CITY IN A SWAMP
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I DON’T KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT YOU (show narration)
A Celebration of Women Composers and Lyricists of Broadway, Hollywood, and Jazz
The world of musical theater is full of familiar names: Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim. Likewise, many of the writers of popular music and jazz are names well known to many of us: Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Cy Coleman, Jimmy Van Heusen. What these individuals have in common is that they are all men.
Not so well known is that many of the song lyrics and some of the music from Broadway shows and Hollywood movies were written by women. We’ll meet some of those women tonight. Some of them were also performers whose names you’ll recognize. Some of them you may never have heard of, but you’ve heard their music. Tonight, we’ll get to know all of them and their songs a little better.
They came from diverse ethnic backgrounds and locations: White Christians from Boston and the Midwest; Jewish women from Brooklyn and The Bronx; African-Americans from Tennessee and Baltimore; a Mexican from Guanajuato. Some received formal musical training, while others were taught by family members and friends. All were intelligent, driven women, determined to make it in a field dominated by men.
From an early age, Alberta Hunter had hopes of becoming a professional singer. She left Memphis as a young teenager and moved to Chicago, climbing her way up from that city’s lowest dives—brothels, bars and saloons—to a headlining job at the Dreamland Ballroom, singing with King Oliver and his band.
Her career as a jazz singer and songwriter flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, when she appeared in clubs and musicals in New York and London and toured throughout the U.S. and Europe. She had great success through the 1950s, but her mother’s death in 1957 led Hunter to stop performing. She and her mother had been close partners and performing lost its appeal after her death. Hunter changed her age, “invented” a high school diploma, and enrolled in nursing school. For the next 20 years, she worked at Goldwater Memorial Hospital on New York’s Roosevelt Island. When she was forced to retire because the hospital thought she was 70 – she was actually 82 – Hunter returned to singing. She ended her career with a hugely successful, 6-year engagement at The Cookery, a popular club in Greenwich Village.
Hunter wrote the words to “Down Hearted Blues” with music by Lovie Austin. She recorded the song in 1922. It became a million-seller when recorded by Bessie Smith a year later.
SONG: Down Hearted Blues
A prominent figure in early musical theater was Boston-born Anne Caldwell, one of a very small number of female songwriters active in the early 1900s. Besides Caldwell, there was Rida Johnson Young, who wrote the book and lyrics to Naughty Marietta, and Dorothy Donnelly, who wrote the libretto for The Student Prince. Until these three came along, writing American musical comedy was a male profession.
Caldwell wrote the book for more than twenty musicals, and the lyrics for many more. From 1900 to the mid-1920s, Caldwell collaborated mostly with Jerome Kern.
In 1929, producer William Le Baron lured her to Hollywood to be a script doctor and write lyrics for RKO pictures. Director Luther Reed adapted her story, Dixieana, which became a lavish, pre-code musical comedy. She also worked on the film Babes In Toyland and on the Astaire-Rogers film Flying Down To Rio.
For the 1926 musical Oh, Please! Caldwell wrote the song, “I Know That You Know.”
SONG: I Know That You Know
Kay Swift was a composer who grew up in New York City of English parentage. She received classical music training at the school that later became Julliard.
In 1925, she met George Gershwin, who stimulated her interest in popular music and encouraged her to write more in that vein. Writing Fine and Dandy in 1930 made her the first woman to completely score a hit musical. The title song has become a jazz standard.
At the time she met Gershwin, Swift was married to James Warburg, a financial advisor to Franklin Roosevelt and part-time lyricist. They divorced in 1934. The affair between Swift and Gershwin lasted over 10 years, until his death in 1937, but they never married. Some thought he was too self-centered to marry. As the couple entered a night club one evening, pianist Oscar Levant, an entertainment personality famous for his witticisms, announced, “Ah, look! Here comes George Gershwin and the future Miss Kay Swift.”
After George’s death, Swift worked with Ira Gershwin to complete and arrange some of Gershwin’s unpublished works. Swift went on to become staff composer at Radio City Music Hall where she wrote numbers for The Rockettes, and Director of Light Music for the 1939 World’s Fair.
The 1929 song, “Can’t We Be Friends?” was her biggest hit.
SONG: Can’t We Be Friends?
The most popular blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s was Bessie Smith, nicknamed the “Empress of the Blues”. Her music stressed independence, fearlessness, and sexual freedom, implying that working-class women didn’t have to alter their behavior in order to be worthy of respect.
As a teenager, she started out busking on the streets of Chattanooga with her brother, then got hired as a dancer with the Stokes traveling entertainment troupe. She eventually moved on to perform in shows on the black-owned Theater Owners Booking Association circuit and became its biggest star after she signed a recording contract with Columbia Records.
