Donaldson, Walter J.

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Donaldson, Walter J.

Donaldson, Walter J., American song composer and lyricist; b. N.Y., Feb. 15, 1893; d. Santa Monica, Calif., July 15, 1947. Though he was the primary composer for two Broadway shows and six movie musicals and contributed to dozens more, Donaldson primarily worked in Tin Pan Alley, writing pop songs for performance in vaudeville and on records. He was consistently successful as this. Between 1918 and 1936 not a year went by without the emergence of at least one hit song by him. Sometimes writing his own lyrics (notably “At Sundown/7 “Little White Lies,” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy! [What Did I Do?]”), he collaborated most often with Gus Kahn; the two wrote “My Buddy,” “Carolina in the Morning,” “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” and “Makin’ Whoopee.” Early in his career Donaldson collaborated frequently with the team of Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young, resulting in such hits as “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down On the Farm (after They’ve Seen Paree)?” and “My Mammy,” but he also wrote with many other lyricists, and his biggest hit, “My Blue Heaven,” was his sole composition with George Whiting.

Donaldson’s father was a shoe cutter and his mother was a music teacher, but he took little interest in her piano lessons until he was in high school, when he taught himself in order to write songs for student shows. After graduation, he worked at a Wall Street brokerage, then became a staff pianist for a music publisher. Though “On the Good Ship Whipoorwill” (lyrics by Coleman Goetz) was used in the show Down in Bom-Bom Bay in 1915, he had his first song publication with “Just Try to Picture Me Back Home in Tennessee” (lyrics by William Jerome), which had its title shortened to “Back Home in Tennessee” when Prince’s Orch. made an instrumental recording that became a hit at the start of 1916. It was the first of many songs alluding to southern locales written by a composer who rarely if ever visited the South. He followed it immediately with “You’d Never Know That Old Home Town of Mine” (lyrics by Howard Johnson), which became a hit for Arthur Collins and Byron Harlan in February 1916. “I’ve Got the Sweetest Girl in Maryland” is notable as the first song with Donaldson’s own lyrics to gain attention; it was used in the show So Long, Letty (N.Y., Oct. 23, 1916).

Donaldson was inducted into the army during World War I and stationed at Camp Upton on Long Island, where he encountered Irving Berlin. Upon his discharge he took a job with Berlin’s publishing company that he held until he cofounded his own company, Donaldson, Douglas, and Gumble, in 1928. Even before the Armistice he had another hit, “The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady” (lyrics by Monty C. Brice), that was turned into a popular recording by Lewis James in September 1918. His biggest early hit came with a song that reflected the postwar mood, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm (after They’ve Seen Paree)?”; it inaugurated his work with Lewis and Young (Nora Bayes’s was the most successful of several recordings, in March 1919). He had several songs interpolated into Ed Wynn Carnival (N.Y., April 5, 1920) and wrote for other shows, but he continued to find his greatest success in Tin Pan Alley. “My Little Bimbo Down on the Bamboo Isle” (lyrics by Grant Clarke) was a hit for Frank Crumit in November 1920.

At the end of January 1921, Al Jolson interpolated “My Mammy” into the touring production of Sinbad; though the song would be forever associated with him, the biggest hit recording initially was the instrumental version by Paul Whiteman and His Orch. that became a best-seller in June 1921. Jolson interpolated a pair of Donaldson songs into his next show, Bombo (N.Y, Oct. 6, 1921), both with lyrics by B. G. De Sylva: “Down South” and “Give Me My Mammy”; the latter became a record hit for him in April 1922. That same month Donaldson extended the southern tone of his songs with “Seven or Eleven, My Dixie Pair o’ Dice” (lyrics by Lew Brown), which was interpolated into the Eddie Cantor stage vehicle Make It Snappy (N.Y., April 13, 1922), and “On the ’Gin ’Gin ’Ginny Shore” (lyrics by Edgar Leslie), a record hit for Ray Miller and His Orch. “Georgia” (lyrics by Howard Johnson) was given its most successful recording by Whiteman in July. Donaldson then moved north, writing his own lyrics for “Sweet Indiana Home,” which became a hit for Aileen Stanley in September.

