HAROLD ARLEN by Edward Jablonski


Rhythm, Rainbows, and Blues
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 An efficacious reconsideration of a songwriter whose career exemplified the cross-pollination of black and white popular music. Everybody knows Arlen's songs (``Get Happy,'' ``Stormy Weather,'' ``Over the Rainbow''), but heretofore his story has been clumped with those of other show-tune composers. Born Hyman Arluck in 1905 to an Orthodox Jewish couple in Buffalo, New York, his early musical experiences were in the world of his father, a respected cantor. But he was electrified by Tin Pan Alley rags, which led him back to more authentic blues sources like Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. (A.a nifty passage hints at the correspondences between cantorial music and the aching blue notes in jazz). Arlen's career writing for the Cotton Club revues started when he met lyricist Ted Koehler. Arlen wasn't patrician, and black musicians and dancers liked him. His music was played by the Ellington and Calloway bands, and his songs became street hits. By the mid-'30s, that era ended abruptly, and he turned to Broadway and Hollywood, but mostly the latter, in a Faustian bargain for better pay and concomitant obscurity. His collaborations with Yip Harburg and Johnny Mercer stood out, and by the rock-'n'-roll era, he had made it to grand-old-man status as a composer of unusually winding melodies rooted in the blues. He had also slid into depression with a thunk: His relationship with his wife, Anya, became nearly nonexistent, and she died in 1970 after long suffering from a barely treated neurological illness; Arlen's last two decades were often dark and solitary. Veteran author Jablonski (Alan Jay Lerner, 1996, etc.), who had family cooperation and access to many personal files, reestablishes himself in these tricky passages as a reliable chronicler of American songwriters. Though at times overconsiderate (the subject remains unnecessarily saintly through some questionably racist musicals, dalliances with other women, etc.), this definitive book draws Arlen with complexity and clarity. (illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: June 28th, 1996
ISBN: 1-55553-263-2
Page count: 490pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1996