Even after she began recording and became successful, neither she nor her music were accepted by everyone. She was considered too “rough,” reportedly stopping during a recording session to spit on the floor. Nevertheless, Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of the day, heading her own shows, which sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers, and touring in her own custom-built railroad car.
When the Cumberland River flooded Nashville on Christmas Day in 1926, rising 56 feet above its normal level, Smith wrote a song in response to that event. That song-- “Backwater Blues”--became a blues and jazz standard.
SONG: Backwater Blues
Dana Suesse was a musician, composer and lyricist who began her career while still a child, touring the Midwest vaudeville circuit, dancing and playing the piano.
In New York, Suesse studied piano under Alexander Siloti, Franz Liszt’s last surviving pupil. She studied composition under Rubin Goldmark, one of George Gershwin’s teachers, and spent three years studying with Nadia Boulanger after World War II.
Suesse created large scale pieces from which she would select a melody and then set that tune to words, collaborating with a lyricist. Her 1932 hit song, "My Silent Love," came from a larger piece called "Jazz Nocturne."
Beginning in 1930, Suesse formed a songwriting partnership with impresario Billy Rose. In the 1940s, Suesse was Rose's staff composer for his legendary Diamond Horseshoe Revues.
Her 1934 song, “You Oughta Be in Pictures” written with lyricist Eddie Heyman and recorded by Rudy Vallee and many others, is one of her best-known compositions.
SONG: You Oughta Be In Pictures
Composer and lyricist Ann Ronell was one of the first female songwriters who was successful on Broadway and in Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. She is also notable for being able to handle both music and lyrics.
From New York, Ronell moved to Hollywood in 1933 and there co-wrote Disney’s first hit song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”
Her list of firsts includes the score for the 1945 film, The Story of G.I. Joe, the first drama to feature a theme song sung over its credits. She was the first to produce a record from a film score, which she did with Ladies in Retirement in 1941. And, in 1942, Ronell became the first woman to write both the music and lyrics for a Broadway show, Count Me In.
Ronell also had a relationship with George Gershwin, but a platonic one. They became friends after he hired her as a rehearsal pianist for one of his shows in the 1920s. Her well-known standard, “Willow Weep for Me,” is dedicated to Gershwin.
SONG: Willow Weep for Me
In addition to Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith, Tennessee produced another female songwriter during the early decades of the last century. Lil Hardin Armstrong was a jazz pianist, composer, arranger, singer and bandleader. She was also the second wife of Louis Armstrong, whom she met in Chicago when they both were with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.
Lil worked to change Armstrong’s country image, taking him shopping and teaching him to dress more fashionably, and giving him a new hairstyle that did away with his bangs. She fostered his career, and in the 1920s collaborated with him on many recordings. Late in that decade she and Louis separated but never divorced.
In the 1930s, Hardin led a big band that broadcast nationally on the NBC radio network. In the late 1940s she decided to leave the music business and learned to be a tailor. But it soon became evident that music was her real passion, and she came back to performing. She died of a heart attack while performing in a memorial concert for Louis Armstrong.
Two of Hardin’s songs became hit records decades after their composition. Her 1936 song, “Brown Gal” was transformed into “Bad Boy,” which became a hit for the Jive Bombers and Ringo Starr. “Just For A Thrill,” which she wrote with Don Raye, was recorded by Ray Charles in 1959 and Ronnie Milsap in 2004.
SONG: Just For A Thrill
Dorothy Fields, librettist and lyricist extraordinaire, came from a show business background. Her father was half of the team of Weber and Fields, a famous vaudeville duo, and later, a successful producer of Broadway shows. Her brother Joseph was also a producer; another brother, Herbert, was a playwright.
In spite of this family background in show business, her father opposed it as a career choice for her. “Ladies don’t write lyrics,” he told her. To which she responded, “I’m not a lady, I’m your daughter.”
Over the course of her career, she collaborated with seven different composers: Jimmy McHugh, Jerome Kern, Burton Lane, Arthur Schwartz, Cy Coleman, Morton Gould, and Sigmund Romberg. She wrote the lyrics for over 400 songs for Broadway musicals and films. She also co-wrote the book for three Cole Porter musicals, as well as for Irving Berlin’s long-running show, Annie Get Your Gun.
If you’ve ever heard any of the following, then you’ve heard songs with lyrics by Dorothy Fields: “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “A Fine Romance,” “Don’t Blame Me,” “Big Spender,” “The Rhythm of Life.” Her 1936 song, “The Way You Look Tonight,” was written to music by Jerome Kern for the Astaire-Rogers film, Swing Time.
