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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Walter Donaldson, composer (1893 – 1947): “My Blue Heaven,” just a dream

Walter Donaldson was a top composer of songs from 1915 to 1943. He had his own publishing house (Donaldson, Douglas and Gumble, now known as Donaldson Publishing) and published over 600 songs. He was inducted into the songwriters Hall of Fame in l970. During the 20s and 30s he collaborated with such top lyricists as Gus Kahn (over 100 songs together), Harold Adamson and Johnny Mercer. He also co-wrote songs with Jimmy Van Heusen.

Donaldson was born in Brooklyn, one of eleven children in a large, closely-knit musical family. His mother, a classically trained pianist, taught him. Even in grade school he wrote songs for musical productions and played the piano at a Brighton Beach hotel. He and his sister sang Donaldson’s songs on Brooklyn street corners until a cop came along and sent them home because they were disturbing the peace. As a teenager he tried working in a New York brokerage firm but didn’t like it so he moved on to Tin Pan Alley. He had his first hit song published in 1915 when he was 22 years old. He enlisted in the US Army and was stationed at Fort Upton in New York in World War I and played the piano at war bond rallies. After the war, in 1919, he joined the Irving Berlin Music Company as a songwriter. In 1919 he wrote the famous coming-home song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After they’ve seen Paree).” He began his close, lifelong and fruitful friendship with lyricist Gus Kahn in l922 when they wrote “My Buddy.” Written in the midst of the Roaring Twenties this poignant song came out of Donaldson’s grief in the death of his fiancé and not a male friend, like many believe. In 1922 they also wrote “Carolina in the Morning,” which I learned to enjoy while living in Asheville. The story goes that Kahn and Donaldson were in Kahn’s living room in New York City one day attempting to write songs. Suddenly, Kahn’s son Donald (named for Donaldson) began loudly singing “dada, dada, dada” accompanied by his toy guitar. The songwriters concentration was broken, and Kahn stomped out of the room, announcing, “I’ll stop him, Walt, don’t worry!” Donaldson shouted back, “No wait, Gus!” The composer sat down at the piano and repeated the phrase the boy had played on his toy guitar. The two songwriters listened with new ears and in short order the simple “dada, dada, dada” became the root for the smash hit “Carolina in the Morning.”

In l928 he formed his own publishing company. In l930 Donaldson moved to Hollywood with Jerome Kern and others in what is known as the songwriters “gold rush.”

In 1928, Donaldson had written the music for the Broadway hit, Whoppee! starring Eddie Cantor. Donaldson wrote the song “Love Me or Leave Me” for Whoppee! Sung by superstar Ruth Etting in the show, she sang it again in the Ziegfield production of Simple Simon in l930.  In l955 the fictionalized life of Elling was made into the movie, Love Me or Leave Me starring the wonderful Doris Day. Day’s performance of the title song is a drop dead rendition. In l930 a young Samuel Goldwyn filmed “Whoppee!” against much advice about movie musicals in the early stages of “talkies.” This was Goldwyn’s first musical and it was one of the few Broadway musicals to successfully be adapted to the screen. And what a success it was: it created a new major movie star – Eddie Cantor. Cantor remains one of the very few Broadway musical stars to ever attract a huge Hollywood following. Goldwyn would later say that “Whoppee! brought the musical film back” and created the Hollywood “gold rush.”

Donaldson was able to adapt his writing style to the jazz movement and continue to produce hits during the late 30s and early 40s. During World War II he entertained the troops in Southern California and even opened his Santa Monica home to soldiers on leave in the area.

Showing the continued interest in Donaldson/Kahn music, in January 2012, a revival of Donaldson and Kahn’s songs was mounted in New York City at the 92nd Street Y: “Makin’ Whoopee: Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn and the Jazz Age.”

The great lyricist and composer Johnny Mercer said, “I’d always loved Walter Donaldson’s songs, and when I finally got to work with him, it was a big kick for me. He’s had lots of hits, and I know them all, the lyrics, even the verses. He had the kind of hits that everybody sang on the street. He impressed the hell out of me. There was a big difference in our ages – I was young and impressionable – but there was a nice twinkle in his eyes, and he was kind to young people. He was kind of at the tag-end of his career, this great gifted songwriter. He was improvident, a spendthrift. He’d give away his ideas just like his money.”

“Donaldson seemed the closest thing to an heir apparent to the very throne (of Irving Berlin) of Tin Pan Alley. But so long as the Alley remained in New York, Donaldson at least reigned supreme in their speakeasies. In the later twenties, he would establish perhaps his best claim on immortality with the songs that became the repertoire of Ruth Etting.” (Wilfrid Sheed)

“Donaldson not only was a writer of innumerable hits, but in between the hits were as many songs which attempted this eminence. Unlike many fine writers whose output was sporadic or whose level of writing was too complex to interest the publishers, Donaldson was an indefatigable worker.” (Alec Wilder)

My favorite Donaldson songs: “My Buddy,” “Carolina in the Morning”

He married dancer Dorothy Ann in the late l930s and had two daughters, Sheila and Ellen (born in 1939). By all accounts, he took great comfort in his family and the ponies.

He got sick in l945 and died in l947 in Santa Monica. He was 54 years old. His daughters were infants at the time of his death. Donaldson’s wife, Dorothy, died in 2001. She is survived by the two daughters and five grandchildren.

I couldn’t find much about Donaldson’s religious background and moral views other than he was kind and generous,  gambled recklessly and spent foolishly. Eddie Cantor wrote that he was a “lovable, irresponsible Irishman” who was “always in hock.” I will keep looking because he is an important figure in American popular music.

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2 Responses

  1. Reagan says:

    The song may be a literary reference to a Conan Doyle book on Sherlock Homes

  2. John Donaldson says:

    My name is John Christopher Donaldson. My father was John P. Donaldson. He was born in Manlius, New York in 1901. Could I be a relative of the songwriter, Walter Donlaldson from Brooklin, New York?

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