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Loess is more

In praise of Frank Loesser

June 1st, 2015


When asked who they thought were the most important writers of “The Great American Songbook,” most Americans today might say, “Never heard of that book. Is it available from Amazon?” If you tell them it’s a term for an important part of their cultural heritage, namely the popular standards, songs written for Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood from 1920 to 1950 or thereabouts, their eyes will glaze over. For them, what we call the standards are as dead as vaudeville or barbershop harmony.

loesserTry again. When asked who they thought were the most important writers of “The Great American Songbook,” most somewhat older Americans, for whom standards make up the soundtrack of their lives, are likely to answer, “Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and/or Hammerstein…” To name a few. I agree with those candidates, but would like to induct another into the Hall of Fame: Frank Loesser.

Frank Loesser, like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Johnny Mercer, wrote both music and lyrics to his songs, although, like Mercer, Loesser also wrote lyrics for melodies written by other composers. Loesser’s lyrics were as good as Mercer’s (that’s saying a lot), and his melodies were a lot better.

Frank Loesser was born in 1910 into an upper-class German-American family who took classical music seriously. Frank was no doubt a disappointment to his cultured parents, for he found his career early as a wordsmith for Tin Pan Alley. He did so well he was lured to Hollywood in 1931, where he spent ten years writing lyrics for some of the best songwriters in the business, folks like Hoagy Carmichael (“Two Sleepy People”), Jimmy McHugh (“Let’s Get Lost”), Jule Styne (“I Don’t Want to Walk Without You”), not to mention Arthur Schwartz, Burton Lane, and many others. But like most of these composers, Loesser got impatient with Hollywood and longed for Broadway. As it happened, his escape from Tinseltown was provided by World War II. He joined the Army infantry and was assigned to an entertainment unit, where he wrote patriotic, morale-boosting songs — both words and music. His first big hit was “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”

After the war he continued writing both music and lyrics to his songs, which included such standards as “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So” and “On a Slow Boat to China,” but when the chance to write for a Broadway musical came, he was hired to write only lyrics. The composer with whom he was to collaborate with was the great Harold Arlen. The play being created was Where’s Charlie, based on the English Victorian farce Charlie’s Aunt. The star of the show was to be Ray Bolger. However, before the songs were written, Arlen backed out, and Loesser took over, writing both words and music. Songs included “Once in Love with Amy” and “My Darling.” The show opened in 1948 and was a smash hit, and Frank Loesser thereafter wrote for only one composer: himself.

Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser. A winning combination, this one-man team provided the songs for what many have called the greatest American musical comedy, Guys and Dolls. Close, I say, but I vote for another, which I’ll get to soon. But first, Frank went back to Hollywood and wrote the songs for Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye. Both Guys and Dolls, 1950, and Hans Christian Andersen, 1952, were packed with hit songs, too many to list. My favorite from Guys and Dolls is “If I Were a Bell”; from Hans Christian Anderson, “The Ugly Duckling.”

Then Frank Loesser returned to Broadway and wrote what I consider his masterpiece, and my first choice for the greatest American musical comedy, The Most Happy Fella, which opened in 1956. Almost an opera, this musical was based on Sidney Howard’s 1924 play They Knew What They Wanted. It is set in California’s Napa Valley and contains the hits “Big D,” “Joey, Joey, Joey,” and “Standin’ on the Corner, Watchin’ All the Girls Go By.”

Loesser’s next musical, Greenwillow, flopped, but in 1961 came his last big success, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, starring Robert Morse. This one won seven Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize. In one scene, the young hero, J. Pierrepont Finch, sings a love song to himself, the big hit song from the show: “I Believe in You.” I can imagine Frank Loesser writing that song for himself, because he knew he was one of the team of writers responsible for what in time would be known as the Great American Songbook.

Frank Loesser died in 1969. I can’t say I miss him, because I never knew him in person, and I’ll always have what he left behind, his songs. I expect I’m not alone when I say that every time I hear a standard, any standard, from the Songbook, I’m reminded of some specific moment in my history. I wish I could write Frank Loesser a fan letter to thank him for some memorable songs that always bring back memorable moments.

“My Darling” and “On a Slow Boat to China” were two of my brother’s favorite 78 rpm records when I was a small boy, even before I started school. When I was fourteen, I saw The Most Happy Fella on Broadway, my first Broadway show, and I was reduced to tears by a duet between Jo Sullivan and Robert Weede, called “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance.” When I was twenty-five I starred in a community theater production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and so I got to sing “I Believe in You,” pretending to be Robert Morse. I remember hiking with my two sons, ages four and six, the three of us belting out “The Ugly Duckling” on the mountain trail. When I was in my late thirties, I frequented piano bars, and my signature song was “Once in Love With Amy.” And when my brother died in 1996, I asked for “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” to be played at his funeral.

Thank you, Frank Loesser. I feel happy to have made your acquaintance. •

Posted by: The Editors
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