The following is from my book Not Fade Away: A Comparison of Jazz Age with
Rock Era Pop Song Composers (Pierian Press, 1984)
Writers and critics always make apologies when discussing Harold Arlen—not for him but to him: they regret that the public hardly knows his name and they are ashamed that the Broadway theater never took him to its heart. Despite the fact that had been a performer, as a composer he always remained in the wings. In 1954, when Truman Capote was asked if he would adapt his short story "House of Flowers" into a Broadway show with music by Arlen, Capote had to ask who Arlen was. A list of the latter's songs was read to him and it was only after hearing such titles as "Over the Rainbow," "I've Got the World on a String," "Paper Moon," "Stormy Weather," "Blues in the Night," and "Old Black Magic," that his interest in the project picked up.
Arlen's career had many other galling moments. There was the time at George Gershwin's house in Beverly Hills when he played a newly written tune for the latter and another guest, the conductor William Daly. The song was "Last Night When We Were Young," one of his best, but his two friends hardly noticed it, so engrossed were they in a conversation about something else. (This song was later plucked from obscurity by Judy Garland who learned of its existence by accident—she had been thumbing through a bin of records and noticed opera singer Lawrence Tibbett's recording of it.) Gershwin was not always so rude to the younger composer. He promoted Arlen's career on many occasions and it was he who said that Arlen was "the most original of us all" (an opinion seconded by Irving Berlin). Still, Arlen's name never achieved the stature of the others.
The problem was that Arlen never really made it on Broadway, which was where the names of songwriters became fixed in the public mind. His first successes came not on 42nd Street but uptown, in Harlem's Cotton Club. Established in 1923 and run by gangsters, its entertainers were black—Ethel Waters, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington—but many of its writers were white and it catered to a strictly white clientele. Arlen and his first lyricist, Ted Koehler, in a series of Cotton Club revues, wrote such songs as "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," "I Love a Parade" and "III Wind”—songs which equaled anything being done on Broadway at the time and which achieved the same kind of general popularity. But the renown and prestige of Broadway did not come to the Cotton Club songwriters.
By the time the Cotton Club closed (in 1936, a victim of the Depression), Arlen was in Hollywood, where the other great New York writers were also at work. But in Hollywood too, though he continued to write classics, fate was against him. He was never awarded that choicest of plums, an Astaire/Rogers film. It is true that he was chosen over Jerome Kern to write the music for The Wizard of Oz but that project immediately became associated in the public's memory with its stars and especially with Judy Garland. It was another fifteen years before he worked on a great film again. This was A Star Is Born, also starring Garland, and again his songs, particularly "The Man That Got Away," became associated more with her than with him.
It is possible that Arlen was not entirely unhappy with the way things were in Hollywood. He knew that he was writing great songs and he was certainly making a decent living at it. If he did have any regrets, they probably centered on his inability to achieve a definitive success on the Broadway stage. In 1944 he and Harburg wrote a show, Bloomer Girl, about Dolly Bloomer, a 19th century feminist. It had a respectable run of 654 performances but was hardly a classic on par with Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun or Kiss Me Kate. Two years later he and Johnny Mercer wrote an excellent score for St. Louis Woman. But it was a failure, running only 113 performances. Arlen did not return to Broadway for another eight years and when he did, with House of Flowers, his and Capote's score faced a similar disappointment. But he kept trying. In 1957 came Jamaica, written with his old partner Harburg. This one ran for more than a year, but that was probably due to the magnetism of its star, Lena Horne (who had had one of her first great successes with Arlen's "Stormy Weather") rather than to its songs, which were lackluster. Then, in 1959, Broadway saw a new Arlen/Mercer show, Saratoga, but this one closed after only 80 performances. That year, St. Louis Woman, which had achieved a following despite its initial belly flop, was operatized and renamed Free and Easy. But, though a critical success, it could not compete with Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, which was produced at the same time.
