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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.

Harry Warren (1893-1981): Harry who? Why, it’s “Tuti” Guaragna, #4

The Lyrics of his life

The Later Years of Warren

In the 1960s, now over sixty years old, Warren could still partner with the likes of great lyricists such as Jack Brooks, Sammy Cahn and Johnny Mercer. His earlier songs were recorded and again popularized by The Flamingos (“I Only Have Eyes For You” written in 1934 which was the biggest hit of their career), Dinah Washington, Bobby Darin, Dave Clark Five and Floyd Cramer. And he did his third Jerry Lewis movie (he did five movies with Lewis). While enjoying all this popularization of his decades-old music, Warren wrote a Roman Catholic Mass entitled “Mass in Honor of St. Anthony” which was not then performed.
In the l970s and 1980s his music was again popularized by Art Garfunkel, the group Tuxedo Junction, Willie Nelson, George Benson, Barbara Streisand and Harry Connick, Jr., and his chief acolyte, Michael Feinstein. The phenomenal success of MGM’s movie That’s Entertainment in l974 brought back Warren’s music to the public. In 1980 the prominent and ego-centric producer David Merrick mounted a stage adaption of 42nd Street which ran for thousands of performances without giving Warren any credit! It won a Tony Award for the Best Musical in l981. It was in l980 that his two-decades-old Catholic Mass was finally performed by Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles. Warren blessedly missed the Merrick production but saw the Marymount concert. In l981 Ryan Repertory Company in Brooklyn dubbed its performance space the “Harry Warren Theatre,” shortly after the Brooklyn-born composer’s death. The troupe successfully petitioned the city to name the street that runs alongside its theater “Harry Warren Way.” And in 1997 the company staged a revue of Warren’s work that was called “Harry…Who?”

Harry Warren used to refer to himself as “Harry Who?” after years of hearing that response when people were told Warren wrote the music for multiple standards, scores for four Broadway shows and an astounding 81 motion pictures. In his last years, Harry lived in comfort in his big Beverly Hills home and was financially wealthy. He surrounded himself with his old Italian-American buddies like Nick Perito, Perry Como’s longtime conductor and arranger, pianist Joe Marino, and composer Gene De Paul, and liked to reminisce about his childhood in Brooklyn Heights, while he smoked ten to fifteen cigars a day.

Towards the end of his life, Warren who had little respect for the new (read post-1960 popular composers) said, “I thought about music all the time – hardly a day passed when I wasn’t thinking about ideas for melodies and sitting at the piano digging them out. There are not rules for writing songs, no secret formulas for composition. It’s a God-given talent, and you have to work at it.” Warren told Max Wilk, “I might write maybe 15, 20 tunes before I get the right one, the one that I like.” “I’ve always written music the way I felt it. I write for the public because I feel like the public, the way they would write if they could. You don’t have to know anything about music to understand what I write.”

A partial list of my favorite Warren songs: “Would You Like to Take a Walk,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” “Shadow Waltz,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “You’ll Never Know,” “At Last,” “Serenade in Blue,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” “The More I See You.”

Warren died in Beverly Hills, California in l981. He was 87 years old. He is buried in the Sanctuary of Tenderness at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery beside his wife and his son. His wife Josephine born in 1897 died in l993 at the age of 96. His son, Harry, Jr. (“Sonny”) born in 1919 died in l938 of pneumonia at age 19. His daughter, Joan (“Cookie”) Jones who was born in l925 ran the Warren music publishing company (Four Jays Music) which he had started in the l950s until her death in 1991 at the age of 66. Joan’s daughter, Julia Riva, is currently president of the company. Joan had other children: daughter, Jophe and sons, Peter and John. Another son, Jeffrey, tragically and ironically died when he was 19 years old, just like his long dead uncle, Harry, Jr. There is a collection of Harry Warren’s sheet music in the Jeffrey Warren archives at the California State University, Los Angeles created by his mother, Joan Warren.

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