De Sylva, B. G. (actually, George Card; aka “Bud” or “Buddy”)
De Sylva, B. G. (actually, George Card; aka “Bud” or “Buddy”)
De Sylva, B. G. (actually, George Card;aka “Bud” or “Buddy”), American lyricist, librettist, and producer; b. N.Y., Jan. 27, 1895; d. Holly-wood, Calif., July 11, 1950. As a lyricist, De Sylva is best known for the series of songs he wrote for Al Jolson, among them “I’ll Say She Does,” “April Showers,” and “California, Here I Come,” and for his partnership with lyricist Lew Brown and composer Ray Henderson, which resulted in successful Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, including such hits as “The Birth of the Blues,” “Sonny Boy,” and “Button Up Your Overcoat.” He also worked with such composers as Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, and George Gershwin. De Sylva’s lyrics typify the upbeat style of 1920s popular music. By the early 1930s he had turned away from songwriting and launched a career as a producer. In the early 1940s he had three shows running on Broadway simultaneously, he ran one of the major film studios, and he co-founded Capitol Records.
De Sylva was the son of Aloysius De Sylva, a vaudeville actor who performed under the name Hal De Forest but gave up the stage to become a lawyer after marrying Georgetta Card. Nevertheless, the marriage broke up when De Sylva was an infant, and his mother took him to her family home in Azusa, Calif., where he grew up. After he performed in a benefit show at the Grand opéra House in L.A. as “Baby Card” at the age of four, he was offered a contract by the B. F. Keith vaudeville circuit, but his family declined. De Sylva’s talent as an entertainer was furthered by violin lessons as a child, and by his college years he was writing songs. He attended the Univ. of Southern Calif, in 1915 and 1916, dropping out to sing and play ukulele in a supposedly Hawaiian band. In the summer of 1917, Jolson, who was on tour with his show Robinson Crusoe Jr., heard one of De Sylva’s songs, “’N’ Everything.” By the time Jolson recorded it on Dec. 27, 1917, the song was credited to De Sylva, Jolson, and Gus Kahn. Jolson introduced it in his next show, Sinbad (N.Y., Feb. 14, 1918), and it became a record hit for him in June. Reopening the show after a summer break, Jolson interpolated “I’ll Say She Does,” also credited to De Sylva/Jolson/Kahn; his recording was the most successful of several.
De Sylva moved to N.Y., where he became a staff writer for music publisher Jerome H. Remick. There he met George Gershwin, with whom he collaborated in 1919 on La-La-Lucille (lyrics also by Arthur Jackson), which ran for 104 performances, and on Morris Gest’s Midnight Whirl (lyrics also by John Henry Mears), which ran for 110 performances. His next hits came from further Jolson interpolations into the road tour of Sinbad. Using Jolson’s catch phrase, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” De Sylva, Jolson, and Kahn constructed a song that Jolson introduced for the fall tour of 1919 and recorded for a hit in the spring of 1920. At the same time, Jolson introduced two songs written solely with De Sylva—”I Gave Her That” and “Chloe”—for two more hits.
In 1920, De Sylva wrote music and lyrics for the musical I’ll Say She Does, which closed during tryouts. A second abortive project was Zip Goes a Million, for which De Sylva wrote lyrics to music by Kern. The show was reworked into the successful Sally (N.Y., Dec. 21, 1920), with two of the earlier songs retained, both of which became hits: “Whip-Poor-Will” in an instrumental recording by Isham Jones and His Orch., and “Look for the Silver Lining” in a best-selling record for Marion Harris among others. Meanwhile, De Sylva had contributed “Just Snap Your Fingers at Care” (music by Louis Silvers) to the Greenwich Village Follies (N.Y., Aug. 30, 1920); it became a hit for Bert Williams. And Jolson continued to interpolate De Sylva songs into Sinbad—for the fall 1920 tour he introduced “Avalon” (music and lyrics by Vincent Rose, Jolson, and De Sylva) and recorded it for a hit at the end of the year. (“Avalon” later was the subject of successful plagiarism suit brought by Puccini’s publishers, who charged the melody came from the aria “E lucevan le stelle” in Tosca.)
