In a career that spanned more than five decades, Arlen was responsible for such popular classics as Stormy Weather, Blues In the Night, and, most famously, Over the Rainbow. His songs have been recorded by most of the major vocalists and jazz artists of our time. Yet his name has never been as well known as the other American composers who make up the so-called Big Six of the 20th century: George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers.
Harold Arlen sang, played and wrote the blues like nobody else. The son of a Russian cantor, Arlen combined his Jewish musical heritage with African American blues to create his own unique sound. He first gained fame in the 1930s for writing specialty songs for the black performers at New York's famed Cotton Club. It was there he had his first big hit, Stormy Weather -- later made famous by Lena Horne.
He wrote more than 400 songs for the Broadway theater and for Hollywood. But his compositions were often more successful than the shows and movies they were in - keeping Arlen from becoming more famous.
"Most of the top names -- the Gershwins, the Rodgers, the Porters or the Kerns - had hit Broadway shows," says Mark Horwitz, a performing arts historian at the U.S. Library of Congress. "Even people who had hit film scores, the composers weren't as well known. It was really a Broadway thing, and Arlen had a kind of tragedy of never really having a hit Broadway musical."
While Harold Arlen's musicals may not have stood the test of time, many of the songs that came out of those shows have become classics. Think of Come Rain or Come Shine, That Old Black Magic, and One For My Baby. The songs are also more frequently associated -- not with the composer -- but with the singers who made them famous…such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett.Over The Rainbow, Harold Arlen's most famous composition, became Judy Garland's signature song. Yet it came perilously close to being dropped from the score of The Wizard of Oz, the film for which it was written. "It slowed down the action, and they thought this naïve girl from Kansas wouldn't be singing this rich, thoughtful ballad," says music historian Mark Horwitz. Yet "that became the standard from the score." Over the Rainbow earned Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg the Academy Award for Best Song of 1939. In 2001, the American Film Institute named it the best song of the 20th century.
Historians have described Harold Arlen's music as among the most versatile and experimental of the century. They say that's due in part to the fact that the composer, who died in 1986, worked with so many different lyricists over the years -- in Harlem, Broadway and Hollywood. His fusion of black culture and Jewish music created a sound that was, according to his Wizard of Oz lyricist Yip Harburg, "typically American." In this Harold Arlen centennial year, fans the world over will have another chance to enjoy the timelessness of his music and take a fresh look at the man whose time has come.