Duke, Vernon (originally, Dukelsky, Vladimir)

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Duke, Vernon (originally, Dukelsky, Vladimir)

Duke, Vernon (originally, Dukelsky, Vladimir), Russian-born American classical and popular composer; b. Parfianovka, Oct. 10, 1903; d. Santa Monica, Calif., Jan. 16, 1969. Even more than his friend George Gershwin, Duke had one foot in classical music, having gained formal music training as a child and retaining his real name for his instrumental works until 1955. As theatrical composer Vernon Duke, however, he enjoyed his greatest success with such songs as “April in Paris,” “I Can’t Get Started/7 and “Taking a Chance on Love,” as well as the musical Cabin in the Sky.

Duke’s parents were Alexander and Anna Kopyloff Dukelsky; his father was a civil engineer. Duke began to study music at seven and wrote a ballet score at eight. Admitted to the Kiev Cons, of Music at 13, he studied composition with Reinhold Gliere and piano with Marian Dombrovsky. In 1920 his family was forced to flee Russia in the wake of the revolution; they lived in Turkey for two years, then moved to Paris.

Duke visited the U.S. in 1921, where he met Gershwin, who encouraged him to write popular music and suggested his pseudonym. He returned to Paris where in 1924 he wrote a piano concerto that led Ballet Russe director Sergei Diaghilev to commission him to write music for the ballet Zephyr et Flore (Paris, Jan. 31,1925). His first work for the musical theater was to write interpolations for an Austrian musical, Katja, the Dancer, which opened in London in 1925 and in N.Y. the following year. Yvonne (1926), for which he wrote half the score, was another Austrian import to the U.K.; it ran 280 performances. He wrote his first complete score for The Yellow Mask (1928), which ran 218 performances.

In 1929, Duke wrote a final British show, Open Your Eyes, which closed during tryouts but finally opened in London for 24 performances the following year. He moved to the U.S. permanently in June, later becoming an American citizen. Initially he worked for Paramount Pictures, and his music was used in the 1930 features The Sap from Syracuse, Follow Thru, Laughter, and Follow the Leader. His first work for the American musical theater came with several song interpolations to the third edition of the revue The Garrick Gaieties (N.Y., June 4, 1930), among them “I Am Only Human After All” (lyrics by Ira Gershwin and E. Y. Harburg), which became a hit for the Colonial Club Orch. in July 1930.

The revue Walk a Little Faster (1932) marked Duke’s first complete American score. It ran 121 performances and is remembered for “April in Paris” (lyrics by Harburg), which became a hit for Freddy Martin and His Orch. in December 1933, long after the show closed. Meanwhile, Ben Bernie and His Orch. scored a hit with Duke’s independently published song “This Is Romance” (lyrics by Edward Heyman) in October 1933.

Duke was hired to write the songs for a new edition of the Ziegfeld Follies, mounted by the Shuberts after Florenz Ziegfeld’s death, which opened at the start of 1934. It ran 182 performances and produced a song hit in “What Is There to Say?” (lyrics by Harburg) for Emil Coleman and His Orch. Duke wrote his own lyrics for a follow-up to “April in Paris,” “Autumn in New York,” which was featured in Thumbs Up! (N.Y, Dec. 27,1934) and became a standard without ever becoming a hit.

Duke teamed with Ira Gershwin to write the songs for the Ziegfeld Follies of 2936; the show ran 115 performances, and its most memorable song was “I Can’t Get Started,” which became associated with Bunny Berigan and His Orch. Berigan’s second recording of the song in 1937 was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1975.

Duke wrote most of the score for the revue The Show Is On (N.Y., Dec. 25, 1936), though much of it was cut and replaced by interpolations before its Broadway opening. After the death of George Gershwin on July 11, 1937, Duke was brought in to complete the music for the film The Goldwyn Follies, which was released in February 1938.

Duke scored his greatest success with a book musical with Cabin in the Sky, starring Ethel Waters, in 1940. The show ran 156 performances; it was made into a successful film released in April 1943 that retained only three of Duke’s songs, one of which was “Taking a Chance on Love” (lyrics by John Latouche and Ted Fetter). The appearance of the film sparked a revival of a 1940 recording of the song by Benny Goodman and His Orch. that went to #1 in June 1943, becoming one of the biggest hits of the year.

In 1941, Duke wrote the songs for Banjo Eyes, a stage vehicle for Eddie Cantor, which ran 126 performances. With the onset of World War II, Duke enlisted in the Coast Guard in August 1942 and led a service band. In 1943 he teamed with Howard Dietz to write songs for the musical Dancing in the Streets, starring Mary Martin, which closed out of town, but two more shows with Dietz, Jackpot and Sadie Thompson, reached Broadway for brief runs in 1944. During that year Duke also wrote a service musical, Tars and Spars, which played on Broadway and then toured the war zones.

Duke returned to live in Paris for two years, 1947–48, and upon returning to the U.S. had trouble getting productions for his stage musicals. He wrote songs for two movie musicals released in 1952: April in Paris, starring Doris Day, and She’s Working Her Way through College, both with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. He then managed to get a revue, Two’s Company, on Broadway with Bette Davis as star. The show ran 91 performances.

Count Basie and His Orch. revived “April in Paris’’ in early 1956 with a recording that made the R&B Top Ten and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1985. In the spring of 1956, Duke had an Off-Broadway show, The Littlest Revue, which ran 32 performances.

Duke married singer Kay McCracken on Oct. 30, 1957. His final appearance on Broadway came less than two weeks later with the two songs and incidental music he wrote for the play Time Remembered, which ran 247 performances. He continued to try to mount Broadway musicals during the last decade of his life, including two shows that closed during tryouts and one that went unproduced. He died of lung cancer at 65 in 1969.


(only works for which Duke was a primary, credited composer are listed): MUSICALS/REVUE S (dates refer to N.Y openings unless otherwise noted): Yvonne (London, May 22, 1926); The Yellow Mask (London, Feb. 8, 1928); Open Your Eyes (London, Sept. 8,1930); Walk a Little Faster (Dec. 7,1932); Ziegfeld Follies (Jan. 4,1934); Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (Jan. 30, 1936); Cabin in the Sky (Oct. 25, 1940); Banjo Eyes (Dec. 25, 1941); The Lady Comes Across (Jan. 19, 1942); Jackpot (Jan. 13, 1944); Tars and Spars (May 5, 1944); Sadie Thompson (Nov. 16, 1944); Two’s Company (Dec. 15,1952); The Littlest Revue (May 22, 1956); Time Remembered (Nov. 12,1957). FILMS: She’s Working Her Way through College (1952); April in Paris (1952).


Passport to Paris (1955); Listen Here! A Critical Essay on Music Depreciation (1963).