Jolson finally finished the road tour of Sinbad in the spring of 1921 and immediately began preparing his next show, Bombo, for the fall. Though composer Sigmund Romberg and lyricist Harold Atteridge were engaged to write the songs, De Sylva was heavily involved, contributing several songs. These included “April Showers” (music by Silvers), “Give Me My Mammy” (music by Walter Donaldson), and “Yoo-Hoo” (music by Jolson), all of which Jolson recorded for hits.
De Sylva teamed again with Gershwin early in 1922 for the risque “Do It Again!” which was used in the play The French Doll (N.Y., Feb. 20, 1922) and recorded by Paul Whiteman and His Orch. as an instrumental that became a best-seller in July. That month De Sylva and Gershwin contributed “Yankee Doodle Blues” (lyrics also by Irving Caesar) to the revue Spice of 1922 (N.Y., July 6, 1922); it became a hit for Billy Murray and Ed Smalle in February 1923. De Sylva, lyricist E. Ray Goetz, and Gershwin were hired to provide songs for the 1922 edition of George White’s Scandals. The hit of the show was De Sylva and Gershwin’s “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” (lyrics also by Ira Gershwin), which was recorded for a best-selling instrumental by Whiteman (who appeared in the show) in January 1923.
De Sylva next wrote lyrics for Orange Blossoms, with music by Victor Herbert, and the two scored a hit with ”A Kiss in the Dark/7 with which both Metropolitan opéra star Amelita Galli-Curci and violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler enjoyed successful recordings. De Sylva also scored a hit with Jolson’s recording of “Coo Coo,” for which the two were co- credited as songwriters.
De Sylva shared lyric-writing chores with Goetz and Ballard MacDonald on the George Gershwin-composed songs for the 1923 edition of George White’s Scandals, none of which became hits. But De Sylva had three more hits thanks to Jolson when the singer recorded “Morning Will Come” (music and lyrics by De Sylva, Jolson, and Con Conrad) and interpolated “Arcady” (music and lyrics by Jolson and De Sylva) and “California, Here I Come” (music and lyrics by Jolson, De Sylva, and Joseph Meyer) into the fall tour of Bombo. When Jolson got around to recording the latter in Chicago in January 1924 with Isham Jones’s Orch., De Sylva sat in on ukulele; the record became a best-seller.
In early 1924, De Sylva and Gershwin collaborated on Sweet Little Devil, a modest success that included “Virginia (Don’t Go Too Far),” a hit in Carl Fenton and His Orch.’s instrumental recording. The 1924 edition of George White’s Scandals produced a hit for De Sylva, MacDonald, and George Gershwin in “Somebody Loves Me,” given its best-selling recording by Whiteman. And De Sylva scored an independent hit with “Memory Lane” (music by Larry Spier and Conrad), recorded for a best-seller by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians in October 1924.
De Sylva was the credited lyricist for Jolson’s next show, Big Boy, the biggest initial hit from which was “Hello, Tucky” (music by Joseph Meyer), recorded by Jolson, though Eddie Cantor made a bigger hit out of a castoff from the show, “If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie)” (music by Meyer), which he recorded for a best-seller in August and thereafter used as his signature song. De Sylva next worked with the Gershwin brothers on Tell Me More!, which opened two days after his marriage to former Ziegfeld Follies girl Marie Wallace on April 11. He then collaborated with lyricist Bud Green and composer Ray Henderson on the independent song “Alabamy Bound,” which became a hit for Blossom Seely in May.
