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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.

Jimmy Van Heusen (1913 – 1990): Swinger on a Falling Star, #1

Clearly one of America’s most popular composers of the 20th century, Jimmy Van Heusen was also one of the most interesting musical personalities of the century. Brook Babcock quotes a l961 typical newspaper article (unidentified) on Van Heusen,
“Jimmy Van Heusen does not personify the image of the genius composer, temperamental moody and tense, who shuts himself away from the world to ‘create.’ He is, in fact, quite the opposite. He is charming, personable and witty, with laughing eyes and a great sense of humor. He could, as he says, ‘work in a boiler factory’ and has more than once composed a new melody on a tablecloth in a crowded restaurant. Jimmy divides his time between his North Hollywood bachelor apartment, his home in Palm Desert and his Manhattan apartment. He owns and flies his own plane, and has been known to drop whatever he has been doing to fly a friend cross-country for the sheer joy of piloting the plane. He genuinely likes people, parties, traveling, flying and last, but by no means least, women.”

His hits:

*He was nominated 14 times for Academy Awards and won four times (1944, 1957, 1959, and 1963). In two years (l945 and l964) he was nominated for two Academy Awards
*He won the first Emmy Award given for television music (1955)
*He was one of the ten original inductees into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in l971
*He was nominated seven times for Grammy Awards and won one (1965)
*He was nominated six times for Golden Laurel Award (best music in a motion picture)
*He was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards (1965, 1968, and 1969)
*He was nominated for three Tony Awards (1966 and twice in l967)
*He won a Christopher Award (1955)
*He won a Sylvania TV Award for outstanding variety show (“Frank Sinatra Show,” 1959)
*In one remarkable year (1939 – 1940) Van Heusen wrote over 60 songs that received radio play. He was 26 years old.
*He failed in repeated attempts for a Broadway show (he admitted his plays were flops)
*He wrote the songs for six of the seven blockbuster Hope/Crosby movies, and 16 more Crosby movies. Crosby called Van Heusen and Johnny Burke his “Gold Dust Twins”
*Lyricist Sammy Cahn called the team of Burke and Van Heusen, “The A Team.”
*Bob Hope’s character in The Road to Hong Kong (1962) is named “Chester Babcock,” after Van Heusen’s real name.
*He wrote “High Hopes” (1959) which became John Kennedy’s campaign theme song (1960)
*His first national hit was in l939 (“Darn that Dream”) and his last was 25 years later in l963 (“Call Me Irresponsible”).
*He was the personal song writer for both Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, the two premier American singers of the 20th century.
*Sinatra recorded an astonishing 85 Van Heusen songs, more than any other composer.
*Spent most of his career writing tunes with two great lyricists: Johnny Burke and Sammy Cahn.
*His songs are featured in almost 200 movies (as of mid-2012)

The lyrics of his life

Early Van Heusen

James (he preferred “Jimmy”) Van Heusen was born Edward Chester Babcock in Syracuse, NY, on a winter evening in l913. His father was a building contractor and his mother was a relative of the father of American music, the 19th century alcoholic composer, Stephen Foster. Despite the boozing past, the Babcocks were a serious Methodist family. Daddy played the cornet and Momma played the piano. She also taught her son to play the piano. He became very good and idolized the great jazz pianist, Teddy Wilson. However, like many fathers’ of American Song book musicians (Porter, Mercer, Burke, Youmans, Styne, etc.), Jimmy’s father frowned on the frivolous work of popular music. His childhood friends called him “Chet” all his life (Sinatra called him “Chester”), even after he took a new name, “Jimmy Van Heusen.” The story is that as a gifted piano-playing teenage composer, Babcock had a local radio program (when radio was in its infancy) in the late 1920s.  But “Babcock” wasn’t going to do for a budding entertainer and musician. In l928, a high school pal was looking out an 11th floor window of the Hotel Syracuse and spotted a neon sign for Phillips-Van Heusen collars (they weren’t making shirts at the time). A name change was suggested. Now the first name “Chester” wasn’t working too well either and he asked his pal about a first name. His friend replied, “How about ‘Jimmy’ since I have a favorite cousin named James.” Bingo – Jimmy Van Heusen. He never legally changed his name.

To put an emphasis on the deleterious effect of jazz (and to the expected chagrin of dad), Jimmy was expelled from Central High School in Syracuse for performing one of his satirical songs in a school assembly and then went on to the Methodist-founded boarding school, Cazenovia Seminary (now College). He was kicked out of Cazenovia twice for spending more time in a local pool hall than study hall. Eventually he wound up at Syracuse University for a couple of years (1930-1932) where he studied music with the university choir master, Howard Lyman, but he never graduated. At SU he ran around with next door neighbor Jerry Arlen, who just happened to be the younger brother of composer Harold Arlen, who just happened to be the musical director at the Cotton Club in Harlem at the time.

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