SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Jimmy Van Heusen was one of America's greatest popular composers. He wrote "Darn That Dream," "Swinging on a Star," "All the Way," "High Hopes," "Here's That Rainy Day," "Come Fly With Me" and more. He was the guy Frank Sinatra wanted to be: cool kind of ladies' man who flew his own plane. He was born Edward Chester Babcock on January 26, 1913. On this 100th anniversary of his birth, Jeff Lunden has an appreciation of the man who became Jimmy Van Heusen.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: You've never heard of Jimmy Van Heusen? Well, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers has. And you certainly know many of his songs, says Brook Babcock, Van Heusen's grandnephew and president of his publishing company.
BROOK BABCOCK: There's 330,000 songwriters listed with ASCAP. Van Heusen, as far as his catalogue, is probably within the top 20. So that's a pretty good number.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG MEDLEY)
LUNDEN: He was born in Syracuse, New York - a terrible student, but a born entertainer, as he told an interviewer on Armed Forces Radio in the 1960s.
JIMMY VAN HEUSEN: I don't think there's a school in Syracuse that I didn't attend. And I was usually unceremoniously expelled.
LUNDEN: Including once for singing at a high school assembly.
HEUSEN: And I chose for my song, "My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes." The lyrics are - actually it was written by Yip Harburg and I just copied it off the air. But it went: Since making whoopee became all the rage, it's gotten round to the old bird cage, and my canary's got circles under his eyes. You never heard 2,000 kids laugh so hard.
LUNDEN: Babcock took the name Van Heusen from the shirts. He made his way to New York, where Harold Arlen gave him a shot to write for The Cotton Club Revue.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LUNDEN: Cab Calloway was the first to record a Van Heusen song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARLEM HOSPITALITY")
LUNDEN: A few years later, Van Heusen wrote a big hit for Benny Goodman, "Darn That Dream."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARN THAT DREAM")
BENNY GOODMAN: (Playing)
LUNDEN: Singer Bing Crosby heard it and brought Van Heusen to California, where the composer began a successful collaboration with lyricist Johnny Burke.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOONLIGHT BECOMES YOU")
LUNDEN: In Hollywood, Van Heusen became known as a man about town. Even though he wasn't conventionally handsome, he always had a beautiful woman on his arm. And he threw great parties, says his grandnephew, Brook Babcock.
BABCOCK: And the well-known fact among his friends that his house was always open, his bar was always open, even when he was not home.
LUNDEN: But Babcock says Van Heusen had another side. During World War II, while writing songs for Hollywood movies, he was also doing dangerous work as a fighter test pilot.
BABCOCK: He would work from 5 A.M. to 1 P.M., five days a week, going over to the Lockheed plant, flying these airplanes. And he was using his real name, Edward Chester Babcock while he was doing this. And then, from 2 o'clock, onwards, he was writing songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWINGING ON A STAR")
LUNDEN: That's Jimmy Van Heusen playing piano with singer Tommy Haynes in a 1944 radio broadcast. Singer Michael Feinstein says Van Heusen was a man of contradictions in his life and in his music.
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: He was a real partier and yet the romance in his songs is something that came from another part of him because he didn't get married until the age of 56. But then here he is writing all these songs like "Darn that Dream" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and "All the Way." And I don't think that he actually believed in those songs. But he knew how to express what people wanted to believe in.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLKADOTS AND MOONBEAMS")
LUNDEN: One of Van Heusen's partying pals was Frank Sinatra, and when the partnership with Johnny Burke came to an end, Sinatra helped pair the composer with lyricist Sammy Cahn. Together, they wrote a remarkable 76 songs for the crooner.
FEINSTEIN: And the thing I find fascinating about them is that Sinatra is famous for changing lyrics and switching around things in songs to make them his own, but he never changed anything in the Van Heusen-Cahn songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME FLY WITH ME")
LUNDEN: Sinatra and Van Heusen were such good friends that, at times, they roomed together. Chuck Granata, who's produced several Sinatra reissues, says Van Heusen was Sinatra's confidant when the singer was breaking up with Ava Gardner.
CHUCK GRANATA: When you think about the underlying subtext of songs like "Only the Lonely" and "No One Cares," which were Van Heusen melodies, I think Van Heusen was able to distill the raw emotion that he saw in Frank and really bring it out in those songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY THE LONELY")
LUNDEN: When Jimmy Van Heusen died, he was buried in the Sinatra family plot.
GRANATA: There were two people who were non-family members who Sinatra wanted near him through eternity - his long-time friend, bodyguard and very close companion, Jilly Rizzo, and the second was Jimmy Van Heusen. And I think that's the ultimate tribute, really.
LUNDEN: Jimmy Van Heusen was 77 when he died. His headstone reads: Swinging on a Star. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY KIND OF TOWN" )
SIMON: You can find photos of Jimmy Van Heusen and more of his music at our website, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Hey, I'm from Chicago too. I'm Scott Simon.