George Gershwin bowed out of George White’s Scandals for 1925, and White replaced him with the team of Henderson and Brown, while retaining De Sylva. The new team did not have an auspicious beginning with the show, which produced no hits. De Sylva went on to collaborate with composer Lewis E. Gensler and lyricist Stephen Jones on the modestly successful show Captain Jinks, and to work with composer Al Sherman on the independent song “Save Your Sorrow (For Tomorrow),” the most successful recording of which was by the Shannon Four in November.
Typically, Jolson interpolated new songs into Big Boy when the show reopened for the fall of 1925, and one of these was “Miami” (music and lyrics by De Sylva, Jolson, and Conrad), which he recorded for a hit in the spring of 1926. That same season “Just a Cottage Small (By a Waterfall)” (music by James F. Hanley) was popular on records, primarily by John McCormack. De Sylva returned to his partnership with Brown and Henderson for the 1926 edition of George White’s Scandals, which finally established the team, running 424 performances and producing three hits: “Lucky Day” (for George Olsen and His Orch.); “The Birth of the Blues” (a best-seller for Whiteman in December); and the dance sensation “Black Bottom” (an instrumental for Johnny Hamp and His Orch.).
Within months, De Sylva was back on Broadway with Queen High!, for which he wrote lyrics to Gensler’s music and co-wrote the libretto with Laurence Schwab. Among the songs were “Cross Your Heart,” a hit for the orch. of Roger Wolfe Kahn with a vocal by Henry Burr, and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” a hit for Ernest Hare and Billy Jones. Jolson interpolated a De Sylva/ Brown/Henderson song, “It All Depends on You,” into Big Boy for the fall 1926 tour, but the biggest hit recording, an instrumental, was by Whiteman.
The next De Sylva/Brown/Henderson hit was an independent song, “So Blue,” for Whiteman in July 1927. In September, Paul Whiteman’s Concert Orch., as it was billed, had the biggest hit version of “When Day Is Done,” a German song by Robert Katscher for which De Sylva had written English lyrics; Whiteman’s 12-inch disc was an instrumental, however, and the most popular record to use De Sylva’s words was the one by Harry Archer and His Orch. Whiteman employed a vocal trio to sing the independent De Sylva/ Brown/Henderson song “Broken Hearted,” also a hit in September.
Given the success of the 1926 edition, George White did not mount a 1927 edition of his Scandals, leaving De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson free to write two book musicals. The first, with a libretto written by De Sylva and Schwab, was their look at college life, Good News!, which ran 551 performances and featured four hits, all of them recorded by George Olsen and His Orch., who appeared in the show: “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” “The Varsity Drag,” “Lucky in Love,” and the title song. The second, not as successful but still running a healthy 264 performances, was Manhattan Mary, produced and directed by White. Written independently but interpolated into the show was the hit “Just a Memory,” recorded by Whiteman.
The next De Sylva/Brown/Henderson hit was also an independent song, “Together,” a best-seller for Whiteman in April 1928. The team’s final Scandals ran 240 performances and generated only one hit, “I’m on the Crest of a Wave,” the most popular recording made by Whiteman in September. They were in Atlantic City preparing their next show when a call came from Jolson in Hollywood, asking for a song for his second motion picture, The Singing Fool. The result was the maudlin “Sonny Boy,” which Jolson made into a million-seller on records and in sheet music. The next De Sylva/
Brown/Render son musical was Hold Everything!, for which De Sylva co-wrote the libretto with John McGowan. It ran 413 performances and introduced the hit “You’re the Cream in My Coffee/’ recorded by Ben Selvin and His Orch. among others. Three Cheers was nominally a De Sylva/Render son musical, but several songs with lyrics co-written by Brown were included. One of these was the hit “Pompanola,” recorded by Selvin. The show ran 210 performances. The last De Sylva/Brown/Render son hit of 1928 was the independent song ’Tor Old Times’ Sake,” recorded by Annette Hanshaw in November.
