Friday, September 11, 2015

Jimmy Van Heusen

"Sinatra thinks he's Van Heusen but he can't pass the physical." - Sammy Cahn

Try to imagine a day in the life of a composer during the heyday of bands and movie musicals.  I always assumed, rightly in most cases, that they would rise late in the day, have a leisurely breakfast/lunch on the patio by their swimming pool, perhaps recovering from the night before.  Sometime in the late afternoon and early evening they would scribble notes, noodle around on the piano, or meet with their accompanist to smooth the ragged lines of a new song or enter a recording studio to do the same with a singer and orchestra.  The day would end in the middle of the night, after an appropriate period of post-recording revelry, only to start all over again the next, afternoon.

If that's the movie in your imagination, then, at least in the case of Jimmy Van Heusen, it would be an accurate reflection of reality, except for what occupied his mornings.  Instead of sleeping off the night before, Van Heusen would be found at 5 a.m. at the Lockheed aircraft plant outside of Los Angeles where, after spending a night writing songs for the biggest names of his era, he would spend his mornings as a...test pilot.

Van Heusen was born in Syracuse in 1913 as Edward Chester Babcock which, for reasons that should be obvious, he changed to "Jimmy", because it seemed a convivial forename, and "Van Heusen" because that was the brand of shirt he aspired to buy.  He attended Syracuse University where he became good friends with Jerry Arlen, a significant contact in that Jerry's older brother, Harold, was one of the most prolific and popular composers of that decade.  

[Harold Arlen frequently wrote with Johnny Mercer producing songs such as "Accentuate the Positive" and "Blues in the Night"; Arlen also wrote all of the songs for "The Wizard of Oz", including "Over the Rainbow", which was voted the 20th century's #1 song.]

Van Heusen had written silly and fun songs throughout high school and college and the older Arlen sibling gave him a chance to compose something for Cab Calloway's review at the Cotton Club.  The song he wrote, "Harlem Hospitality" proved popular enough to earn Van Heusen a job in the famous Brill Building in New York [it's still there, by the way] as a contract songwriter for several music publishers.  In the year 1940 alone, he composed over 60 published songs.

After coming to the attention of Hollywood, Van Heusen and his then-partner Johnny Burke wrote for both stage productions and movies, including the score for the stage version of "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" [that I saw performed at the Goodspeed Opera House back in the '80's] and what may be one of the most transformative songs in recording history, "Swinging on a Star".

In the case of the latter tune, which was written for Bing Crosby to perform in the movie Going My Way, Van Heusen had taken note of what had made Crosby such a popular singer.  As recording technology progressed, musicians were adjusting to the increasing sensitivity of electronic audality.  Where singers once had to flatten their notational nuance and were required to have very deliberate enunciation, "Der Bingle" was able to use microphonic advances to permit a greater range and intimacy in his recorded voice, allowing greater opportunities for the composer, as well.

[This explains the shift from the clarinet, which was the dominant instrument in early records as it could be easily heard through the labyrinth of the recording process, to trumpets and saxophones, as their range and brassiness no longer overwhelmed the equipment.  It's also why, in later techno-musical history, that the saxophone, which was the dominant instrument in early rock and roll, was replaced by the guitar.]

With this in mind, Van Heusen and Burke wrote "Swing...." to take advantage of both the technology and the singer.  This projected an extremely catchy tune to the top of the charts and won them the Best Song Oscar in 1944.

Having picked up a pilot's license somewhere along the way, and using the sobriquet of "Ed Babcock", Van Heusen contributed to the war effort during the 1940's as a pilot for Lockheed's flight test program, perfecting the P-38 Lightning fighter.  It is an interesting reversal that this dangerous service to his country was considered his secret life; in public, Van Heusen became known as Hollywood's best party host and guest.  Given the considerable competition for that title, one may imagine at how gifted he was in this role.  Despite being diminutive, chubby, and bald, Van Heusen never lacked for female company and was known as the life of the party everywhere from dives to the homes of the great producers.  So much so that he became Frank Sinatra's idol, as well as one of his composers and good friends.

Sinatra had noticed that Jimmy Burke's alcohol use was out-pacing that of Van Heusen's, which meant that he not only was he pre-embalmed, but his talent as a lyricist was rapidly dissipating, so, as if on a blind date, Sinatra set up Van Heusen with Sammy Cahn, who was also in the midst of breaking up with his partner.

[If this sounds like a marriage on the rocks, you have no idea.  There is a moment when Sinatra managed to sneak Cahn over to Van Heusen's house so that they could try writing a song together.  Just as they were in the middle of the creative process, Jimmy Burke stopped by and Cahn quickly excused himself through a back door.]

Eventually, though, their union was made secure through the success of their first song together, in 1955, taken from the title of the movie in which it was first performed, and one that is now recognized as an oft-performed American standard.

With Cahn as his lyricist, Van Heusen would win the Academy Award for Best Song in 1957 ["All the Way"], 1959 ["High Hopes"], and 1963 ["Call Me Irresponsible"].  Van Heusen and Cahn also won an Emmy in 1955 for "Love and Marriage".  There were many nominations to such awards, as well.

He would re-pay Sinatra's kindness by rushing the singer to the hospital after Frank's suicide attempt upon his divorce from Ava Gardner.  When Sinatra was at an ebb point in his career, Van Heusen moved him into his own home.  When Sinatra's mother died, Van Heusen played the piano at her memorial service.

The party that was his life was enriched yet again when, for the first time at the age of 56, Van Heusen married.  He would write songs until his mid-sixties and then retire to his ranch in southern California, content that he had written most of the tunes that people still get stuck in their heads.

Upon his death, in 1990, Sinatra had Jimmy Van Heusen buried in the Sinatra family plot with a simple stone that reads "swinging on a star".

An eponymous website may be found here, cataloging all of Van Heusen's songs.
The Songwriter's Hall of Fame also offers an online exhibit of Van Heusen's works at this site.
Naturally, all of his music may be found on CD's, vinyl, in streaming services, and from the voices of artists as diverse as Billie Holiday, Billy Joel, and Sting.