There is, therefore, no score in the Arlen canon which proclaims and preserves his name. The Wizard of Oz almost does this but "Over the Rainbow" has become Judy Garland's song in a deeper sense than "Cheek to Cheek" became Astaire's or "I Got Rhythm" became Merman's. Perhaps that was the price one paid for writing for Garland. When she had a mind to, she could make any song her own. Her hair-raising performance of "Stormy Weather" at the 1961 Carnegie Hall Concert outdid all other versions, even Lena Horne's previously definitive performance in the movie Stormy Weather.
In terms of his stage and screen works, therefore, Arlen's career had no momentum. There was no steady progression for him as there had been for Gershwin, who began with revues, progressed to musical comedies, then to Gilbert & Sullivan-style satire and finally to opera. Arlen was not, like Kern, the inventor of the modern American song or, like Rodgers, the father of the modern American musical; nor was he, like Gershwin, the celebrated composer of symphonic jazz. His career had little of the grandeur that theirs had and, thus, less momentum. Somewhat like the careers of Berlin and Porter, but without all the hit shows, Arlen's career went from song to song, rather than from production to production. Nevertheless, he did manage to develop an author's persona, unlike fellow Hollywood tunesmiths such as Harry Warren and Jimmy Van Heusen, who were as eclectic as they were talented.
Arlen's persona grew out of his love for jazz and the blues. It was in bluesy songs like "One for My Baby" and "When the Sun Comes Out" that he defined himself, much as Porter defined himself with Hebraic beguines like "From This Moment On" and "I Love Paris." Arlen, who Ethel Waters called "the Negroest white man," is the one who more than anyone else brought blues and jazz to the popular song. He worked well with black performers. Many of the songs he wrote with Ted Koehler were aimed specifically for what was then called the race record market ("My Military Man," "High Flyin' Man," "Pool Room Poppa," "The Wail of the Reefer Man") and were recorded by Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway and Bessie Smith. He never stopped working with black artists. In addition to the Cotton Club performers, the casts of Cabin in the Sky, St. Louis Woman, House of Flowers and Jamaica were all black, and other Arlen musicals, including Bloomer Girl and Saratoga, had black principals and themes. In addition, his one large-scale concert work was entitled Americanegro Suite. Like Gershwin, he understood and acknowledged his debt to black musicians.
A second facet of Arlen's style, and one which also gave his work continuity and a means of development, was the way he experimented with the length and shape of his songs. He never wrote one so endless as Porter's "Begin the Beguine" (that one weighed in at 108 measures) but he was more consistent in this kind of thing than Porter was, writing songs which were often much longer than the traditional 32 bars. "Blues in the Night" is probably the best known example of this although, of its 58 measures, most listeners are familiar with only the first four ("My momma done tol' me/When I was in knee pants/My mama done tol' me/Son!"). "The Man That Got Away" (at 57 bars) is another example, as is "I Had Myself a True Love" (64 bars). Arlen, who referred to these songs as his "tapeworms," was intrigued with the shape and structure of his melodies. He liked it when they unfolded slowly, each section a logical outcome of the one that preceded it. This was his game, the way modulation was Kern's. And it is because Arlen did have such a definite style that he could develop despite a moribund career as a theater composer. His art never descended into hunting and pecking for hits. When he sat down to work he had a sense not only of popular music's past, but of his own past, and he strived to meet not just his audience's expectations but his own as well.
His career as a songwriter encompasses forty-seven years—from the publication of "Minor Gaff" in 1926 to music written in 1973 for an unproduced television show entitled "Clippity Clop and Clementine." But his great years were between 1930 and 1954—that is, between "Get Happy" and "The Man That Got Away." The era of his prime continues to shrink when one considers that, in the eight years prior to A Star Is Born and House of Flowers, both from 1954, he had written just one standard, "Hooray for Love." One must really go back to 1946 and St. Louis Woman to find Arlen at his peak. It can be said, therefore, that he is remembered for what he wrote in just a decade and a half - from the time he was 25 until he was 40 - a shorter span than Gershwin's prime, though Arlen's lifespan was more than twice as long.
