RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One hundred years ago today, lyricist Dorothy Fields was born. She wrote dozens of hit songs for Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals, including "Sweet Charity," which is currently being revived on Broadway. Jeff Lunden has this appreciation.

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JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

It's almost impossible to believe that the same person who wrote this...

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Unidentified Singers: The minute you walked in the joint I could see you were a man of distinction, a real big spender.

LUNDEN: ...also wrote this.

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Unidentified Man #1: Grab your coat and get your hat. Leave your worries on the doorstep, and just direct your feet on the sunny side of the street.

LUNDEN: Lyricist Dorothy Fields had a career that stretched almost 50 years from the mid-1920s to the early 1970s and she was a real trailblazer, says her biographer Deborah Grace Winer.

Ms. DEBORAH GRACE WINER (Biographer): Dorothy Fields was the only major woman songwriter for that real golden age of the American songbook. She was the only woman in a league with Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein and Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and all those people who were her colleagues.

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Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) I feel a song coming on.

LUNDEN: Even though Dorothy Fields wrote those lyrics, she told an audience in New York in 1972 that she didn't believe a word of it.

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Ms. DOROTHY FIELDS (Lyricist): The song just doesn't come on. I've always had to tease it out, squeeze it up, and anyone that tells you that a song is something of an inspiration--I hate that word--or a magic spark or an IBM machine gets you going has got to prove that one to me. It's hard slave labor. Ask anyone who writes. It's slave labor and I love it.

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Unidentified Man #2: Oh, I can't give you anything but love. Oh, baby...

LUNDEN: Fields' consummate craftsmanship and sense of theatricality was in part genetic. Her father, Lew Fields, was a famous vaudevillian, says Deborah Winer.

Ms. WINER: He was known for the team of Weber and Fields, which was known mostly for the joke, `Who was that lady I saw you with last night?' The answer is, of course, `That was no lady. That's my wife.'

LUNDEN: Lew Fields didn't want his children, especially Dorothy, to go into show business, says her son David Lahm.

Mr. DAVID LAHM: Ladies don't write lyrics, said Lew Fields, to which she replied, `I'm no lady. I'm your daughter.'

LUNDEN: Dorothy Fields ignored her father and went on to write songs for Tin Pan Alley and the Cotton Club with composer Jimmy McHugh. She said her first big break came with a Broadway revue, "The Blackbirds of 1928."

Ms. FIELDS: "The Blackbirds" got execrable reviews. One critic said among other unflattering things, it was a sickening, puerile song called "I Can't Give You Anything but Love."

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Ms. FIELDS: My father said again, `Now would you get out of show business?' "Blackbirds" ran for two years.

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Unidentified Man #2: Know darn well, but I can't give you anything but love.

LUNDEN: Fields went on to write several hit songs with Jimmy McHugh, such as "I'm In The Mood For Love." Deborah Winer says even in these early songs, Fields had found her voice.

Ms. WINER: A Dorothy Fields' lyric is marked by this kind of surprising, sophisticated wit and this elegant turn of phrase and maybe more than anything else this dead-on ear for slang and colloquial speech.

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Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) For heaven rest us, I'm not asbestos, and that's why I won't dance. Why should I?

LUNDEN: In the early 1930s, like many New York songwriters, Dorothy Fields moved to Hollywood where she worked with several composers, including the legendary Jerome Kern who had written "Show Boat." Deborah Winer says Fields and Kern became great friends.

Ms. WINER: He was about 20 years older than she was and she used to call him Junior and he allowed it. I think he was a great professional lover for life.

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Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) A fine romance with no kisses. A fine romance, my friend, this is.

LUNDEN: Fields felt her best work with Kern was the score to "Swing Time," a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic. Almost every song became a standard: "A Fine Romance," "Pick Yourself Up," "Never Gonna Dance" and the 1936 Academy Award winner "The Way You Look Tonight."

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Mr. FRED ASTAIRE: (Singing) Someday when I'm awfully low, when the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you and the way you look tonight.

LUNDEN: Fields went on to have an active career not only in Hollywood but back on Broadway where she wrote the books for many musicals including "Annie Get Your Gun" and the lyrics for shows like "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," but as the 1950s came to an end, Fields found it harder to get her work produced. Biographer Deborah Winer says her career was reinvigorated by a new collaborator, Cy Coleman, who wrote in a jazzy contemporary 1960s style. He was looking for a lyricist and met Fields at a party.

Ms. WINER: And he came up to Dorothy and he said, `Hey, you want to work together?' And she said, `Well, what took you so long?'

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Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) If they could see me now, that little gang of mine, I'm eating fancy chow and drinking fancy wine.

LUNDEN: Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman performing "If They Could See Me Now" from their 1966 hit "Sweet Charity." The two adored working together and wrote another show, "Seesaw," which opened on Broadway in 1973. Fields passed away a year later after attending a rehearsal for the road company of that show. She was 69 years old and still on top.

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

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Unidentified Singers: (Singing) It's not where you start. It's how you finish. It's not how you go. It's how you land. A hundred to one shot, they call him a klutz.

MONTAGNE: Hear Dorothy Fields' own description of her family's show business background and a few of her best-known songs at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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