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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Today marks the centennial of composer Jule Styne's birth. He became one of the most successful songwriters in Hollywood and Broadway history. Among his biggest hits were the songs "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" and "Three Coins in the Fountain," and the musicals "Gypsy" and "Funny Girl." Reporter Jeff Lunden was a young music student in the 1980s when he met Jule Styne. He offers this appreciation.

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

He played piano his entire life.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Jule Styne was a prodigy. By the time he was 12, he had played with the Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis symphonies. His widow, Margaret, says that was to be his life.

MARGARET: He was supposed to be a concert pianist. When he was about 13 or 14, they went to an adult piano teacher who took one look at him and said, `You're never going to be a concert pianist because your hands are never going to be big enough to play, quote, unquote, "grownup music."'

LUNDEN: Devastated, Styne turned to pop music.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. JULE STYNE (Composer): (Singing) I can't work every Monday. Ain't got over Sunday, that one day when I'm with you.

LUNDEN: And pop music turned out very well for him. Born in London, Styne's family immigrated to Chicago, and as a young man, he found himself playing in dance bands with such musicians as Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman. He also found himself playing for some notorious non-musicians.

MARGARET: Al Capone was very good to the local people and he used to borrow the car. Jule said sometimes he'd come back and find a hundred-dollar bill on the dashboard.

LUNDEN: After one too many close calls in mob joints, Styne moved to New York where he worked for several years as a vocal coach and then on to Hollywood where he was a jack of all trades at Republic Studios. At the bottom of the food chain, says singer Michael Feinstein.

Mr. MICHAEL FEINSTEIN (Singer): He started working at Republic writing scores, as he said, for Roy Rogers and for Trigger, but he learned about the craft of filmmaking and film scoring and he wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) It seems to me I've heard that song before.

LUNDEN: By the mid-1940s, Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn wrote dozens of songs that topped the hit parade.

(Soundbite of songs)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Saturday night is the loneliest night in the week.

Unidentified Group of Singers: (Singing) And since we've no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Unidentified Man #2: ...and time after time you'll hear me say that I'm so lucky to be loving you.

LUNDEN: The melodies came a mile a minute because that's the way Styne's mind worked. He was famous for speaking in a kind of abbreviated language his friend's dubbed Stynese. Michael Feinstein worked with the composer at the end of his life.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: He just did not verbalize well what was going on in his mind because he was moving at hyperspeed. He was going at a lightning pace, and, therefore, he would say, `Well, when you sing the first--yeah. And the second, that's worth much, but, you know, the thing is that if you go back in the F chord, it doesn't match with the fingers. So, you know, we'll go from letter A and, you know--so, you ready?'

LUNDEN: By the late 1940s, Jule Styne was ready for Broadway and he took it by storm. One of his biggest early hit was "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" starring Carol Channing.

(Soundbite of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes")

Ms. CAROL CHANNING: (Singing) A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl's best friend.

LUNDEN: Despite a head full of ideas, Jule Styne could do a lot with very little. He demonstrated his technique with a song from "Bells Are Ringing."

Mr. STYNE: Now just in time. It's 24 times I play.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. STYNE: This without harmony.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. STYNE: Again.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. STYNE: Yeah, but the whole thing is--that's why I say, `Study, children, and study,' 'cause it goes...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STYNE: That's where the bass is all-important 'cause that puts the emotion in. That's the feeling.

(Soundbite of "Bells Are Ringing")

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Just in time. I found you just in time. Before you came, my time was running low.

LUNDEN: Jule Styne took great pride in his craftsmanship, but if there was one show he was proudest of, it was "Gypsy." The 1959 show, starring Ethel Merman, is considered one of the greatest musicals ever written. Styne's partners were book writer Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Unidentified Man #4: You had as fertile a musical brain as anybody I've ever met. He had musical ideas all the time, and one of the things that was difficult with him was to get him to rewrite anything because he would much rather write a whole new song than work on something that was already there that just needed maybe some tweaking or some rewriting in one passage or something like that.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. ETHEL MERMAN: (Singing) You'll be swell. You'll be great. Gonna have the whole world on a plate.

LUNDEN: As successful as he was at composing, Styne struggled with a lifelong addiction to gambling, says his collaborator on "Gypsy," Arthur Laurents. He remembers one night in the 1950s.

Mr. ARTHUR LAURENTS (Book Writer): And he rang the bell, I opened the door and he came in, slammed it shut, said, `Don't answer it.' I said, `What's the matter?' He said, they want to break my legs.' I said, `Who?' He said, `Well, the bookies. I owe them.' That was when I found out he was addicted to gambling. And he laughed about it; howled, in fact.

LUNDEN: And he continued writing shows for the rest of his 88 years, most notably "Funny Girl," which made a star out of Barbra Streisand.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. BARBRA STREISAND: (Singing) People, people who need people.

LUNDEN: And in the early 1980s, Jule Styne did some teaching for New York University, and I got to spend some memorable afternoons in his office, a rabbit warren backstage at a Broadway theater. He led a songwriting workshop. In the second week, it was my turn to go before the master. I was 22, and my lyricist and I had written a song that was chockful of musical ideas. Sure, it had some self-consciously wrong notes and a kind of rambling middle section, but we thought it was pretty terrific and were certain that Jule Styne would think so, too.

I sat at his little red upright piano, which was covered with cigarette burns, and sang my heart out, waiting for the praise that would most certainly follow. When the song was over, I turned toward Styne and saw that, instead of a smile, he was practically apoplectic. `What's this Bernstein-Copland (censored) you're writing? I don't need to know you went to a conservatory. Write a tune. Write a (censored) tune.' I was stunned. My lyricist was stunned. The class was stunned. But, of course, he was absolutely right. He didn't get to be Jule Styne without knowing how to write a tune.

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

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #5: (Singing) Let's give the waltz a chance. Let's dance, and let's see what happens. Let us carouse while Strauss caresses the strings. Even the shy may fly on musical wings. They say music can do the most unusual things. Let's take a step or two or three, and let's see what happens. Let us pretend, my friend, it's only a spree. And if a great adventure happens to happen, won't it be nice if it happens to you and me?

ELLIOTT: Thanks to Chris Soccas(ph) in our New York bureau for technical help with this story. To hear an hourlong documentary on Jule Styne, hosted by Susan Stamberg, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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