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Fields, Dorothy

Dorothy Fields

Broadway musical and Hollywood film lyricist Dorothy Fields (1905–1974) wrote the words to some of the best-known standards of American song, including "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," "I'm in the Mood for Love," and "A Fine Romance." One of very few women to achieve top-level success as a writer during the classic era of Broadway song, Fields was a creative contributor to the musical Annie Get Your Gun and other major shows.

Fields remained active throughout a career that stretched from the vaudeville era to the age of rock, and her gift for direct, natural language appropriate to its time never faltered. She collaborated with a variety of composers, a fact that helps account for her comparative lack of renown—she was never part of a recognizable songwriting team like Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe. But Fields was second to none in the economically expressed sentiments and urbane, sometimes sexy wit of her lyrics. She became the first woman inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Delivered by Newsstand Worker

A New Yorker through and through, Fields was nevertheless born in the resort town of Allenhurst, New Jersey, where her family had gone on vacation. She was delivered by a newsstand operator who also happened to be a midwife. Fields grew up in a show business family; she was the youngest of four children of touring vaudeville performer Lew Fields, who was part of a duo called Weber and Fields, and of his wife, Rose. The year Dorothy was born he gave up performing and launched a career as a producer and impresario. At times during Dorothy's childhood the family struggled financially, but she grew up around songwriters such as Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. Her older brothers Joseph and Herbert broke into popular music, and she thought about entering the music business herself after she discovered a talent for verse in English class at New York's Benjamin Franklin School for Girls, from which she graduated in 1923.

Fields's parents, however, tried to keep her away from the performing arts. She won a part as an actress in a summer theater production in Tarrytown, New York, but her father intercepted her letter of acceptance. In 1924 Fields briefly married physician Jack Wiener, but the marriage was a disaster; Fields spent her wedding night walking back and forth on the porch of the couple's honeymoon cottage. She worked for a time as a teacher and laboratory technician, submitting light poems to newspapers on the side. One of her poems was published in a column in the Sunday New York World newspaper. Then, while playing golf with a friend, she met songwriter and publisher's agent J. Fred Coots, who encouraged her to try her hand at writing lyrics. The songs they wrote together went nowhere, and Fields blamed herself. "The music was good, but the lyrics were terrible," she was quoted as saying by biographer Deborah Grace Winer. The problem was that she was trying to imitate Lorenz Hart, by then one of the hottest lyricists on Broadway. "I was so impressed by Larry's inner rhyming and feminine hybrid rhymes that I wasn't doing anything but trying to be like Larry, and consequently, mine weren't very good."

Coots, however, was impressed enough to recommend Fields to his employer, the publisher Jack Mills Music. Fields was commissioned by owner Jack Mills to devise a quick lyric for a song called "Our American Girl," a topical number about pioneering female aviator Ruth Elder. Fields came through. Her song was never published, for Elder died during her attempt to fly across the Atlantic. But Fields received other assignments, netting a $50 fee for each song. She was consistent, according to Winer, and became known as "the fifty-dollar-a-night girl."

In 1927 Fields settled into a songwriting partnership with Mills staffer Jimmy McHugh. The following year, the two jumped at an opportunity to provide material for an all-black musical revue at the Cotton Club in New York's Harlem neighborhood, featuring then-unknown bandleader Duke Ellington. Fields's parents continued to resist her chosen career, telling her that ladies did not write song lyrics, but Fields (again according to Winer) retorted, "I'm not a lady, I'm your daughter," and added that she would write lyrics for the Westminster Kennel Club if asked to do so. From then on she never looked back, although she herself was a bit scandalized when Harlem singers sexed up her lyrics in live performance. She and McHugh collaborated on "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," originally included in the revue Blackbirds of 1928.

Moved to Hollywood

The song bombed at first but gained popularity through the Depression era with its hard-luck sentiments ("Gee, I'd love to see you lookin' swell, baby / But diamond bracelets Woolworth's doesn't sell, baby"). It was later recorded by Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, Gene Austin, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong, who had a strong identification with several other Fields songs as well, and it was given a memorable performance by Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby. Other hits such as "Exactly Like You" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street," both written for the International Revue, moved the careers of Fields and McHugh forward, and in 1930 they joined the rush to Hollywood as sound films suddenly caught on with a vengeance. The music for several early Fields hits, including "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" may have been written by jazz pianist Fats Waller.

Immediately scoring a hit with "Go Home and Tell Your Mother" (from a forgettable golf romance film called Love in the Rough), they followed it up with "Cuban Love Song," written for a film of the same name, starring opera singer Lawrence Tibbett in 1931. For much of the 1930s, Fields divided her time between New York and Los Angeles, working in both films and live theater. She preferred the stage, which gave her the chance to hone her lyrics as a show went through out-of-town performances and previews before opening night. But some of her best-known songs were written for films, such as "I'm in the Mood for Love" and "I Feel a Song Comin' On," which first appeared in the 1935 film Every Night at Eight. Among the many artists who covered "I'm in the Mood for Love" was black pop heartthrob Billy Eckstine, in 1946.

