cowpokes (are there still any?) boast “I’ve Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle” and nostalgic  oldsters assert “Once In Love With Amy (Always In Love With Amy).” Loesser wrote something for everybody.

In fact, Loesser’s ways with words and music have enlivened movies, record sales charts, the Broadway stage and amateur productions from the late 1930s to this day. He was one of the most all-around successful songwriters of the 20th Century, penning more than 700 works, none of them formulaic, most of them catchy, funny, sexy, sweet, satiric, earthy and smart.
Of Loesser’s five produced Broadway shows, Guys and Dolls has been acclaimed as a
model modern musical and is in perpetual production at high schools, community
theaters and professional revivals. Danny Kaye’s Hans Christian Andersen, featuring Loesser’s score, is considered
a children’s classic. In 1949 alone “Baby, It’s Cold. . .” which Frank originally wrote as a piece to perform with his first wife, Lynn, at Hollywood parties, was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Jordan, Louis Armstrong with Velma Middleton, Pearl Bailey with Hot Lips Page, Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting, the Sammy Kaye Orchestra, Dinah Shore with Buddy Clark and Esther Williams with Ricardo Montalban (they did it in Neptune’s Daughter, cross-cut with Betty Garrett singing it to seduce Red Skelton).
Since then, that one song has been essayed by Bing Crosby, Mae West and Rock Hudson (at the 1958 Academy Awards), Cerys Matthews and Tom Jones, Dean Martin with overdubbing by Martina McBride, Zooey Deschanel with Leon Redbone, Jessica Simpson with Nich Lachey and Norah Jones with Willie Nelson (heard here).
Jazz players and singers as well as cabaret types love Loesser. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery, Nancy Wilson with Cannonball Adderley, Ray Charles with Betty Carter, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Vince Guaraldi, Woody Herman, Barnie Kessel and Dave Brubeck are among those who tapped his repertoire for “If I Were a Bell,” “The Inch Worm,” “Let’s Get Lost,” “On A Slow Boat To China,” “Never Will I Marry,” “Baby It’s Cold. . .,” “Two Sleepy People,” “The Lady’s In Love With You,” “I Hear Music,” “Brotherhood of Man,” “I Hear Music,” and “Heart and Soul” (on that one Loesser wrote the words, Hoagy Carmichael the tune). French horn player Julius Watkins and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse led a quintet in a 1958 recording of excerpts from Loesser’s opera-like musical The Most Happy Fella. Nina Simone, Milt Jackson, Oscar Peterson, Phil Woods, Red Garland, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sheila Jordan, Steve Lacy, Zoot Sims with Jimmy Rowles, Keith Jarrett, Red Norvo, Gerry Mulligan, Annie Ross, Ken Peplowski and Bill Holman have all documented their versions of Loesser’s songs.

Was Loesser a jazz fan? “I should think so!” said Jo Sullivan Loesser, his widow,
who with daughter
Emily Loesser is presiding over the Loesser centenary and ongoing efforts of his estate. These include a Kennedy Center production early last May of Of Mice and Manhattan, Frank’s previously unheard “animal songs,” and, next November, Marvin Hamlisch conducting the National Symphony Orchestra Pops in Loesser selections. Harry Connick Jr. was among those singing Loesser’s airs at an American Theater Wing last spring and an upcoming Broadway revival of How To Succeed will star Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe. 


Born in 1910 and raised in New York City, how could
Loesser not like
jazz? His father and older half-brother were famed classical pianists, whose precedents he rejected (he didn’t learn to play piano until he was in Hollywood writing lyrics, and then he taught himself). His argot, phrasing, rhythm and melodies took how people sounded in day to day life as a basis. He intended his work to be popular
entertainment and according to his widow, “loved to be a street guy and talk like they talk in Guys and Dolls. He and Abe [Burrows, who wrote the book based on Damon Runyon’s short stories] talked like that all the time.

“But he was extremely versatile, and never wrote the same thing twice. He immersed himself in music from the place and period
he was writing about,” Mrs. Loesser recalled, “going to Tennessee and getting June Carter to sing for
him when he was writing Greenwillow,
a country musical. When the rock ‘n’ roll thing came in, though, Frank said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do about this.'”

Loesser was a prodigious if idiosyncratic worker. According to his widow, “His schedule was  to go to bed about midnight and get up around 4 in the morning. He wrote
from 4 to 7 or 8, because the telephone wouldn’t get to him, drinking coffee and using a silent
piano — he’d have driven everybody nuts otherwise. Then he’d have a martini about 8 a.m., because
that was his lunch. He’d take a nap, then go to his office — a big office, almost a whole floor, on 57th St. where he ran the Frank Music Corp. [developing and publishing the talents of Richard Adler, Jerry Ross and Meredith Wilson, among up ‘n’ coming songwriters]. Or if he was working on a show, he’d go to the theater.” 

Frank Music Corp., bought by CBS in 1976, is now part of Paul McCartney’s MPL Communications. All this and more is detailed in a PBS documentary, “Heart and Soul: The Life and Music of Frank Loesser,” and the biography A Most Remarkable Fella, by Susan Loesser, his oldest child. His son John has had a long, successful theatrical career; his second daughter, Hannah, was a visual artist who died of cancer in 2007.

Frank Loesser’s youngest child, Emily, is a singer and actress who was three years old when her father died of lung cancer in 1969. She’s a devoted keeper of the flame. “He had a real mastery of the colloquial, of how
people really talk,” she said. “He elevated everyday speech so it wouldn’t
be mundane, but without the corniness of a Hallmark card.”

Mother and daughter and the rest of the family (Emily is married to singer-actor Don Stephenson) are open to adaptations of Frank Loesser’s
works. “We want to develop new projects,” Emily asserted. “A
hip-hop version of ‘Luck Be A Lady Tonight?’ I’d love it.”
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  1. says

    Hi Howard —
    Long time no see. — Thanks for remembering one of America’s greatest composers, and lyricists. Frank Loesser must have been indeed a jazz fan, if you consider how many of his tunes have been played by numerous “pure” jazz folks.
    I linked to your splendid article, and you can find my own tribute post by clicking on my name.
    Swingin’ best,