The Lyrics of his life
The Early Years of Warren
Salvatore Anthony Guaragna was born to boot-making Italian immigrants, Antonio and Rachel de Luca Guaragna, in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of New York City on Christmas Eve, 1893. Salvatore was one of twelve children and had the pre-school nickname “Tuti.” Eventually, his name was Americanized by dad (presumably at the suggestion of Salvatore’s sister) to “Harry Warren” when he was just a child. He legally changed his name 40 years later in l938.
Warren had no formal musical training as a child but showed an early aptitude for musical skills. He taught himself to play his father’s accordion at home and the piano at Blind Mike’s, a neighborhood saloon. On Sundays, he sang in Our Lady of Loretto Roman Catholic Brooklyn congregation’s choir. His mother was the religious one in the family. At 14 Harry began to play the drums in his godfather’s band for the Keene and Shippey carnival. After this gig, he began to play the piano for silent movies in Brooklyn theaters.
In 1917, when he was 24, he married Josephine (“Jo”) Wensler. She was German and her father didn’t like Italians and didn’t like Harry. In l918 he joined the United States Navy (assigned to the Montauck Navel Air Force Station on Long Island) and began his song writing career. His first song, “I Learned to Love You When I Learned My ABCs” was written while in the Navy but was never published because the Woolworth Company decided not to sell sheet music and thus eliminated the main distributor.
But in l922 he did publish his first song, “Rose of the Rio Grande” and it was a hit. In l925 be began a history of writing songs for the most prominent performers in America with his “The Only, Only One for Me” for Gene Austin. In 1926 he first teamed up with his long time lyricist, Al Dubin (who is a subject of one of my earlier blogs), and Gus Kahn. He wrote more than a dozen popular songs in that year alone. In l929 he happened to be in the theater for the rehearsal of Vincent Youman’s musical Great Day and heard a young pianist fooling around on the piano with a riff he used to call the performers back from their break. Warren urged the young rehearsal pianist to put the notes down in a tune, and shortly the great Harold Arlen had his first monster hit, “Get Happy.” His first movie song was in l929, “Mi Amado,” for one of the last silent movies, The Wolf Song, starring a young Gary Cooper. Warren continued to write for movies until l957 when he wrote the theme song for the tear-jerker (remember Sleepless in Seattle), “An Affair to Remember.” During this first decade of his productivity he wrote songs for the orchestras of Fred Waring, Guy Lombardo, and Ted Lewis, as well as the great trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke.