Harold Arlen (February 15, 1905 – April 23, 1986) was an American composer of popular music, having written over 500 songs, a number of which have become known the world over. In addition to composing the score for The Wizard of Oz, including the classic 1938 song, "Over the Rainbow,” Arlen is a highly regarded contributor to the Great American Songbook. "Over the Rainbow," in fact, was voted the twentieth century's No. 1 song by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Arlen was born Chaim Arluck, in Buffalo, New York, the child of a Jewish cantor. His twin brother died the next day. He learned the piano as a youth and formed a band as a young man. He achieved some local success as a pianist and singer and moved to New York City in his early 20s. He worked as an accompanist in vaudeville. At this point, he changed his name to Harold Arlen. Between 1926 and about 1934, Arlen appeared occasionally as a band vocalist on records by The Buffalodians, Red Nichols, Joe Venuti, Leo Reisman and Eddie Duchin, usually singing his own compositions.
In 1929, Arlen composed his first well-known song: "Get Happy" (with lyrics by Ted Koehler). Throughout the early and mid-1930s, Arlen and Koehler wrote shows for the Cotton Club, a popular Harlem night club, as well as for Broadway musicals and Hollywood films. Arlen and Koehler's partnership resulted in a number of hit songs, including the familiar standards "Let's Fall in Love" and "Stormy Weather." Arlen continued to perform as a pianist and vocalist with some success, most notably on records with Leo Reisman's society dance orchestra.
Arlen's compositions have always been popular with jazz musicians because of his facility at incorporating a blues feeling into the idiom of the conventional American popular song.
In the mid-1930s, Arlen married, and spent increasing time in California, writing for movie musicals. It was at this time that he began working with lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. In 1938, the team was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to compose songs for The Wizard of Oz. The most famous of these is the song "Over the Rainbow" for which they won the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song. They also wrote "Down with Love", a song later featured in the 2003 movie Down with Love.
Arlen was a longtime friend and former roommate of actor Ray Bolger who would star in The Wizard of Oz, the film for which "Over the Rainbow" was written.
In the 1940s, he teamed up with lyricist Johnny Mercer, and continued to write hit songs like "Blues in the Night", "That Old Black Magic," "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" and "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" .
Arlen composed two defining tunes which bookend Judy Garland's musical persona: as a yearning, innocent girl in "Over the Rainbow" and a world-weary, "chic chanteuse" with "The Man that Got Away".
Harold Arlen timeline
Arlen with George Gershwin (L) in 1934
1905 Arlen born in Buffalo, New York
1920 (Age 15) He formed his first professional band, Hyman Arluck's Snappy Trio.
1921 (16) Against his parent's wishes he left home.
1923 (18) With his new band - The Southbound Shufflers, performed on the Crystal Beach lake boat "Canadiana" during the summer of 1923.
1924 (19) Performed at Lake Shore Manor during the summer of 1924.
1924 (19) Wrote his first song, collaborating with friend Hyman Cheiffetz to write "My Gal, My Pal". Copyrighting the song as "My Gal, Won't You Please Come Back to Me?" and listed lyrics by Cheiffetz and music by Harold Arluck.
1925 (20) Makes his way to New York City with the group, The Buffalodians, with Arlen playing piano.
1926 (21) Had first published song, collaborating with Dick George to compose "Minor Gaff (Blues Fantasy)" under the name Harold Arluck.
1928 (23) Chaim (Life) (or Hyman) Arluck renames himself Harold Arlen, a name that combined his parents' surnames (his mother's maiden name was Orlin).
1929 (24) Landed a singing and acting role as Cokey Joe in the musical "The Great Day"
1929 (24) Composed his first well known song - (Get Happy) under the name Harold Arlen.
1929 (24) Signed a yearlong song writing contract with the George and Arthur Piantadosi firm.
1930-1934 (25-29) Wrote music for the Cotton Club.
1933 (28) At a party, along with partner Ted Koehler, wrote the major hit song "Stormy Weather"
1933 (28) Billboard heralded Shakespeare as the most prolific playwright in history, and Arlen as the most prolific composer.
1935 (30) Went back to California after being signed by Samuel Goldwyn to write songs for the film "Strike Me Pink"
1937 (32) Married 22-year-old Anya Taranda, a celebrated Powers Agency model and former Earl Carroll and Busby Berkeley showgirl, actress, and one of the Original "Breck Girls."
1938 (33) Hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to compose songs for The Wizard of Oz.
1938 (33) While driving along Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and stopping in front of Schwab's Drug Store came up with the song "Over the Rainbow"
1941 (36) Wrote "Blues in the Night"
1942 (37) Along with Johnny Mercer, he wrote one of his most famous songs, "That Old Black Magic"
1943 (38) Wrote "My Shining Hour"
1944 (39) While driving with songwriter partner Johnny Mercer came up with the song "Accentuate the Positive".
1945 (40) In a single evening's work in October with Johnny Mercer came up with the song "Come Rain or Come Shine"
1949 (44) Collaborated with Ralph Blane to write the score for "My Blue Heaven".
1950 (45) Worked with old pal Johnny Mercer on the film "The Petty Girl", out of which came the song "Fancy Free".
1951 (46) His wife Anya was institutionalized in a sanitarium for 7 years after repeatedly threatening her husband and others with physical harm.
1952 (47) Teamed up with Dorothy Fields on the film "The Farmer Takes a Wife"
1953 (48) Harold's father, Cantor Samuel Arluck, died.
1954 (49) The Musical "A Star is Born" starring Judy Garland singing the now classic, Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin collaboration, "The Man That Got Away"
1954 (49) Becomes dangerously ill with a bleeding ulcer and is hospitalized but recovers to work with Truman Capote on the musical House of Flowers.
1956 (51) His mother Celia Arluck dies and Harold doesn't touch music for over a year, mourning her loss.
1961-1976 (55-71) Wrote over 50 songs and continued a successful career.
1970 (65) Arlen's wife Anya Taranda dies from a brain tumor. Arlen begins to lose interest in life, withdrawing from friends and family and becoming more reclusive.
1974 (69) Composes theme song for the ABC sitcom Paper Moon, based on a 1973 Peter Bogdanovich film of the same name. [Paper Moon was a hit song in *1933* and gave its name to the movie, not the other way around.]
1986 (81) Harold Arlen dies in New York City and is interred next to his wife at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Works for Broadway
- Jablonski, Edward (1996). Harold Arlen: Rhythm, Rainbows, and Blues. Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1-55553-263-2.
- 2003 – Stormy Weather: The Music of Harold Arlen. Directed by Larry Weinstein.