Donaldson seems to have first collaborated with Kahn on “Little Rover (Don’t Forget to Come Back Home),” an unused song intended for Make It Snappy. “Carolina in the Morning” was interpolated into The Passing Show of 1922 (N.Y., Sept. 20,1922). Henry Burr’s recording of the sentimental ballad “My Buddy” (written for Donaldson’s fiancee, who had died) became a best-seller in November. The team’s “Dixie Highway” was a hit for Stanley in December. Van and Schenck’s recording of “Carolina in the Morning” became the most successful of many in March 1923. In July, Marion Harris’s recording of “Beside a Babbling Brook” gave the songwriters their fourth hit. Donaldson had a rare nonvocal success when the hot jazz band the California Ramblers made a popular recording of “Roamin’ to Wyomin’” in April 1924.

Donaldson continued to write his own lyrics, notably for “Chiquita,” interpolated into Round the Town (N.Y., May 21, 1924) and the Jolson hit “My Papa Doesn’t Two-Time No More” in June, but his biggest success of the year came with another Kahn collaboration, “Mindin’ My Business,” the most popular rendition by Crumit in May.

In 1925 he scored hits with various writers, coming up with his own lyrics for “My Best Girl,” which had equally successful recordings by Isham Jones and His Orch., in an instrumental treatment, and Nick Lucas, with a vocal; teaming with Billy Rose for “Swanee Butterfly,” another instrumental hit for Jones; and Returning to his favorite geographical theme with “Let It Rain! Let It Pour! (I’ll Be in Virginia in the Morning)” (lyrics by Cliff Friend), with the most popular recording by Gene Austin. But again, it was the team of Donaldson and Kahn that proved most successful, as “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” became one of the biggest hits of the year in September, with Austin’s recording again leading the way. The team also scored the same month with Georgie Price’s recording of “Isn’t She the Sweetest Thing? (Oh Maw, Oh Paw).”

Donaldson wrote his first full Broadway score (albeit with many interpolations by others) in Sweetheart Time (N.Y., Jan. 19, 1926), a collaboration with Ballard Macdonald. The show was moderately successful, running 145 performances. But it produced no hits, even though Donaldson continued to turn out popular songs outside the theater: “I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight” (lyrics by Kahn), the only record duet by Burr and Billy Murray, in March; “That Certain Party” (lyrics by Kahn), by Ted Lewis and His Band, among others, in April; “Let’s Talk about My Sweetie” (lyrics by Kahn), by Ruth Etting in June; “But I Do, You Know I Do” (lyrics by Kahn), by Etting in August; “Where’d You Get Those Eyes?” (lyrics by Donaldson), by Lewis in September; and “That’s Why I Love You” (lyrics by Paul Ash), by Johnny Hamp and His Orch. in November.

Donaldson’s most successful year yet for scoring song hits was 1927. In January, “Just a Bird’s Eye View of My Old Kentucky Home” (lyrics by Kahn) had a successful recording by Abe Lyman and His Orch.; Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians had a hit with “It Made You Happy When You Made Me Cry” (lyrics by Donaldson); and “Whispering” Jack Smith hit with “There Ain’t No ’Maybe’ in My Baby’s Eyes” (lyrics by Kahn and Raymond B. Egan). In February, Etting had the most popular version of “(I’ve Grown So Lonesome) Thinking of You” (lyrics by Paul Ash). Austin had a hit in April with “I’ve Got the Girl” (lyrics by Donaldson), and Lewis scored with “If You See Sally” (lyrics by Kahn and Egan). George Olsen and His Orch. had the best-selling recording of “At Sundown” (lyrics by Donaldson) in May, the same month that “Sam, the Old Accordion Man” (lyrics by Donaldson) became a hit for Etting. And in June, “Don’t Be Angry with Me” (lyrics by Donaldson) became an instrumental hit for Jean Goldkette and His Orch.

Donaldson had written the tune for “My Blue Heaven” years before; given a lyric by vaudeville entertainer George Whiting, it was interpolated into the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927 (N.Y, Aug. 16, 1927) and performed by Cantor. The most successful of many recordings was Austin’s, which sold a million copies, though it was also a best-seller for Whiteman, and in all its versions “My Blue Heaven” became the most popular song on record in history, a title it held for 15 years until the release of “White Christmas” in 1942. The last Donaldson hit of the year was “Just Once Again” (lyrics by Ash) in a recording by Whiteman in September.