SONG: The Way You Look Tonight
The multi-talented Nancy Hamilton was an actress, playwright, lyricist, director and producer. She was also the lifelong partner of legendary actress Katharine Cornell.
She worked in the New York theater from 1932 through 1954. Her initial venture was as the understudy to Katharine Hepburn in The Warrior’s Husband.
Hamilton once said, "The only way to get a show is to write a show." She wrote sketches and lyrics for the revues New Faces of 1934, One for the Money, Two for the Show, and Three to Make Ready. The revues she wrote were full of talented unknowns who later became stars.
In 1955, Hamilton won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for the film Helen Keller in Her Story, becoming the first woman to win that award.
Hamilton is perhaps best known as the lyricist for the 1940 song, “How High the Moon” with music by Morgan Lewis.
SONG: How High the Moon
María Grever was the first female Mexican composer to achieve international acclaim. María Joaquina de la Portilla Torres was born to a Spanish father and Mexican mother in Guanajuato, Mexico.
She studied music in France, with Claude Debussy and Franz Lenhard. In 1907, she married Leo A. Grever, an American oil company executive. Later, she became a U.S. citizen and moved to New York City, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Grever wrote more than 800 songs — the majority of them boleros — and her popularity reached audiences in Latin America, Europe, and the United States. In 1920, she began work as a film composer for Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox. She wrote the song “Magic Is The Moonlight” for the 1944 Esther Williams film, Bathing Beauty.
In the U.S. her best-known song is, “Cuando vuelva a tu lado" (When I Return To Your Side), which was given new English lyrics by Stanley Adams. Dinah Washington later recorded it as “What a Difference a Day Makes.” The recording won a Grammy in 1959, eight years after Grever’s death.
SONG: What a Difference a Day Makes
She was born Norma Deloris Egstrom but became known professionally as Peggy Lee. From her beginning as a vocalist on local radio in North Dakota to singing with Benny Goodman’s big band, she forged a sophisticated persona, evolving into a multi-faceted artist and performer—a singer of jazz and popular songs, a songwriter, composer, and actress in a career spanning six decades.
Many of her songs were written in partnership with her husband, guitarist Dave Barbour. But she also wrote songs with Duke Ellington, Bill Schluger, and Marian McPartland.
While working at the Doll House in Palm Springs, California in 1940, she developed her trademark sultry purr, having decided to compete with the noisy crowd with subtlety rather than volume. Lee provided speaking and singing voices for several characters in the 1955 Disney movie Lady and the Tramp: the human "Darling" in the first part of the movie, the dog "Peg", and the two Siamese cats, “Si and Am”.
Among her notable compositions are “It’s A Good Day,” “I Love Being Here With You,” “Manana (Is Soon Enough For Me),” “That’s My Style,” and the title song of tonight’s program, “I Don’t Know Enough About You.”
SONG: I Don’t Know Enough About You
Betty Comden (who was born Basya Cohen), was one-half of the musical-comedy duo Comden and Green, who provided lyrics, libretti, and screenplays to some of the most beloved and successful Hollywood musicals and Broadway shows of the mid-20th century.
In 1938, mutual friends introduced her to Adolph Green, an aspiring actor. Along with the young Judy Holliday and Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Green formed a troupe called The Revuers, which performed at the Village Vanguard. Many mistakenly think Comden and Green were married. But in 1942, Comden married Steven Kyle. After he died in 1979, she didn’t re-marry.
Her writing partnership with Green, called "the longest running creative partnership in theatre history," lasted for six decades. They linked up with Bernstein and Jerome Robbins to write their first musical, the 1944 smash hit On the Town. A long list of shows followed, among them Wonderful Town, the Mary Martin Peter Pan, Bells Are Ringing, On the Twentieth Century and The Will Rogers Follies. They found great success in Hollywood, too. As part of the famous “Freed Unit” at MGM, they wrote the screenplays for Singin’ in the Rain, The Bandwagon, and other musical comedy films.
Comden’s well-known song, “Just In Time,” with music by Jule Styne, was written for the Judy Holliday musical, Bells Are Ringing.
SONG: Just In Time
Eleanora Fagan was a jazz singer with a career spanning nearly 30 years. Nicknamed “Lady Day”, she is better known to us as Billie Holiday. In the late 1930s, she worked with Count Basie and Artie Shaw and was among the first black women to work with a white orchestra, an unusual arrangement at the time. While on tour, she was subject to racial prejudice in both the South and the North.
She is associated with the song, “Strange Fruit,” based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. She first performed it in 1939 at Café Society, an integrated nightclub in Greenwich Village. She said singing “Strange Fruit” reminded her of an incident where her father was denied medical treatment for a fatal disorder because of his color.