Every Night at Eight marked one of Fields's last collaborations with Jimmy McHugh. In the late 1930s she worked with a variety of composers, including immigrant Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler, who tried his hand at pop music with some songs for the 1936 film The King Steps Out. Perhaps Fields's favorite collaborator, though, was the aging Broadway composer Jerome Kern, whose smooth melodies pushed Fields to a new level of lyric sophistication. Kern and Fields became lifelong friends and joined forces on the pop standard "A Fine Romance," an unusual comic ballad of sexual frustration included in the 1936 film Swing Time. The film also included another Fields-Kern standard, "The Way You Look Tonight," which brought Fields an Academy Award for best song.

Fields collaborated with Kern on two more films in the late 1930s. In 1939 she married businessman Eli Lahm, and the couple had two children. Fields cut back on her involvement with songwriting but kept a hand in theater, writing the "book"—the story and spoken dialogue—for three musicals with songs by Cole Porter, Let's Face It, Something for the Boys, and Mexican Hayride. She took up songwriting once again in 1945 with the musical Up in Central Park, with music by the veteran operetta composer Sigmund Romberg. The show, based on the career of nineteenth-century New York politician "Boss" Tweed, contained the enduring hit "Close as Pages in a Book."

Originated Idea for Berlin Musical

In 1946 Fields had the idea for a musical based on Old West sharpshooter Annie Oakley. She and Kern were hired to write the show, but Kern died before work could begin. Annie Get Your Gun was handed off to Irving Berlin, who, unlike most Broadway composers, wrote both words and music for his shows. Though that may have been a disappointment for Fields, she was strongly affected by Kern's sudden death and might not have been emotionally ready to switch gears and work with another songwriter. The book remained Fields's creation, and Berlin retained several of her song titles.

With four musicals, lyrics for four films, and credits in the television musical Junior Miss (1957), Fields was almost as busy in the 1950s as she had been two decades earlier. Her best-known show of the decade was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951), with music by Arthur Schwartz. Two of her film soundtracks, Mr. Imperium and The Farmer Takes a Wife, were written with Wizard of Oz composer Harold Arlen. In 1959 the Fields musical Redhead, with music by Albert Hague, won the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best musical of the year.

Even the advent of rock music did not slow Fields down. The 1966–67 season brought to the stage one of her most famous creations of all, the musical Sweet Charity, with book by Neil Simon and music by Cy Coleman. Among the standards to emerge from the show were "If They Could See Me Now" and "Big Spender," the latter a typical Fields song in its subtle, irregular verbal rhythm ("The minute you walked in the joint / I could see you were a man of distinction / A real big spender"). Fields was always admired by her fellow songwriters; if she experienced any gender discrimination it went nowhere, for her successful track record was hard to argue with. "What I like best about Dorothy Fields," West Side Story lyricist Stephen Sondheim was quoted as saying by Winer, "is her use of colloquialism and her effortlessness, as in 'Sunny Side of the Street,' which is just perfect as a lyric.'" Fields was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971. Another honor came the following year with Fields's inclusion in New York's Lyrics & Lyricists concert series. A live recording of the concert devoted to Fields was later issued on compact disc.

In the late 1960s Fields wrote several songs with future Michael Jackson producer Quincy Jones. But several larger projects fizzled, including a proposed musical based on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. Fields and Cy Coleman produced one more show, Two for the Seesaw, in 1973. Fields died at home on March 28, 1974, after a stroke that occurred during a rehearsal for the show. Among her posthumous honors was her inclusion in a series of U.S. postage stamps devoted to songwriters, and a CD issued by the music publisher Shapiro Bernstein & Company brought together recordings of some of her best-loved songs, performed by singers including Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, and Peggy Lee.

Books

Winer, Deborah Grace, On the Sunny Side of the Street: The Life and Lyrics of Dorothy Fields, Schirmer, 1997.

Periodicals

Billboard, April 16, 2005.

Online

"Biography," http://www.dorothyfields.co.uk (February 6, 2006).

"Dorothy Fields: Biography," Songwriters Hall of Fame, http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/exhibit_bio.asp?exhibitId=65 (February 6, 2006).

"Dorothy Fields," Broadway: The American Musical (Public Broadcasting System), http://www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/stars/fields_d.html (February 6, 2006).

"Dorothy Fields: On the Sunny Side of the Street," All About Jewish Theatre, http://www.jewish-theatre.com (February 6, 2006).

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