People A-Z  /  Harold Arlen

Music composer

1905-1986

Overview

Harold Arlen was a composer, singer, pianist, and arranger, but was most known for his Academy award winning musical and film compositions, many of which remain classics of American musical culture. Born Hyman Arluck in 1905 in Buffalo, to Samuel Arluck and his wife, Celia Orlin, his twin brother did not survive. By the age of 7, he was singing in the Pine Street (Brith Sholem) synagogue choir where his father served as cantor.  Hyman began taking private music lessons at the age of 9 with Arnold Cornelissen, then conductor of the Buffalo String Orchestral Society.

After dropping out of school at the age of 15, Arluck began the Snappy Trio, as singer, pianist and arranger. He later formed the Buffalodians later renamed the Southbound Shufflers that performed aboard the Crystal Beach boat , the S.S. Canadiana. In 1926, Hyman changed his name to Harold Arlen by combining his mother’s and father’s last names. Once in New York City, he collaborated with Ted Koehler and their songs were performed at the Cotton Club. He also wrote shows including, You Said it, with fellow Buffalonian, Jack Yellen. The Depression badly affected the production of shows on Broadway, and Arlen moved to California to write for films. In 1938, with Yip Harburg he was hired to create the music for The Wizard of Oz, staring Judy Garland. Its feature song, Over the Rainbow, won an Academy Award for Best Song. Arlen also worked Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin and Leo Robin produced numerous hits.

Twelve of Harold Arlen’s songs are part of the Great American Songbook, a compilation of enduring songs or “standards’ from the 1920s to the 1950s created for Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film. These included

  • I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues, It’s Only a Paper Moon, I’ve Got the World on a String,
  • Stormy Weather, Let’s Fall in Love, Over the Rainbow, Blues in the Night,
  • That Old Black Magic, One for My Baby, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive, Come Rain or Come Shine and The Man that Got Away

In 1996, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in honor of Arlen and in 2000, Over the Rainbow was declared the Number One Song of the Twentieth Century out of a list of 365 songs compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Genealogy

Papers of Dr. Hubert J. Rubenstein, 1853-2006, ms96

Archival Collections for originating image

Obituary

“Harold Arlen, Composer of Song Standards,” New York Times, April 24, 1986, Section D, p.20.

Books about Harold Arlen  

  • Walter Rimler, The Man That Got Away: The Life and Songs of Harold Arlen (Music in American Life), University of Illinois Press, 2015.
  • Edward Jablonski, Harold Arlen: Rhythm, Rainbows, and Blues, Northeastern, 1996.
  • Edward Jablonski, Harold Arlen: Happy with the Blues, A Da Capo Paperback,1986.

Hall of Fame Honors

Documentary

Recordings

Discography of American Historical Recordings

Hundreds of recordings of Arlen’s work have been made online at the Discography of American Historical Recordings (DAHR), a database of master recordings made by American record companies under a National Endowment for the Humanities and Packard Humanities Institute collaboration.