- 1905-02-15 - 1986-04-23
Harold Arlen was an American composer, arranger, pianist, and vocalist who is considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. He wrote over 400 songs but is most famous for composing the songs for the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, particularly “Over the Rainbow,” which was voted the 20th century’s No. 1 song. Arlen wrote some of the greatest hits from the 1930’s and 40’s, such as “Get Happy,” “Stormy Weather,” “It's Only a Paper Moon,” “I've Got the World on a String,” and “Last Night When We Were Young.” He was most prolific from 1929 through the 1950s.
He was born as Hyman Arluck in Buffalo, New York in 1905 to Jewish parents. The son of a Jewish cantor (a trained song-leader for Jewish services) and pianist, Arlen showed exceptional musical talent in childhood. Hyman loved to sing, but was extremely shy. His mother hoped that he would become a music teacher, so she introduced a piano into the Arluck home. Hyman began studying around the age of nine and quickly outgrew the neighborhood piano teacher. He went on to study with the leading local teacher, who was also a conductor, organist and composer. Before long, Hyman left school as a teenager and achieved some local success working as a vocalist and pianist in different bands. He moved to New York City in the 1920s, where he worked as an accompanist in vaudeville and changed his name to Harold Arlen. Arlen composed several songs during that period, but published the first of his many well-known pieces in 1929, "Get Happy", with lyrics by Ted Koehler. "Get Happy” attracted attention to the new songwriting-lyricist duo identifying Arlen and Koehler as hit writers. With “Get Happy” and other rhythmic songs to their credit, the team developed the reputation as writers of "bluesy" rhythm numbers, which were much in demand in the flourishing cabarets. Throughout the early and mid-1930s, Arlen and Koehler produced songs for Harlem’s infamous Cotton Club, which was at the heart of the cabaret scene, as well as for Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, creating familiar pieces such as "Stormy Weather" and "Let's Fall in Love."
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 which is "Over the Rainbow", which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song. They also wrote "Down with Love" (featured in the 1937 Broadway show Hooray for What!), "Lydia the Tattooed Lady", for Groucho Marx in At the Circus (1939), and "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe", for Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky (1943). Going into the 1940s, Arlen teamed up with Johnny Mercer to write a string of successful hits: "That Old Black Magic" (1942), "Accentuate the Positive" (1944), and "Come Rain or Come Shine" (1945), among others. From that point on he worked on various Broadway shows but became more reclusive as an illness in 1954 and the deaths of his parents in 1953 (his father) and 1958 (his mother), and later his wife (1970) caused him to lose interest in composing and music in general.
Arlen died of cancer at the age of 81.