Jolson sang “My Mammy” and other songs in The Jazz Singer, the first film with synchronized sound, in October 1927. The film’s success helped make Jolson’s recording of the song a hit in June 1928. Donaldson wrote his first song for the cinema with “That Melody of Love” (lyrics by Howard Dietz) in Love, released before the end of 1927, though it was a promotional song; Love was a silent movie. Donaldson continued to score hits in 1928 as “Changes” (lyrics by Donaldson) had a popular recording by Whiteman in February and yet another state was added to his song list with “My Ohio Home” (lyrics by Kahn), recorded by Lucas in March.

Inevitably, Donaldson began to contribute to the new sound films, placing “Out of the Dawn” (lyrics by Donaldson) in Warming Up and “You’re in Love and I’m in Love” (lyrics by Donaldson) in Hit of the Show during the summer. His other hits of the year, all with his own lyrics, were “Just Like a Melody Out of the Sky,” for Austin in August, “Because My Baby Don’t Mean ’Maybe’ Now,” for Etting in August, and “Anything You Say!,” for Cliff Edwards in September.

Donaldson’s greatest success on Broadway came with Whoopee (N.Y, Dec. 4, 1928), with lyrics by Kahn and starring Cantor and Etting; it ran 407 performances and featured three hits: “Makin’ Whoopee,” recorded by Cantor, and “Love Me or Leave Me” and “I’m Bringing a Red, Red Rose,” both recorded by Etting. Before the end of the year, Whiteman had scored a hit with the independent song “Out-o’-Town Gal” (lyrics by Donaldson).

After contributing “Reminiscing” (lyrics by Leslie) to the first 1929 edition of the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic (N.Y., Jan. 7,1929), Donaldson earned his first film credit as a composer, writing the songs for Fox’s Hot for Paris (1929) with Harold Adamson. His work was also featured in two Paramount films, The Dance of Life and Glorifying the American Girl, but he wrote nothing new for them. Early in 1930, he and Leslie wrote the songs for 20th Century-Fox’s Cameo Kirby and contributed “A Cottage in the Country (That’s the Thing)” (lyrics by Donaldson) to the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart musical Simple Simon (N.Y., Feb. 18, 1930). His next hit song was “Lazy Lou’siana Moon” (lyrics by Donaldson), recorded by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians in March. “Little White Lies,” the biggest hit for which he wrote his own lyrics, was a best-seller for Waring, against many competing versions, in August.

When it appeared in the fall, United Artists’ film version of Whoopee! added an exclamation mark and a new Donaldson-Kahn composition, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” which became a hit for Ted Weems and His Orch. Donaldson closed the year with two more hits that he wrote alone, “Sweet Jennie Lee!,” recorded by Jones in November, and “You’re Driving Me Crazy! (What Did I Do?),” the best-selling version of which was by Lombardo.

The early years of the Depression saw declines in record sales and in Broadway and Hollywood productions, and Donaldson’s song successes became less frequent. Nevertheless, he had a hit with Wayne King and His Orch.’s recording of “Hello, Beautiful!” (lyrics by Donaldson) in March 1931; he placed “I’m with You” (lyrics by Donaldson) in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 (N.Y., July 1, 1931); and “Without That Gal” (lyrics by Donaldson) was a hit for Lombardo in July. “Goodnight, Moon” (lyrics by Donaldson) became a hit for Ben Selvin and His Orch. in January 1932, and “My Mom” (lyrics by Donaldson) was a hit for Kate Smith in April. With the success of 42nd Street in 1933, the movie studios returned to extensive production of film musicals, and Donaldson signed to MGM. His first effort, “You’ve Got Everything” (lyrics by Kahn) for The Prizefighter and the Lady, was used only instrumentally in the film but became a hit for Jan Garber and His Orch. in November.

The busiest year of Donaldson’s career in terms of film work was 1934. In addition to being the credited songwriter with Kahn on two films, Operator 13 and United Artists’ Cantor vehicle Kid Millions, he also wrote songs for at least another five films. But his first hit of the year was a revival, Benny Goodman and His Orch.’s instrumental treatment of “Love Me or Leave Me,” in February. In March, Rudy Vallee and His Connecticut Yankees had a hit with “Dancing in the Moonlight” (lyrics by Kahn), and Don Bestor and His Orch. scored with “A Thousand Goodnights” (lyrics by Donaldson). Donaldson and Kahn’s “Riptide” was used only instrumentally in the film of that name, but it became a hit for Lombardo in May. That same month Eddy Duchin and His Orch. had a hit with “I’ve Had My Moments” (lyrics by Dietz), which was featured in Hollywood Party. The hit from Operator 13 in June was “Sleepy Head,” recorded by the Mills Brothers, who appeared in the film. The hits from Kid Millions, released in November, were “An Earful of Music,” sung on screen and on records by Ethel Merman, and “Okay, Toots” by Cantor.