Part of the post-1954 slackening must be attributed to two factors that were certainly beyond his control. One was his health. In 1954, during the composition of House of Flowers, he required three dozen blood transfusions for hepatitis and a bleeding ulcer. His spunk in the face of such distress rivaled that of Cole Porter, for he continued composing from his hospital bed, even when he was reduced to tapping a spoon on a dinner tray. The second circumstance was the death of his wife in 1970, which sent him into almost total retirement.
It is harder to isolate the reason for the inferiority of so much of his work between 1946 and 1954. One can point to the inconsequentiality of his Hollywood assignments but the post-'46 films (Casbah, My Blue Heaven, The Petty Girl, Mr. Imperium) were no worse than some of his earlier projects (he and Mercer wrote some very good songs for some very bad films: "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" for Here Come the Waves in 1944, "My Shining Hour" and "One for My Baby" for The Sky's the Limit in 1943 and "That Old Black Magic" and "Hit the Road to Dreamland" for Star Spangled Rhythm in 1942; in 1939, Arlen even managed to turn out something memorable for a Marx Brothers comedy when he wrote "Lydia the Tatooed Lady" for At the Circus).
Without ever being able to know just what happens in an artist's head, one is forced to look at his environment to understand a surge or, as in this case, a decline in his powers. In doing so, it is not too hard to pinpoint a major factor in the mid-1940s that might have contributed to Arlen's slippage. The post-war public's taste for sophisticated pop and theater songs was, after Oklahoma!, geared to the new form called the musical play. Richard Rodgers was certainly faring best in this regard. Later in the decade he was able to follow Oklahoma! with two other financially and artistically successful works, Carousel and South Pacific. Kern died before he was able to give the new integrated book musical a try (although he had invented it with Show Boat in 1927) but Porter managed to pull it off with Kiss Me Kate as did Berlin with Annie Get Your Gun. Arlen, however, found no suitable vehicle. He was the youngest of these great writers and yet he had failed to capitalize on the new trend
His lack of a steady partner was perhaps his greatest stumbling block. Rodgers succeeded best not only because of his long-time desire for and vision of the musical play but because he had teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein, a man who was not only a wonderful lyricist but an excellent writer of libretti, as he had shown with Show Boat. Berlin and Porter, who wrote both words and music, had no such partnerships to fall back on. But they did have luck. It was Berlin's good fortune that Dorothy Fields was on hand to write the book for Annie Get Your Gun and it was to Porter's great advantage that Sam and Bella Spewack were doing the same for Kiss Me Kate. But such happy associations were not permanent ones. Fields and the Spewacks went on to other concerns. Their careers were not fundamentally entwined with Berlin or Porter and both of those men found it increasingly difficult to get the right writers for the right shows. Arlen, for his part, was removed from the running by an extra step. Unlike Berlin and Porter, he needed a lyricist. But his lyricists, able as they were, were not playwrights, as was Hammerstein. Men like Johnny Mercer, Yip Harburg and Leo Robin had little expertise in the construction of book musicals. It is not unreasonable to believe that Arlen, had he gotten to Hammerstein first in the early '40s, might have had something of the second wind that Rodgers received. As it turned out Arlen tried very hard to make it in the new world of Broadway but he failed, despite his excellent work on St. Louis Woman and House of Flowers (one of its wonderful songs was “A Sleepin' Bee”). His interior momentum was still intact—“The Man That Got Away" and "I Never Has Seen Snow" from 1954 and "Paris Is a Lonely Town" from the 1962 film Gay Purree (sung by Judy Garland) continued the bluesy style begun decades before. He was able to continue his development in an idiosyncratic sense. But he was unable to remain abreast of and in command of the times, growing in a way that would excite the public at large—as Rodgers and Hammerstein were doing and as the Beatles would do a few years later.