I’m in this morning’s Wall Street Journal with a piece commemorating the centennial of the birth of Harold Arlen:
The greatest American popular songwriter of the 20th century was born a century ago last Tuesday. Warning: You may not know his name….
Arlen never quite managed to reach the top rung of renown, and though dozens of his songs are firmly stamped on America’s collective memory, he hasn’t a fraction of the name-above-the-title recognition of George Gershwin or Cole Porter. Only his peers fully grasped his greatness, among them Irving Berlin, who summed it up with characteristic economy when Arlen died in 1986: “He wasn’t as well known as some of us, but he was a better songwriter than most of us and will be missed by all of us.”
Why isn’t Arlen better known in his own right? One reason, perhaps the main one, is that his gifts were essentially undramatic. Though he knew how to write a show-stopper, his most characteristic songs were such intimate, introspective monologues as the yearning “That Old Black Magic” and the despairing “One for My Baby.” Like Johnny Mercer, the finest of the many talented lyricists with whom he worked, Arlen preferred evoking a mood to driving a plot. As a result, he never wrote a successful Broadway musical–most of his hits were hand-crafted for Hollywood films–and his reputation was built song by song, not show by show….
No link. To read the whole thing, buy a copy of today’s Journal, or (better yet) go here and subscribe to the online edition. It’s a bargain.