De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson began 1929 with a new musical, Follow Thru, for which De Sylva co-wrote the libretto with Schwab. The show ran 403 performances and featured three hits: “Button Up Your Overcoat” and “I Want to Be Bad,” both recorded by Helen Kane, and “My Lucky Star,” recorded by Whiteman. After writing two independent hits, “The Song I Love” for Fred Waring and “My Sin” for Ben Selvin, the team took off for Hollywood to write songs for the next Jolson picture. This was Say It with Songs, and Jolson scored four hits from it, earning co-writing credits with De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson on each: “Little Pal,” a follow-up to “Sonny Boy” that was a best-seller in August; “I’m in Seventh Heaven”; “Why Can’t You?”; and “Used to You.”
The onset of talking pictures led to a plethora of movie musicals at the turn of the decade, and songs with De Sylva lyrics turned up in 11 films released in 1929. Five of these contained previously written songs, such as “Look for the Silver Lining,” retained in the movie adaptation of Sally. But De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson contributed “My Tonia” to In Old Arizona, and it was recorded for a hit by Nick Lucas. They also wrote songs for such films as A Man’s Man, Why Bring That Up?, and The Song of Love. For the last, their work was credited to “Elmer Colby,” perhaps because it was a Columbia picture and by the time of its release they had signed to Fox, for which they wrote songs for the original movie musical Sunny Side Up. The film contained seven songs, four of which became hits: “I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?” and “If I Had a Talking Picture of You” for Whiteman, the latter with a vocal by Bing Crosby; and “Sunny Side Up” and “Turn on the Heat” for Earl Burtnett and His L.A. Biltmore Hotel Orch.
De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson returned to Broadway with Flying High, for which De Sylva and Brown collaborated on the libretto with John McGowan. It ran for 355 performances but generated only one hit, “Thank Your Father,” recorded by Al Goodman and His Orch. The team then returned to Hollywood, where several of their stage musicals were being filmed: Hold Everything by Warner Brothers, Good News by MGM, and Follow Thru by Paramount. Paramount also made Follow the Leader, based on Manhattan Mary. While they worked on Just Imagine, their next original movie musical for Fox, “Don’t Tell Her What Happened to Me,” an independent song, became a hit for Ruth Etting in October. Just Imagine, a science-fiction film on which the team also served as screenwriters and producers, was a failure. In 1931 they had two songs in the nonmusical film Indiscreet, including “Come to Me,” which became a hit for the High Hatters, and they wrote two ironically titled independent hits, “One More Time” for Gus Arnheim and His Orch. with a vocal by Bing Crosby, and “You Try Somebody Else” for Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Then De Sylva split from Brown and Henderson, who continued to work together.
Initially, De Sylva remained in Hollywood, where he wrote four songs for Paramount’s One Hour with You with composer Richard A. Whiting. But in the backlash against movie musicals, the studio cut all the songs before the film was released. De Sylva returned to N.Y. and put together the musical Take a Chance. He and Laurence Schwab co-wrote the libretto and co-produced the show, and he co-wrote the songs with Whiting, Nacio Herb Brown, and Vincent Youmans. It ran 243 performances and featured three hits: “Eadie Was a Lady” (music by Whiting and Brown) recorded by Ethel Merman, who appeared in the show; and “You’re an Old Smoothie” (music and lyrics by De Sylva, Whiting, and Brown) and “Rise ’n’ Shine” (music by Youmans), recorded by Whiteman.
The success of 42nd Street in the spring of 1933 renewed Hollywood’s interest in musicals. On April 11, Fox announced that De Sylva had been signed to the studio as a producer. His first production was My Weakness, for which he also co-wrote the songs and the screenplay. In 1934 he produced and co-wrote the screenplay for Bottoms Up at Fox and co-wrote the screenplay for Have a Heart at MGM. He had five productions at what was now 20th Century-Fox in 1935—two Shirley Temple films, The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel, plus Doubting Thomas, Under the Pampas Moon, and Welcome Home, also writing songs for the last two. He produced another Temple film, Stowaway, in 1936. In 1937 he moved to Universal and produced Merry-Go-Round of 1938, followed in 1938 by You’re a Sweetheart and The Rage of Paris. Moving to RKO in 1939, he wrote music and lyrics to “Wishing,” used in Love Affair, it topped the hit parade in June and July for Glenn Miller and His Orch. He produced Bachelor Mother in the summer.
