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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Today marks the centennial of the birth of one of America's great popular songwriters, Frank Loesser. His hits for Hollywood included "Baby It's Cold Outside" and "Two Sleepy People." And Loesser wrote some of the most loved Broadway musicals, including "Guys and Dolls" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Jeff Lunden has this birthday tribute.

JEFF LUNDEN: He was the quintessential New Yorker: fast-talking, hard-drinking, an unfiltered Camel cigarette dangling out the side of his mouth. But he was also a poet, says his youngest daughter, Emily.

Ms. EMILY LOESSER: He had this slang that he picked up - the way people spoke -but he was also able to make it into poetry and worthy of music.

LUNDEN: And she says he was also the best interpreter of his own songs.

(Soundbite of song "Fugue for Tinhorns")

Mr. FRANK LOESSER (Composer): (Singing) I got the horse right here. The name is Paul Revere, and there's a guy that says if the weather's clear, can do, can do. This guy says the horse can do.

LUNDEN: Frank Henry Loesser was born in New York City on June 29th, 1910, to a family of German immigrants. His father was a piano teacher; his older half-brother, a concert pianist. But Frank went his own way, says his daughter Susan, who wrote a biography of her father.

Ms. SUSAN LOESSER: He certainly wanted to be different from the rest of his family, and they were kind of snobbish. To them, popular music was really low class.

(Soundbite of song "Ugly Duckling")

Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) There once was an ugly duckling with feathers all stubby and brown. And the other birds, in so many words, said get out of town.

LUNDEN: It took a long time for the ugly duckling to become a swan. While Loesser tried to break into Tin Pan Alley, he held a series of odd jobs: process server, food taster. His first break came when a Hollywood scout heard him perform in a Greenwich Village nightclub.

Loesser landed at Universal Studios - and bombed. But the late composer Burton Lane, who was signed with Paramount, heard some of Loesser's songs and marched in to the front office.

Mr. BURTON LANE (Composer): And said, you've got to hear this lyric writer; this guy is great. And they heard him and they signed him and within a short time, Frank and I were working together.

(Soundbite of song "Howd'ja Like to Love Me?")

LUNDEN: Loesser not only worked with Lane but with composers Hoagy Carmichael and Jule Styne, churning out hit songs.

(Soundbite of medley, "Two Sleepy People" and "I Don't Want To Walk Without You, Baby")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Here we are, out of cigarettes, holding hands and yawning. Look how late it gets.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Two sleepy people by dawn's early light and too much in love to say goodnight.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) But all I say is leave me in the blue, and here I stay within my lonely room 'cuz I don't want to walk without you, baby.

LUNDEN: When World War II broke out, Loesser joined the Army and worked in the radio production unit.

Mr. LOESSER: I guess like plenty of other people, I can't think of songwriting -or much of anything else - without thinking of the war, too. And when I hear firsthand accounts of what our fighting men have done, well, being a songwriter, I immediately think of trying to tell their stories in songs.

(Soundbite of song "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.

LUNDEN: This was when Loesser found his own voice as a composer, says his daughter Susan.

Ms. SUSAN LOESSER: He was a lyricist only, for a long time. And his first song that he wrote the music for was "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition." He wrote a dummy tune, which many lyricists did, to set the rhythm. And my mother heard it and other people heard it and said, you know, you have the tune. You should just go with it.

LUNDEN: In the late 1940s, Loesser and his first wife, Lynn, used to do a song Frank wrote for them to sing at parties all over Hollywood and New York.

(Soundbite of song "Baby It's Cold Outside")

Mr. LOESSER and Ms. LYNN LOESSER: (Singing) Hey, baby, where you going? - I really cant say - But baby its cold outside - Ive got to go away.

Ms. SUSAN LOESSER: My mother used to say it kept them in caviar and truffles for years. And my mother considered it her song. And then one day, he sold it and it won the Academy Award. And it was sung by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams.

(Soundbite of song "Baby It's Cold Outside")

Mr. RICARDO MONTALBAN and Ms. ESTHER WILLIAMS: (Singing) So really, I'd better scurry. Beautiful, please don't hurry. Well, maybe just a half a drink more. Put some records on when I call. The neighbors might think - but baby, it's bad out there...

LUNDEN: Despite his successes in Hollywood, Loesser always wanted to write for Broadway. He got his first taste with "Where's Charley," in 1948.

(Soundbite of song "Once in Love with Amy")

Mr. RAY BOLGER: (Singing) Once in love with with Amy, always in love with Amy.

LUNDEN: Starring Ray Bolger, it was a modest success. But Loesser hit it big with his next show: a story about New York City gamblers.

(Soundbite of song "Luck Be A Lady Tonight")

Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) Oh, luck be a lady tonight. Luck be a lady tonight. Luck, if you've ever been a lady to begin with, luck be a lady tonight.

LUNDEN: "Guys and Dolls" is considered by many the perfect musical comedy. But one song was very personal, says Susan Loesser.

Ms. SUSAN LOESSER: He would get up at 4 and write, and probably start drinking coffee then.

(Soundbite of song, "My Time of Day")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) My time of day is the dark time.

Ms. SUSAN LOESSER: And by, oh, 9 or 10, he'd be back in bed for a couple of hours. And then he'd get up noon-ish, and write some more. And pretty much his whole 24 hours would be two- to three-hour naps.

(Soundbite of song, "My Time of Day")

Unidentified Man #2: When the smell of the rain-washed pavement comes up clean and fresh and cold.

LUNDEN: Loesser followed "Guys and Dolls" with "The Most Happy Fella" in 1956, a work many people called operatic.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) Wanting to be wanted. Needing to be needed. That's what it is...

LUNDEN: In 1961, Loesser won the Pulitzer Prize with "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

(Soundbite of song "I Believe in You")

Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) You have the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth. Yet there's that upturned chin with a grin of impetuous youth. Oh, I believe in you.

LUNDEN: Loesser never really hit it big again, though he kept working until his death from lung cancer in 1969. Daughter Susan Loesser.

Ms. SUSAN LOESSER: I think of my father as a comet that just burned very brightly and burned out too fast. I mean, he really was a phenomenon.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of song "I Believe in You")

Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) And I take heart, I take heart to see the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth...

NORRIS: And you can hear full versions of Frank Loesser performing his songs at nprmusic.org.

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