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Jimmy Van Heusen
Born: Edward Chester Babcock, January 26, 1913, Syracuse, New York
Died: February 7, 1990 (age 77), Rancho Mirage, California
AKA: James Van Heusen
Primary songwriting role: composer; also airplane test pilot
"Van Heusen's birth name was Chester Babcock. He chose Van Heusen, the name of a famous line of men's shirts, because he felt it was a name associated with "old money, elegance and class. What he didn't realize was that the Van Heusen line was the creation of a German-Jewish peddler named Israel Phillips."
Gary Marmorstein quotes Alec Wilder on Van Heusen and then adds his own colorful piece of Van Heusen's early history. Recalling an image of Van Heusen, Wilder said, "'I well remember a thin young man sitting outside an arranger's office, endlessly playing the piano during the the late thirties.'" Marmorstein continues:
In those years Van Heusen worked at Remick Music publishers under the supervision of Mousie Warren, Harry' brother. Van Heusen supplemented his Remick income by playing in the city's prominent whorehouses. (Years later, Van Heusen was one of the few movie-industry figures to appear publicly at the funeral of Polly Adler, New York's most notorious madam.) The whorehouse playing earned him a reputation as a swordsman, but those tunes were the thing that made musicians and producers take notice. (Marmorstein, p. 165).
As great a melodist as Van Heusen was, he was not a successful writer for Broadway shows.
Van Heusen wrote the scores for five Broadway musicals: Swingin' the Dream (1939) ran for twelve performances, even though it included the standard song "Darn That Dream"; Nellie Bly (1946) ran for sixteen performances; Carnival in Flanders (1953) ran for six performances, even though it included a song titled "Rainy Day" which became a standard after Sinatra recorded it in 1959, as "Here's That Rainy Day."; Skyscraper (1956), ran for 23 previews and 248 performances; Walking Happy (1966-67) ran for three previews and 161 performances (Show data from IBDB.org).
from a Jonathan Schwartz radio tribute to Van Heusen broadcast on The Saturday Show, Jan. 28, 2012 in honor of what would have been the songwriter's 99th birthday two days previous.
Schwartz also tells the story of how Sinatra came to record "Here's that Rainy Day":
As mentioned above Van Heusen had written a song titled "Rainy Day" with his long time lyricist partner Johnny Burke in 1953, for the failed Broadway show Carnival in Flanders. After the show closed, Van Heusen stored the song away -- "put it in the trunk" as songwriters like to say. It remained there through the making of several Sinatra albums for which Van Heusen wrote songs without Van Heusen mentioning it to Sinatra. Then one day in 1959, when the singer and the songwriter were working together at Sinatra's house on the title song for the album No One Cares, Sinatra asked Van Husen if he had any new material. Van Heusen, who had finally had sheet music for what had become "Here's that Rainy Day" published, took it out and played it. Sinatra responded, according to Schwartz (who had been told the story by Van Heusen), "Whatcha been doin' with this song?" and Van Heusen replied in his raspy, world-worn voice, and exactly these words: "I pick My Spots." Sinatra recorded it in the studio on May 25, 1959, with the Gordon Jenkins Orchestra, and the song was on its way, after a six year hibernation, to becoming a great American standard.
In passing, Schwartz also mentioned that although Van Heusen (a songwriter he knew well, admired and liked very much) was "a pedestrian piano player, he had a lovely singing voice."
Before Sinatra died he requested that only two non-family members be buried in his cemetary plot: restauranteur Jilly Rizzo and Jimmy Van Heusen. Van Heusen's epitaph is "Swinging on a Star."
Lesser known but teriffic Van Heusen songs
"I Could Have Told You" written with Carl Sigman and first recorded by Sinatra on Dec. 9, 1953, with a Nelson Riddle arrangement. We are not sure if it was written in '53. This song is not yet in the Cafe Songbook catalog.
David Ewen. American Songwriters, An H. W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary. New York: The H. W. Wilson Co., 1987 (includes 146 bios of composers and lyricists). -- a wide selection of used copies is available at abebooks.com (entry, pp. 403-408).
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Master List of Great American Songbook Songwriters
Names of songwriters who have written at least one song included in the Cafe Songbook Catalog of The Great American Songbook are listed below.
Names of songwriters with two or more song credits in the catalog (with rare exceptions) are linked to their own Cafe Songbook pages, e.g. Fields, Dorothy.
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