Harry who? Only the greatest

When the phrase “great songwriters” is used, it evokes names like Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Berlin, Ellington and Rodgers. The name of Harry Warren would probably not spring to mind.

But I’ll bet you remember some of his songs: I Only Have Eyes For You, 42nd Street, I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store, Lulu’s Back In Town, Jeepers Creepers, You’ll Never Know, You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, That’s Amore, An Affair To Remember and September in the Rain.

Warren was practically the resident songwriter at Warner Brothers Studios from the dawn of sound pictures into the early 1940s – and then he just switched studios (to 20th Century-Fox) and kept writing great songs for another couple of decades.

When I met him, in the summer of 1980, at his sprawling Beverly Hills home, he was 86 years old, a gentle, sweet-natured ExBrooklynite of Italian descent, who had been living in Los Angeles since 1929. A new show called 42nd Street featuring Warren’s songs had just opened to rave reviews on Broadway. He hadn’t seen it yet, but hoped to make the trip east to dso “soon.” He recalled his very first Academy Award night, in February of 1936, when he and lyricist Al Dubin won an Oscar for Lullaby of Broadway, which had been introduced in 1935 in a big, splashy musical movie titled Gold Diggers of 1935. The song was featured in a lavish Busby Berkeley production number that lasted almost 15 minutes.

The awards back then were not broadcast. After Warren sang part of the song for me, in a thin, reedy 86-year-old voice, I asked him about that Oscar night – what did he remember about it? “It was held at the Biltmore Hotel. It was nothing,” he said, not sourly, but modestly avoiding self-praise. “There were people dancing, and they had dinner. You had to pay for your own dinner.”

Twice more in his career, Warren would pick up Oscars. In 1943, he won for You’ll Never Know, written with Mack Gordon. Three years later, he won his third Oscar for On the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Warren was nominated eight more times.

Harry the hit-maker
Harry Warren also proved to be a steady provider of hit tunes for many top singers and bands. In the early 1940s, he wrote I’ve Got A Gal in Kalamazoo and Chattanooga Choo Choo. Both were nominated for Oscars and both were hits for Glenn Miller’s orchestra. Jeepers Creepers was introduced in a lightweight movie called Going Places, sung winningly by Louis Armstrong – it became a hit record for him. In 1943, Warren’s I Had The Craziest Dream was a juke box favourite by singer Helen Forrest with the Harry James band.

Atchison, Topeka became one of Judy Garland’s biggest hit songs. In 1950, Warren (with Leo Robin) wrote Zing a Little Zong, featured by Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman in the movie Just For You, a recording hit for Bing – and another Oscar nomination for Warren. In 1954, Dean Martin introduced That’s Amore, another hit for both Warren and the singer.

Harry’s lullaby
My own favourite version of Lullaby of Broadway was done by Tony Bennett in 1962, a live recording of his Carnegie Hall concert. It was Bennett’s opening number. You hear the announcer introduce Tony, the band starts the introduction, the applause swells, and Bennett walks out and belts the song out so joyously you feel like applauding right along with the Carnegie Hall crowd. (It was recorded by Columbia).

Of course, others recorded Lullaby of Broadway, including Dick Powell and Wini Shaw, who introduced it in the movie, the Dorsey Brothers orchestra, Hal Kemp and his band and even Gracie Fields.

Harry’s legacy
Like other writers of melodies, Warren took part in the chronic debate over which was more important, the tune or the words, and predictably he came down on the side of the tune. “I’d like to hear somebody hum a lyric,” he said, as if to end the endless argument. The afternoon I spent with Warren, he had a cold, the main reason he hadn’t travelled to New York for the opening of 42nd Street, the Broadway show that finally, after four decades, gave some public credit to Warren for his lifetime of great song writing.

But he never did see the show. He died less than a year later, without having made that longed-for trip to New York to see “his” show. And it was his. David Merrick produced it, and Gower Champion staged it. But the songs were Harry Warren’s.

They still are. His and ours.