Remembering Harold Arlen, The Mystery Man Behind 'Over The Rainbow' Arlen had major hits, won an Oscar and was called "the most original of all of us" by none other than George Gershwin, but he never became a household name.

Remembering Harold Arlen, The Mystery Man Behind 'Over The Rainbow'

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Every fan of the "Great American Songbook" knows these songs - "Over The Rainbow," "Stormy Weather," "That Old Black Magic." But the composer of those songs remains not so well-known. He had major hits. He won an Oscar. George Gershwin called him the most original of all of us. And yet, the name Harold Arlen is unfamiliar. On the 110th anniversary of his birth, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg is here to redress that grievance.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: There's a surprise in almost every Harold Arlen melody. It's hard to predict the next note. And his songs are so alive. That why major singers have recorded him year after year. George Harrison, for instance.


GEORGE HARRISON: (Singing) You got me in between the devil and the deep blue sea.


NATALIE COLE: (Singing) It is only a paper moon hanging over a cardboard sea. But it wouldn't be make believe if you believe in me.


FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) I've got the world on a string, sitting on a rainbow. Got the string around my finger.


ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) My mama done told me when I was in pigtails. My mama done told me, oh.

WALTER RIMLER: He honestly believed that these songs were given to him.

STAMBERG: Walter Rimler has written a new biography, "The Man That Got Away: The Life And Songs Of Harold Arlen."

RIMLER: And it was his job, once the main idea came, to work hard on them, to make them as good as he could. But the initial idea, he believed, came from some other place.

STAMBERG: Poets say things like that, too, that inspiration strikes them outside of themselves, not necessarily within themselves. It sounds like that's what he's saying.

RIMLER: Arlen would approach the piano and he would put his hands together in a prayer-like fashion. And he would raise his eyes to the sky as he approached the piano.

STAMBERG: Arlen produced tunes that were longer than the 32-bar ditties his composer pals were writing. His songs had big leaps from one note to another - a challenge for singers - and traces of melancholy. In 1933, writing for Harlem's most popular nightclub, Arlen, with lyricist Ted Koehler, produced a song that was almost too good.

RIMLER: The Cotton Club people didn't think they had anybody on hand good enough to sing it. It was so great. And they managed to get Ethel Waters to sing it.


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky. Stormy weather since my man and I ain't together. Keeps raining all the time.

RIMLER: She came in and sang it so wonderfully that she had 12 encores that night and made a Grammy recording that is now in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

STAMBERG: The composer never thought it deserved to be a hit. Walter Rimler quotes him as saying it was nothing special, a song I could've mailed in on a Monday or Tuesday.


WATERS: (Singing) When he went away the blues walked in and met me. If he stays away, old rocking chair will get me. All I do is pray the Lord above will let me walk in the sun once more.

STAMBERG: Another Arlen hit came less easily. In 1938, he and Yip Harburg were working on an MGM film called "The Wizard Of Oz." For 14 weeks and $25,000, they turned out one terrific song after another. Lemon drop songs, they called them.

RIMLER: And then they got stuck. They were all waiting for the great ballad for Judy Garland, and he just froze.

STAMBERG: Desperate, Arlen took a drive with his wife.

RIMLER: And it was on that drive that out of the blue came the entire melody of "Over The Rainbow." And then Harburg...

STAMBERG: What did he do? What did he do, say stop the car, pull over, I have to write this?

RIMLER: Exactly, he did that.


RIMLER: And he always kept with him a sheet of music paper that he called his jot book. He pulled it out. He had a pencil. And he wrote it down, and we have "Over The Rainbow" as a result.

STAMBERG: He rushed the tune to his lyricist, Yip Harburg.

RIMLER: And he told Arlen, look, Harold, it's a great melody but it's for an opera singer. It's not for a kid. And finally they took the song to the arbiter they always went to who was Ira Gershwin. And Ira immediately figured it out. He saw that Harold was playing in a very flowery fashion on the piano. He said just play it with some rhythm and take it easy. Arlen did it, and when he did, Harburg immediately saw what the song was. And then it was his turn to sweat it out, trying to get the perfect lyric. And he did.


JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.

STAMBERG: A nice bracketing for Arlen and Garland. At the start of her career, "Rainbow" was an instant hit. Toward the end of her best film years, singer and composer collaborated again.


GARLAND: (Singing) Forget your troubles. Come on, get happy. You better chase all your cares away. Shout hallelujah. Come on, get happy. Get ready for the judgment day.

RIMLER: It was a hit in 1930. It was Arlen's first big song written when he was 25. In 1950, as Judy Garland was ending her term with MGM because she was problematic, although always made them money, they called her back for the final song of a film called "Summer Stock." And she said she would do one if she sang "Get Happy." And she gave another great performance that made "Get Happy" the standard that it has become.

STAMBERG: Biographer Walter Rimler writes a wicked story of Marlene Dietrichb speaking about her dear friend Harold Arlen. He also wrote that bluebird thing that Judy Garland insists on singing with all her blubbering.

So here's a man - he's written, to my ear, the greatest songs of them all. And yet, he's little known. He's not Gershwin or Kern or Porter or Richard Rogers. And somebody said about him, no other songwriter so accomplished was so un-famous. Why do you think that's true?

RIMLER: It could be because he never had a big Broadway hit. All these other people made their names on Broadway. And in Hollywood, you were nobody if you were a songwriter. You were one of the hired hands who entered through the back entrance. He just didn't understand what it took for a show to be great on Broadway. However, he understood better than anybody what it took for a song to move people and to get into their minds and songs that people would live with all their lives.


HAROLD ARLEN: (Singing) It's quarter to three. There's no one in the place except you and me.

STAMBERG: Harold Arlen himself singing. His biographer is Walter Rimler. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


ARLEN: (Singing) So set them up Joe. I've got a little story you ought to know. We're drinking, my friend, to the end of a brief episode. Make it one for my baby.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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