Case in Point


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

Harold Adamson, lyricist (1906 – 1980): “Coming in on a wing and a prayer,” perhaps

Harold Adamson was a prolific lyricist during the l930s – l950s. He had his first Broadway hit in l930, only a couple of years out of college with a song in Ziegfield’s Smile (“Time on My Hands”), which he co wrote with Mack Gordon and Vincent Youmans. Also in 1930 he composed the lyrics for the wonderful “Manhattan Serenade”. He collaborated with Elliot Daniel to write the lyrics for the theme song of the I Love Lucy television series. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in l972. During his life he was nominated for five academy awards for music lyrics.

Harold Adamson was born in New Jersey to James Harold and Marion (Minnie) Adamson but grew up in New York City. As a little boy he contracted polio which limited the use of his right hand and arm. He graduated from Harvard and was a participant in Hasty Pudding shows as an actor and poet.

In the early 1930s he teamed up with the great Vincent Youmans, master of the musicals in that jazzy age. In l929, Youmans was introduced to Adamson, then a Harvard senior, who had written for a Hasty Pudding show. Adamson’s lyrics charmed Youmans, so the composer not only bought the rights to publish the Harvard show score, but signed Adamson to a 2 year contract for $25/week. Adamson was so excited that he offered to quite Harvard and join Youmans but the older composer insisted in finish the school year. To celebrate their agreement, Youmans toasted Adamson with drink. The collegian remembers, “It was the first time in my life I had had such a bountiful snort at 4:00 PM, and I left his office with wings on my feet and my head spinning.”

By the early 1930s he was writing songs for Broadway shows. In l933 when he was 27 years old, he moved to Hollywood with MGM. Adamson’s first picture was Dancing Lady which was Fred Astaire’s first movie as well. The fact that Adamson’s uncle, Ernest Martin, was a pioneering Hollywood camera engineer probably smoothed the way for the young lyricist. He would remain in Hollywood for the rest of his professional career working with such composers as Burton Lane, Walter Donaldson and Duke Ellington. Composer Jimmy McHugh was his longest songwriting partner.

In l943 he wrote the lyrics for the patriotic song “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer” with Jimmy McHugh. Adamson and McHugh were awarded the Presidential Certificate of Merit by President Harry Truman for the song. The story is told that the idea for the song was inspired by a young Duke University football player, Sonny Bragg whom McHugh met in Los Angeles before the 1938 Rose Bowl. In l943 Bragg wrote McHugh out of the blue and told him that he had been preoccupied flying bomber missions over Europe: “On my last trip, half a wing was shot away, but we managed to return on one wing and a prayer.” McHugh called Adamson for some lyrics and the result is the song and the inspiration for the l944 Don Ameche movie, Wing and a Prayer. Bragg would later receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for his war exploits.

In l944, the US Treasury Department asked Adamson and McHugh to write a song to help sell war bonds. The result was “Buy, Buy, Buy a Bond” which was included in the short movie, All Star Bond Rally which Bob Hope said was the “greatest bond-selling movie the industry has every turned out.” In l944 Adamson and McHugh launched the career of Perry Como with the song “I Wish I Didn’t Have to Say Goodnight,” and in l948 they wrote the beautiful “It’s a Most Unusual Day” for Jane Powell in the movie A Date with Jane.

In the l950s he began writing lyrics for non-musical movies (e.g., Around the World in 80 Days, An Affair to Remember, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and television shows. Shortly before he died Adamson was appointed by the Governor of Kentucky to join the “Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels.” Therefore, in Kentucky he was known as Colonel Harold Adamson. In l957 the McHugh/Adamson song, “Louella” was recorded by Pat Boone and became another hit for the duo.

ASCAP Foundation annually presents its “Harold Adamson Lyric Award.” This award, named in honor of the lyrist Harold Adamson, writer of “Time on My Hands” and “An Affair to Remember” is presented annually to aspiring lyricists who participate in an ASCAP or ASCAP Foundation workshop in the musical theater, pop and/or country genres. Recipients must demonstrate talent and an intelligent and sensitive use of language, a talent and ability that the heirs of the late lyricist Harold Adamson seek to recognize and foster in future generations. This award is funded by Harold Adamson’s royalties.

My favorite Adamson songs: “An Affair to Remember,” “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening,” “Manhattan Serenade,” “It’s a Most Unusual Day,” “Winter Wonderland”

Adamson married Judy Cristfield (Julia Eastmond?) in 1935. They divorced in l941, but had one daughter, Eve, born in 1938. Crisfield brought into the marriage a son, Lloyd. Adamson then married Gretchen Davidson in 1947. Adamson suffered from the early onset of polio and had a stroke in l971 and went into a coma shortly before he died in Beverly Hills in l980. He was 73 years old. He had a memorial service at some church in Beverly Hills. Gretchen died in 2002 and Eve, who became the New York stage producer, died in 2006 at 68 years old. Eve’s memorial service was at the liberal Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village of Manhattan.

Adamson’s religious views and moral worldview are still unknown to me but I will keep looking because he, like Walter Donaldson, is an important 20th century American lyricist.


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