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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, #2

The Middle Years of Van Heusen

In l933, when he was 20 years old, through his friendship with the Arlen boys, VH moved to Manhattan and began writing songs for musical revues at the Cotton Club.  Unfortunately, his music flopped and so he was consigned to running a freight elevator at the Park Central Hotel (7th & 55th) during the day and plugging his songs at night.  His trademark baldness began in his 20s so he completely shaved his head bald in response. William Zinsser states that Van Heusen eloped and moved to New York but I can’t find confirmation of that marriage. During the mid-30s he worked as a staff pianist for Remick Music Company in Tin Pan Alley. It was during this period that he met a skinny and driven singer from Hoboken, New Jersey named Francis Albert Sinatra. In l938 he wrote the tune for “It’s the Dreamer in Me” which set to music the lyrics written by the band leader, Tommy Dorsey. Bob Eberly recorded the song which became Van Heusen’s first hit. A year later, Dorsey would bring in a young Frank Sinatra as his band singer. In l939 Van Heusen wrote his first monster hit, “Darn that Dream” with poplar lyricist and orchestra leader, Eddie DeLange, for Benny Goodman’s orchestra. The “Queen of Swing,” Mildred Bailey recorded the song in l939. To give a sense of VH’s rocket-ride to success, in early l938 Van Heusen was only a staff pianist for Remick Music and 14 months later he was the toast of popular music. During the late 1930s, Van Heusen formed his own music publishing companies: Burke & Van Heusen, Inc. and Van Heusen Music Corporation.

1940 was a good year for Van Heusen because he teamed up with alcoholic lyricist Johnny Burke to write over 60 recorded songs. In one week in l940, Van Heusen had three songs on radio’s Hit Parade! Van Heusen tells the story: “Burke just came into Remick’s to shoot the breeze. He said to me, ‘Got any tune?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ So we set and wrote ‘Oh, You Crazy Moon.’ The next time he was in, we did ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams.’ Soon after that came ‘Imagination.’” “Polka Dots” was the first Sinatra/Van Heusen/Burke hit. VH would work with Burke for 15 years, until 1955, when Burke’s alcoholism killed him. In l940 he and Burke wrote “Imagination” which was a huge hit for the Tommy Dorsey band and his young lead singer, Frank Sinatra. In 1940 he also wrote the hit songs, “All This and Heaven Too” and “Shake Down the Stars.” “Shake” was the first recorded song by Sinatra. This early Tin Pan Alley success got attention from Hollywood. In l940 Mark Sandrich, producer of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, heard “Imagination” and said to his assistant, “Get me that guy.” The next day, the hung-over VH was brought to Sandrich and the producer asked him if he could work with the great but volatile lyricist Frank Loesser in Hollywood. VH responds, “Naturally.” Paramount Studios offered Van Heusen a contract and so off to California he goes.

The Crosby Years

Burke, who was already an established star-lyricist for Crosby (Crosby called Burke “The Poet”), wanted to write with Van Heusen in Hollywood. In l941 the legendary Bing Crosby selected the duo to write the music for the first “Road” picture with Bob Hope – Road to Zanzibar. The story is told that one afternoon Burke took Van Heusen down to Del Mar, the seaside racetrack that Crosby owned with actor Pat O’Brien. “Bing wants to meet you,” Burke told Jimmy. Crosby, the most famous man in America at the time, wanted Van Heusen to write tunes to fit his unsentimental style of crooning. Van Heusen, in awe of the great entertainer, jumped at the opportunity to be the in-house Crosby composer. Johnny Mercer was vying with Burke to be Crosby’s lyricist and never appreciated Burke after losing to him for Crosby’s business. Van Heusen, ever the party man, caroused with Crosby in l941 but the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Crosby’s sobriety (urged on by Crosby’s alcoholic wife, Dixie) stopped the duo’s boozing. During World War II Van Heusen was secretly a test pilot for Lockheed’s war planes in Southern California and some stories even have him participating in government intelligence work. This was exceedingly dangerous work and kept Van Heusen nervous for the two years of flying. All of the war work he did under the name “Chet Babcock” while composing under the name of “Jimmy Van Heusen.” Neither world knew each other. In l944 he won his first award, an Academy Award, for his song, “Swinging on a Star” for Crosby.

In the l950s VH continued his string of popular hits but Burke’s boozing was a problem. Van Heusen had a contract to compose exclusively with Burke but Burke couldn’t perform his part of the deal, so Van Heusen began to write songs with other lyricists under an assumed name.  Burke finally died in l964 when he was only 55 (See my blog on the tragic Burke). Before VH and Burke split they wrote the score for the 1953 Bing Crosby-financed Broadway musical, Carnival in Flanders. Harold Arlen was to write the music but didn’t and Van Heusen stepped in. It was a major flop but it did produce a wonderful song, “Here’s That Rainy Day.” As usual, even in those early days, Sinatra rode to the rescue for a Jimmy tune and revived the song to make it a hit in l959. In 1956, at the urging of Bing Crosby, Jimmy teamed up with the accomplished and popular lyricist Sammy Cahn to write occasional songs for Crosby’s Cole Porter film, Anything Goes. During the decade of the 50s, Van Heusen/Cahn produced two Academy Award winning songs in l957 and l959, and two more Academy Award nominations in l955 and l958.

The Sinatra Years

As the decade of the 50s began, Van Heusen began to write songs for and befriend a down and out singer, Frank Sinatra. For the rest of his life he would be inseparable from Sinatra in the mind of the entertainment community. Sinatra lived with VH on and off during Frank’s tough times and on at least two different occasions VH saved Sinatra from committing suicide. In l955 he won a television Emmy Award for Our Town music (the Sinatra smash hit “Love and Marriage”) which was been revived for the 1990s television program, “Married  . . . with Children.” He received the Christopher Award in l955 for “Love and Marriage.” The Christopher Award is given by the Roman Catholic Christopher movement to salute someone in the media who “affirms the highest values of the human spirit.” Jimmy Van Heusen? During the late 1950s Jimmy wrote the title songs for many of Sinatra’s best selling record albums.

In the early l960s, Van Heusen and Cahn were riding high as producers of the Frank Sinatra Show on ABC. Democrat Senator John Kennedy chose a Van Heusen/Cahn song (“High Hopes”) to be his campaign theme in l960. VH also wrote the song “California” as a new state song for the liberal California governor, Edmund “Pat” Brown in l963.

Van Heusen was nominated for an Academy Award in l961 for the best original song for the movie Bachelor in Paradise. In 1965, he won his only Grammy Award for the film score of Robin and the Seven Hoods. However, he failed in all his Broadway attempts, even his longest-running play (243 performances), Skyscraper (for which he was nominated for his first Tony Award). He said afterwards, “It’s a big gamble. You spend two years putting it together, and if six critics don’t like it, you’re out of business overnight. It’s that simple.” For one play (Nellie Bly, 1946) he even brought in Crosby as a musical advisor, Burke as lyricist and Eddie Cantor as producer but to no avail – it died after 16 performances.

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One Response

  1. coach usa says:

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