Although her earnings were high, Holiday spent most of her money on heroin. She also had disastrous tastes in men, becoming involved in several abusive or exploitive relationships.
When she once went to her mother for a loan, she was turned down flat. The two argued, and Holiday stormed out shouting “God bless the child that’s got his own.” She wrote and recorded a song based on that phrase in collaboration with Arthur Herzog, Jr. It became one of her most popular and covered numbers.
SONG: God Bless The Child
Dory Previn (born Dorothy Veronica Langan) was a lyricist, singer-songwriter and poet. Dory’s childhood experiences with her depressive and emotionally volatile father had a profound effect on her later life and work. During an extreme paranoid episode, he boarded the family up in their home and held them at gunpoint for several months.
While working as a lyricist at MGM, Dory met composer André Previn, and married him in 1959. The couple collaborated on a number of songs that were nominated for Oscars. Among them was "A Second Chance" for the movie Two for the Seesaw. In 1967, the Previns wrote five songs for the movie Valley of the Dolls, whose soundtrack album spent six months on the charts.
Andre’s affair with Mia Farrow in the late 1960s led to divorce. Afterward, in the 1970s, Dory released six albums of original songs and an acclaimed live album. Her lyrics from this period are characterized by their originality, irony and honesty in dealing with her troubled personal life. Her last film credit was the title song for Last Tango in Paris (1973), with music by Gato Barbieri.
Her 1962 song, “The Morning After,” was set to music by famed composer Harold Arlen.
SONG: The Morning After
Lyricist and poet Fran Landesman was a New Yorker, who also lived and worked in St. Louis and London. In 1951, she began writing lyrics at her husband Jay’s Crystal Palace nightclub in St. Louis. Tommy Wolf, the Palace's pianist, set her lyrics to music.
Fran collaborated with Wolf and her husband to write The Nervous Set, which had a brief run on Broadway and featured the song, "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men." That song was later revived because it had a new emotional resonance in the era of AIDS.
In London she appeared on the radio show, “Desert Island Discs” and, as her luxury item, requested a supply of cannabis seeds. The BBC received a number of complaints.
According to her 2011 obituary in The New York Times, “Fran Landesman made her life into an art form — not least because of the exuberantly public extramarital sex life she delighted in sharing with London tabloids. But her lasting footprint was the mordant, biting, yet strangely tender lyrics she used to chronicle the world’s lovers, lunatics and losers.”
Her best-known song is “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” based on her exploration of T. S. Eliot’s phrase, "April is the cruelest month..."
SONG: Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most
Carolyn Leigh, a lyricist for Broadway, film, and popular songs, once described herself as a secretary “who couldn’t take dictation”. She worked as a copywriter for radio stations and advertising agencies and was a prolific writer of stories and poems.
In 1951, she was urged to write songs by a musical publisher who gave her a contract. Teaming up with Johnny Richards, she wrote the million-seller, “Young at Heart” for the film of the same name, starring Frank Sinatra.
The Broadway shows for which she provided lyrics include Peter Pan, Wildcat, Little Me, How, Now, Dow Jones, and Gatsby. She also provided lyrics for the scores to the films The Cardinal in 1963 and Father Goose in 1964.
Her collaboration with Cy Coleman was occasionally a stormy one, but resulted in some of their best-known songs, including the pop standards, “Witchcraft,” “The Best Is Yet to Come,” and “When In Rome.”
SONG: When In Rome
Marilyn Bergman is one-half of the most successful husband/wife team in the songwriting business. She said she drifted into songwriting “by accident because I had a fall and broke my shoulder and couldn’t play piano. So, I started writing lyrics.”
Her partnership with Alan began in Hollywood when composer Lew Spence suggested they all work together. The Bergmans wrote songs for movies and Broadway in the 1960s, but their big breakthrough came with their lyrics for In the Heat of the Night, with music by Quincy Jones for the 1967 film of the same name.
In 1983, the Bergmans became the first songwriters ever to have written three of the five nominations for the Academy Award for Best Song.
During their long professional relationship with Barbara Streisand, the Bergmans wrote the lyrics for her film, The Way We Were, to music by Marvin Hamlisch.
They also had a long relationship with the French composer Michel Legrand. They wrote English lyrics for Legrand's song “The Windmills of Your Mind,” featured in The Thomas Crown Affair. The collaboration won them their first Academy Award for Best Original Song.
SONG: The Windmills Of Your Mind
Our revue has by no means been an exhaustive survey of women lyricists and composers. There are many women writing songs today, but their stories are material for another show. I hope this program has provided a better appreciation and understanding of the rich contribution that women have made to our musical legacy.