Several years ago my wife and I took my folks to the New York revival of 42nd Street, the Broadway musical and l933 movie. It was a spectacular show for a guy like me who loves the American Song Book. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we returned later in the year with our 20 something daughter. I knew of the composer, Harry Warren but I didn’t know the lyricist, Al Dubin. I do now.
Short (5’, 8”), fat (300 lbs) and brilliant, Alexander Dubinsky, better known as Al Dubin wrote the lyrics of some of the most popular music in America for 25 years. He closely collaborated with famous tunesmiths such as Jimmy McHugh, Harry Warren and Burton Lane. He published his first song in l916 when he was 25 years old. He wrote the lyrics for the first blockbuster Hollywood musical, 42nd Street, in l933 which had a huge, Tony-winning Broadway revival in the 1980s. In l935, he and Warren won the second Academy Award for original music for their song, “Lullaby of Broadway,” from the movie Gold Diggers of l935. Additionally, his songs were used in the smash hit of the 1970s-1980s, Sugar Babies. He joined the young composer Jimmy McHugh for a decade of hit songs in the l920s, and in the l930s he and Harry Warren wrote over 60 hit tunes for Warner Brothers. Back with McHugh in the final years of his life, he wrote some more hit songs. In between these superstar composers, Dubin wrote lyrics for the likes of Duke Ellington, Fred Coots and Burton Lane. He published his last song in l945, just before he died at age 54. McHugh is quoted as saying about Dubin, “He was really a bard. He loved the poems of Robert Service, Poe, Shelley and Byron.” Warren has stated that most of the good ideas for their hit songs came from Dubin since he was “a very sensitive man, very well read and a great lyricist.” Music historian Philip Furia writes about Dubin’s poetry, “During the golden age, the lyrics of Al Dubin provided an indigenous exception to the general run of Hollywood’s mill – a more prosaic, slangy, expansively phrase lyric line that matched the driving, rangy melodies of Harry Warren.”
My favorite Dubin songs: “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “I only have Eyes for You,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “September in the Rain, “42nd Street”
Dubin’s religious and moral views
Al Dubin was born in Zurich, Switzerland in l891 into a Russian Jewish family. His father was a nihilistic physician and his mother was a chemistry teacher. The family fled the restrictions of 19th c. Europe and moved to Philadelphia in 1896. Young Al spent his youth reading great literature, writing poems and taking the train to Broadway. At the young age of 14, Dubin was going door to door in New York trying to sell his songs. His parents, in an attempt to drive out the demon of Tin Pan Alley, enrolled him in the Schwenkfelder school, Perkiomen Seminary (now The Perkiomen School) north of Philadelphia when he was 18 years old. He threw himself into Perkiomen with a vengeance: He studied hard, was the captain of the football team and played basketball. He also drank all the time, fornicated, and played hooky. Perkiomen finally had enough and threw him out of school just before graduation in 1911. He was 20 years old. He immediately moved to Manhattan to sell his songs and be a part of the theater crowd. During World War I he went overseas with the famous 77th Infantry Division of the US army (Statue of Liberty Division). In 1921, he married a devout Roman Catholic, Helen McCloy at the Church of St. Elizabeth in New York City. They quickly had one son, who died in infancy, and one daughter, Patricia. While in New York he became friends with the young Irish Catholic composer Jimmy McHugh. In l924, with the constant urging of Helen, he made the decision to formally and publicly covert to Roman Catholicism. Yet, he still, at times, considered himself to be Jewish. His exuberant personality expressed itself in that he began to ring the bell at the Church of the Holy Innocents in mid-town Manhattan. But unlike McHugh, Dubin quickly gave up his church going and his new-found faith to chase booze and broads. Harry Warren was an Italian Catholic. This lush life activity was to be a life-long pattern for Dubin and his sybaritic benders lasting weeks caused him to disappear from his partners, thus creating difficult working relationships. He was in and out of alcoholic clinics in the late 30s and early 40s. Even though he was married, he indulged himself in a public menage a trois with a nurse and her 15-year-old daughter. He loved the California sun and lifestyle. His daughter, Patricia, wrote that he wanted to live in California where he was close to “the boarder towns of Tijuana and Juarez, to the gambling spots and the brothels. California had it all.”
He was formally divorced from Helen in 1943 after years of open infidelity. He quickly entered into another marriage that lasted only a couple of months, this time with the nurse’s daughter, Edwina. Dubin’s life of excess resulted in him being absent from his song writing duties with his partners time and time again. Both McHugh and Warren put up with his no-shows because when he did show up he was a fine lyricist.
Dubin died in l945 of barbiturate poisoning and the general destruction of his body. His funeral was at the famous Campbell’s Mortuary (Frank E. Campbell) in Manhattan. His last rites were administered at the Paulist Fathers Church in Manhattan. McHugh arranged a Catholic burial for Dubin in Los Angeles later in l945 at Holy Cross Cemetary where rosary was said. Johnny Mercer cried at the burial.
Clearly, Dubin was not a serious Roman Catholic and when he left his family’s Jewish heritage in the early 1920s he replaced all religious convictions with a self-destructive bacchanalian worldview. Brilliant and self-loathing is the lasting legacy of Al Dubin.