On Oct. 6, 1934, Donaldson married actress Walda (real name Dorothy) Mansfield; the couple had two daughters and were later divorced. After such a busy year, Donaldson was surprisingly inactive in 1935, gaining only one new hit song, “Clouds” (lyrics by Kahn), recorded by Ray Noble and His Orch. in February, and contributing only one new song to a movie, “Tender Is the Night” (lyrics by Donaldson), in Here Comes the Band, in September. (Kay Kyser and His Orch. revived “[I’ve Grown So Lonesome] Thinking of You” in June for their first hit. Kyser then used it as his theme song.)

The year 1936 was another productive one in which Donaldson was the credited songwriter with Adamson on one film, The Great Ziegfeld, and wrote songs for five more, all MGM productions, as well as writing independent hits. Goodman’s recording of “It’s Been So Long” (lyrics by Adamson) was in the hit parade starting in February, outdistancing other versions: “You,” from The Great Ziegfeld, topped the hit parade in May for Tommy Dorsey and His Orch.; and “Did I Remember?” (lyrics by Adamson), featured in the Jean Harlow film Suzy, was at the top of the hit parade for Shep Fields and His Rippling Rhythm Orch. in August and September. It became an Academy Award nominee for Best Song. In October, Goodman had an even bigger hit than he had two years before with a second instrumental recording of “Love Me or Leave Me.”

By the end of 1936, Donaldson had begun collaborating with the lyric-writing team of Robert Wright and George Forrest. The team had songs in five MGM films over the next year, most prominently the final Harlow film, Saratoga. None of their songs became record hits, however, and 1938 went by without a Donaldson song in the theaters or the hit parade. In January 1939, Sammy Kaye and His Orch. had a hit revival of “My Blue Heaven.” “Could Be” (lyrics by Johnny Mercer) was a hit for Johnny Messner and His Orch. in February. In March, Kyser had a double-sided hit with “Cuckoo in the Clock” and “Gotta Get Some Shut-Eye” (both lyrics by Mercer). “Time Changes Everything but Love” (lyrics by Kahn) was used in the film Broadway Serenade in April. And in November “I’m Fit to Be Tied” (lyrics by Donaldson) was in the Kyser film That’s RightYou’re Wrong.

Donaldson’s output diminished in the 1940s. He wrote music for Two Girls on Broadway, released in the spring of 1940, and enjoyed a modest hit with an instrumental revival of “(What Can I Say) after I Say I’m Sorry?” by Will Bradley and His Orch. in May. “Mister Meadowlark,” a collaboration with Mercer, was recorded by Bing Crosby and Mercer in April. Donaldson had songs in the MGM features Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and Panama Hattie (1942), then worked for Universal on the Andrews Sisters’ films Give Out, Sisters (1942) and Follow the Boys (1944), and for Columbia on What’s Buzziri Cousin? (1943) and Beautiful but Broke (1944). He retired in 1946.

Two previously unheard Donaldson songs turned up in the 1952 film Everything I Have Is Yours, and his work was also prominently featured in the Kahn film biography I’ll See You in My Dreams (1952), The Eddie Cantor Story (1953), and the Etting film biography Love Me or Leave Me (1955). His songs also enjoyed regular chart revivals. “Little White Lies” was revived for a gold-selling record by Dick Haymes in April 1948, and Benny Strong and His Orch. had a Top Ten revival of “That Certain Party” the same year. Sammy Davis Jr. and Lena Home each enjoyed Top 40 revivals of “Love Me or Leave Me” in the wake of the Etting film in 1955. “My Blue Heaven” was given a rock ’n’ roll treatment for a Top 40 hit by Fats Domino in 1959, and Duane Eddy recorded it as a guitar instrumental for a chart record in 1961, the same year that the Temperance Seven topped the U.K. charts with “You’re Driving Me Crazy.” The Happenings had a Top 40 hit with “My Mammy” in 1967.

In 1985, Donaldson’s “Riptide” was the title track of a multimillion-selling album by Robert Palmer. Nina Simone scored a belated Top Ten U.K. hit in 1987 with her 1959 recording of “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”

—William Ruhlmann