On Nov. 15, 1939, De Sylva started work as a producer at Paramount. DuBarry Was a Lady, a musical with songs by Cole Porter, opened on Broadway on Dec.6. De Sylva produced it and co-wrote the libretto. Louisiana Purchase, with songs by Irving Berlin, followed on May 28, 1940. De Sylva again produced, and the show was based on his original story. When Panama Hattie, with songs by Porter and a libretto by De Sylva, opened on Oct. 30, De Sylva became the first producer since Ziegfeld to have three shows running simultaneously on Broadway.
On Feb. 5, 1941, De Sylva was named head of production at Paramount, responsible for the studio’s 50-film-per-year schedule. During the year, he personally produced two films, Birth of the Blues and Caught in the Draft. In 1942 he joined with songwriter Johnny Mercer and record store owner Glenn Wallichs to form Capitol Records, which became the leading label for popular singers especially after World War II. De Sylva
personally produced two films in 1944, Lady in the Dark and Frenchman’s Creek. The release of MGM’s Since You Went Away, featuring ’Together” revived interest in the song, and the most successful of several new recordings was Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest’s Top Ten hit. (In 1961 it became a gold-selling Top Ten hit in the hands of Connie Francis.)
But such professional triumphs belied personal difficulties. De Sylva fathered a son by his secretary, Marie Ballentine, as he was later forced to acknowledge. In August he and his wife separated. On Sept. 15 he left Paramount due to ill health. In 1945 he made The Stork Club as an independent production released by Paramount, producing and co-writing the screenplay, but he retired after suffering a heart attack.
Al Jolson’s comeback in 1946 as a result of The Jolson Story allowed him to revive several songs written with De Sylva, including “April Showers” (also a Top Ten hit for Guy Lombardo) and “Sonny Boy/7 for gold-selling hits. MGM remade Good News in 1947, retaining much of the original score.
De Sylva died at 55 after suffering another heart attack. In the years following his death, Ballentine and their son fought his widow in the courts for the right to participate in his song copyright renewals and thus share in his publishing income. Eventually they won a unanimous Supreme Court decision.
The Best Things in Life Are Free was a film biography of De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson.
(only works for which De Sylva was one of the primary, credited lyricists are listed): MUSICALS/REVUE S (all dates refer to N.Y. openings): La-La-Lucille (May 26, 1919); Morris Gest’s Midnight Whirl (Dec. 27, 1919); George White’s Scandals (Aug. 28, 1922); Orange Blossoms (Sept. 19, 1922); The Yankee Princess (Oct. 2, 1922); George White’s Scandals (June 18, 1923); Sweet Little Devil (Jan. 21, 1924); George White’s Scandals Qune 30, 1924); Big Boy (Jan. 7, 1925); Tell Me Morel (April 13, 1925); George White’s Scandals (June 22,1925); Captain Jinks (Sept. 8, 1925); George White’s Scandals (June 14, 1926); Queen High! (Sept. 5,1926); Good News! (Sept. 6,1927); Manhattan Mary (Sept. 26,1927); George White’s Scandals (July 2,1928); Hold Everything! (Oct. 10, 1928); Three Cheers (Oct. 15, 1928); Follow Thru (Jan. 9, 1929); Flying High (March 3,1930); Take a Chance (Nov. 26,1932). FILMS: The Singing Fool (1928); Say It with Songs (1929); Sunny Side Up (1929); Good News (1930); Follow Thru (1930); Just Imagine (1930); A Holy Terror (1931); Indiscreet (1931); My Weakness (1933); Good News (1947); The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956).